Toddlers and sleep: why sleep training is so much harder when you enter the toddler years
We’ve seen it often; the wishful thinking that once a child hits a certain age, or surpasses a particular milestone, their sleep will “sort itself out”.
As if by magic. Unfortunately that tends to be exactly what this is… wishful thinking.
Instead, what these parents are often left with is a resolute toddler who is set in their ways; ways that often no longer serve you or support their need for a restorative, quality sleep.
We get asked often about the unique challenges that come with trying to establish healthy sleep habits for toddlers and while it can be a challenging task, it’s not a completely lost cause. Here’s what is important to understand when it comes to tackling toddler sleep.
Toddlers are strong-willed and stubborn
Despite individual temperaments, babies are – overall – relatively adaptable. Shifting a toddler on something that they have dug their heels in about, on the other hand, can be like trying to turn the Titanic.
Toddlers are inherently stubborn and strong-willed – and that’s normal. There are so many developmental changes going on for them at this point.
Not only are they still exploring their world, they’re also realising that they’re their own person and are excited to experiment with their newfound independence.
All of this means that sleep training a toddler presents completely new and unique challenges that are not present in babies. It also means the process is going to take some resolve on your part.
You need to be prepared to completely out-last your toddler and be more strong-willed in this exercise than they are. That is no small feat!
Toddlers lack impulse control
Another complicating, but completely normal, developmental element is that toddlers simply don’t yet have impulse control.
Put simply, impulse control refers to the ability to control oneself, especially one’s emotions and desires – we’ve all seen that in our little people. However, too often we fall into the trap of expecting them to behave beyond their years – effectively as pint-sized adults.
The result is that situations become more stressful for both the toddler and their parents!
I see this play out often with the move from a cot to a big bed.
We expect them to have impulse control here and behave how they’re expected too, because “isn’t this fun?”
But we commonly ignore the fact that we could be rushing the milestone. It’s unlikely that you’d expect your baby to walk before they could sit up or stand on their own – nor would we force it.
However, once your toddler starts conversing with you in full sentences (or at least decipherable words) and is starting to do things for themselves, it’s tempting to think that all the behaviours you need are immediately unlocked.
It doesn’t quite work that way… It’s worth looking at whether you are expecting more from your littlie than they are ready for.
Parents can be remarkably inconsistent
The challenges that parents face aren’t all about what your toddler is doing however.
They also include how you’re responding.
Despite thinking we are an immovable rock, due to the strong-willed nature of our toddlers, parents don’t tend to be as consistent at this stage. It’s incredibly difficult to say no or to ignore a toddler who can verbally beg for stories, cuddles, or extra drinks.
Especially when you might be feeling extra tired by the end of the day. Here it’s tempting to take the path of least resistance and acquiesce in this instance to avoid the power struggle.
Unfortunately, you can’t get anything past those smart cookies of yours. They’re looking for any break in your resolve.
Toddlers latch onto inconsistencies, which makes any changes you’re working to implement even more challenging.
Most of us probably know this instinctively, however numerous studies have also shown that a parent’s behaviour at bedtime (thankfully one of the variable factors you can actually control) is one of the most significant influences on sleep outcomes for children.
Challenges with consequences and boundaries
Boundaries may seem like a bad word, but the experts confirm that how a parent approaches boundaries has an enormous impact on a child’s self-esteem.
We all know it’s common (and normal/natural) for toddlers to test boundaries – which is an important part of them learning what’s acceptable and what is not. Toddlers who have no boundaries are uncertain of what is expected of them at a given time.
Toddlers are virtually wired to continuously look for boundaries too, and they will push, push, push until they find one.
Life is typically better for everyone if you can establish firm but fair boundaries around acceptable behaviour for all aspects of toddler life; from bedtime to meals and how they behave at playgroup.
Compounding the challenge at this age and stage is that behaviour is very difficult to change when there are no natural consequences for toddlers when they step beyond the bounds of what’s acceptable.
Natural consequences are not the same as punishments. If you get out of bed at bedtime, you are silently returned. If you scream loudly, the door will be shut. These are examples of natural consequences.
It’s possible to work with both consequences and boundaries in a way that aligns with your parenting style. Far from being authoritarian, consistent and natural is actually the most gentle form of parenting.
You will know the temperament of the little person that you are dealing with, but toddlers are very rarely to be underestimated.
That said, don’t be put off doing the work to establish healthy sleep habits. There may be additional challenges to tackling sleep while your child is younger, but they are not surmountable.
With some level of resolve, and the right tools in your toolkit, it’s possible to support your child in getting the restorative, quality sleep that their growing brain and body needs.
Learn more about toddler sleep strategies and get started with the only online sleep program complete with FREE email support from a team of certified sleep consultants.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital Sleep Educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
Read more about toddler sleep challenges