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Tackling Toddler Sleep Problems

Troubleshoot your tot’s nighttime woes so you can all get the rest you need in your own beds.
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Preferring your bed over his or her own continued...

Children may be scared to be alone, so you need to let them know that they are safe and secure wherever they sleep.

Breaking this habit can be hard, Zafarlotfi says. It usually starts innocently enough. "A child may have had an earache and slept in their parents' bed and gotten used to it," she says. "If they are accustomed to your bedroom, you need to reverse it and spend more time in their bedroom. Stay in their room on a recliner, dim the lights, and act as if you too are dozing off or relaxing at bedtime or naptime so they know that you are present," she says.

Be positive. "Say, 'Mommy needs her time, but she will come to your room for a while.'" While you are there, "play soothing music and have fun in their room so they know that their bedroom is not for punishment or abandonment," Zafarlotfi says. "When they fall asleep you can say good-bye or sneak out."

Consistency counts too. Zafarlotfi says, "You can't take them to your bed one night and then not let them in the next night."

Nightmares

"The first thing you can do is to look for any physical problems that may be disturbing their sleep," Pelayo says. Snoring, acid reflux, heartburn, or even allergies may be waking your child up at night, not nightmares. "If there doesn't seem to be anything physical causing them to wake and stir," he says, "then it's time to talk about the nightmares. Tell them that they are always safe and that nightmares and dreams are like paintings and drawings, meaning that they can paint a nice picture or scary picture," he says.

Dream rehearsal may also help children take the sting out of nightmares. Here's how it works: "Discuss what happened in the nightmare and come up with a new ending," he says. If your toddler dreamed that he was falling off of a cliff, tell him to imagine that he can fly. Or if the nightmare involved a monster, perhaps the monster could be made of marshmallows, he suggests.

Night Terror

"Night or sleep terrors are not nightmares," Pelayo says. These two toddler sleep disorders differ in certain important ways. "Sleep terrors occur in the first third of the sleep and nightmares tend to occur in the last third of the sleep," he says. Sleep terrors or night terrors are characterized by a bloodcurdling scream, crying, a racing heart, and no memory the next day, he says. By contrast, a nightmare is a dream, and your child is reassured that it was only a dream when he wakes.

"The first thing to do for night terrors is to rule out snoring, because snoring destabilizes sleep, and this can make night terrors, or even sleepwalking, more likely. Destabilized sleep is not deep sleep," Pelayo says. These toddler sleep disorders tend to occur in light sleeps. Once snoring has been ruled out, try waking your child 15 minutes after he or she falls asleep. "They will respond to this scheduled awakening by going to sleep more deeply," Pelayo says. Abide by the 15-minute rule, though, because waking a child much after that may actually cause night terrors.

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