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Putting your toddler to bed can be daunting. After all, you never know if he's going to scream his head off or whimper pitifully. But the real question is, what's the best way to respond to your child once you've tucked him in? Experts are quite divided on this issue, with Dr. Richard Ferber at one end of the scale and Dr. William Sears at the other. All agree, however, that the way you choose to calm or ease your child to sleep changes over time. A young baby needs cuddling, while a toddler needs a consistent routine and a firm goodnight. Each expert offers lots of ideas to lull your toddler to sleep — pick and choose what works for you.
Once your child understands language, you can tell him that you're going to stay in his room for shorter and shorter periods of time ("I'll be staying for just five more minutes") instead of leaving for longer periods. You can help your child practice being alone by running errands such as leaving the room to get a glass of water, load the dishwasher, and so on. Or you can try telling your child that if he's quiet and stays in bed, you'll come back in a few minutes and give him an extra hug and kiss. Read more about Mindell.
Reinforce your child's appropriate bedtime by using a consistent bedtime routine. Don't hold her, rock her, or let her rely on a pacifier or bottle to get to sleep. While they work in the short term, these methods teach your toddler to depend on being put to sleep, rather than falling asleep on her own. If your child calls out to you or cries at night, go into her room at progressively longer intervals (five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes) to reassure her you're there.
If she won't stay in bed, tell her you'll close the door. If just mentioning it doesn't do the trick, shut the door and hold it closed (but never lock it) for about a minute. If she doesn't get back in bed after that, go in and put her down, then go outside and close the door for two minutes, then three, then five, and so on. Five minutes is the maximum for the first night. Once your child gets into bed on her own, open the door, offer her a word of encouragement, and leave without going inside her room. If she keeps getting up on subsequent nights, the amount of time the door stays closed can be longer — up to 30 minutes for the fourth closing on the seventh night.
Stick to a regular pattern of daytime and nighttime sleep; don't let your toddler set her own sleep schedules. Read more about Ferber.
The AAP's view
Separation anxiety lingers at this age, and negativism is at a high, so your child may resist going to bed. It may help if you let him make bedtime choices (which pjs to wear or what story to read), let him sleep with transitional objects, and leave on a nightlight or room light. If he still cries for you, wait ten minutes before going in to settle him down, then leave and repeat the process if necessary. Don't scold or punish him, but don't reward him by staying, either. He may just be trying to get attention, so put him right back to bed and leave as soon as he's lying down. Stay calm and consistent — he'll soon realize you won't give in. It's a good idea to stick to a schedule. Read more about the AAP.
Be firm. Make sure you're following a bedtime ritual that is supportive and comforting. Don't go right in when he calls you; instead, call to him and tell him that you're there and how proud you are that he's learning to do this by himself. Read more about Brazelton.
Be sure to stick to your bedtime ritual — toddlers this age really need the consistency that offers. Other ways to help your child get to sleep are to cuddle up with him, pretend to be asleep yourself, or take a businesslike, adult-in-charge approach: Prepare for bed and go about your own routine. Eventually he'll fall asleep right in the middle of watching you. Read more about Sears.