Ah, sleep. That elusive, precious commodity that parents of young children often dream of (no pun intended lol). And if your toddler won’t sleep without his mom, getting a good night’s sleep is going to be even harder. On top of that, toddlers are notorious for happily getting into bed for the night when suddenly, it’s as if they’ve been injected with caffeine. Now you now have a tiny superhero on your hands that somehow manages to successfully fight the powers of sleep!
If you can relate to any of this, keep reading.
Don’t get me wrong, snuggling with your little one can be one of the sweetest parts of motherhood. But there comes a time when you want to be able to tuck your little one in for the night and enjoy your evening!
Fear not, my friend- toddler sleep challenges are more common than you think. It might feel daunting when your toddler won’t sleep without mom, but I want to assure you that this is very fixable! In this blog post, I’ll explore the top reasons why your toddler has trouble sleeping without you. I will also offer my biggest tips and strategies to help you teach your toddler to sleep without you.
First off, why do you have a toddler who won’t sleep without mom?
There are numerous possible culprits for this common sleep problem with toddlers. Here are the most common ones:
It’s important to understand that, while your toddler’s separation anxiety is a normal part of development, this stage makes it much harder for toddlers to separate from their primary caregivers. And these caregivers are usually their mothers.
Additionally, toddlers are still learning how to regulate their emotions. The bedtime fears and anxiety that comes with being separated from their mom can lead to crying and clinginess. And this can make it harder for toddlers to relax and settle down at bedtime without their mom.
Falling asleep with mom is part of his bedtime routine
There are usually habitual reasons why your toddler won’t sleep without his mom. Most commonly, if your toddler is used to co-sleeping, sleeping in the same room as his mom, or has a routine where his mom rocks him to sleep each night, he’ll likely expect this routine to stay the same. Don’t forget that humans are creatures of habit…and toddlers aren’t the exception here!
When you try to change up this routine to get your toddler to sleep by himself, he’ll likely push back and be thrown off by these changes. Afterall, it’s different than what he’s used to. And we can’t blame him- no one likes change.
Recent life changes
Similarly, if your toddler has experienced a recent life change such as starting a new daycare, the birth of a new sibling, or moving to a new home, they might feel more unsettled than usual. Change is especially hard for toddlers since they thrive so much on routine and predictability. And because young children rely on their primary caregivers for a sense of security and comfort, it’s very common for them to reach out to their moms for some extra comfort at bedtime during these recent life changes.
If a toddler is not getting enough sleep and becomes overtired, and he’ll have a much harder time falling asleep without his mom for a number of reasons.
Firstly, overtiredness can cause more fussiness and clinginess, making it much harder for a child to self-soothe and regulate their emotions. See, when a toddler is well-rested, they are more easy going, they can calm themselves down when upset, and they are happier overall. But when a child is overtired, the SMALLEST thing can easily set them off, making it much harder for them to relax and settle at bedtime without their mother’s help.
Another reason why overtiredness can lead to bedtime resistance is because overtiredness causes our bodies to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone secreted by your nervous system. And when your little one has higher levels of cortisol in their system, it interferes with sleep by making it MUCH harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. I know this goes against what common sense says about sleep (the more tired you are, the easier it is to fall asleep, right?) But the reality is that sleep science doesn’t always align with common sense! So when a toddler is overtired, he might rely on his mom to help him fall asleep as a way to counteract the effects of the overtiredness.
Finally, overtiredness can lead to a bad cycle of sleep deprivation that can be hard to break. When a child is consistently overtired, they continue to get less sleep than they need. And this leads to a whole slew of negative consequences, including irritability and tantrums. From there, it ends up exacerbating bedtime battles, leading to MORE power struggles and frustration. And THAT can end up making it even HARDER for the child to fall asleep without mom.
While overtiredness can cause power struggles and difficulty falling asleep, “undertiredness” can actually do the same thing! By putting a toddler to bed before they’re actually tired, it can cause them to feel restless, fidgety and unable to settle down. Without the comfort and security of their mother, they may struggle to fall asleep in this situation.
Furthermore, if a toddler isn’t tired enough to go to bed, a toddler can feel frustrated and anxious around bedtime, which further disrupts their ability to fall asleep. They may begin to associate bedtime with feelings of stress and negativity. From there, it will be even harder for a toddler to fall asleep without the comfort of their mom.
