Sleep training a toddler isn’t as straightforward as sleep training a baby. They’re not contained in a crib after all and have the newfound freedom to walk out of their room and into yours!
If you’re ready to move your toddler to a Big Kid Bed, here are our top 10 tips for a successful transition.
10 Tips to Help Sleep Train Your Toddler
Upgrade to a full-sized bed
I know, you were really smart and bought a convertible crib that transforms into a toddler bed. But in order to help your little one stay in bed, we recommend changing things up to an exciting new (bigger) bed that gives them more space and helps them feel like a genuine Big Kid. A full-sized is a little bit more room than a twin and gives them space to grow.
Help your toddler feel safe
Moving from a crib to a big open bed with no walls can be daunting for a toddler. They no longer have the security of the four walls and may fear that they’re going to fall out of their bed. You can use bed rails like these if you think it will help your kid feel more secure, but I love these foam bumpers, too. They serve the same purpose but are nicer on the eyes.
Find what motivates them
Successfully sleep training a toddler requires some child psychology. We at Mommywise don’t just put up gates or lock the door to keep your toddler in their room. That could badly backfire and is not what we recommend. You’ll have to find what motivates your child to try something new and leverage that to get their “buy-in” to sleep by themselves and stay in bed until it’s legitimately morning. Maybe it’s a pair of Thomas the Train underwear or a treat for breakfast? And, maybe they’re really excited about being a big kid and want to be like their older sibling or cousin? You can use that as leverage when you’re talking about sleep and how big kids like ______ sleep by themselves in big kid beds.
Use some props
Ok to Wake toddler clocks like this or the Hatch with changing colors can show your toddler the difference between night and day (so they know when morning is). If the green light goes off at 7, then that’s your morning. Light still blue? Still nighttime. Show your toddler before bedtime that they have a new thing that shows when morning is. Repeat every day and your toddler will know when it’s time to wake up. Another tool I love is based in positive child psychology – behavior modification charts. This toddler sleep chart that focuses just on sleep will do the trick. Or you can use a more generic chart like this Star Jar and make up your own goals. But you don’t need anything fancy – old-fashioned marbles in a jar or a homemade sticker chart will do! And don’t forget anything special they might want to sleep with! A favorite bunny or blanket is your best friend now.
Give them some agency
I believe that most toddler power struggles come from kids being frustrated that they’re kids and having no choice but to do what adults say. If you give them too many choices, that can lead to more resistance and stalling. But one or two choices are a happy medium. Your kid just wants some control so let them have it with a couple of things. Potty before teeth? Sure. This book or that one? No problem. Nightlight or not? I think you get the point. Giving them a little bit of agency can help you bring a positive vibe to bedtime battles.
Set a loving boundary
Regardless of how verbal your toddler is, I promise they understand almost everything you say – in kid-appropriate language, of course. Getting your child to sleep through the night in a big kid bed requires positivity, an explanation about what normal sleep is, and a loving boundary about staying in bed. Right before the first bedtime in their big kid bed, you can open a dialogue about sleep, where mommy/daddy sleep, how we wake up in the middle of the night too, and what to do when you wake up (roll over, hug your pillow or bunny, and go back to sleep in your own bed). Or say whatever you want to say about sleep, ask questions to keep your kid engaged, and say in your own loving positive words that this is their sleep space (and stay in it all night).
When you’re changing up your kid’s sleeping environment, don’t start talking about it a week in advance unless you’re talking about bedding for their new bed. Focus on the new bed, maybe have them help choose the pillows and sheets (maybe they want Thomas the Train or Disney-something?), and what/who they like to sleep with, like a special animal or blanket. But wait to have the You Can Sleep By Yourself talk until right before the first bedtime you’re starting with in their new bed. No need to add to their anxiety about sleeping by themselves days in advance. Instead, have your loving positive talk about what’s going to happen THE DAY OF the new changes. Then you’ll do your stickers, turn on your special light, remind them of what favorite animals or plushies they’re going to sleep with, give them the choices like the night light on or off, etc.
Exude positive energy
You may have had bedtime battles in the past, but it’s crucial to change your energy from battle to positivity in order to get your child vested in this change. Instead of making threats about what’s going to happen if your child gets out of bed (i.e. no tablet tomorrow morning), tell your child that you believe in them and know they CAN fall asleep by themselves and stay in bed until morning. Refer to their strengths to remind them of how they did something else really well. If you’re using a sticker or star chart (or any positive behavior modification tool), give them stickers or stars for all the things they did well before bedtime (i.e. teeth brushing, potty, putting on PJs, etc.). Tell them you’re excited to give them more stickers or stars in the morning!
Stay the positive course
Let’s say your child did really well on trying to fall asleep independently but ended up in tears. Or your child did really well at bedtime but still wandered into your room in the middle of the night. It’s natural to feel frustrated in the morning, but don’t let your kid feel it. Instead of saying, “Oh well, no stars for you….” with a disappointed tone, put a positive spin on it. Instead, try something like this, “You did really well with XYZ and I’m so proud of you for trying to XYZ! Let’s give you one sticker for trying and tonight we’ll try again! Maybe you’ll get 3 stickers tomorrow morning!”.
Consider bigger rewards
If your child is 3 years or older, they have a bit more patience and understanding of cause and effect than a just 2-year-old. Or if sticker charts aren’t effective for your child, you can consider different or bigger rewards. Maybe the thing that motivates them is an experience like Shake Shack with Daddy on Saturday. Or, a treat for breakfast. Or, with one kid we worked with, M&Ms was his jam and he would do ANYTHING for M&Ms. Consider what that thing is for your kid and you can use that as an end-of-the-week reward if they understand time in that context.
I hope this helps you end your toddler bedtime battles and gets you all sleeping in your own beds happily ever after!
Ready to sleep again?