Sleep, or the lack of it, is probably the most discussed topic among parents of newborns. And while sleepless nights are widely accepted as just part of the bargain of bringing a new life into the world, we are not always prepared for the sleepless nights to drag into years. Night wakings, bedtime routines that seem to go on and on, skipped naps, sleep regressions, musical beds, and crib to bed transitions — it is truly exhausting!
In today’s episode, host Jessica Rolph is joined by Lauren Lappen, a certified sleep consultant and co-founder of Wee Sleep Solutions, who offers practical advice on toddler sleep.
[1:38] How do you get a toddler to bed and keep them there?
[2:45] The benefits of using routine cards during bedtime.
[4:04] Lauren’s tips on how to avoid a battle of wills with your toddler.
[5:10] How to respond when your toddler wakes in the middle of the night, asking for you.
[6:35] Why “musical beds” aren’t ideal for anyone; toddlers like to wake up in the same bed where they fell asleep.
[9:18] What if the wakings are a function of your child being unwell?
[10:26] Lauren talks about the signs a baby is ready to move to a toddler bed, and gives suggestions for types of beds to use.
[13:55] Considering easy access to the potty.
[17:22] Suggestions for specific situations, like if you’ve got a new baby coming and you need to make room, or if your child is a climber and might exit the crib.
[20:16] How critical are night feedings to toddlers?
[22:38] How to wean a toddler from that night feeding.
[24:23] What to do about pacifiers. Do they stay or do they go?
[27:06] Jessica gives some highlights of her conversation with Lauren.
How to get your toddler to sleep
Jessica: Welcome, Lauren.
Lauren: Thanks so much for having me.
Jessica: Well, there are so many questions that we have for you today, so I hope you’re ready.
Lauren: I’m ready. Sleep is a hot topic for parents, for sure.
Jessica: Yeah, and so babies get a lot of attention when it comes to advice on sleep, but you’ve told me that you have just as many parents of three and four-year-olds as clients as you do parents of newborns. So how do you get toddler to bed and keep them there?
Set a bedtime routine for your toddler
Lauren: That’s a great question. I do, it’s really… It’s interesting to see when clients come in, it’s about 50% babies and about 50% toddlers, and sometimes babies who had been sleeping well, suddenly become toddlers and realize that they have a voice and they have opinions, and they might not want to go to bed, and then suddenly parents don’t know what to do with that. So it’s really common for parents to struggle with toddler sleep, so how do you get them to bed? I think the most important aspect is having a routine and simultaneously being a little bit creative and flexible. So for routine, we know that toddlers really thrive when things are predictable, and when they know what to expect. What I recommend for parents to do is create a bedtime chart starting with dinner and ending with being tucked into bed and put a picture for each step of the bedtime routine. So you have finished dinner, a bath, pajamas, read books, brush teeth. Have a picture for each of those, and then laminate it, and I love to actually give it to a child on a clipboard that they can carry around with them, so they really have some ownership over their bedtime, and as you finish one activity, they can put a sticker on it or they could mark it off with a crayon and say, Okay, we just finished dinner what’s our next… What’s the next thing we’re going to do?
Lauren: And then they can look at the chart and they can say, “Oh, it’s a bath, okay, let’s go upstairs and take the bath”. So allowing the child to see what the steps are of bedtime can really help motivate them to continue moving forward. And then as they check things off, they can really feel accomplished as they move from one step to the next of bedtime.
Jessica: I did not pay Lauren to say this, but we do have routine cards for bedtime in our toddler play kits, so I figured that would be helpful.
Turn bedtime tasks into games
Lauren: Oh, you do that? That’s perfect, that’s perfect. Because they’re so helpful for kids, so that they know and they can really own the process. So that’s the routine part, so then where does creativity come in? What we want to avoid is a battle of wills with our kids really at any time, right. So your child doesn’t want to get their pajamas on and they’re saying, “No, no, no,” you say “get your pajamas on”. “No.” “Get your pajamas on.” “No”. And suddenly 10 minutes have passed and everyone’s frustrated, so what can you do instead? So any time you can make something like a game… Just keep it light. I definitely recommend that. So pajamas are a great example, if your child doesn’t want to put their pajamas on, Pick a song and say, Let’s see if we can get our pajamas on before this song is over, and if it’s over, if we can get our pajamas on before the song is over, we can have a pajama dance party for the rest of the song, so you play the song and then they’re racing the song, so it’s not about you telling them what to do, it’s about them racing the clock, so to speak.
