Toddlerhood is a time of exploration and big change. The hallmark moment of toddlerhood is, well, toddling so if your child is walking, this means that you now have a toddler. With walking comes an increased need to explore as well as the continued importance of knowing that you, as your the parent, are a secure base to provide your child with comfort and security when he return from his time away. Time away can mean simply exploring in a different room or a few feet away at a play space or it can mean the biggest separation of the day that occurs when he is away from you all night long for sleeping. As a result, there is often a burst of separation anxiety that your child will experience around their first birthday and then again between 15 to 18 months as they begin experiencing this ability to explore independently.
As with any transition that your child has made up until this point, big changes can often have a significant impact on sleep. The three big sleep changes that occur for toddlers are:
- Going from 2 naps to 1
- Moving from a crib to a bed
- Learning how to stay in bed all night
Most children make the transition from two naps to 1 between 15 and 18 months. The way you know that your child is ready to move from two naps to one is that he or she takes a very long time falling asleep for the morning nap, takes a very short morning nap or takes such a long morning nap that then the afternoon nap doesn’t happen. Some toddlers will even “boycott” a nap for several days or even weeks. When this happens for a few days, don’t rush to assume that your child is ready for one nap. If your child is consistently not napping for one of his naps a day for more then two weeks, then it is likely that it is time to move to one. Keep in mind that if your child is not sleeping through the night at this point, it will be hard to make it to one afternoon nap. Also, if you move to one nap and it seems as though your child may not have been ready, there is no harm in going back to two, even every other day, until your child is more ready to make the jump to one nap. When making this change, gradually move the start of the first nap later incrementally until you are finally at one nap that occurs mid-day (ideally between 12:30 and 1pm). When your child moves to one nap, you will most likely need to move bedtime a bit earlier because now there will be a bigger gap between waking up from the nap and bedtime.
The move from the crib to the bed can be a daunting for some parents. Other parents seem to be in a big hurry to move their child. Please know that there is NO correlation between the age that your child moves out of the crib and their intelligence or future success. In fact, moving your child too soon can sometimes set them up for failure in terms of the ability to understand the rules of staying in a bed. Ideally, the closer to age 3 that you can keep your child in a crib, the better. Some children are able to understand “stay in your bed all night” at 2½ but not all. It takes a lot of self control to be able to stay in one place for so long. When you do move your child, make sure that your child’s room and home are safe for roaming alone.
Before making the move, have a talk with your toddler about what is going to happen, what their job is at bedtime, and throughout the night (to stay in the bed). Although your child may not be able to have an extensive conversation with you about it, he understands much more then he can express. Let your toddler know that a change is coming and with this change comes new responsibility. It is important to talk to your child about what your expectations are with regard to being in a big bed. It is helpful to make this very clear and as visual as possible. When you talk to your child about the “rules of the big kid bed” you can make a sign or a chart that has pictures of what you expect. Kim West refers to these as your child’s sleep manners. Manners are not about what you should or shouldn’t do, they are just what everyone does whether it is saying “please” and “thank you” or using table manners. Manners that your child can learn with regard to sleep can be cooperating at bedtime, laying quietly in bed, and staying in bed all night. You can use a sticker chart or simply lots of positive reinforcement both before bed and in the morning to help emphasize the behaviors you expect. Setting your toddler up for success in the big bed and helping him take pride in his accomplishments will greatly ease this transition.