Natural sleep triggers that will help your toddler wind down include: Warm bath followed by cool down.
There seems to be evidence that early birds or night owls are born rather than made. Also, anecdotally, generally being a ‘good sleeper’ seems to be inherited, with good sleepers saying that their babies are good sleepers and insomniacs fearing they have passed on the trait to their wakeful children.
Something that’s widely acknowledged is that small babies are more likely to need to continue to wake for feeds when they’re older. My three children were all premature and small for dates, and I was encouraged to continue night feeds with them for longer than my mum peers who had larger babies. This inevitably led to night waking persisting, at a time when bigger babies were having just one milk feed and sleeping through from a much earlier age.
There is also a variation in the temperaments of babies, with parents tending to report that their ‘placid’ babies are good sleepers while parents with more ‘irritable’ babies reporting that when they come into a light sleep, they wake up and call out.
Human beings have evolved to adapt to night-time and daytime. Life on earth has different life strategies; some organisms are active at night (nocturnal) while some are active in daylight (diurnal).
Melatonin is a hormone found in animals, plants, fungi and bacteria that respond to the daily onset of darkness. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, and we need darkness to encourage its production so that we feel sleepy.
Melatonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in porridge, turkey, milk and bananas, making these good snacks options in the evening. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland (or third eye) in direct response to lowered light as perceived by the eyes.
If melatonin is associated with the onset of darkness and sleep, then cortisol is associated with light and wakefulness. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (just above the kidneys) and has a hugely important role in sleep and body repair. When our circulating levels of cortisol are low, our bodies can relax, recuperate and repair.
The cortisol awakening response happens after we wake up, where we experience a 50% increase in circulating cortisol. Cortisol and melatonin together help to regulate wakefulness (higher cortisol) and sleepiness (higher melatonin), and they practically mirror each other in their release into the bloodstream every 24 hours.
When we sleep, our bodies are still and our brains go through cycles of sleep. By toddlerhood each full sleep cycle is around 90 minutes long and alternates between Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM or dream sleep) – named literally for the way the sleeper’s eyes dance around under their closed eyelids – and Non-rapid Eye Movement sleep (NREM or restorative sleep).
During REM sleep our bodies become paralysed, our sleeping brains are very active, and we dream.
During NREM restorative sleep our bodies are repaired and grow (as hormones are released), and our brain (to use a computer analogy) is shut down.
After each full sleep cycle, your toddler will come into a light sleep where they unconsciously check that the environment is safe and the same as when they went to sleep. This is when they will often cry out for you.
Toddlers sleep a lot! By the time they’re 18 months old, this tends to be consolidated to one long night-time session with a couple of shorter daytime naps. In the second year of life, toddlers require between 11-14 hours of sleep every 24 hours (so still spend more asleep than awake).
By 18 months, toddlers need one 1-3 hour nap a day. It’s important to their night-time sleep that this nap isn’t too early in the day (before 10 am usually means you have an early riser, and the final dawn sleep has been broken away from the night-time sleep). Earlier bedtimes and delaying this early nap (until 10:30 am at least) can help to prevent your toddler from waking too early. This will mean gradually try to delay his morning nap (ideally by engaging in outdoor activities) so that it becomes later and later and eventually becomes part of his lunchtime nap. It may take a couple of weeks to achieve this.
It’s also important that your toddler’s afternoon nap is over by 3 pm so as not to impact on bedtime. This might mean avoiding car journeys or trips out in the buggy around this time.
Modern life is very good at sabotaging all sleep. In the prehistoric past it was straightforward for our ancestors: when the sun went down it was dark and cool, they produced melatonin and slept, waking as the sun rose.
Compare this with the modern situation. The sun goes down, and we put on our electric lights, our televisions, and our devices so that we can ‘wind down’ after work. This means a toddler in the 21st century has the following sleep enemies to deal with:
By appreciating how modern life disrupts your toddler’s sleep and by understanding sleep triggers, you can make his evenings, nights and sleeping areas more conducive to sleep.
We are creatures of habit, and a regular bedtime routine helps trigger feelings of sleepiness. This means a series of events that always happen in the same order.
Your toddler’s sleep is vitally important to his healthy physical and psychological development. These tips, based on the science of sleep, will help him get the quality shut-eye he needs:
Early toddlerhood is a good time to introduce a variety of triggers that help your toddler associate the bedtime routine and night-time with sleep. These triggers include:
As a parent who has spent a lot of time lying with my children in their beds, I can safely say I’m not a great fan of the toddler bed (although I like the fact that they’re so low to the ground). In some ways they’re the worst of all worlds – they’re too small to settle comfortably while your toddler drops off (or even while you read them a story). Also, they can be expensive when you bear in mind that at some point your child will need a bigger bed (although you can get beds that extend with your child as they grow).
