Navigating Toddler Sleep Regression

on March 18, 2020

Is there anything more terrifying than the words “toddler sleep regression”? Having little ones means barely getting any time for yourself, and that’s why those few hours during which they’re passed out can be so completely and utterly life-changing. That being said, sleep can be hard to come by for kids. Getting toddlers and young children to go to sleep and stay asleep is an adventure all on its own (likely one you've catalogued in your Chatbooks Photo Book Series). That’s why we asked Lauren Olson, a certified sleep expert, mother and founder of Sleep and the City, for all of her pro tips on how to get kids to sleep through the night. Our main takeaway: Sleep training is not one-size-fits-all. “It’s your journey and you know your child best,” she says.

Here are Lauren’s top tips for restful sleep...

1. No Food After 7pm

If your young children are eating right before bed, you might be throwing off their sleep patterns. Lauren suggests to close the kitchen after dinner. This gives children time to process their food and find a routine. 

There are also some foods that are a total no-no when it comes to a restful sleep. “There are things that compete against kids’ bodies for sleep,” explains Lauren. Sugars, even those found in fruits, will be a stimulant in keeping your child up at night. Instead, she recommends berries, bananas, cherries and other foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps our brains produce serotonin. 

2. Keep Food in the Kitchen

“Distraction during the day can cause kids to eat less,” Lauren says. “Make sure when you are feeding a child that it is in a very boring area [of your home].” So nix having snack time in the playroom or in front of the TV and keep food at the kitchen table.

3. Maintain a Routine

“However a child is used to falling asleep is how they will want to be throughout a sleep cycle,” says Lauren. “For example, if you’re falling asleep next to your spouse and then, in the middle of the night, they moved you to your neighbor’s house, can you imagine what you would go through?”

If your children are used to falling asleep with you in the room, you reinforce their expectation that you will be there when they wake up. “If you want them to wake up at night and get used to you not being there, you have to get them used to your not being there,” she says.

4. Wean Them in Stages

No parent wants to watch their children become upset, and often the “cry it out” method doesn’t work. “I’m not in a huge camp of ‘cold turkey’ on anything when it comes to sleep,” says Lauren. Instead, she recommends that parents wean from associations. So if a mother wakes up and breast feeds in the middle of the night, that can be a hard association to break away from. When this is the case, Lauren recommends that a parent wean from an association by introducing another association and then weaning from that.

“Instead of you going in and offering a full bottle, for the next three nights you’re only offering half the bottle. Then on the fourth night, maybe a sip of water,” she explains. Slowly weaning from habits takes some practice, but children can learn to self-soothe. The same process can work when removing yourself from the child’s room.

5. Evaluate Your Social Schedule

Many moms in The Momforce had questions about when a toddler, who was once a great sleeper, seemingly randomly regresses. Lauren suggests for parents to evaluate their social schedules and routines. “It could be because they just moved into a new home, or that they just started a new daycare,” she explains.

Among these changes may be a parent starting a new job and coming home at new hours, a baby sibling being born, nightmares becoming more sequential, potty training being introduced, or starting preschool.

6. Redirect Children

One mom in The Momforce asked us for advice to help one of her daughters who has been afraid to go to bed ever since the white noise machine ran out of batteries and a robotic voice said, “batteries low, replace now,” causing her daughter to have nightmares. An experience like that may be enough to keep anyone awake at night and similar issues like this persist for many children. 

As parents, you may have tried combat methods for fears such as “monster spray” where you give a child a spray-bottle to fight off monsters, but Lauren suggests that this will only validate their fears. “I really like to give toddlers a worry item,” she says. Things like pictures (maybe a Chatbook!), dream sticks and rocks so that children can redirect their fear into something of comfort. “It’s just something to redirect them.”

Lauren also recommends Hatch Rest, a sound machine, night light and audio monitor all-in-one as a great noise machine that won’t have a robotic voice to haunt your child’s dreams.

7. Have a Consistent Bedtime Routine

“How you can speed up the body’s production of melatonin is to have a bedtime routine that lasts 60 minutes,” advises Lauren. The last 30 minutes of that routine is crucial to do in low-light. No TVs, no iPads and no overhead light. 

So what does this routine look like? After the kitchen closes at 7pm, make sure to be consistent with your schedule. The kids brush their teeth, maybe get a few minutes of television, and then parents can read a book to them in bed.

8. Let Your Kids Know Your Expectations

We love our children, and it’s easy to give in to them when they have us wrapped around their little fingers. If you let them sleep in your bed once at 5:00am when they cannot go back to sleep, pretty soon they will be waking up at 3:00am, then 1:00am, and eventually your bed will become their bed. “It’s a really slippery slope with toddlers,” says Lauren. “So before they go to sleep, you set expectations.”

Some incentives can help reinforce those expectations. Lauren says that she will do little prizes if her children follow the sleep rules. 

9. Be Patient

When asked what her greatest piece of advice is, Lauren says to just be patient. The overnight success that many ads promise is unrealistic when evaluating individual needs. Remember that things take time and that each child is different. Many parents are going through the same things as you. You’re not alone, and you can find your community over here at The MomForce. 

Listen to this episode of The MomForce Podcast to hear more of this discussion about toddler sleep. Lauren Olson also offers certified sleep instruction on her website Sleep and the City as well as free downloadables for sleep guides. Find her on Instagram @SleepAndTheCity