Toddlerhood often presents a whole new set of sleep challenges for children and their parents. I often tell parents that up until about 1, parenting is largely about management. Gaining some semblance of control over the peeing, pooping, spit up, sleep, etc. Once your child turns one and begins toddling as well as really taking in all the information you are relaying to him and also responding back, this is where parenting really begins. Your child is now becoming a truly interactive human being. This may mean that your toddler is starting to express some strong opinions about when and how he wants to sleep. What follows is an outline of what to expect between 12 and 24 months.
Many children are starting to figure out walking around 12 months. This can often throw sleep for a loop. Like all developmental milestones, this new skill has the potential to derail sleep and lead to a regression. Practice, practice, practice! The more your child is practicing his new skills in the waking hours, the less he will feel the necessity to practice when it is time for sleeping. This regression can often lead parents to think that their child is ready to move from two naps to one. Ideally, your child will hold onto his two nap schedule until at least 15 months. I would also not recommend moving to one nap until your child is sleeping through the night. It is very hard to make it to one nap without a good, solid 11-12 hours of night sleep. Certainly some will be able to transition to one nap sooner then 15 months, but if you can make it to 15 months, you will be in a better spot for less night sleep disruptions, potential night terrors and early rising. This article has a lot of important information to keep in mind when moving from two naps to one.
There can also be another regression at 18 months and 24 months. These often have much to do with increases in separation anxiety and sky-rocketing verbal skills. Along with all the other things you are attempting to do as a parent, 20 minutes of concentrated, eye to eye contact at the ground level with your toddler can significantly help with separation anxiety. When children feel close connections with their parents, it strengths the feelings of attachment and ultimately make separations (of which night time is the biggest separation they experience all day) easier in the long run.
Two naps to one
By 18 months, most children have moved to one nap. The nap typically starts at noon, at the earliest, (and is proceeded by lunch so that your toddler can begin to understand the new order to the day—wake, breakfast, play, snack, play, lunch, nap, snack, play, dinner, bed) and ideally lasts at least 2 hours. Many parents are worried about the large window of time that now exists between morning wake up and nap. Your child will adjust to this window. Usually there is a tough patch between about 10 and 11am where your child will look super sleepy. This is a good time to offer a snack and get outside for some fresh air to help rejuvenate. The window of time that is now much more significant is the time period between waking from the nap and bedtime. This is the one that we don’t want to be too long. At 18 months, you want to aim for this window to be not much more then 4 hours if it can be avoided. When children move to one nap, bedtime often moves earlier to minimize that gap between waking from the nap and going to bed. As your toddler approaches 24 months, some children are fine with a 5 hour window between nap and bedtime. If your child looks very sleepy around dinner time and then gets a burst of energy before bed (this is that rush of cortisol from being overtired), it can be a good indication that you need to move bedtime earlier. A typical schedule for a child over 18 months is:
Nap starting 12-1pm, lasting approximately 2 hours, may be longer
Bedtime: 7 (may need to be even closer to 6 or 6:30 for some children right after transitioning to one nap) and sometimes moving again closer to 8 as your child gets older.
I would not advise moving a child to a toddler bed/or non-crib bed before 2½ years old and holding out until closer to 3 years old has many benefits as well. Stall tactics also begin to emerge in toddlerhood. In theory, as parents, we should be flattered by this. Toddlers stall at bedtime because they want to spend more time with their favorite people: You (their parents)! Bedtime is also that moment in the day when we are most worn thin (either by being at our outside-the-home jobs or our extra strenuous job for caring for a toddler all day long) and are in the biggest hurry to shuffle our toddler off to bed for some much needed grown up time (which often involves clean up and collapsing into our own beds). Toddlers are very smart, they know this. Taking your time to go through a consistent and predictable bedtime routine will help your toddler settle into bedtime with less struggle. Routines should be generally the same each night to give your toddler some sense of control and also offering as many choices as possible. Here are some things your toddler can choose: their toothbrush (offer a two choices), their pjs (select from two pair), the book(s) to be read (careful not to fall in the “just one more story” trap, offer 3 or 4 and let your toddler pick 2). With regard to stories, give your toddler warning when it is the last book or the last pages. Then stick with it. Inconsistency will lead to tearful and escalating begging for “just one more!!!!”
When my daughter (now 9) was a toddler, I went to bed each night telling myself that I now had one less day of toddlerhood that I had to survive. I recently heard someone say “if toddlers were 6 feet tall, we would have a much higher murder rate in society.” Toddler mood changes and demands can be fierce as they are rapidly figuring out the world around them with little self-control to guide them. Offering consistent and predictable routines with as much patience and understanding as you can muster will help you through tough time. Hang on, it can be a rocky climb, but your more rational little person will hopefully be meeting you on the other side of the toddler mountain.