On the other hand, if your toddler drops off easily and sleeps through the night, toddler beds can be the best of both worlds; a safe transition from a cot in that they are close to the ground and have a guard around the head area to help prevent your toddler from falling out of bed.
Baby sleeping bags are great if your toddler kicks off their covers and gets cold in the night, but not great if your child gets twisted up in them and wakes up as a consequence. See if you can buy a non-branded one or borrow one before you invest as they can be expensive if they don’t suit your toddler. Lots of parents swear by them as they are cosy and stop your toddler getting undressed at night. If your toddler got used to them as a baby, you can be pretty sure they will suit him as a toddler – though not in the sartorial sense!
If you live in the city or have a street light outside your house blackout blinds can make a huge difference to the ambient light in your toddler’s bedroom or sleeping area. Whilst I recommend them, you may need to buy travel blackout blinds with window suckers when you travel – many a parent has been stumped when their baby or child can’t sleep on a holiday as the same dark room can’t be replicated.
If your toddler begins to be scared of monsters or the dark a night light (either on the landing near the loo or in their room) can help reassure him. Try and get one with a warm red-based light to minimise disruption of melatonin production (light at the blue end of the spectrum suppresses melatonin production much more).
I don’t like travel cots with high sides, partly because my babies would never go down in them so I ended up having to lift them in and lift them out, which was difficult and often woke them. However, they’re great for babies and toddlers who settle easily. There are also alternative designs that are more like a pop-up cot, which can offer a safe sleeping space for your baby or young toddler and allow you to place your baby inside from the side (these also save your back!)
My niece slept very well in a bed space next to her parent’s bed. There are cots that allow you to have your baby in a space next to your bed. This concept can be extended in the toddler period if you prefer your own bed, which can be more comfortable as it never ceases to amaze me how such small creatures can take up so much room (if you decide to co-sleep, please be aware of the advice for co-sleeping safety, below.
Nurseries, cots, and individual children’s bedrooms only appeared in human history relatively recently. Before that protecting our young was a 24/7 job and we slept together to keep warm and safe.
If you look at the anthropology of sleep over the ages, babies and toddlers have always been close to parents at night and slept close by. For this reason, I have always been happy to snooze with my toddlers at bedtime. If they wake up later in the evening, I will lie with them again. Co-sleeping, either proudly announced or secretly endured, is a very common part of both the ancient and modern anthropology of sleep. When you accept that co-sleeping will be part of your life it makes your toddler’s sleeping much easier and less fraught. However, that is not to say that it is right for everyone by any means. You, your partner or your toddler may not want to co-sleep at all, and your toddler may well sleep very happily in his own toddler bed in his own room. In my family, my son has always fallen asleep before my daughters and then slept very deeply. He sleeps badly if he’s sharing a bed with someone. He didn’t have any overt differences in how we responded to him at night – he’s just a good, happy solo sleeper.
Co-sleeping can include sharing the same bed or having a sleeping area attached to the main bed. There are some well-established safety recommendations which focus on reducing the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in babies but are still a good practice if you do decide to co-sleep with your toddler.
In my experience the main benefits of co-sleeping include:
All children tend to save their peak illness for the dead of night – generally, around 3 am. It’s really difficult as this is when you’re most tired. However, co-sleeping not only makes it easier to look after your child but can make sure you don’t miss vital early warning signs that your child is seriously ill, which happened to me on two occasions.
On the first occasion, I called my mum and told her that my eldest was very mottled and had pale lips at bedtime. Quite unusually, my mum said ‘stay with her tonight’. She might have saved my daughter’s life as in the middle of the night I became aware that something was wrong. Maybe it was my subconscious sensing a change in my daughter’s breathing or her temperature. Whatever it was, I sat bolt upright to find that she was very cold and completely unresponsive. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital and immediately transferred to a paediatric ward. Her temperature started to spike at over 42 degrees; she was put on intravenous antibiotics and thankfully began to recognise me again (she had a severe adenovirus and went on to develop autoimmune neutropenia). I dread to think what would have happened if she had been sleeping in another room away from me.
On the second occasion, my middle child had a big drop in temperature following a febrile seizure, and again, sensing this, I woke up. He had a tiny non-blanching rash on his body. We got him to the hospital, and he was treated for suspected meningitis within 20 minutes.
For this reason, I would always recommend bringing your toddler into bed with you when they are poorly (as long as it’s safe for you to do so – see above).
There are downsides to co-sleeping – mainly for you as a parent. Toddlers have the ability to take up huge amounts of room, as every parent who has ever found themselves clinging to the mattress on the edge of their own bed will know. Sleep deprivation is a serious issue, however, and if you’re finding that your own, your partner’s or your toddler’s sleep is being too disrupted by sharing a bed, you may want to try your toddler sleeping in his own bed space, bed or room.
