How to Put a Toddler to Sleep
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Oh sleep…it’s one of the most widely talked about subjects among parents of young ones. You want your baby to sleep, or your toddler to sleep…and usually in the end it’s because YOU want to sleep.
Wouldn’t life we easier if all our little ones would sleep soundly and independently? We can become so desperate for sleep that we might even try some strategies that don’t sit well with us because we’ve heard it worked for others. I personally do not endorse sleep training that uses any kind of “crying it out” sort of method.
So going forward in reading this, please know that I’m all for comfort over crying, so if cry-it-out is a strategy you feel comfortable with, then this might not be what you want to read, but I completely understand what it’s like to be at the end of your rope and attempt the cry-it-out method for your own sanity. And I know for some parents it has “worked,” but it’s definitely not in line with the sleep strategies I use with my own child or would advise you to use with yours. Here is some information that led me to this decision, although most of my decision just came from a very strong gut feeling.
One quick myth to bust
Babies/toddlers/children do not need to be forced into independence to learn independence. Don’t worry about “spoiling” them with your love – it’s not possible! By being responsive to your child’s needs, you will help to nurture their independence. The security they get from your presence and comfort will turn into their confidence needed for a very rich independence in the future.
I understand though that maybe you’re at a point where you have been really responsive to their needs all day and all night, but you’ve reached a point where you are exhausted, and you just want to get some sleep. The goal should be that both parent and child can get a restful night’s sleep, so as you go through these tips consider what will work best for the whole family to make sleep happen comfortably for everyone.
So knowing that, let’s move on to some tips to get your toddler to sleep!
Know the Power of Your Presence at Bedtime
Did you know you have a superpower? Your presence is extremely comforting for your child, especially at bedtime. Staying close to them can help them fall asleep, and even allowing them to sleep close to you (whether that be sleeping in the same room as you or bedsharing), can really help your toddler to get a good night’s sleep. Again, this is where you have to decide what’s right for your family, but consider how much of your presence you can give them at night (whether that be laying with them in their room until they fall asleep, or allowing them to sleep in your bed).
Either way, just know that your presence is very powerful for your toddler to be able to sleep well. It offers them the comfort and security they need to wind down and fall asleep.
Make Sure the Environment is Suited to Your Toddler
Wherever your toddler is sleeping, be sure that it is perfect just for them. Help them to feel safe and comfortable. If you’re moving them to their room for the first time, maybe you need to play together in there during the day to get them used to it, or just start with naps in the room.
To make the environment suitable for them maybe you need to consider what works best for them in terms of how dark or light it is. My toddler likes to fall asleep with the light on and gets very upset if we try to turn it off when she’s still awake. In my mind I feel like she would fall asleep faster with the light off, but it stresses her out too much to actually benefit from being in total darkness. So consider what will work best for your little one.
Some things to consider for the environment:
- White noise (even turning on a fan)
- Keeping the door open, or overall just avoid anything that stresses them out
- Having a special stuffed animal for comfort
Keep a Consistent Routine
Routines are amazing for young ones because it gives them the predictability that they actually crave. It might be hard to explain the passing of time to a toddler, but when they are used to a sequence of events it will be much easier for them to move from one event to another.
So if for bedtime you have a very predictable routine in place, your toddler will naturally start to wind down for bedtime because their brain and body will know that that’s the next activity.
Here are somethings you could consider making part of the routine
- Bathtime and teeth brushing
- Choosing pajamas and putting them on
- Hugging other parent goodnight
- Reading books in bed
- Singing to them
- Rocking them
Offer Your Comfort
Again, your presence and comfort is so amazing powerful! So use that knowledge to your advantage to get your toddler to fall asleep. This could be staying in bed with them until they fall asleep, rubbing their back, rocking them, etc.
It might be ideally to just say, “Goodnight,” and leave and they fall asleep on their own, that actually sounds amazing, but it might not work for your toddler. Don’t worry about them “not being able to fall asleep without you.” You might feel like that’s a bad thing, but often it really isn’t. Even if there are times they have to fall asleep without you it will be easy for them to recognize that you aren’t there and that they need to wind down in a different way.
Sometimes my daughter and husband go and visit his family and I stay home. My daughter who normally needs to cuddle me to fall asleep will sleepover with her auntie and 9 year old cousin and fall asleep on her own. She has the skills to do, but when I’m nearby she wants my comfort, and since it works for me I give that to her.
But maybe it’s not working for you? Maybe you have a lot to do after bedtime, or you’re just worn out and really want to rest on the couch doing your own thing once your toddler is asleep, or maybe this is the only alone time you get with your partner so you wish bedtime didn’t have to take so long.
I get it, and this is where it’s important to find a solution that works for everyone. Being a parent does require a lot of selflessness from us, and I’m sure you already know that, but if we are constantly giving of ourselves we can end up feeling so drained that we become impatient and snappy. So if it takes 2 hours for your child to fall asleep with your comfort and that’s just too long for you, maybe you need to find a better solution.
You could try a later bedtime so they’re more tired, or allowing them to fall asleep in your bed where you’ll be more comfortable and then moving them to their own bed, or you could try slowly sneaking out while they are still drowsy (and go sooner and sooner every night), or you could try getting any of your tasks done while they’re still awake so you don’t feel as much pressure at bedtime.
It might take some trial and error, but try to find what will work well for you but also give your child the comfort and security that they need from you at bedtime. Your comfort is powerful though, so there is definitely an advantage to using it to put your toddler to sleep. It can be frustrating especially if your toddler used to sleep well, but they might just be going through a change and they’ll sleep easily again soon.
And remember, these aren’t bad habits. This responsiveness to their needs by offering comfort is actually helping to nurture their independence, even if right now they seem very dependent on you.
Eliminate Sleep Inhibitors
Maybe there is something that is making it difficult for your toddler to wind down for bed? Think about what a typical evening looks like for your toddler, are they doing any activities that might be inhibiting their sleep later on? Maybe too much screen time too close to bed, or maybe a certain snack they’re having that’s winding them up?
A change in the routine might be worth considering, and moving certain activities to earlier times in the day to prevent it from keeping them active later at night. And on the flip side, are there activities that tire your toddler out? Maybe an after dinner playtime outside would help them wind down for bed.
Find what works for YOUR family
Take this advice, try out a few things, and decide what is going to work best for your family. A toddler’s sleep system should be what’s best for them, but you also need to do what’s best for you, your partner, and any other children in the house.
As you go through this process of figuring out what will work best, I would encourage you to put some other tasks on the back burner for a bit so you can get as much rest as possible instead of staying up late to get all your tasks done. If you’re getting enough sleep you will have more patience to work with your toddler to find out what works.
These strategies that I have offered are all in line with Gentle Parenting, and often time Gentle Parenting can take longer to get the results you want, but in the end the results can be a very good long term solution.
So good luck with your toddler’s sleep, and if you have any other tips to offer other moms be sure to leave it in the comments!
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The Moving Mama
Lizzy Mash is an experienced early childhood educator now living in Africa as a missionary working with children and families.
She teaches Christian moms how to take a more respectful and Christ-like approach to motherhood by using Gentle Parenting strategies.
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