Do you have a hard time getting your toddler to go to sleep on their own, and then actually stay in bed?
If you’re a co-sleeping family like us, maybe you’re really struggling with transitioning from your bed to a toddler bed.
First of all, let me tell you… You are not alone! Sleep is a very common struggle, and it does not automatically mean something is wrong with your child or your parenting!
I don’t claim to have any magical tricks that will get your toddler sleeping in their own bed by tomorrow, but I have discovered some unique tactics that have completely transformed our toddler’s sleep routine.
Here is our experience with toddler sleep struggles, and the routine that finally helped our toddler go to sleep peacefully on her own for both naps and bedtime!
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Our Experience with Bedtime Battles
Sleep has been a struggle for us since the day we brought our daughter home from the hospital.
We discovered very quickly our baby was not like the ones described in parenting books that could be laid down “sleepy but awake” ….or even laid down at all!
She had to have constant physical contact with us, which led to us embracing co-sleeping. It turned out to be a great decision, but I won’t go into a lot of detail on baby sleep here. If you’re interested, I wrote an entire post on how we made sleep work with a high need baby.
Fast-forward from our tiny 6 lb newborn who couldn’t roll over to a 20+ lb toddler-baby, flopping around all night and sleeping horizontally with her feet in our faces.
The bigger and more mobile she got, the more we were ready to have our own bed back.
We LOVE attachment parenting and the amazing benefits it has brought to our family, and we totally respect that some families make bed-sharing a long term lifestyle.
But we were to the point where the right thing for our family was to help our daughter start sleeping independently in her own bed (in her own room).
I want you to know…
This has been a LONG process!
We did NOT implement a magic “get-your-toddler-sleeping-on-her-own-through-the-night-in-just-2-days!” strategy. Hint: it wouldn’t have worked for our child!
We’ve been at this for almost a year! There has been a lot of trial and error, but truly, I think if we had implemented the routine I’m going to share with you sooner, it wouldn’t have taken this long.
Some important background:
- Our toddler is 21 months at the time of writing this.
- We began transition her to a toddler bed at 13 months.
- Before this routine, she had never slept through the night AT ALL (even in our bed).
- After implementing this new routine, she slept through the night (10+ hours) in her own bed within the first 2 weeks.
- We have never sleep-trained
- Our goal is a gentle, peaceful, and positive bedtime experience– tear-free whenever possible
Helping Our Toddler Become Comfortable With Sleeping in Her Own Bed
Before I lay out the specific routine, I want to fill you in on a few things we tried over the last year to help our toddler become more comfortable with sleeping in her own bed and making the transition out of ours.
We converted to a toddler bed “early”
I am a firm believe in the Montessori-style approach of helping children learn to help themselves by giving them opportunities at independence from a very early age.
For that reason, we decided shortly after our daughter’s first birthday to convert her crib (which she didn’t use anyway) into a toddler bed.
We didn’t want her to feel trapped or caged; we wanted to help her learn to appreciate sleep and stay in her bed because she wanted to.
We sat by her bed for as long as it took for her to fall asleep
Yes, this was kind of a pain in the butt.
You’ve probably heard it: “The years are short and someday they won’t need you anymore,” but sometimes sitting by her bed for TWO+ HOURS, I was really wishing she already needed me less.
However, this is not something we did out of guilty obligation because we ‘weren’t strong enough to hear her cry.’
As a parent, you know the difference between your child’s fussy cry, and the cry that means they desperately NEED you.
And that is how she used to cry at bedtime: desperately.
We did not believe that leaving her to panic and cry alone was teaching her anything constructive.
My husband and I took turns, and let me just say… we got a LOT of reading done.
We tried moving her bed into our room
This did NOT work.
We thought that maybe if we all slept in the same room, she would be comfortable enough to stay in her own bed.
This actually just made it worse because she was hyper-aware of our presence and wanted our physical contact all the more.
We bought a house
I know, I know. Not a viable solution for most people to just relocate their place of dwelling!
