Sleep training your toddler: Advice, methods and tips

toddler sleeping

by Tabitha Moynagh |

As much as we'd all like to think that sleep problems stop when your tiny baby becomes a strapping toddler, sadly that's not always the case.

Toddler sleep training is an umbrella term for any proactive, consistent steps taken by a parent to help improve their child’s sleep. This does not have to mean leaving a child alone to cry. Sleep training can include staying with your toddler whilst they fall asleep, or it can include leaving the room before they are asleep. It really does cover all routines.

Why can toddlers struggle to stay in bed or fall asleep?

As with everything to do with sleep struggles, there can be many reasons why toddlers struggle to stay in bed and or fall asleep. Reasons might include illness, a change in routine, stressful events (e.g. starting a new nursery), separation anxiety, a new fear, different bed or bedding, hunger, being moved out of the cot too early. In addition, some toddlers struggle to fall asleep or stay in bed due to needing clearer boundaries at bedtime or a more consistent bedtime routine.

Things that can impact toddler sleep

Work through the list below. If you’re confident you’ve addressed everything in the list, you might want to consider using a sleep training method to help improve bedtimes, night wakings and sleep regression.

Sometimes, all that’s needed to improve things is to work through this list and you might not need to sleep train.

Health - Are you sure your toddler is well? Are they ill? Aches and pains? Temperature? Significant teething? Blocked nose? A major growth spurt? If it would impact your sleep negatively, then for sure it could impact your child’s sleep.

Getting the timings right - Sleep timings are regulated by a coupled process; the homeostatic process, which is essentially a build up of sleep pressure during any awake period. Sleep pressure builds more quickly in babies and toddlers, hence why they need naps to get through the day happily.

If sleep pressure isn’t high enough, it makes sleep onset unlikely. Consider this when you’re tempted to either let your young one nap late in the day or you're tempted to put them to bed early. There might not be sufficient sleep pressure for them to fall asleep promptly.

The second process involved in sleep regulation is the sleep-wake circadian rhythm. This is the regular organisation of sleep-wake cycles. Your toddlers sleep circadian clock prepares the body for sleep by releasing melatonin and ensures wakefulness by suppressing melatonin. Toddlers will struggle to sleep if they are being put to bed at a time out of kilter with their circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. For example, perhaps your toddler has grown out of their need for a lunchtime nap. At this point, if they have slept in the day, this will have a negative impact on the sleep pressure needed at bedtime.

Other reasons they might be struggling to sleep:

• Have they eaten enough?

• Did they get enough exposure to daylight in the morning?

• Have they had enough physical exercise/movement?

• Are they experiencing separation anxiety?

• Have they been stimulated and given opportunities in the day to play and interact

• Have they had moments of quiet/down time (important for the brain to calm in order to access sleep)

• Is the bedroom environment appropriate? (cool room, not too many layers, room as dark as possible, quiet room, comfortable bed etc)

• Do you have a consistent, predictable bedtime routine to signal to the brain that sleep is coming? E.g. bath, pjs and teeth, 10 mins of stories/singing, sleeping bag on, lights out, into bed

Have you moved them into a bed too soon? Children younger than three might struggle to understand the requirement to stay in bed. Remember, moving a child out of a cot, into a bed will not solve sleep problems that already exist in the cot.

How to sleep train a toddler

Some children will simply learn to or naturally fall asleep easily and happily in their own bed. (Most likely all of the above needs have been met.) However, many children will need some loving support in learning the life-long skill of going to bed and falling asleep soon afterwards.

Any act of sleep training a toddler is an assumption that you want your child to sleep independently. If you happily co-sleep or are happy to remain completely present and involved with your child’s falling asleep and night time wake-ups, then you absolutely don’t need to sleep train. You might however like to agree with your partner what your boundaries at bedtime are going to be.

E.g. If your toddler objects to it being bedtime, you still follow the routine and don’t give in and delay! If you would like some tools in your parenting tool kit, have a look at some of the options below. Essentially all sleep training requires total consistency with a clear plan on how you will progress until you reach your goal. Sleep training is often more a change of behaviours for the parent than actually controlling what the child does or doesn’t do!

Sleep training a toddler methods

Please note that often sleep training methods are given various names and differ in approach. These methods are evidence-based and are recognised as being effective. It’s helpful to keep a sleep diary throughout so that you can objectively measure progress.

Gradual retreat (suitable for toddlers in a cot or bed)

The starting point is staying with your child until they are asleep. You then gradually remove yourself over time. The key to success is that you never do more than already planned.

For example, if you are sitting in the room and just shushing with your voice, you would only do that and not resort to cuddles/getting into bed with them. Decide on your gradual retreat steps and move to each step once you’ve had 3 consecutive nights of your child falling asleep this way, without objection. E.g.

1) Sit next to the cot/bed and pat until asleep.
2) Sit slightly further from the cot and soothe only with your voice
3) Sit near the door (in sight) and don’t speak!
4) Sit outside the room (out of sight) and soothe with voice.
5) Remain out of sight and don’t use your voice either! Once no objecting to this, you have reached your goal!

Controlled crying (suitable for toddlers in a cot)

You help your child learn to sleep without you being present by gradually exposing them to that situation. Here’s what it looks like: {#h-the-concept-you-help-your-child-learn-to-sleep-without-you-being-present-by-gradually-exposing-them-to-that-situation-here-s-what-it-looks-like}

After your normal bedtime routine, put your little one into bed, say goodnight and leave the room (regardless of their protestations). Wait for two minutes. After two minutes, return to the room briefly and try to use a phrase that you will then be repeating. E.g. “Max, it is time to sleep. Mummy loves you. Night night.”

