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Sleep Considerations for Babies & Toddlers: The Basics

Updated: Jun 29

Sleep.  Such a welcome and yet dreaded word.  How does one five letter word have the potential to trigger such stress and anxiety?!  When you’re not getting any sleep, it can be exhausting just thinking about naptime and bedtime and all that may or may not occur.  


There are several things to consider when pondering your current sleep circumstances that may help you see the world through your child’s eyes and support a more calm and inviting sleep atmosphere. 


Consider the Physical Environment

Does it invite sleep?

  • Is the room relatively dark? 

    • Darkness stimulates the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps promote sleep. 

  • Is the room tidy? 

    • A chaotic sleep space can cause older babies and toddlers to feel overwhelmed and distracted when it’s time to settle in to sleep.

  • Does the room encourage play?

    • Too much light and lots of exciting toys can stimulate playful behavior. 

  • Is the sleep space quiet?

    • Consider your own sleep needs. On a typical day is it easy or difficult for you to fall asleep when there is lots of distracting noise or voices talking? Quiet rooms invite sleep. 

  • Is the space safe for sleep? 

    • For current AAP safe sleep guidelines for babies click here


Is the temperature comfortable?

  • Is the sleep space too cold or too warm? Babies are most comfortable sleeping in a room between 68 and 72 degrees

  • Does that room have some air circulation?


Does your child have comfortable clothing & bedding?

  • Are your child’s sleep clothes too warm or too cold? Too tight or scratchy? 


Consider the Emotional Environment

Are YOU calm and relaxed?

  • Children pick up on our energy and tone of voice.

  • Does bedtime come across as a punishment or a gift?

Parent-Child Togetherness

  • Has there been quality time to connect during the day?

Emotional Acceptance

  • Have the child's emotions been welcomed & acknowledged? If crying (relieving stress) is continually shut down during the day, children may feel the need to release those emotions in the night. 



Key Elements to a Bedtime Routine

  • Unhurried

  • Predictable

  • Manageable: not too many steps

  • Consistent: happens every time

  • Calm

  • Quiet

  • Dim lighting

  • Prepares child's mind and body for settling in to sleep


What happens in the hour leading up to bedtime is just as important as the actual bedtime routine. This is the time to start winding down. Are the lights low? Are voices calm, quiet and slow? Does the room and your attitude encourage settling in for sleep soon?


Infant & Toddler Sleep: Did you know??

What happens during the day impacts what happens in the night. Does your child have:

  • Fresh outdoor time and active play?

  • Independent play time?

  • Quality time with their parent/s?

  • Good nutrition offered at meals & snacks?

  • A predictable daily routine?


Screen time can have a negative impact on sleep. Consider cutting back or cutting out screen time if your child struggles with sleep.


Earlier bedtime encourages longer sleep and less night-waking in some children.


Development, illness, travel, change in routine, new baby, teething etc. all can have an impact on sleep.


Nap Tips

Hold space for naps.  Sometimes you might get the impression that your toddler no longer needs naps because they go several days without falling asleep.  Don’t give up.  Chances are they are working through some development and will resume their typical nap pattern again soon.  Keep up the routine and watch what happens over time. 


Most toddlers still need that mid-day nap and aren’t ready to go the whole day without a rest.  There are so many exciting things to do during the day that sometimes toddlers can trick us into thinking they no longer need naps when in fact they still do. Stick to your calm and predictable naptime routine whether or not your child takes advantage of the opportunity to rest. 


Good nap routines similar to the bedtime routine but with a few less steps.  This signals to your child that it’s time to settle in for a rest. 


Example of a bedtime routine vs. a nap routine

Bedtime Routine

Naptime Routine

Bath

Diaper & jammies/sleepsack (if applicable) 

Brush teeth

Bedtime story

Nurse or bottle/ talk about child’s day 

Sing songs

Lay in crib


Diaper & sleep sack (if applicable)

Nurse or bottle/ talk about child’s day

Sing songs

Lay in crib

Avoid car & stroller naps if possible- quality sleep happens when the child is lying flat (think about the difference in how you feel after waking from a car nap vs. your bed)


Have a sleep phrase that you say every time you lay your child into bed to cue that it's time to rest.


  • Example: “I’m going to lay you in your crib now so you can rest, then I will go into the other room. I’ll be near if you need me. Have a good rest my love.”


What if your Current Situation Isn’t Working?

Don’t be afraid to change elements of your infant/ toddler’s sleep routine or environment if things aren’t working.  "Habits are formed over time and habits can be changed over time" (Eileen Henry, The Compassionate Sleep Solution...)


Be intentional and plan for the change in advance. Commit to the plan.  It might help to write it out so you know exactly what the new routine will look like, sound like and feel like. 


Have a "one last night".  Eileen Henry, from The Compassionate Sleep Solution, recommends the idea of a “one last night” where you tell your child that the old way is not working anymore and tonight will be the last night doing the old way and tomorrow you will start doing ______ instead. 


Tell your child what to expect (no matter how young they are).  Talk it through multiple times when you are both calm and relaxed. You might consider acting it out and showing them the new way. 

Expect there to be tears as you both get used to the new way.  


Expect there to be a learning curve.  Things might get harder before they get better.  Keep going.  Give your child time to get used to the new normal. 


 

Newborns have their own unique joys and challenges when it comes to sleep.  For young babies, focusing on learning their sleep cues and bringing awareness to their cues is a great start in helping them learn to recognize that the tired feelings in their bodies indicate a need for rest.  Ex: “It looks like your body is slowing down and you’re rubbing your eyes.  I think your body is tired and ready to rest.  I’ll _____ so you can sleep now”.  Keep watch for a post dedicated to newborn sleep. 

As always, if you’re struggling with sleep, we can help!  Need help reworking your sleep routines or environment?  Maybe the thought of night weaning has got you down? Looking for empathetic support and encouragement as you navigate the ever-changing road that is infant/toddler sleep?  We are here for you, to be a listening ear, offer gentle guidance and celebrate your successes.  Connect with Niki today at beholdingbaby.com


Henry, E. (2016). The Compassionate Sleep Solution. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform .




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