Sweet Dreams: Overcoming Sleep Challenges with Infants and Toddlers

Learn how to get through some of the most common sleep issues with young children

Figuring out how to get your child the rest they need is one of the most common issues parents face. It’s confusing, frustrating, and exhausting for everyone involved. Children are growing and developing so rapidly in the first few years of life that their sleep cycles often change just as quickly.

Newborns normally sleep a lot (8 – 16 hours per day) but have an unpredictable schedule. They aren’t aware of the concepts of day and night yet, which means they sleep whenever they feel like it.

Around six months old, most babies can sleep through the night, although they may need a little coaching to fall back asleep on their own when they do wake up.

From 1 to 3 years old, most children are sleeping through the night and taking a couple of naps a day. As they get older, you can play with nap lengths and time to best suit your child and your schedule.

Throughout those three years, however, there are a variety of sleep issues you may run into. Of course, these will vary in severity and length depending on your child. Let’s explore some of the most common and how to address them.

Baby won’t sleep unless held

The baby falls asleep in your arms without a problem, but the moment you put the baby down, they start fussing and crying. You pick them up, and they calm right down again. You wonder how you’ll ever be able to live life without having a baby in your arms.

This issue normally happens in newborns, so it’s important to remember that this will pass eventually. Babies simply don’t know how to be independent sleepers yet and calm themselves down. They are used to being in the womb, so feeling your warmth and hearing your voice is the most comforting thing in the world. Swaddling is a common tactic to overcome this. The tight wrapping helps transition children to sleeping away from you while still feeling that close comfort.

Newborn waking up older child(ren)

Having an older child can make bringing home a newborn difficult, especially when it comes to sleep. When the baby cries at night, it can often wake up the older child and create even more stress.

Making extra noise for your other child can help drown out the crying from the baby. A white noise machine or even a fan will do the trick. If your older child still wakes up, be proactive and briefly check in on them. Pop your head in the door and let them know everything is OK and to go back to sleep. Try to avoid making a bigger deal of the situation by going into their room, turning on the light, and engaging them in conversation. This will only wake them up further and give you less of a chance of getting them back to sleep.

It’s also important, to be honest with your older child about what’s going on. Even though they might not fully grasp the circumstances, they can start to understand why they’re being woken up at night. Explain that their sibling is learning to sleep just like they do and that it will be back to normal soon.

Moving baby into their own room

Parents differ widely on when they decide to move children into their own rooms. Some co-sleep or keep the baby’s crib in their room for over a year, and others move the baby to their own room after a few months.

This transition depends on the parents’ comfort level and development phase of the child. It’s often recommended to keep the child in the parent’s room for at least four months to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If the child is sleeping through the night for at least six hours, they are probably ready for their own room.

Before you do so, introduce the baby to the new room in small doses by having them take naps and play there for short amounts of time during the day. This will tell the baby that the space is safe. It’s OK if they aren’t able to sleep there overnight right away. Stay consistent, and take it slowly. It may take several months to make the transition.

Baby starts protesting bedtime

Maybe bedtime has been going smoothly for several months, and then all of a sudden around the 8 to 10-month mark, your baby starts fussing and crying when you try to put them down at night. At this age, babies are starting to understand that just because you aren’t in the room, doesn’t mean you aren’t there. They still want to be around you, and they know that crying can bring you back to them.

Solving this issue may take some experimenting. Try leaving the baby to soothe themselves back to sleep. This is important for them to learn anyways, and they might take to it quickly. If the baby is still fussing after about 30 minutes, check in with them briefly. Don’t stay in their room or pick them up. Just let them know you’re there, and it’s time to go to bed. You may need to do this several times a night at first and then do it less often until you don’t have to check-in at all.

Child sleeps well at child care but not at home

Children may nap well at child care but have trouble sleeping at home. This is usually due to a difference in the environment. Child care providers enforce stricter sleep rules because they have a bigger group of children. Children learn to follow these rules pretty quickly in a structured space. At home, the rules might not be as strict, or they are simply excited to see you after some time away.

As with everything else, the key is consistency. Doing something different night after night will confuse your child and drag the situation out longer. Create time to wind down before bed with reading or low-key play, so they know it’s time to relax.

If you’re still having trouble, talk to the child care provider. Learn what their nap time routine is and try to recreate it at home.

Toddler sleep regression

The infamous sleep regression is a phase where a toddler who normally sleeps well starts protesting bedtime or waking up frequently. This usually happens around 12 – 18 months when the brain and body are going through a tremendous amount of change.

This can be very discouraging for parents, especially after months of successful sleeping. But staying consistent will get you through this phase. Changing your bedtime routine is only adding to the changes your toddler is experiencing. Quiet things down before bedtime and try not to be too involved when checking in on them at night. This too shall pass.

Building good sleep habits

Some other sleeping tricks include using a stuffed animal or “sleeping buddy,” installing a night light, keeping your child awake during the day, making their room cool and comfortable, and limiting food and drink a couple of hours before bed.

Remember, this is all temporary. Having a bedtime routine is the key to success. It may not seem like it’s working some nights, but eventually, your baby will work through these challenges and sleep normally.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.


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