Many couples feel that co-sleeping has a negative impact on their sex life, though many pro co-sleeping parents recommend having sex outside the bedroom.
Unlike in many parts of the world, there is a stigma attached to co-sleeping in the UK and North America – it’s seen as being ‘too soft’, means that your child will never be able to sleep independently or that it’s ruining your marriage. Parents with young families are very vulnerable to this kind of censure. If I could speak to my sleep-deprived self back in the days when my children were toddlers, I would say ignore the critical voices: if you all get a good nights’ sleep by co-sleeping then do it. In time, all your children will go on to sleep through the night, just like their peers.
There is a lot of importance placed on meeting your baby and your toddler’s needs at night. However, the idea that every single yelp or murmur need attending to should be explored. For example, my youngest toddler could only get to sleep by pinching my throat repeatedly. This was her sleep association. It was effective – she dropped off quickly – but was incredibly painful and irritating for me.
I know I’m not alone in this: my sister’s son twisted his mum’s long hair around his chubby little fingers until he drifted off. Slightly less annoying than the ‘throat grip’ but it still meant the child needed to enact this little ritual each time they awoke and again each time they came into a light sleep. If you’re co-sleeping, it’s not too disruptive, but if your toddler is in a toddler bed or even worse a cot, it can get pretty uncomfortable and demanding.
I think when it comes to these soothing behaviours you need to think about what you are and are not willing to enable. My youngest learned to fall asleep without the throat grabbing, though it required consistent removal of her hand. I wish I’d realised this earlier, but I was tired and sleep-deprived.
Toddlers do not need nutrition at night so based on that fact you may decide that breastfeeding at night isn’t needed. However, breastfeeding is about more than just nutrition, and many children (especially young toddlers) may still breastfeed at night. If you are co-sleeping and feeding lying down, some toddlers may latch on to feed and drop off, and no one is disturbed. However, many parents do want to wean their toddler from breastfeeding, and this might start with night feeds. This can be tough for mum and toddler so do it gradually, start with one feed and try to soothe your toddler back to sleep without a breastfeed. It can sometimes help if your partner soothes your toddler as they will not expect a breastfeed from them. Make sure that you minimise the chances that your toddler will wake at night so make sure he is comfortably dressed; not too warm or too cold (his room should be 18 degrees) and don’t let him go to bed hungry.
Sleep training theory works on the premise that it’s the child’s behaviour that needs to be changed (their physiology or emotional needs are not considered – which is the major flaw in my mind).
This kind of sleep training involves leaving your toddler to cry for a period of time, then going in after a few minutes to be present and soothe without cuddling or feeding your toddler. The idea is to teach your toddler to go back to sleep without help from you.
It is arguably ‘effective’ at stopping toddlers and babies crying in the night when they wake or come into a light sleep. However, in my experience, most ‘sleep-trained’ toddlers I knew needed lots of training over time. This wasn’t a one-time training that worked for the rest of childhood. More worrying, there is physiological evidence that babies who are left to cry by themselves without being soothed may be stressed even as they remain silent.
Cortisol is also referred to as a stress hormone, and its production can prevent sleep and has implications for such sleep training methods. A study that tested the salivary cortisol levels of babies who were being sleep trained reported raised levels after the training, even in quiet babies that were no longer crying.
The reason that chronically high levels of cortisol are not desirable are that the stress hormone curbs resting and restorative functions that are put on hold in a real fight-or-flight situation. Cortisol dampens the immune system and suppresses the digestive system and growth and repair. Prolonged cortisol bathing the developing brain in this way also may affect the parts of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear. There is also evidence that toxic stress can hamper optimal brain development, and this is food for thought when we think about the stress felt by toddlers who are crying alone at night for periods of time.
The perfect study into the effects of sleep-training methods has not been carried out – largely because it would be unethical. However, there is scientific evidence that even when ‘sleep trained’ babies and toddlers no longer cry when left alone at bedtime their cortisol levels remain elevated (i.e., these quiet babies are still stressed but are no longer communicating it to their parents as they have learned that their parents do not respond to their cries). These elevated cortisol levels (usually tested by a simple salivary cortisol test) indicate that the child is stressed.
This is worrying, as central to the connection between a parent and a child is that they are in emotional sync. It is upsetting to think that a parent may feel relaxed and happy as their toddler remains quiet in bed but that their toddler’s stress is now hidden from them as a direct result of sleep training.
My children are now all at school, and if I could have my time again, I would have trusted my instincts and not attempted my few, half-hearted and anguished filled attempts at ‘controlled crying.’
I know several children who were sleep-trained fairly successfully and appear to be happy and secure (by Western standards), but the potential long-term effects of what could be argued is a traumatic event for a baby are not yet well understood. However, it’s important not to dismiss them just because the studies haven’t been done yet – I would prefer to err on the side of caution. There is just so much evidence that supportive and responsive parenting sits at the centre of a child’s good mental health to prevent or reverse chronic stress – so supportive and responsive parenting at night is likely to be just as valuable to a children’s emotional development.