Lauren: So any time if your kids don’t want to go down the hall to brush their teeth, then it’s a question of: How many jumps does it take to get from your room to the bathroom? Or can you walk backwards, you know? Anytime that you can really change it up, you should see, I have six-year-old twins and I have them great finding around my house to get from place to place, just because then it’s not me saying, “Do this, do this, do this”, it’s more of an adventure and kids can really respond well to that.
Handling your toddler waking up at night
Jessica: Okay, so we’ve gotten our toddler to sleep, let’s just say we’re good on that, we’re good on the routine, but what about toddler waking in the middle of the night and wanting you… Crying out for you, and what do we do in those situations?
Understand why they are waking up
Lauren: Great question. Toddlers do wake in the middle of the night as do we. So everybody sometimes has a more restless sleep, and the difference is that some children know how to just kinda roll over and go back to sleep on their own, and others really require a parent’s assistance. So if your child is requiring your assistance, you want to look at a few things. One is, are they having a more restless sleep because they’re over-tired? So when we become over-tired, we definitely will wake more through the night and tend to wake up earlier in the morning. So if a child has a really late bedtime, I always recommend moving bedtime earlier and that can often help decrease wakings. So that’s the first thing we want to consider. Another thing to look at is, as a parent, what are you doing when the child wakes? Excuse me. So they are looking for your attention a lot of times in any way they can get it, and sometimes parents in the middle of the night are triaging and they don’t have the energy to do anything but say, “Okay, fine, either I will sleep in your bed or you sleep in my bed.”
Avoid moving to a different spot to sleep
Lauren: And what we really want to avoid as musical beds in the middle of the night, so wherever you start should be where you finish your night sleep. So what can we do? Our kids want us there. And this really comes into how gentle a parent wants to be with the process, so for parents who want to be really gentle and supportive of their children, but they don’t want to be sleeping in the same bed as their child, then what I recommend doing is slowly easing yourself away. So at first, pick a spot that you can sit. You’ll sit next to them. You can even have a hand on them when they wake, and you can just stay there until they fall asleep. After you do that for a few days, then you would want to remove your touch. So you’re still going to come and you’re going to sit there with them, but you’re not going to touch them, you’ll remove that piece. After a few days of that, you can sit a little bit farther away and you can kind of slowly pull yourself away from the situation so that they get used to not having you. What I love to do when we as we do this in tandem, is to give children another tool for what they can do, and what children respond so well to, is if you give them something of yours that they can cuddle with instead of you.
Offer something of yours to cuddle with
Lauren: So Mommy can’t cuddle with you in the middle of the night, but you can hug my t-shirt, or you can hug this pillow from my bed. Allow kids to have something that’s yours that they can really connect to and remind them of that. Say, if I can’t be here, you can hug my t-shirt and know that I’m right down the hall, and I’ll tell you, my 10-year-old actually still sleeps with my husband’s t-shirt on her pillow, I think she might take it to college. So it really can be a very effective way for kids to feel connected to you, even if you’re not right there, that’s a great option if you’re looking for a gentle way to ease out of your kids kind of needing you in the middle of the night. Some toddlers do they need a really firm line in the sand, some toddlers will push and push and push and push until you just say, I am not coming to our room, and usually it’s a day or two of parents having to be really consistent, this is where consistency is key. If you are inconsistent, they will pick up on that and just try longer and harder the next time, but if you are very consistent, then after a few days, kids will get it and they’ll stop calling you.
Are they healthy and safe?
Jessica: I always got worried that there was something actually wrong, that they really hadn’t had a big enough dinner or that you can tell where I fall on the parenting spectrum in terms of being able to stick to boundaries when it comes to sleep, but you know… I guess that is in the back of our minds as parents, what if something truly is wrong, what if they don’t feel well, what if I’m missing something? How can you coach parents through those worries?
Lauren: So what’s so important to remember is that habits are not made in one day or one night, so if you have a child who’s generally sleeping really well, and then something’s just off and they’re crying and you think that they need you, go. Go and assess the situation and my checklist for parents is we always want to ask ourselves, are they healthy and are they safe? Those are our number two questions, we need to know our kids are healthy and they’re safe. If either of those… If the answer to that is no, for either of those questions, this whole thing goes out the window, so if you have a child who’s generally sleeping well and then they have an off night… Absolutely. Go and assess the situation and see what’s going on. But if you find that it’s now been three weeks, and every single night, it’s the same thing, then we have to say, You know what, I think they’re fine.