And of course, we didn’t move just to help our toddler sleep better.
But I can’t ignore the fact that our toddler’s sleep changed dramatically and instantly upon moving from the top floor apartment in a shared building to a standalone single-family home.
Up until buying a house, one of the big difficulties with sleep was one temporary living situation after another… We moved three times in the past year!
Something about having a house that was all our own just made her more comfortable from day one. She just seemed to know we were home.
We finally implemented a routine
We have tried to maintain a routine for about the last nine months, but we weren’t very good at it.
Naptimes were never consistent so bedtimes were never consistent, and the routine didn’t consist of much more than brush teeth, put on jammies, get in bed.
I knew with yet another move to a new living space that we would need to be more diligent than ever at protecting a solid sleep routine, no matter what.
I came up with some unique habits that have made a big difference, we’ve stuck with it, and it has worked!!
The Routine That Finally Got Our Toddler Going to Sleep on Her Own
By now you’re probably very curious to know what this routine is and why it has worked so effectively at empowering our toddler to go to sleep on her own and stay in bed longer.
Before getting into the routine itself, I want to remind you… This post is my own experience based on my own child and our own parenting style, so please don’t take anything I say as prescriptive.
Every child and every family is different, and what my child needs may be different from yours.
Please don’t think I’m saying this is what YOU should do, or that your child needs to meet the same milestones at the same time as mine.
I also want to note that at the time of writing this, our toddler’s sleep continues to be a work in progress. She has slept through the entire night in her own bed without getting up once (which has been HUUUGE for her), but much of the time, she does still come and join us in our bed in the early morning hours.
Our next step will be walking her back to her own bed when she gets up, but we’re not trying to rush anything.
Our toddler’s bedtime routine
We usually finish dinner between 6 and 6:30, depending on when my husband gets home from work.
I like to transition directly from mealtime into a sleep routine because then there’s no confusion about the timeline or order of events. No “five more minutes!” and then dragging her out of the playroom kicking and screaming.
Our goal bedtime is 7 pm, so the routine may vary slightly from night to night depending on how much time we have between the end of dinner and 7 pm.
- If it’s a bath night, we start with bathtime.
- Otherwise, brushing teeth signals the beginning of the bedtime routine.
- After brushing teeth, she goes potty (she wears undies 100% of the time now), and then picks out her own jammies for the night.
- Then we go into her playroom and pick up any toys that are out so that they can “go to bed for the night.”
- If there’s enough time, we’ll read a couple of books.
- Before leaving the playroom, we close the blinds and say “night night” to everything (Goodnight Moon style).
- Then we go into her bedroom and continue closing blinds and saying “night night.”
- She chooses a stuffed animal or two to sleep with that night and then climbs into bed (which we ask her to do voluntarily).
- I tuck her in and let her choose a couple of songs for me to sing.
- After songs, I squat down next to her bed and hold her hand to say a short prayer.
- If she’s thirsty, I bring her some “moo-moo” (milk).
- If I can tell she’s upset about going to bed, we’ll spend a minute talking about how getting good sleep will give her lots of energy to all of the fun things she’ll get to do the next day, like running around in the yard, or going on outings.
- Then it’s “Night night, Little Monkey!” and I leave the room.
Some nights, she will fuss a little bit (which I differentiate from screaming/tantruming), but much of the time, she rolls over and is quite happy to go to sleep.
Our toddler’s naptime routine
Her naptime routine is very similar to her bedtime routine, but it is much shorter.
It works pretty well for us to begin winding down immediately after a meal time, so she always knows what to expect, so we do the same for naptime as bedtime.
- Right after lunch, I vocalize that it’s time to start getting ready for a nap.
- We go into her playroom and read a few books, then head to the bathroom for one last potty break.
- I like to keep some distinctions between naptime and bedtime to help signal the difference, so we don’t go around and say night-night to everything. We go straight from potty to her bed.
- If I can tell she’s not super sleepy right then, I will often let her bring a book to bed with her to continue winding down on her own (and keep her from getting up!).