Toddler isn’t comfortable in his room
A toddler might need his mom to fall asleep at bedtime if he doesn’t like being in his bedroom. This could be due the negative associations he acquired with his sleep space from an unenjoyable bedtime routine or from past experiences. Or he may have simply not had the opportunity to develop positive associations with his bedroom to begin with. If your toddler doesn’t like his room, there’s a good chance he’ll be calling out for you when it’s bedtime.
Child transitioned from a crib to a bed too soon
Transitioning a child from a crib to a toddler bed prematurely can often lead to the child refusing to go to sleep without his mom. See, the crib’s enclosed space provides toddlers with a sense of safety and security. Beds, on the other hand, are typically larger and less enclosed. This can make a child feel like they are sleeping in a vast, open space. And they can feel unsettled like this, especially if they are used to feeling snug and secure in their crib. Without the comfort and security of the crib, they may cling to their mom as a source of safety and reassurance instead.
Another reason why a toddler might struggle to fall asleep without his mom after transitioning to a bed too soon is because he needs his mom to physically keep him in his bed. Most toddlers are not yet mature enough to handle this newfound freedom offered by a bed and actually STAY in bed throughout the night. Many of these toddlers will refuse to go to sleep in their new beds and will choose to get out of bed and explore their room…because they CAN! Sometimes, the only way this toddler will stay in bed and fall asleep is if his mom stays with him the whole time.
Tips for helping your toddler sleep without mom
Now that we’ve talked about the main reasons why your toddler might be struggling to sleep without you, let’s explore some tips and strategies for helping teaching them how to sleep independently.
1) Make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep
To avoid the negative consequences of overtiredness, it’s important to establish a consistent and age-appropriate sleep schedule for your toddler. This means prioritizing your toddler’s daytime naps and early bedtime to ensure they’re getting enough sleep over a 24-hour time period. The vast majority of toddlers still need to nap consistently AND need to go to bed early every night.
Here’s an idea of how much sleep toddlers and preschoolers need:
– An average 18 month-old needs 11 hours of nighttime sleep and a 2.5 hour nap.
– A typical 2 year-old needs 11 hours of nighttime sleep and a 2 hour nap.
– Most 3 year-olds needs 12 hours of sleep over a 24-hour time period, which either equates to 12 hours of nighttime sleep and no napping or 10.5-11 hours of nighttime sleep and a 1-1.5 hour nap.
It’s also important to make sure that your little one’s schedule is consistent from day to day. If there’s too much irregularity to your little one’s day, it can contribute to sleep problems at bedtime and nighttime
2) At the same time, make sure your toddler isn’t undertired either!
It’s just as crucial to make sure that your little one isn’t napping TOO much during the day or that you’re not attempting to put your little one to bed TOO early. Our goal is to get your little one to bed JUST as he’s beginning to get tired, before he’s overtired.
For example, this means that:
– your 3 year-old’s big afternoon nap might be preventing him from falling asleep nicely at 7pm (or even 8pm);
– your 24 month-old is likely not going to be ready to sleep for 630pm if he woke up from his 2.5-hour nap at 3pm; and
– a preschooler who’s no longer napping might not be exhausted for the night by 6pm anymore.
Be mindful of your little one’s daytime schedule and make the necessary adjustments to create more sleep pressure before bedtime. You can do this by gradually cutting back on the length of the nap and/or establishing a slightly later bedtime.
3) Create an enjoyable and consistent bedtime routine
Having a consistent bedtime routine can help your toddler feel more secure and comfortable when it’s bed time. Your bedtime routine can include things like a bath, a bedtime story, a song, or some quiet play. The key is to do the same things in the same order every night so that your toddler knows what to expect and can feel more relaxed and calm. Make sure that your little one’s routine avoids any overstimulation since many children will have trouble sleeping otherwise. For example, avoid screen time and activities like playing video games or watching TV.
4) Gradually teach your toddler to sleep independently
If your toddler is used to sleeping in the same room as you or needs to be rocked to sleep by you, I strongly recommend teaching them to fall asleep by themselves and sleep alone. This is because relying on mom to fall asleep at bedtime is technically a sleep crutch.
Instead of rocking or lying next to your toddler until he falls asleep, you can start by sitting next to his crib or bed. Then, you would move yourself further and further away from your toddler over time until he’s sleeping by himself. You can go about this process as quickly or gradually as you’d like.
5) Make sure your toddler loves being in his room
If your child is used to sleeping with you, being alone in a dark room can be scary. Make your child’s room as comfortable and familiar as possible.
For example, if your child is used to hearing your voice or heartbeat, you can try using a white noise machine to help them relax. Sometimes, having a special comfort item can help your toddler feel more secure and comforted when they’re trying to fall asleep. This could be a special blanket, a stuffed animal, a toddler-friendly clock, or a favorite toy. Make sure that the comfort item is something that your toddler associates with sleep time.
