Actually, Sleep Training Isn't Just For Babies — Here's How To Adjust For Toddlers

by Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

It's a sad fact that your child doesn't start sleeping perfectly through each and every night just because they're toddling around all day. Nope. Sleep associations persist, and even babies with hard-won, healthy sleep habits can regress in a heartbeat, leaving you sleepless once again. (This is why parents know that coffee is their very best friend.) If you're dealing with a bedtime-resistant toddler, you might be wondering if your toddler is too old to cry it out. Is the controversial extinction method of sleep training harder on older kids than young babies? Romper reached out to a bona fide sleep expert to find out.

"Your child can never be too old to teach them healthy sleep habits or to sleep train," explains Christine Stevens of Sleepy Tots in an email interview to Romper. However, if you choose to cry it out with a toddler, she says there are a few things you should know. For instance, Stevens notes that older children are more set in their ways, which is certainly a downside when it comes to changing sleep habits. On the bright side though, they're better able to communicate with you when they're upset or confused, and better able to understand you, too. So take the time to explain to your child what about their sleep routine is changing. If you've chosen to try the extinction method of sleep training — also called 'cry it out' — let them know what's going on, and why you won't be answering their calls right away.

According to WebMD, the 'cry it out' method is all about changing your toddler's sleep associations. Maybe your little one has spent just one too many nights sleeping in your bed. Maybe they're accustomed to having you rock them to sleep for an hour each night (but at 25 pounds, you'd have to lift some serious weights to keep that up). Or maybe they've just hit the infamous 18-month sleep regression. Whatever the problem, the 'cry it out' method can break patterns in four or five nights, reported WebMD — that is, if you're truly able to stick with it. But not everyone is really comfortable with the cry it out method or even with gradual extinction. The good thing is that cry it out isn't the only effective sleep training method for toddlers, by any means.

"I prefer more gentle methods in which parents are able to comfort their children as they fall asleep," explains Stevens. "I believe bedtime should be a relaxing activity for both parents and the child. There are a lot of different methods to sleep train your child, all with their own pros and cons and length of time it takes to see change."

Whatever method you choose, Stevens has a few tips for helping older children adjust. First, explain changes in advance, especially if you're moving rooms or transition to a toddler bed. Second, she recommends letting your child design their room or pick out the sheets on their bed, or select a special stuffed animal. "Your toddler will feel involved and be more excited to sleep in their new room or bed when they have some say in the process," says Stevens.

If you're not making changes, but still trying to improve those sleep habits, Stevens advises setting expectations and using a reward system — like a bedtime chart with explanatory illustrations — to encourage them to get to bed (and stay there!) through the night.

Finally, remember that bedtime should always be relaxing, consistent, and predictable for your toddler. Take a bath, read a book, and sing the same lullaby each evening. And if you're in doubt about how to handle night-wakings or troublesome sleep associations, allow me to recommend you contact a sleep specialist or sleep consultant. They really can work wonders.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.