By 18 months, some children have mastered the art of sleeping through the night, while others haven’t-they may wake up once or several times, unable to fall off again on their own. And even a child who seemed to be on a perfect schedule may begin to have nightmares and other sleep disturbances at this age. Then there’s naptime, which might be in flux, as toddler take a few weeks or even a few months to make the transition from two naps to one. All of this can leave parents exhausted by the irregular schedule and worried about whether their child is getting enough shut-eye.
Sleep is such a big issue for most families that the bookstore shelves are lined with titles touting a wide variety of competing advice. Some authors exhort you to let your baby “cry it out,” while others espouse “no-cry” solutions. Happily, the experts we spoke with assured us that there are simple measures that work for all children.
What’s right for you
Every parent has his or her own lifestyle and needs. Some require set schedules, for example, and others may not mind a child’s night waking. And each child is unique, with one thriving on routines and another being a free spirit who can nod off to anywhere.
“The question isn’t whether or not your child is sleeping through the night-it’s how you feel about it. You’ve got to decide if you have a problem before you try to fix anything,” says Dr. Vincent Iannelli, a Dallas-area pediatrician who is the editor of The Everything Getting Your Baby to Sleep Book.
When night waking or an irregular nap pattern is a problem-if your child is typically fussy or unfocused during the day, or if the rest of your family is doing a lot of yawning-you should address the matter before she reaches her second birthday and becomes more set in her ways.
“Some parents believe if they never really tackle the problem, it’s going to go away on its own. But it’s not,” says Iannelli, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “At some point,” he says, “you simply have to intervene.”
So how do you teach a toddler to be a good sleeper? Here are some guidelines recommended by Jodi A. Mindell, a professor of psychology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the author of Sleeping through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
Devise a schedule. Have a sleep routine: Bedtime, wake-up hour and naptime should each take place at the same point every day. “That will set a child’s internal clock and let him be sleepy at sleep times,” Mindell says. She warns that setting bedtimes too late can have a negative effect: “If you wait too long, you’re going to have an overtired toddler who’s going to have a hard time falling asleep, who’s going to awaken during the night and who may get up too early in the morning. So you want to set a bedtime that’s early enough.”
Be consistent. You and your child need a reliable going-to-sleep ritual. “With a toddler, that means a few activities that are the same every single time,” explains Mindell. At night they can be as ordinary as having a bath, being read to, then being tucked in. Mindell tells parents to tailor their approach to the individual child. “If your 18-month-old can’t sit still while you’re reading him a book, move reading to the morning and do something else at night,” she advises.
Set boundaries. Get used to setting limits and enforcing them, so the bedside activities don’t stretch on forever. “Two books is two books; one drink of water is one drink of water,” says Mindell.
Let her soothe herself. Finally, your child must learn to fall asleep on her own-both when she’s put down and if she awakens during the night. Sound simple? Sometimes it’s not, say the experts. In fact, it’s a critical piece of the puzzle. “Many toddlers are still being nursed or rocked to sleep. Or maybe Mommy’s lying down with them,” Mindell says.
The 18-month-old who relies on something or someone to help him drop off at bedtime has a hard time sleeping through the night, Mindell notes; this occurs because the child becomes distressed when he wakes up and that thing or person isn’t there.
Parents may then decide to solve the problem by placing a pacifier in the crib, hoping it will enable their child to comfort himself. However, doing this will likely prolong the struggle by substituting on external sleep aid for another.
“At this age, children have to be weaned from outside assistance,” Innelli says.
Be mindful of change
Under certain circumstances, it’s not a question of changing a child’s habits. Rather, something unfamiliar is introduced into your child’s life, and it throws all the good sleep patterns you’ve taught him into disarray. Suddenly, the dark hours are unpredictable once again. A move to a new house can upset routines, for example, as may the arrival of a new baby.
Wendy Gendel, a cable-television marketing director in New York City, reports that when she brought her newborn daughter home from the hospital, her older child, Jared, who was approaching the 18-month mark went from being a model sleeper to waking during the night and taking refuge in Mommy and Daddy’s bed.
When there’s a new little one expected, Mindell advises, parents should make sure there is continuity in the older child’s life. “Infants are flexible,” she says, “but most 18-month-olds are highly sensitive to changes in their schedule.”
In fact, when parents anticipate a big transformation of any kind, they should try to ensure that their toddler’s routine remains relatively consistent. If it has to be disrupted, they should restore it as soon as possible. Be patient, Mindell adds: “It may take a week or two to put an 18-month-old back on schedule, but it’s worth it.”
And stay optimistic. At this age, children respond well when parents fine-tune their sleep skills. Accomplish this task lovingly but firmly, and the whole family will benefit from the extra rest.