Establishing good sleep habits
Between their second birthday and third birthday, toddlers need about 11 hours of sleep a night and a single hour-and-a-half to two-hour nap each day. Most children this age go to bed sometime between 7pm and 9pm and get up between 6:30am and 8am.
But while it may seem that your child's sleep patterns finally resemble yours, she'll continue to spend more time than you do in light REM sleep until she's about four years old. The result? She'll wake up more often than you do, because she'll be making more transitions from one sleep phase to the other. That's why it's important that she learns how to soothe herself back to sleep.
How you can help your child settle and sleep
Now that your child is getting older, you can try a few new techniques to help her get a good night's sleep, including:
Moving her in to a big bed and praising her when she stays in it
This is the age when your toddler is likely to make the transition to a bed, probably because she'll have outgrown her babyhood cot. The arrival of a new sibling can also prompt the decision. If you're pregnant with a new baby, move your toddler at least six weeks to eight weeks before you're due. You want your older child well ensconced in her new bed before she sees the baby taking over her cot.
But if the move doesn't go well, it's fine to put it off until the new baby is three months or four months old. Your newborn may spend those months sleeping in a Moses basket anyway, and your older child will have time to get used to having a sibling, making the cot-to-bed transition easier. Other reasons to consider making the move include frequent jumping out of the cot and toilet training - your child may need to get up at night to go to the toilet.
Once she's using her new bed, praise your child when she stays in it at bedtime and overnight. After the confinement of her cot, she may get out of her big girl's bed over and over just because she can. If she gets up, react calmly but firmly.
Simply take her back to bed, firmly tell her that it's time to go to sleep, and leave. If she still won't stay in bed, you can try one of several strategies recommended by the top sleep experts. See the approaches to sleep problems section below.
To keep your child out of trouble when she gets up, it may be a good idea to install a stair gate across her bedroom door. If she needs to go to the toilet, she can call you to let her out. A stair gate across the door means that your child can't wander in to the bathroom and hurt herself. The gate will also turn her bedroom in to a giant cot, which will be more familiar to her.
Making bedtime simple
Your toddler may start trying to put off bedtime by wheedling for just one more story, song, or drink of water. Try to anticipate all of your child's usual (and reasonable) requests and make them part of your bedtime routine. Then, perhaps allow your child one extra request - but make it clear that one is the limit. She'll feel like she's getting her way, but you'll know you're really getting yours.
Giving her an extra goodnight kiss or tuck-in
It's OK to promise your child an extra goodnight kiss after you've tucked her in the first time. Tell her you'll be back to check on her in a few minutes. Chances are she'll be fast asleep by the time you return.
What if we run in to problems?
If your toddler starts getting up more often when she graduates to a big bed, tuck her back in and bid her a firm goodnight. Other than that, how you handle the situation is up to you. To see what the experts suggest, see the approaches to sleep problems section below.
Another widespread sleep problem at this age is resistance to bedtime. Ease the problem by anticipating and managing your child's before-bed requests. Realistically, though, no toddler will run happily to bed every night, so be prepared for a few struggles. Again, for some ideas that may help, see the next section.
You'll probably notice that your child has some new night-time worries these days. Being afraid of the dark, monsters under the bed, or separation from you is common in toddlers, so don't be too concerned. Fears are part of your child's normal development.
If she starts having nightmares, go to her right away and talk to her about her bad dream while you calm her down. If bad dreams persist, look for sources of anxiety in her daily life. Your child could also suffer from night terrors, which are different from nightmares. If your child is very frightened, try lying in bed with her. This will give her the comfort of your presence while reinforcing that her bed is where you want her to sleep.
Approaches to sleep problems
Two of the most common sleep problems for toddlers of all ages are difficulty falling asleep and frequent night wakings. What can you do when your child keeps waking up at night and you know she's old enough to sleep all the way through?
Make sure she learns how to settle herself back down - by finding her thumb, cuddling a teddy, or some other way. Most experts agree that you should try to avoid letting your child become dependent on external conditions such as music, lighting, and feeding to fall asleep. If she does, she'll need the same things every time she wakes up at night before she can drop off again.
If your child won't sleep through the night, there are a variety of approaches you can try.
Do a simple checking routine. If your child is crying, go back in to her room. Pat her on the back and tell her that everything is OK, but that it's time to go to sleep. Don't pick her up or cuddle her; be gentle but firm. Leave. Wait about five minutes, and then check again. Do this repeatedly until she falls asleep, extending the time between each visit. As long as your child's bedtime routine is consistent, night waking should diminish in a few weeks.
Stick to a regular pattern of daytime and night-time sleep; don't let your toddler set her own sleep schedules. Reinforce your child's bedtime by using a consistent bedtime routine. Don't hold her, rock her, or let her rely on a dummy or bottle to get to sleep. While they work in the short term, these methods teach your toddler to depend on being put to sleep, rather than falling asleep on her own. If your child calls out to you or cries at night, go in to her room at progressively longer intervals (five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes) to reassure her you're there.
If she won't stay in bed, tell her you'll close the door. If just mentioning it doesn't do the trick, shut the door and hold it closed (but never lock it) for about a minute. If she doesn't get back in bed after that, go in and put her down, then go outside and close the door for two minutes, then three minutes, then five minutes, and so on. Five minutes is the maximum for the first night.
Once your child gets in to bed on her own, open the door, offer her a word of encouragement, and leave without going inside her room. If she keeps getting up on subsequent nights, the amount of time the door stays closed can be longer - up to 30 minutes for the fourth closing on the seventh night.
Separation anxiety lingers at this age, and a desire to make her own decisions also comes in to the picture, so your child may resist going to bed. It may help if you let her make bedtime choices (which pyjamas to wear or what story to read), let her sleep with teddies, and leave on a night-light or room light. If she still cries for you, wait 10 minutes before going in to settle her down, then leave and repeat the process if necessary.
Don't scold or punish her, but don't reward her by staying, either. She may just be trying to get attention, so put her right back to bed and leave as soon as she's lying down. Stay calm and consistent - she'll soon realise you won't give in. Do check to make sure she's not too hot and that her pyjamas aren't too tight or uncomfortable. If she wants a night-light left on or the door open, that's fine.
Make sure you're following a bedtime ritual that is supportive and comforting. If your child calls for you as she settles to sleep, don't go in straight away; instead, call to her and tell her that you're there and how proud you are that she's learning to do this by herself. Usually toddlers this age can soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake up at night, often by talking to themselves and practising all their new words.
But many children still have problems sleeping through the night on their own. In order to do so, your toddler has to know how to soothe herself back to sleep. If she wakes up at night, and is scared because you're not there, or because she's afraid of monsters, or other imaginary problems, it will be hard for her to drop back off. Reassure her that she's safe and all right and that you're nearby. Don't rush to her the minute you hear her stirring; she needs to learn to get back to sleep on her own.
If your toddler is getting too much sleep during the day, then this could have an impact on how well she sleeps at night. Try making sure any naps she does have are before 3pm, to make sure your toddler is tired enough when bedtime comes around.
There is no "right" way to encourage your child to settle and sleep through the night. You need to choose an approach that will work for you and your family.