I also STRONGLY recommend keeping your toddler in a crib for as long as you feasible can, ideally until your toddler is at least 3-3.5 years-old. You want to hold off on this transition until your child is mature enough to handle the freedom offered by a bed and is old enough to understand and respect the rules and boundaries that go along with being in a bed.
6) Use positive reinforcement
When your toddler does sleep without you, make sure to praise and reward them for their efforts. This can be as simple as giving them a high-five in the morning or offering a special treat. Positive reinforcement can help your toddler feel proud of their accomplishment and motivate them to continue sleeping alone.
7) Be patient and consistent
Finally, it’s important to remember that making the transition to sleeping alone can take time and patience. Your toddler might resist the change at first, and it can be frustrating for the both of you. However, it’s important to remain consistent and patient with the process. Stick to your bedtime consistent routine and continue to offer comfort and support to your child. With time and persistence, your toddler CAN learn to sleep on their own.
What to do when your toddler wakes up at night
Even if your toddler is able to fall asleep on their own at bedtime, they might still wake up during the night and have trouble going back to sleep without you. Here are some tips for addressing these nightwakings:
- Offer reassurance, but stay unengaging. When your child wakes up, go to your child’s room and offer reassurance. Let them know that you’re there for them and that everything is okay. Try not to engage in conversation.
- Use a calm and soothing voice. It can be tempting to get frustrated or angry when your child wakes you up in the middle of the night, but it’s important to remain calm and patient. Speak to your child in a soothing voice to help them feel more relaxed and comforted.
- Be consistent and boring. Just like with bedtime, it’s important to be consistent with how you respond when your child wakes up during the night. Make sure that your response is brief and boring so that we don’t “reward” the wakeups, which can encourage more of them.
Address any underlying health issues
In rare occasions, there could be medical issues contributing to your toddler’s sleep challenges. If your child’s sleep disturbances are accompanied by other symptoms, such as snoring or difficulty breathing, or if your toddler is struggling with nightmares or night terrors, it might be helpful to seek out medical advice from your pediatrician to rule out any underlying issues.
What I specifically suggested to the mom in my Facebook community group
A mother reached out for help in the My Sleeping Baby Facebook Community about her toddler and preschooler’s sleep issues. Her 20 month-old was waking multiple times a night and needed to be rocked back to sleep. He also woke up around 5:00am everyday for a snack. On top of that, both her kids struggled to fall asleep and will ONLY allow mom to do bedtime.
Here’s what I suggested:
1. Firstly, eliminate that 5:00am snack. A healthy 20 month-old toddler doesn’t need calories at nighttime anymore. That’s an easy one 🙂
2. Teach your younger toddler to fall asleep by himself. Don’t be afraid to wake up your older child while sleep training your younger one. Even though it’s not fun dealing with two kids in the middle of the night, proper sleep training with a proper sleep plan doesn’t take forever. It’s a short-term process where things HAVE to get worse in order to get better. And then they will get better! Trust me!
3. Don’t allow your kids to always decide which parent puts them to sleep at bedtime. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about empowering kids during their bedtime routine as much as possible. This means you can let them decide which story to read, which bedtime song to sing, which cup to drink from, and which toothbrush they use. However, it’s not age-appropriate for them to decide whether Daddy can put them to sleep. Let them adjust to Daddy putting them to sleep sometimes- they’ll be okay!
When to seek professional help
While it’s common for toddlers to struggle to sleep without their mom, some situations would benefit from professional help. For example, if your child’s sleep disturbances are causing significant disruption to your family’s daily life and your mental health, you might consider hiring a toddler sleep consultant to help you come up with a customized solution for your family. A sleep consultant (such as myself!) can help you identify any underlying issues that may be contributing to your child’s sleep difficulties and will provide you with strategies and follow-up support to help your child learn to sleep through the night independently.
Some words of inspiration to leave you with
Patience is a virtue, and it’s especially important to be patient when it comes to teaching your toddler to sleep without you. It’s unlikely that your child will learn overnight, and there WILL be setbacks along the way. If you have a toddler who won’t sleep without mom, I want to assure your little one CAN learn how to fall asleep on his own and consistently sleep 11-12 hours uninterrupted so that you can feel like a functioning human again. And this process SHOULD NOT take forever, either!
With the right plan in place your, child WILL learn to fall asleep on their own. Before you know it, you’ll be able to reclaim your evenings and nights again.