When to transition to a toddler bed
Jessica: So then let’s talk about the transition to toddler beds, we did a survey on Instagram, and it ranges from very young, like seven months, eight months, and obviously, and some Montessori enthusiasts are putting their babies in floor beds from the very beginning, which is… There’s some benefits to that. My kids, were in a cribs until they were well past three, and so I’m curious, there’s a wide range of when people decide to make the change, and there’s a lot of different motivators. Talk about those readiness signs for when a baby should move to this toddler bed, and then any suggestions for what type of bed, can a mattress on the floor work? Do we need to get a special bed? What does that look like?
Lauren: So my general recommendation, if a child has been in the crib for their whole babyhood, I recommend waiting until a child is at least three years old to make a change and they’re asking for a bed. A kid will want a bed, and often parents jump to say, “Oh, you know, they’re two and a half, they should have a bed now”, and our kids actually really feel safe in their cribs. Their cribs are a really cozy place for them to be, and I have seen many times where people prematurely move their kids into a bed, and then it backfires, and then you have a child who is coming out of their room a lot, they’re waking a lot more than they used to, they’re crying a lot at night, and they actually need that security and comfort of being in their crib. So asking for it is a really important sign. I say three, because it takes a tremendous amount of self-restraint to keep yourself in a place that you know you can get out of. So a bed, once kids are in a bed, they know. They could just go right, they could just walk out and be out of their bed, and you need to know that your child can handle that responsibility of staying in a place that they could easily leave. And often they’re not mature enough for that and don’t have that self-control, until at least three years of age.
Lauren: You do have the child who’s ready at two and a half, two and three quarters, they might be ready and they might be asking for a bed, in which case it’s probably fine to transition them to that. But you do want to ask yourself, does my child have the self-control to stay in their bed? Because if they don’t, we’re setting them up to fail and we’re setting ourselves up for a problem, so that’s a really important thing to look at. In terms of what the bed should be it can be anything. A on the floor is always a fine option, I really like if a crib converts to a toddler bed, I love that as an option because it keeps some consistency. Often people say, Oh, I’m going to get my child a full-sized bed, let me put them from their crib into their full-size bed, and again, like they felt safe and secure in their crib, if you’re this very little person and suddenly one day you’re plopped into this gigantic bed, it could be really exciting and you might be really happy about it, but it could be hard for them to settle because they’re missing that security that they felt from their crib, so if it’s possible to, as a first step, convert a crib to a toddler bed, I always recommend that.
Potty training considerations
Jessica: So how does this work if your child is potty-trained and they actually are, let’s say, they’re moving towards being dry at the night or they’re noticing their potty and they’re not able to get out of the crib to go potty?
Lauren: So this is a reason that sometimes people do move into a bed from a crib, and a child who is potty-trained who is under three years old, often will also have that self-restraint that’s required to be in a bed. So they do go hand-in hand a lot of times. And if you feel like your child, they’re potty-trained, and you want to keep them in a crib, you can first limit their liquid intake after bedtime, so really look… Or sorry, after dinner time, so really look at how much they’re drinking at dinner and then beyond dinner and have them drink more earlier in the day and less in the evening, and that’s going to make it less likely that they’ll have to get up and use the bathroom in the first place. If you’re finding that they still do, but you really want them in underwear at night, then I would say you could have them in a bed with some really strict rules around that, and this is an area that kids love to push the button because toddlers are very savvy and they realize very quickly, “Oh, needing the potty is a reason that my parent will come and help me”, it’s giving them permission…
Jessica: Exactly. Yup. That’s happened twice from two of my three kids. Yeah, I remember saying things in the middle of the night that I couldn’t believe I was saying like, It’s okay, go in your diaper, it’s okay. Every 15 minutes, my little one was waking up and saying he had to go to the bathroom and had to go potty, and it was… There were some really long nights there when we first had started potty training.