- She gets tucked in with a stuffy and a cup of milk, I sing her a song or two, we say a prayer, and I tell her night night!
Once again, I try not to linger if possible and leave the room promptly.
She usually goes down for nap between 12:30 and 1 pm and sleeps between 2-3 hours.
Tips to Help Your Toddler Go to Sleep and Stay Asleep
Let me remind you, our sleep journey is ongoing. For some children, sleep can be a really difficult thing, whether it be going to sleep, staying asleep, sleeping on their own, or all of the above.
I don’t believe it’s something they should be “trained” to do, and it shouldn’t be forced. That’s why my first tip for you, before I say anything about your toddler is: change your own mindset on sleep.
Change your own mindset on sleep
Whatever your toddler’s challenges when it comes to sleep time, try not to think of them as a sleep problem.
If you believe there truly is a deeper issue that constitutes a health problem, don’t hesitate to discuss it with your healthcare provider.
Our Western culture has some very strong opinions on what children’s sleep should look like. But that’s all they are. Opinions. And much of the time, those opinions are not grounded in truth or science.
Babies are not born with the ability to self-soothe. They need you for that! But for most children, there’s no magical threshold where one day they suddenly stop needing you.
Sleep, the ability to self-soothe, and rest securely on their own, is a honed skill that comes with time, and like any other skills, need to be learned gently and at the child’s pace.
Would you consider it a problem that your child doesn’t automatically acquire the skill to swim?
Of course not. And most of you parents probably don’t plan to teach your young, young child to swim by tossing them in the water to figure things out for themselves.
Children need your help to learn how to sleep, just like they need your help to learn to swim.
Shifting your own mindset on sleep will go a long way toward 1) helping you to feel more patient with your child when the pressure of the world’s opinions are weighing down on you and 2)helping your toddler to feel more confident and secure with the idea of rest.
An arguably critical aspect of routines is, well, the routine part.
As in you have to be consistent!
When your toddler sees that every naptime and nighttime are the same as the day before, they will start to become more comfortable. They know what to expect.
If the part before sleep is the same, they can expect the part after to be the same, too– waking up to find that YOU are still there, and they are still safe.
Think about it… for a child, sleep can be scary! They have to give up control of their world to unconsciousness and hope that all is still well when they wake up.
Plus, habits engage a different part of the brain. When a familiar routine is initiated, the brain goes into autopilot because it feels safe to do so. At the same time, the more active thought processes become less active, which will likely mean less resistance from your toddler over time! (You should totally read Atomic Habits, by the way!)
Start earlier than you think
Now, it’s never too early to start healthy sleep habits with your baby/toddler, but I don’t mean start at an earlier age than you think…
I mean start earlier in the day than you think!
Don’t wait until your toddler is already in meltdown mode from exhaustion to start winding down for bed.
By the time your toddler is that tired, they’re becoming much more emotionally needy, which means being separated from you to lay still and do nothing is probably the last thing they’ll want to do.
For a smooth and peaceful sleep-time routine, you want to help them wind down on their terms, not succumb to their own physical exhaustion.
Starting earlier, while your toddler is still happy, ensures that they still have just enough pep to feel confident throughout the routine.
By doing this consistently, your toddler will see that sleep routines are relaxing and pleasant, as opposed to chaotic, forced, and negative.
Talk about sleep
Don’t keep bedtime and naptime a surprise… Talk about them!
There are a couple of ways to incorporate this into your day.
One is to help them be mindful of their daily schedule.
“Okay, here’s what’s coming up next! We’re going to sit down and have lunch, then we’ll read a couple of books, and then it will be time for nap, all right?”
Then following up: “Now that we’ve finished lunch, we’re going to have book time, and then you’re going to have a goooood nap, okay?”
Besides talking about your routine, you can also normalize sleep by explaining it to them.
“I know you don’t want to go to bed right now, but I can tell you’re getting tired. That means you need sleep so that you can have lots of energy for all of the fun things you’re going to do tomorrow, like playing in the yard and going on errands with me!”
You can read books about sleep (my daughter really likes “Sleepy Time“), and you can talk about all of the things that need sleep (dogs, birds, mommies, daddies, giraffes, monkeys…).
It’s important for your toddler to understand that sleep is normal and positive, not forced and scary. Talking about it is a great way to do that!
Be firm but merciful
If your toddler really struggles with sleep (read: sleeping by herself in her own room all night long) like mine does, then they will need two things from you: firmness, and mercy.
A lot of the time, you will need to help them understand the new boundaries you are introducing by sticking to your guns and enforcing what you say.
However, there will be occasions that prick your mother’s heart and you will know that what your child needs is YOU, not rules or discipline.
Most nights, if my toddler comes to our room too early (before I am in bed), I am firm and require her to go back to her own bed (unless she needs the potty).
But other times, my instinct tells me she is feeling a little off or insecure and needs to know that she can still be close to me. I let her come and join me in bed, sometimes stopping what I’m doing to go to sleep with her, sometimes letting her join me until I am ready for sleep.
In my opinion, these are sweet, precious opportunities to spend with my daughter, and life is too short to pass them all up in the name of discipline.
One of the great things about humans is that each one is unique. We all have our own likes and dislikes, personalities, and temperaments.
That means that what works really well for your child will be unique to your child.
There is no one right way to put your child to bed at night. You can experiment with all sorts of factors to figure out what helps your toddler the most. Here are some variables you can switch up as you work out your sleep time routine.
Some kids NEED dark to sleep. Pitch dark, blackout curtains, closed door, the whole nine yards. However, not all children need the darkness, and for some, it might even make sleep more challenging.
One thing you may want to try is putting your toddler to bed for the night while it’s still light out. We do this with our daughter and it does seem to help.
If sunlight is too much, but your toddler seems insecure or scared in the dark, then dimming the room but using a fun nightlight might help.
Here are some adorable night lights with auto-sensors so you never have to forget to turn them on or off!
- Happy Rainbow
- Tropical Fish Aquarium
- Color-Changing Mushrooms (2 pack)
- Friendly Owls (2 pack)
- Simple Flower (This is the one we have)
- Life-like Butterfly
- Basic and cheap (not light sensing)
- Music and sound
While we usually have our daughter go to sleep without extra noise, we also don’t make a point of being quiet.
We keep her door open, and we go about our normal evenings.
Some nights, if she’s having a harder time relaxing, I take my bluetooth speaker into her room and play music for her.
It wasn’t a game-changer for my daughter, but some kids do really well with a sound machine, like the Hatch Baby.
- Independent wind down
If your toddler has a hard time laying in bed doing nothing until they finally fall asleep, you may want to consider allowing them to continue winding down independently with a book or other quiet, relaxed activity.
This has been very helpful when my toddler is not quite sleepy enough. She will sit in her bed and look at a book or play quietly with a stuffed animal until sleep finally overtakes her.
- Stuffed animals and blankies
Is your toddler feeling insecure and lonely all by themselves in their own bed? You can experiment with allowing them to bring a friend to bed with them for snuggles.
You might even make a point of going on a special shopping trip with them just to find a special bedtime buddy or blanket. You might be surprised to find how much that sort of intentionality can help!
Make it fun/Keep the mood positive
Finally, probably the most impactful thing you can do is to keep the mood light and positive. Keep bedtime fun!
If bedtime seems like a punishment, it will continue to be a battle.
Don’t let it be a negative that looms throughout the evening. The more enjoyable it is for your toddler, the more enjoyable it will be for you!
Our bedtime routine has worked really well for keeping everything positive and happy, and I think that is one of the biggest factors in why it has made such a difference in our toddler’s sleep.
Now I want to hear from you!
Are you struggling with toddler sleep, too? How is the bedtime routine going? Will you be making any changes to it in the near future?
Let’s discuss in the comments below!