Tackling Toddler Sleep Problems
Troubleshoot your tot’s nighttime woes so you can all get the rest you need in your own beds.
Daniel Brennan, MD
Your 1-year-old cries so hard when you put him to bed that he actually throws up. Your 2-year-old still doesn't sleep through the night. Your 2-and-a-half-year-old shares your bed, or perhaps your 3-year-old wakes in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder.
Sound familiar? If these toddler sleep issues don't ring true yet, they may soon. While most toddler sleep issues are related to ages and stages, sometimes underlying health or psychological problems may be at least partly to blame. Regardless of the nocturnal nuisance that's disturbing everyone's sleep, there are sound sleep solutions.
Waking throughout the night (again and again)
Getting your child to sleep through the night is a common and challenging toddler sleep problem. Susan Zafarlotfi, clinical director of the Institute for Sleep and Wake Disorders at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, says finding a solution for this one depends on your child's age and whether your child not sleeping through the night has suddenly occurred out of the blue.
"Young toddlers may wake up from teething or they may be sick," she says. "Parents need to step back and see what has happened in recent weeks in their toddlers' lives. Is there a new bed? A new sibling? A change in caregivers? Is the child taking a longer nap?"
If waking up is just a habit and unrelated to teething or any other health issues or changes, Zafarlotfi says to intervene by delaying bedtime. Delaying by 15 to 20 minutes could make your toddler more tired, she says.
If your tot calls out to you during these middle-of-the-night episodes, Zafarlotfi advises going into the room to comfort your toddler with a lullaby, soft music, or any other soothing routine that you use at nighttime. "Assure them that they are OK and then leave their room," she says.
If this scenario happens night after night after night, she says, you should delay going into the room to soothe your child by five minutes each night.
Crying at bedtime to the point of being sick
Should you really just let your toddler cry it out? Often called Ferberizing, this method may seem cruel to some parents, especially if the child cries himself or herself sick. Other parents swear by it.
"It's very hard to do," says Mary Michaeleen Cradock, clinical psychologist with St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri. "But we know of no negative effects of using the Ferber method." Often times, one parent can handle the wailing and the other one simply cannot, she says. "If you are letting your child cry it out, one of you may want to go to the gym or put on an iPod while the other deals with the crying." If you choose this approach, you need to be prepared to stay committed to it for four to five nights.