Lauren: Yup. Yeah, kids will learn really quickly that this is… And at bedtime too, they’re tucked into bed, “Oh, I need the potty”, and they’re tucked back in, “oh, I need the potty”. And they’ll sit there for half an hour reading a book and having a great time when they’re supposed to be in bed, so they are so smart and they know exactly what’s going on. So my rule is at bedtime and the middle of the night, if a child wakes from the potty and they need your help, one, it’s business, right? So you take them… I would keep the lights off or very, very dim… You’re not interacting with them. They don’t have a book at this point in time, they don’t have coloring to do, they’re there to use the potty and go back into bed, you shouldn’t be having long conversations during this time, also, it’s like a one and done time, right. So if they’re tucked into bed or it’s two in the morning, they need to use the potty, Okay, go take them, they go and then they’re back in bed, and then after that, we’re not going to the potty again five minutes later because they just went. And then, you know they’re doing this for attention, they’re not doing it ‘cause they really have to use the bathroom.
Tips for toddlers climbing out of cribs
Jessica: So then there’s some instances where you need to move sooner, let’s say you’ve got a new baby coming and you need to make room in the crib for the new baby, and also there’s some climbers that climb out of the crib, I would love to hear more about any tips you have for transitions during those specific times?
Lauren: Yeah, so if I encourage parents to not move a toddler from their bed for a baby, the truth is, a baby is fine, wherever you put them, if it’s not in a crib, they could be in a bassinet, they could be in a pack and play, they could be in a travel crib, there’s other options for a baby that don’t require the crib, especially when they’re first born, so we always want to avoid a big transition, a month or two before a sibling is going to come, so you don’t want to say the or two and a half year-old, “Oh, I’m going to have your brother next week, he’s going to need this crib, so you’re going to go into a bed” ‘cause that can be a really loaded transition for a child, so the baby is really fine to sleep in a bassinet or in a pack and play. Allow your toddler to keep the crib, for as long as possible. In terms of making a transition for a climber, climbing can be tough because those are kids that need the boundary and clearly don’t have the self-control because they’re climbing out of the crib, but yet it’s a dangerous situation that they could be in, if they fall in, if they’re not apt to get out of the crib safely, so what can we do?
Lauren: One thing I recommend is first trying to keep an eye on your child and get them back on the crib. So if you see them climbing, go in. A firm no. Put them back in the crib. Sometimes this will be effective at teaching them. Not always, and sometimes it’s two in the morning, you’re sleeping, you don’t realize that they’re climbing out. So how do we handle those situations? In those cases, when we move a child to a bed because they’re climbing, I recommend what we call cribbing the room, which means you’re basically going to take their bedroom and turn it into a big crib. So what does that require? It requires making sure the room is safe, making sure that all the furniture is bolted to the wall, that there’s nothing that they could climb on and hurt themselves, that there’s not a lot of toys around that they would want to get out of bed and play with. You would put a gate up on the door, and also you’d want to make sure there’s not a stool in the room that they could pull over to the gate to then climb over the gate, so you want to really make their room as safe as possible, and if they get out of the bed, I would ignore it. And if they end up sleeping on the floor, that’s okay, they’ll realize after a day or two that their bed is more comfortable and be back in their bed, but we do really want to make sure that they are safe in their room, first and foremost.
Night feedings and when to drop them
Jessica: So let’s say you’re still nursing, and I remember this with all of my kids is I would just kind of have this excuse, they need the milk, they’re 18 months, it just felt like they still needed that milk in the middle of the night. What do we do? How do we rethink that?
Lauren: So for feedings in the middle of the night, we always want to ask our pediatricians, are feedings medically necessary? We do want to make sure that our children are getting the calories they need within a 24-hour period, so that they’re thriving and growing as they should, so if feedings are medically necessary, then we have to keep doing them however our pediatrician recommends, if however, feedings are no longer medically necessary, and you’re feeding in the middle of the night, really for comfort, then we have to say what is the child missing out on because they’re not getting restorative sleep? We’re interrupting their sleep, and we know that sleep is so important for children’s development, we know they need it for their language development, they need it for their physical development, they needed to master skills like object permanence, and there’s so much that happens when we sleep, it’s when they grow, that they need that sleep, and children actually master skills in their sleep before they do them when they’re awake, and that’s why we often see sleep regressions right before a big developmental leap, so kids will learn the motor skills of how to walk, how to speak, language bursts, they actually figure that out in their sleep before they’re able to do it when they’re awake.
Lauren: So sleep is so critical to their development that we have to say, Well, it’s nice to cuddle with our toddlers in the middle of the night, what are they missing? Because they’re not getting that consecutive restorative sleep through the night that we know is so important for their development.
