What Happens When You Need to Sleep Train a Toddler (Again)? Experts Reveal Their Top Tips

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You’ve likely read everything out there about how to cry it out or not, how to “gently” sleep train a baby (or not), and every other tip involving getting a new baby, even up to a one-year-old, to sleep. But what happens with your toddler, not your baby, won’t go down, won’t stay down, or is waking up at 4 a.m. ready to roll for the day? Alison Macklin, Certified Child Sleep Consultant at Good Night Sleep, says that there is much fewer information available to parents on this topic, compared to the plethora of advice you’d find about baby sleep. And, there’s a very specific reason for that.

“It really isn’t cookie cutter — it really isn’t a one-size-fits- all situation,” she says. In fact, in her webinar on the topic where she teaches parents about toddler sleep, she points out just how individualized your plan might need to be. 

The good news? She, and other experts here, have some suggestions. The bad news? They won’t work for everyone, and different pieces of each tip might work for your specific toddler. As all parents know, toddlers are unique mystical creatures, of course, who don’t necessarily care about your brilliant strategies and intentions. But let’s give it a go.

The Daytime to Nighttime Connection

Night waking. Poor appetite. Hyperactivity. Separation anxiety. Moodiness. These are just a few of the behaviors on Macklin’s list of issues toddlers might experience when they are in sleep debt. So, there’s a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario, in which better sleep would lead to improved daytimes, and vice versa. But, she adds, it’s not your fault — there’s no user manual when you leave the hospital for toddler sleep practices.

“Parenting is a very emotional job,” she adds, validating that getting support when your toddler is struggling with sleep is key. So, she breaks down the issue of toddler sleep into three main areas:

  • Optimal sleep environment
  • The right bedtime
  • Emotional support

She calls out toddlers’ needs for emotional support, especially, as they work through those “terrible twos” and “threenager’ moments. “I find parents expect way too much from a communication perspective from their child,” Macklin says. So, in addition to sleep, try to ensure you are supporting and connecting with your toddler through the day, she adds.

By learning more about the connection between your toddler’s daytimes and nighttimes, you will be able to “hack” daytime practices to better equip them to sleep well. For example, just like adults, kids sleep better when they’ve burnt up that energy. 

“It’s very important to create an environment conducive to sleep, making sure the child gets plenty of exercise during the day, avoiding electronic devices as well as highly stimulating activities during bedtime,” Dr. Steven Abelowitz, MD FAAP Founder and Medical Director of Coastal Kids Pediatrics and Medical Director of Pediatric Associates. So, while night time training matters, take a look at their daytimes as well. 

The Right Time to Sleep Train a Toddler

The good news is that it isn’t “too late” to sleep-train a child at any age, according to Abelowitz. But, just be ready for it to take a bit longer with an older child, he adds. “Ideally the earlier the better, for a young child it is best to start sleep training as young as 4-6 months of age. From my perspective, 6 months is the ideal age to start sleep training.”

As with most parenting topics, there isn’t a perfect, must-try scenario or mysterious age you must know about, but rather phases that differ based on your particular kid, and different strategies that work for your child better than others.

”Don’t worry about missing a magic window — every child develops at their own pace, and there’s always room for positive change,” adds Dr. Daniel Ganjian, board-certified pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “Factors like temperament, separation anxiety, and recent life changes can also play a role.”

He says that you might want to expect it to take 2-4 weeks to sleep train a toddler, with some “ups and downs” through the journey.

How to Sleep Train a Toddler

Luckily, dusting off that old knowledge of how to sleep train a baby, whether you actually used it or not, can be helpful for toddlers too. There are a wide range of sleep training philosophies for kids, and they are all hotly debated on social media and in parenting groups, but typically the same three or so come up in pediatricians offices, and have the most research. They also might go by different names or variations. They include, according to Abelowitz, from the top few “gentler” techniques to a few that are a bit more strict and less gentle.

The “Pick Up Put Down” method: As you can imagine, this involves picking up your baby to comfort them, and putting them back in the bed at increments. Originally devised by author Tracy Hogg, it calls for patients and some time to keep visiting the baby as they sleep train. However, some say it works much better with babies than toddlers.

The Chair Method: Got a comfy chair in your kid’s room? You’re going to need it for this method. The Chair Method, also called “camping out” involves waiting with your child for them to fall asleep. There are others who say this approach might take a bit longer than other approaches. Some kids might be overstimulated by having a parent constantly present, while others are able to stay calm because of it. Ganjian adds with this method you gradually decrease your presence in the room over time.

The Fading Method: Detective style parents, unite. Here’s where you do some investigating to figure out your own child’s signs of sleepiness, whether it’s yawning, rubbing their eyes, or maybe even getting really grouchy like toddlers do in the evening. “The premise behind this method is that if the baby isn’t ready to drift off to sleep they’ll likely resist being put down for bedtime,” Abelowitz adds.

The Ferber Method: While Abelowitz calls it a somewhat less gentle method, this option involves letting your kid cry and fuss about bedtime, but checking in on the baby or toddler at intervals. “These timelines progressively increase between each check in and on successive nights the time between the check ins are lengthened.”

Cry it out: Finally, the most controversial and “one of the less gentle methods” is leaving your kid in their bed regardless of their reaction. This might only work in a secured space, such as a crib they can’t climb out of, and can be a bit tougher with toddlers. But of course, some say it works more quickly than a “gentle” method.

It might take a few tries to figure out which feels right for you and your toddler.

The Perfect Sleep Environment

How cozy is your toddler? Macklin says in her webinar that you can focus on an “optimal” sleep environment to help them fall and stay asleep. This might include:

In addition, winding down with optimal sleep hygiene is essential, both pediatricians pointed out. “Avoid screens and stimulating activities before bed,” Ganjian says, instead opting for toddler massage, warm baths, stories, and a consistent wind down routine.

Just how much sleep a toddler needs

Mackin says that 12 hours per night, if they are getting appropriate naptime sleep, is perfect for toddlers. She thinks the sweet spot for toddlers is 6:30 p.m. for bedtime, but daytime nap needs might vary from 3 hours as younger babies, up through just 15-30 minute naps for 4-5 year olds. She also points out that daytime isn’t as restorative as night sleep, and that consistency is key. “It has to be an everyday thing in order to start to see the benefits,” with a minimum of two weeks to see those perks of consistent sleep. 

If you aren’t sure how much your toddler should be sleeping, reach out to their pediatrician. Some families can also benefit from a sleep consultant who is well-trained in helping parents through toddler sleep training.

A Word of Encouragement

Sleep training can feel daunting, especially if you’ve developed an idea that you “missed the boat” in some way. But, if you look at it as a part of a lifelong endeavor to help your kids towards better health more generally, it can seem more of a journey than something to check off a list.

 “Focus on improving overall sleep habits, not just nighttime sleep. Consistent nap schedules and healthy daytime routines can significantly impact nighttime sleep quality,” Ganjian says. “Remember, the goal is to help your child develop healthy sleep habits that benefit them for years to come. Celebrate progress, be patient, and enjoy the journey.”

  • Macklin, Alison. Author interview. January 2024.

  • Abelowitz, Steven. Author interview. January 2024.

  • Ganjian, Daniel. Author interview. January 2024.

Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice.  She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.

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