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Dealing with Your Toddler's Sleep Disturbances

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Many bedtime routines can be applied to naptime. But going to sleep when the sun is shining is different from going to sleep at night. You can give your child a naptime sleeping bag that she can plop down on the couch, on your bed, or even on the floor when it's naptime. If you try to make naptime a special time for your child, she may even lie down willingly.

All toddlers wake up in the middle of the night. Those who aren't disturbed by something (cold, hunger or thirst, a soiled diaper, fears of being alone, of being in the dark, nighttime noises, nothing to suck, and so on) simply drift back to sleep. But if something disturbs your infant, she will cry out.

So don't blame your child for waking you in the night. Your toddler is not doing it to get your attention (although she does want you to attend to whatever is wrong) or to drive you crazy. And she won't stop doing it just because you decide to ignore her midnight cries. (This strategy will actually make things worse.) Your toddler simply cannot help it. It's not a question of discipline; it's a question of disturbance. So if your child's cries wake you in the middle of the night, try not to take your anger and frustration out on her. Instead, figure out what's disturbing your toddler and try to correct it. In all likelihood, all she needs is a small dose of reassurance.

If something (perhaps hunger or a soiled diaper) bothers your child in the middle of the night only once in a blue moon, you can deal with the cause of the disturbance when it occurs. But if a particular disturbance becomes a pattern, waking your toddler several nights in a row or even several nights in the same week, then you'll do better to try taking some preemptive action. If your toddler regularly wakes due to:

  • Cold Try putting a blanket over her after she falls asleep.
  • Hunger Feed her dinner earlier, rather than just before bedtime, when she may be too tired to eat well. Then offer her a snack or a bottle before bed.
  • Thirst Encourage her to drink as much as she wants right before bed. If she wakes in the middle of the night anyway, offer her a bottle of water (because juice, milk, or formula will promote tooth decay). Or if your child can suck through a straw, rig up a makeshift "gerbil bottle" by taping a travel mug—the kind with a straw—to one of the crib railings.
  • A full diaper Change your baby right before bedtime (after her bottle, not before).
  • Fear of being alone Teach your child to go to sleep by herself. Her fear may be reinforced by the habit of always going to sleep either in your arms or with you in the room.
  • Fear of the dark Plug in a nightlight, give your child a flashlight, or install a lighted fish tank, which will provide not only soft light, but also soothing sights and sounds. If none of these nightlights do the trick, try letting her sleep with a lamp on. Or familiarize your child with the magical mystery of nighttime: After dark but before bed, take your toddler on a walk through the neighborhood—or sit or lie together in your yard and count stars and fireflies. This will help your child learn that nighttime and darkness don't have to be scary.
  • Noisiness Put up heavy curtains to muffle outside noises or try a white-noise generator or a rotating fan to interfere with outside noises. Keep visitors (including you) out of your toddler's room when she is sleeping. Don't check on her every time you hear movement (unless you also hear distress), because you might be what's waking her up. Instead, leave your child's bedroom door open enough so that you can peek in at her without actually coming into the room.
  • Nothing to suck on If she enjoys a pacifier, litter her crib with several in the hope that she'll find one.

If you check on your child and none of these problems seem to apply, you may find it most effective to use the same method you'd use to get her to sleep on her own. Soothe her as quickly as possible, then leave. If she immediately starts crying again, wait a few minutes before returning, then check her every five minutes or so, offering words of reassurance and perhaps a brief rub or pat on the back. Though the crying may seem to go on forever, try timing it. You may notice that the crying does not last as long on subsequent nights.

If your toddler's crying increases in volume, intensity, or duration, however, be flexible enough to alter your plans accordingly. Check again and see if something is really wrong.

When you do check on your child, try to avoid picking her up out of the crib (unless she is hysterical or needs a diaper change). Your toddler needs to learn how to comfort herself, if possible, and go back to sleep on her own.

More on: Preschool

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Preschooler and Toddler, Too © 1997 by Keith M. Boyd, M.D., and Kevin Osborn. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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