Ahh, toddlers. Half-infant, half-child hybrids, with more independence and determination than common sense; they are difficult to reason with (hello, temper tantrum) and impossible to predict (random 3am wakeup, anyone?). While your toddler might have flown past all other developmental milestones with flying colours (Walking! Talking! Socialising!) it’s not uncommon for them to drag their chubby feet when it comes to sleeping like a fully functioning person. And no amount of begging, coercing or bribing will work (trust us, we’ve tried). Whether it’s crawling into your bed in the wee small hours, bedwetting or refusing to give up their dummy, our experts have your toddler sleep woes sorted...
Problem: “My child won’t go to sleep without a bottle of milk”
The solution: “One of the most common reasons for toddlers not sleeping is their inability to fall asleep independently. In other words, not being able to fall asleep without a sleep prop. This can be anything from a parent lying with a child or feeding them to sleep,” says Julie Mallon, sleep consultant at Nurture to Sleep and Babies & Beyond. “The association with sleep and milk is particularly problematic. Falling asleep initially with milk will often cause wake ups at night (as a toddler will need the same association to fall back to sleep). Being in a bottle rather than in a cup makes the transition even more difficult.”
Feeding too close to sleep can also result in a toddler waking up during the night, continues Julie. “Giving a large amount of milk at night will result in extra calories, therefore extra energy. Offering milk to settle a toddler back to sleep develops a ‘learnt hunger’ situation and when the toddler wakes at night, their body has learnt to anticipate milk. In this situation, a gradual process of reducing the quantity and ensuring your toddler is getting enough calories during the day will help to gently eliminate the feed.”
Joanne Jewell, parent counsellor and founder of Mindful Parenting UAE, adds, “As with a dummy, bedtime milk is a comfort; the sucking is a way of calming and soothing themselves so if you feel that you and they are ready for the bottle to stop then you will need to manage this with compassion, empathy and give more connection during this time,” says Joanne.
Problem: “Our little one always comes into our bed at night”
The solution: Joanne Jewell, founder of Mindful Parenting UAE, runs workshops for parents of toddlers (Mindfulparentinguae.net). She says you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much over this one. “Toddlers learn to sleep on their own at different ages and if you are happy to let your toddler sleep with you when they want to then that is okay – it doesn’t mean you are creating bad habits or that they will always want to sleep with you.” However, if you want to change their sleeping habits, be aware that nothing changes overnight. “You might want to start by taking them back to their room and staying with them until they fall asleep. Other parents find putting a bed on the floor in their room and letting the toddler sleep there rather than in their bed is also a good transition. You will need to gradually transition into the change you want to make and appreciate that your child may find this difficult. I suggest starting at a time when you have patience – either over a weekend or maybe a holiday period.”
Problem: “My potty-trained toddler still needs nappies at night”
The solution: “There are a number of causes for bedwetting – a child may sleep very deeply and doesn’t wake when their bladder is full, some children produce larger amounts of urine at night, whilst some children just have a smaller bladder,” explains Julie. “Try not to get angry or frustrated as this will not help you or your toddler. Currently the average age for most children to master dry nights is 3-3.5 years, however it is not seen as a medical issue if the child is under 5 years.
“Monitoring your child’s fluid intake during the day – particularly in the afternoon – can be helpful, and stop fluids an hour before bed. Also make sure your child pees before they go to sleep. Also, talk to your toddler and reassure them; giving incentives and using reward-based activities.” Julie adds, “Ultimately as a child matures, the muscles become stronger and the bladder increases and so speeding up the process for a dry night comes from a parent being supportive, positive and encouraging.”
Problem: “Our toddler still uses a dummy...”
The solution: “As a sleep consultant, my experience suggests that dummies are one of the biggest contributory factors for night wakings. Even when a toddler has the motor skills to put their dummy back into their mouth in the middle of the night, they would much prefer a parent to!” says Julie.
The process of separating your child from their dummy can be slow, adds Joanne: “A child’s connection with a dummy is just an extension of their connection to us and you need to understand that it will take them some time to be ready to soothe themselves without it – they may want more of your attention if the dummy is taken away. You can create boundaries around the dummy – be empathetic when they want it, for example, ‘I know you really feel like you want your dummy right now, you can sit on your bed with it for a little while if you’d like,’” says Joanne.
Problem: “Is my child ready to be transferred from a cot to a big bed?”
The solution: “This move is likely to come once your toddler starts to climb out of their cot and it becomes unsafe to keep them there in case they hurt themselves at night,” says Joanne. “When you feel they are ready, they can help you choose a new bed, perhaps some new sheets, and encourage them to see this as a game, something to stimulate their creative brain and a positive change in their lives. It might take them a while to get used to being in a bed that they can get out of easily – ensure whatever you choose is safe and consider a bed guard if you need one. They might wander around in the night so also ensure there are stair gates to keep them safe where necessary.”