Next, wait for five minutes before going back into the room and repeating your phrase. Leave the room quickly. Then repeat but with longer intervals. E.g. two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes and then stick with going back in every 15 minutes until your child is asleep.

Rapid return (suitable for toddlers in a bed, ideally you will have a stair-gate on the door)

You stay calm whilst constantly returning your toddler to bed until they eventually fall asleep. They learn that the boundaries at bedtime are that they are expected to stay in bed and go to sleep.

If your child gets out of bed after you’ve said goodnight, use the same timings as for controlled crying. In between the times you go into the room, don’t interact or talk to your child and remain out of sight.

When it’s time for you to go back in after five, 10, 15 minutes etc, go into the room, calmly say your bedtime phrase and walk the child back to bed. Leave the room quickly and don’t worry if they get out of bed straight away. You can stay calm because whatever your child does, you have a plan that you are going to stick to.

At some point, your child will fall asleep. They might fall asleep on the floor (during the period you’re out of the room), in which case, wait until they’re deeply asleep and then lift them back into bed.

Instant return (suitable for toddlers in a bed)

You immediately return your child to their bed if they get out.

This method can be physically exhausting, but is effective. It is simple, after putting your toddler to bed, leave the room and wait out of sight. If they get out of bed and leave the room, calmly repeat your bedtime phrase and walk them back to bed. Leave immediately (even if they get straight out of bed!). As soon as your toddler gets to the door, calmly return them to bed using the same bedtime phrase. Repeat this as many times as you need to until eventually, your toddler falls asleep.

They will become more and more tired and can’t sustain this level of activity every night. The great thing about this method is you are immediately responding to your child and it allows you to remain completely calm and neutral, but gives you a simple plan to follow. Perhaps try this method before Rapid return.

You can find more about the different sleep training methods, including the Ferber method and pick up, put down method with our guide to sleep training methods here.

Sleep training your toddler tips

With any sleep training or indeed bringing in new boundaries, use role play/toys to ‘act out’ the scenarios. This helps your toddler grasp the new concepts and normalises them! You can make these times silly and fun!

Make sure you praise what the toddler can control, not what they can’t. E.g. not “You fell asleep SO quickly last night!”, but instead “I’m so proud of you because you stayed in your bed last night and you didn’t get out once!”

When deciding on what method to take (if at all), think about what your child’s needs are at the moment and therefore what the most appropriate course of action is. What sits comfortably with your overall parenting style and family values? Do what’s right for your child and you. Feel free in your choice!

When finding it hard to hear your toddler cry at bedtime, think about what they’re communicating. Are they expressing anger about a change in something they didn’t ask for? Is it over tiredness? Is it fear? Is it a need for a hug? Is it frustration/confusion? It can be tempting to react simply on the basis of wanting to stop the crying (by giving the toddler what they want).

Sometimes giving them what they want will be the right thing to do e.g. crying because of teething, the right thing would be to comfort and give Calpol. But sometimes, the right thing to do will be to hold your boundary rather than change the situation. For example, if they are crying out of anger because you have put them to bed and they wanted to keep playing or because you’re doing something differently, you would hold your boundary!

E.g. “I know you wanted to keep playing. But it is time for bed now. You can play with the tractor in the morning.” Or “I know you want Mummy to lie in bed with you. I’m not going to do that. But I am going to sit right next to the bed.”

Not all toddlers understand or benefit from clocks like The Gro-Clock. Sometimes the concept of staying in bed until a certain thing happens can be confusing. A simple alternative is using a lamp on a timer switch. When it’s nighttime (time to be in bed and quiet), it is dark. When the lamp (light) is on, they know they are allowed to get out of bed and start the day.

With early risers, you can use the timer to gradually help them learn to stay in bed quietly. Start with the lamp set to come on a little earlier than they already wake up and give them ridiculous amounts of praise when you come into the room saying “You stayed in bed so quietly until morning!”. After a few mornings of this, shift the timer by five or 10-minute increments every few mornings. You ought to see your toddler get better and better at understanding the dark room means staying in bed, and over time, they might learn to go back to sleep after their early waking.

Remember - consistency is key!

Toddler sleep safety tips

• Move your toddler to a bed if they'll soon be able to climb over the rails of their cot.

• Place a mattress or cushions next to your toddler's bed in case they accidentally roll out of bed and hit the floor.

• Remove any hazards like mobiles or decorations with strings to avoid these getting caught around your toddlers neck.

• Don't leave cuddly toys in your child's cot as they may try and use these to climb out.

• Make sure their cot is away from any curtains or blinds, cables or cords that could become a strangulation risk.

Meet the expert

Tabitha Moynagh is an Infant Sleep Practitioner at The Family Sleep Practice. She is passionate about helping people achieve better sleep for their families. Tabitha's training includes EDS Advanced Paediatric Sleep Practitioner Training EDS Paediatric Sleep, training course 'Sleep Right' training CBTi (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia, CBTIWeb) Post Graduate Certificate of Education in Early Years (PGCE) Early Years Professional Status (EYPS). She also has three children of her own who are all very different sleepers!

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us