Toddler/Child Sleep: How Being Responsive to Your Child Can Help Them Sleep at Night
By Dr. Angelique Millette
Ask any parent of a toddler how their child is sleeping, and chances are the response will be the child is having a tough time. Despite following good sleep fundamentals such as sleep routines, consistency, and making sure your child has their needs met for safety and settling, toddler development and transitions can regress your child’s sleep.
This article will help with identifying some of the developmental milestones that regress sleep while also offering a brief description of using the two-phase approach to solve toddler and young child sleep issues. To find out more about Dr. Millette’s two-phase approach, please check out one of the upcoming Toddler Sleep Classes now offered via live webinar or pre-recorded webinar: http://angeliquemillette.com/events.html
One of the greatest contributors to your toddler developing a sense of themselves begins with their separation from you. The first milestone that ushers in this separation is object permanence (see description below). Object permanence is followed by successive milestones that will simultaneously help your toddler develop new skills for independence while also triggering their need for your comfort and safety. The following is a developmental timeline with a few age/stage milestones that can regress your toddler’s behavior and sleep. Keep in mind that the time frames are approximates and the regression may start a little later if your child is developmentally delayed.
- 8–11 Months: With the development of object permanence, your pre-toddler begins to develop a picture of themselves and begins to separate from you. Prior to object permanence, your baby experiences their needs as yours. As object permanence develops, expect increased separation anxiety and stranger anxiety. In particular, your pre-toddler may begin to resist bedtimes and nap times and may wake up at night screaming hysterically. If your pre-toddler is also learning to stand/fall or walk, expect your little one to be wakeful for extended periods at night.
- 18–22 Months: This is a big period of time for your child learning to talk. Your child will be storing up to ten words per day, a massive word explosion. As your child learns to talk, their sleep will regress. Your child may resist bedtime, wake in the middle of the night for 1–2 hours, wake early in the morning, and resist naps. You may also have your first episode of your child climbing out of their crib. The 18–22 months developmental stage is the second most common time for parents to reach out to us (4–6 months of age is the most common time). The regression can last a few nights to a few weeks or month and can come and go over the 18–22 months developmental period.
- 24 Months: Your child’s development of their imagination can lead to sudden fears/phobias including fear of the dark. Notice if your child suddenly becomes resistant to bedtime and refuses to go to sleep. Fear of the dark can make an otherwise secure child feel very insecure at bedtime. You may also begin to notice night waking due to nightmares.
- 30–36 Months: Your child begins to push for independence, which can lead to new skills like potty learning and insisting on doing things alone. The push for independence can also lead to insecurity and clinginess in particular at sleep times. Many toddlers will begin to resist naps and/or stall at bedtime. Your toddler may climb out of the crib or refuse to stay in their bed at night. Toddlers begin to develop impulse control, which can greatly ease sleep time issues.
The Millette Method for Toddler Sleep
The Millette Method supports your child learning to separate from you at sleep time, feeling safe and secure, all while relaxing and settling to sleep. Helping your child to relax and settle their body at sleep time is a skill that will serve them far beyond childhood. The approach is based on the belief that when children are given clear messages about sleep changes while getting their parents’ presence, children can easily learn to feel safe at sleep time while separating from their parents. The method is split up into two phases. Phase 1 is a prep phase. Parents are coached to do specific activities with their child which utilize clear messages about sleep and separation. Think of the Phase 1 activities as “playtime with your child that encourages bonding and prepares for separation, while focusing on sleep.” Parents also report feeling more bonded and close to their child when they engage in the Phase 1 activities. Half of the children begin to sleep better at night simply from doing Phase 1 activities. It tells us that children are very good at learning new sleep behaviors if they get clear messages from their parents.
One example of a Phase 1 prep activity is playing hide-n-seek or tag/chase with your child. Why would these games be beneficial to helping a child to learn to sleep? Children learn best through play, movement, and using their little bodies. Hide-n-seek and tag are games with a theme of separation from and rejoining with the parent. If you think about sleep changes, the primary goal of sleep changes with a toddler or young child is for your child to separate from you at bedtime, feel safe and secure to not have you there, and resettle through the night (10–12 hours) without needing to enlist your help. Of course, if your child is sick, going through a developmental change, routine change, having a nightmare, or adjusting to a new sibling, your child will likely wake more often and need you more at night. Try a little hide-n-seek or tag/chase playtime with your child everyday to help your child ahead of starting sleep changes.
For the child who needs a little extra nudge beyond Phase 1, parents can use Phase 2, the Chair/Mattress Method, a parent presence sleep method that encourages parent responding to their child while setting limits. Why use a parent presence sleep method with toddlers and young children? Because of emerging intense toddler emotions coupled with increased separation anxiety, toddlers and young children do better with sleep methods that encourage parent support versus sleep methods where the child is left alone. Starting around 10–16 months, toddlers and young children may become so overwhelmed by strong emotions that they may throw up, hit themselves, or climb out of the crib. The Chair/Mattress Method encourages responsiveness from the parent. New pediatric sleep research is showing that responsiveness with limits may be the strongest indicator of a child feeling secure and soothed to separate from parents and drift off to sleep.
As you think about sleep changes for your little one, rest assured that your firm and loving presence may be the best way to help your child to sleep peacefully and independently from you. The goal is that by following a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine, you can leave your child’s room before they are asleep, your child can then drift off to sleep, and can resettle themselves as needed during the night.
If you are having sleep issues with your toddler or haven’t been successful with classic sleep training/crying methods, consider Dr. Millette’s two-phase approach. Be prepared to separate from your child a little more each night until your child learns to “hold the feeling of comfort and security from you,” as one of several resources that helps them to easily and peacefully drift off to sleep.