Your toddler is on the go from morning until night, and requires your help to understand when he is tired and needs to get some rest. Life is far too interesting for him to want to go to bed of his own accord, but he needs his sleep and will benefit from having a routine.

“I am so tired of the battles that I find it hard to be consistent with my daughter’s nighttime routine.”

—“I am so tired of the battles that I find it hard to be consistent with my daughter’s nighttime routine.”

“Rapid return works especially well where sleep problems are long-standing, or if your toddler tends to show very angry behavior at bedtime.”

With your guidance, your toddler needs to learn how to go to sleep, stay asleep, and how to settle himself if he does wake up. Common sleep problems at this age are: taking a long time to settle, waking frequently throughout the night, and needing comfort to go back to sleep. This year is an ideal time to introduce a more regular sleep routine if you haven’t already done so . Many parents find bedtimes are a challenge. Rather than going to bed and staying in bed their child or children are up and down like yo-yos, refusing to settle down and waking frequently through the night. If this kind of pattern is combined with biting, hitting, or tantrums the whole family can end up feeling unhappy and exhausted. The following series of time-honored and successful techniques can, if you are persistent and consistent in approach, transform your toddler’s sleep habits.

Helping her settle

Calm things down and minimize your toddler’s excitement before bedtime by enjoying quiet reading together.

Gradual withdrawal technique

A young child who is used to you being close by at bedtime, or finds it difficult to fall asleep on his own, may be anxious initially when you try to leave and will need your help to become more independent. This technique, if followed consistently, will help your toddler feel safe and secure while he adjusts to the new routine.

How to use the gradual withdrawal technique:

Children who are unused to being on their own will take some time to unlearn their old behavior and learn the new one. Your toddler may seem quite frightened or unsettled during the first few days. Be patient. He will adjust, and so will you, given time. Learning to fall asleep without your help is an important skill for an increasingly independent child. The aim is to eventually be able to leave the room while he is still awake.

  • Every night after saying goodnight, turn out the light, but stay close by.

  • There is no need to say anything, but simply be there.

  • Do not be tempted to turn on the light or to respond to his chatter.

  • Do not give in to pleas for hugs. Turn away and be boring and quiet.

  • As the days pass, gradually move farther away—to the foot of the bed, to a chair, closer to the door, to the door, to just outside the door, and finally away entirely.

  • If your toddler is settling down but still anxious, you could pop back to check him every few minutes, but do not say anything. The purpose of this is only to reassure your child that you are still there and that he is safe.

  • Gradually increase the length of time in between your checks, and eventually stop checking entirely.

Rapid return technique

The gradual withdrawal approach does not work in all instances and if you find your toddler is resisting your new routine, you may need to try a different approach. Rapid return is a simple sleep management technique with an immediate “no-nonsense” message. It is particularly useful for managing children who wake in the night and come and join you in your bed rather than resettle in their own. It works because it does not reward your toddler’s sleep-resistant behavior, and in time he will become bored, and sleepy, and will stop trying to resist your new boundary. But be warned, this technique can be tough to put into practice. You will need to be determined and consistent for it to work—and you may well need some help to put it into action. If the rapid return technique is to work, it is vital not to talk, make eye contact, or pay attention to your child, so that you are neither acknowledging or rewarding his behavior.

How to use the rapid return technique:
  • Settle your child, turn out the light, say goodnight, and leave the room.

  • If he gets out of bed, take him back right away without getting angry and without speaking.

  • Even if your child is kicking and screaming, remain calm but firm and put him into his bed. Then leave the room.

  • If he gets up again, pick him up and put him back into bed, with no fuss. Keep repeating this process as necessary until your child falls asleep. You must not make eye contact or give your child attention.

  • If your child stays in bed, but is crying and finding it hard to settle down, do not go back to him immediately, but leave him for a short period of up to 1–5 minutes. He needs time to gradually learn to settle himself to sleep, as well as back to sleep when he wakes up.

  • Then, go in briefly, say “Shh, shh”, and leave. Keep repeating this process until your child falls asleep. In some situations, where the sleeping problem has been going on for a long time, you may need to keep this pattern up for a couple of weeks. It can be exhausting to begin with, so try beginning the new routine at a weekend, when you don’t have to worry about being fresh for work, and can arrange some other adult support.

Praise and incentives

In the early stages of using the rapid return method it may be helpful to use basic rewards or incentives to encourage your toddler to settle more quickly. These should be simple and appropriate. The idea is not to make bargaining a habit, but to distract your toddler away from his old sleep behavior pattern and help him to start to learn a new one. Remember that the point is not just to get him to go to bed, but also to encourage him to stay in bed until morning. Praise works wonders with small children. They love to know that they have pleased you and that they have done something well. If your child manages to sleep through the night, or has stayed in his own bed, don’t hold back on the hugs and the praise. Keep setting new goals. It will help him get a sense of his own success and progress and will help him understand that he has control over his own behavior. As your child gets older he will also be able to understand that there will be consequences, and the withdrawal of treats, if he does not do as he is asked. Don’t expect instant success, and you may have to be satisfied with small results to begin with—but be patient, and believe in your ability to make the change happen. Stick to your routine when you are away from home, too, if possible.

How to use praise and incentives:
  • Tell your toddler he can choose which story to read if he behaves. The longer he takes to get to bed, the less time there will be for a story.

  • If your child has a favorite book character or teddy bear, involve it in your bedtime routine—“Put teddy to bed now. Shh. If you’re noisy you will wake him, and he’s had a very long day. You go to sleep now, too.”

  • Most children love stickers, and they enjoy seeing how well they are doing. A simple promise of a favorite sticker from the nighttime fairy if he can stay in bed until morning, can work wonders.

  • The promise of one balloon to be fixed to the foot of the bed for each night he manages not to get out of bed also works well.

Night terrors

Night terrors are common at this age. They differ from nightmares in that your child does not wake up and will have no memory of his dream. They usually occur within the first 1–4 hours of a child falling asleep. They can be very alarming for a parent to watch, but are nothing to worry about. Your child is unlikely to wake up and will have no memory of his experience in the morning. Typical symptoms include: rapid heartbeat, sweating, signs of fear, may not recognize you if woken, may scream, cry, or moan. His eyes may be open, but he will be sound asleep.

A night terror can last up to 30 minutes. Although frightening for you to watch, there is no need to wake your child during one. There is nothing you can do, except keep him away from stairs and safe if he is thrashing around. However, if you see a fixed time pattern to the terrors, you can wake your child just before that time each night. Night terrors are more distressing for a parent to witness than they are for the child experiencing one. Children usually grow out of night terrors as they become older.

Peaceful sleep

Tackling sleep problems requires your patience and perseverance, but remember it is in your child’s best interests to settle and feel secure in her bed at night.

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