How to wean night feedings
Jessica: I had a hard time with that, I just… I wanted that connection. You know, I still wanted to hang on to that connection, so I really appreciate kind of you rationalizing that for all of us once we’re… We might want to get more sleep, but we’re still feeling kind of like we want that connection, and then we go back to your advice on how to wean them. How do you wean them from that night feeding? Any specific advice different from what you opened with?
Lauren: So for a nursing mom, it’s tough because it’s an emotional experience for you and for your child, it’s not just a textbook, stop doing this and then they’ll stop wanting it, that’s true. But it’s a lot more loaded than that, so we want to honor our feelings, and to your point, you wanted that cuddle time with your child, and that’s okay. So I always encourage parents to think about what are your goals for yourself as a parent and for your child, and how is what you’re doing supporting your goals? So if you want to continue feeding your child in the middle of the night, that is okay, if that’s your choice as a parent, what’s not okay is if you don’t want to be doing it and you don’t know how to stop. And then we have to think, “Okay, why is this continuing? And what’s the benefit to me stopping?” You can stop really gently, so sometimes it’s having a time of day, you’re going to have… The last time you nurse them generally is right before bed, and you’ll have that time to do that, and then in the middle of the night, you do sometimes have to say “I will cuddle with them, but I’m not going to nurse them”, and it just becomes something that is no longer in your tool box of options, if it’s something that you want to stop doing.
Benefits of pacifiers and when to wean them
Jessica: So helpful. And what about the pacifier? So what if you do want to wean them from a pacifier? How does this work? What’s your feeling on pacifiers and how do you do this? Especially at night.
Lauren: Okay, so I actually love pacifiers. I think they’re such a useful tool, and we do know for babies, they’re actually a helpful tool that help prevent SIDS, the risk of SIDS. So I always recommend offering a pacifier, not every child will take one, and that’s fine, but we do want to offer it. If you have a child who’s over one and they use the pacifier, my suggestion is to limit it, the first step would be to limit it to the crib. The pacifier lives in the crib, it’s a tool for sleeping, when we wake up, the pacifier stays in the crib and we go about our day, and that way your child will learn other self-soothing strategies for wake time, and the pacifier is a tool, self-soothing tool for sleep. So that would be the first step to separate their need from the pacifier all the time. Once it’s limited to sleep time, then we really want to look at the age of our child, what we see, and this is anecdotal, but what we see is that removing a pacifier between about 18 months and three years old can cause a lot of sleep disturbances.
Lauren: So I generally recommend waiting, let your child, if they’re just having it as a tool for sleep and they’re sleeping well, let them have it. Once they’re over three and have a lot more language and can understand a lot more, then you can transition to something else, so some people will take them and say the fairy’s taking them and giving them to other babies who need them, and you always want to substitute a pacifier for something else, so if your child hasn’t yet attached to another sleep object, a small stuffed animal, a lovey, a small blanket, We want to try to replace the pacifier with something else so that they don’t lose all of the tools that they had for self-soothing, so ideally, if you’re planning to take a pacifier away about a month before, introduce something else, so that they have two things for a while, and they have Mr. Monkey, and they have the pacifier, and then once they’ve been attached to Mr. Monkey, it’s easier to give up the pacifier because they have another tool to help themselves soothe in the middle of the night.
Jessica: I could talk to you for hours more, but this episode has been so helpful I think for so many parents.
Lauren: Oh, I’m so glad. I’m so glad.
Jessica: Thank you. It’s been wonderful having you.
Lauren: It’s been great to talk to you. Thanks so much for having me.
Three episode takeaways for parents
A good night’s rest — though hard to believe, there are more of those in your future. Let’s review some of the ways we can move toward that day.
1. Avoid transitioning to a toddler bed too early
Consider waiting until your child requests a “big” bed before moving from a crib to a bed. Kids feel safe in cribs and switching prematurely can disrupt their sleep routine. It takes a tremendous amount of self restraint for children to remain in a place that they can easily leave; often they are not mature enough for this responsibility until they are 3 years old.
2. Offer a personal item to help them feel connected
If you are trying to transition away from a shared bed, try giving your toddler another tool to help them feel connected to you as they fall asleep. Instead of holding onto you, can they hug your t-shirt, or a special pillow?
3. Pacifiers and other self soothing objects for bedtime
Trying to kick a pacifier habit? Try limiting it to the crib or the bed. Explain that it is only for sleep time, and not daytime. If you need to take it away, give them another object for self soothing. Introduce a lovey or a blanket a month or so before removing the pacifier.
You can find more sleep tips on Lovevery’s Blog, Here With You.
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