Furthermore, like in the case of smacking, it is the parent or attachment figure and their distance (or short-term abandonment) that is the source of the stress and the sadness which is particularly hard for a toddler to process (see the Chapter on positive discipline for a greater discussion of this factor.)
I would not recommend sleep-training methods that involve leaving your toddler to cry by themselves so that they learn to fall asleep without any help. However, I know that some parents are at breaking point. They may be dealing with depression, breakdown of the relationship, new babies and sleep deprivation. These are all terribly difficult problems that need to be borne in mind as well as your relationship with your toddler and their needs.
In hindsight, I would have loved to have a book that I could read with my husband that gave us ‘permission’ to co-sleep and helped explain why sleep training felt so bad. Armed with this knowledge, I think we would have had more realistic expectations about our toddler’s sleeping behaviour and not have felt like failures when we soothed our toddlers.
In the end, I hope you have the information you need and the confidence in yourself to make night-time easier for all of you.
As a married mother of three children, I in no way underestimate the negative impact that a toddler who wakes a lot or sleeps in your bed can have on your relationship. I know many of my friends, myself included, who in desperation tried controlled crying, had huge rows with their partner as everyone was sleep deprived and at the end of their tether. Mums, in particular, can often feel like they have to choose between their toddler and their partner and end up trying sleep training techniques despite every instinct screaming ‘no’. I, like many mums, have sat crying at the bottom of the stairs while my partner takes over ‘teaching our toddler to sleep’ and it was miserable. If you have a toddler who doesn’t fall asleep quickly, it is heart-wrenching to hear your toddler crying out for you.
With hindsight I wish I’d never tried it. It didn’t work for us, my babies were deeply upset, I was deeply upset, and my partner was deeply upset. So a lose, lose, lose scenario. However, I remember how desperate I was for a solution and like many parents, I bought lots of books with miracle titles. For this reason, I would never condemn a desperate sleep-deprived parent. I think that experts, parents, and grandparents should be more honest about their toddler’s sleep and should have more realistic expectations about their toddler’s sleep and the price that has to be paid if you choose to prioritise sleep over other aspects of your toddler’s emotional development.
One of the challenges of having several children is that one child’s night time behaviour can negatively impact your other children’s sleep.
Sometimes (or maybe always) you and your partner may be outnumbered by your children at night and it is a hard circle to square. In an ideal world, you could try to focus on consolidating your toddler’s sleep well before a new baby comes along because your baby will need feeding in the night and will need to be seen to first. I have found that co-sleeping can help as I have been able to lie down to feed my baby and have my toddler behind me – who will feel comforted by my proximity. Try to encourage your toddler to have a teddy or comforter at night to help soothe him when you can’t give him your full attention. (Don’t let your toddler sleep next to your baby as they may roll over and suffocate the baby.)
The desperation of a working parent to have a good nights’ sleep before getting up, getting out and getting to work is often palpable. In 2011 the Office for National Statistics reported that nearly one-third of mothers worked full-time, and this probably means that around one-third of households have both partners working full-time. I feel our society has failed these working parents and our workplaces are ‘work focused’ rather than ‘family focused.’ As a society, I believe we are selling ourselves short with our 9-5 culture.
I know so many women who work a part-time job, get paid a part-time salary and yet when they get to work, they don’t waste a moment. They are in, on it and efficient, and I would argue get more work done in a week than many of the full-time colleagues. That said, there are some jobs where you have to be there early, or work shifts or work late, and this is a tough situation for a parent of young children.
If you are going back to work again, you will need to work towards improving your toddler’s sleep. Make sure your toddler’s bedtime routine starts early so that you can have an early night too. Ensure his bedroom or sleeping space is comfortable, dark, cool and conducive to sleep. Finally, encourage the use of soothers or red night lights if your toddler is frightened at night.
Finally, try not to feel like a failure. In general, our society has an unrealistic attitude to sleep. You may feel like all the other parents at work are sorted and their babies, toddlers, and children all sleep for an unbroken 12 hour period – but don’t bet on it. We are all coping with disrupted sleep (whether from poorly children, teething children or frequent night waking) and being honest with your friends and (close) colleagues can help to reduce the pressure to have so-called “good” children that sleep through the night from eight weeks old. I think this is largely down to luck so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have a baby or toddler who sleeps through effortlessly and try and use the evening and night time tips to promote and consolidate sleep.
Berger, Kathleen Stassen (2014). Invitation to the Life Span, Second Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.
Mindell, Jodi A.; Sadeh, Avi (2010). “Cross-cultural differences in infant and toddler sleep”. Sleep Medicine.