Having trouble getting your toddler down to sleep? Here are some ideas for making the bedtime experience less stressful.

“Go to sleep!”

What parent hasn’t uttered those words? But where exactly is the land of sleep? For some toddlers it takes a lot more than the sandman to help them find the way. The average toddler, defined as 18 months up to age three, requires about 12-14 hours of sleep each day, although some get by on much less. Most toddlers start with two naps, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. By age 2.5 most have given up the morning nap.

 Rafael Pelayo, Director of Pediatric Sleep Service at the University of Stanford. “Toddlers physically grow during sleep. Studies show that a human’s growth hormone is the highest in the night.” In fact, by 30 months toddlers have gained about four times their birth weight, grown an average 2 to 2.5 inches per year and acquired most of their baby teeth.

Of course, the trick is how to get busy toddlers to slow down long enough to sleep before they go ballistic or get whiny. Dr. Pelayo says the secret is in the scheduling. “If you think about it, infants get to eat and sleep whenever they want, therefore their sleeping patterns are random. Feeding schedules, social schedules and light (daytime/nighttime) are what regulate our sleep patterns. When those things are consistent in a toddler’s life, so are his sleep time habits. This is why on Saturdays conditioned children don’t sleep in.” Parents attempting to alter a previous schedule due to a change in preschools, family commitments or even daylight savings need to give toddlers a chance to adjust. “Give it five days to a week before you decide how it’s working,” says Pelayo. “It takes that long for a toddler to adjust to the new schedule.”

Another important element to consider when coaxing a restless child is the sleep environment. Dr. Pelayo believes that children as well as adults require serenity. “You must feel safe in order to sleep…It means everything is okay, and there is nothing to fear.” Also, you might want to instill the habit of reading to your child for 20 minutes to help them to calm down and realize naptime is coming. It’s never to early to start your child on a habit of daily reading- if you model this behavior they will “catch” it and continue on their own once they can read for themselves. Start early and establish Asset #25: Reading for Pleasure as a part of your child’s daily routine.

Unfortunately, even with a cozy bed, several nightlights, the routine of reading and a full night sleep, some toddlers are still waking up exhausted. According to Dr. Pelayo, children should wake up refreshed. If that’s not happening, there may be a bigger problem. Some children suffer from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during the sleep cycle. Others struggle due to enlarged tonsils. Both of these issues inhibit sleep, causing the child to arise exhausted. The family pediatrician needs to be notified of any problems with sleep, including snoring.

Remember, though there are times when sleep issues don’t stem from the toddler but from family expectations. Parents who are overworked or who face job changes may need the child to sleep so they themselves can get some rest, but children will sleep when they are tired, not when the parent is tired.

In order for your child to reach the “Land of Nod,” try these techniques:

  • Keep meals, snacks and playtime hours consistent.
  • Avoid sugary or caffeinated products before bedtime.
  • Start bedtime routines like teeth brushing, and sips of water earlier to avoid rushing, which is counterproductive to winding down.
  • Create a calm environment before bedtime. Dim lights. Turn off the television or loud music.
  • Establish Asset #25: Reading for Pleasure for a minimum of 20 minutes before any nap of scheduled sleep to help your child relax and realize that bedtime is coming.
  • Make sure your child is properly dressed for the season: cool for the summer, warm for winter nights.
  • Allow your child to look under the bed and in the closets to be assured of a safe room that is monster-free.
  • Offer a back or head rub.