The Second Year: Sleeping

No toddler looks forward to going to sleep. After all, it means missing out on the action, separating from you, and facing the nighttime on his own. If you let him, your youngster will probably spend the entire evening putting off bedtime. He'll use any trick he can think of to keep you with him. As he becomes more verbal, his requests and delaying tactics will become more contrived and elaborate. And once he becomes bigger and stronger, he may even climb out of his crib and come to get you himself.

It's sometimes tempting just to give up and let your child "fall asleep in his tracks" when he's overcome by exhaustion. But that will only make the problem worse. Instead, watch the clock to see when he shows signs of sleepiness, and then make that his regular bedtime. Devise a quiet bedtime ritual and discuss it with your toddler. Whether you include a bath, story or song, the routine should end with him quiet but awake, in his crib, ready for your goodnight kiss before you leave the room. If he cries continuously, teach him to fall asleep on his own.

Unfortunately, resistance at bedtime isn't the only sleep struggle you'll have with your youngster. You can never depend on your child to sleep through the night, at least not in these early years. He may go for a few days, weeks or even months sleeping like an angel, then begin waking up almost as frequently as a newborn.

A change in routine is a common cause of nighttime awakening. Changing rooms or beds, losing a favorite cuddly toy or blanket, or taking a trip away from home may all disrupt his sleep. If he's ill or cutting a tooth, he might wake up more often. Also, between 12 and 14 months he'll begin actively dreaming, which can startle or frighten him awake. These are all valid reasons for him to wake up but not for you to pick him up or bring him to your room. He needs to put himself back to sleep, even if it means crying a bit first.

If your toddler is used to getting lots of nighttime attention, you'll need to retrain him gradually. Let's say you've been giving him milk when he wakes up. It's time to change first to diluted milk or water, and then to stop it entirely. If you've been turning on the light and playing with him, try to soothe him in the dark instead. If you've been picking him up, restrict yourself to calming him with only your voice from a distance. Above all, don't get angry with him if he continues to protest. You'll need to show him some compassion, even as you remain firm. It's not easy, but in the long run it will improve your sleep as well as his.

Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics