How to Fix Your Toddler's Sleep Routine After It Gets All Messed Up

toddler sitting in bed
iStock.com/AGrigorjeva

Getting little kids on a good sleep schedule is like the holy grail of parenting, so when something happens to throw them off, it can be downright devastating.

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Everything from daylight savings time to co-sleeping on vacation to a case of the sniffles can seemingly undo all the hard work you did to establish a regular routine. Even seemingly tiny slipups like letting your little one climb into bed because he had bad dreams for a night or two can wreak havoc (and of course, big things like getting a new baby sibling or moving will almost definitely do the same).

"There are dozens of different types of disrupters that can cause temporary problems in a child's sleep-wake regulation," Daniel Lewin, MD, associate director of sleep medicine at Children's National Health System, tells CafeMom. "The good news is that all of them are indeed temporary and can be modified very quickly, and kids can get back on their regular sleep schedules."

The first line of defense in maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is avoiding interruptions to begin with -- if at all possible -- says William David Brown, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas and coauthor of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle.

"The most important thing to remember is that it was difficult to develop good sleep habits in your child," says Dr. Brown. "It is not something to give up lightly. Anticipate problems before they happen."

More from CafeMom: 7 Tips on Getting Your Toddler to Sleep Better

For example, says Dr. Brown: "On vacation, try to keep the schedule as consistent as possible. Follow the same bedtime routine as at home. Explain to the child that the sleeping arrangement is temporarily going to be different but it will be the same when they get back home."

In the case of daylight savings (the "spring ahead" kind), Alison Mitzner, MD, recommends beginning to prepare a week before the time change by putting your child to bed 10 to 15 minutes earlier every night. (When you "fall back," do the opposite -- put your child to bed a little later each night leading up to the switch.)

"This way when the clocks do change forward an hour it is easier for your child to fall asleep at his regularly scheduled bedtime," says Dr. Mitzner.

Naturally, this is easier said than done -- especially when external forces are involved, like when an overindulgent grandma and grandpa let your child stay up during a sleepover. If, however, your child's sleep schedule ends up going out the window despite your best efforts, it's totally possible to fix it. Here's how to get bedtime back to normal:

Use the "check out" system. 

Your toddler doesn't want to fall asleep alone? "One of the most effective approaches to returning to a better sleep routine is having the parent gradually decrease or fade their involvement during the child's wake-to-sleep transition," says Dr. Lewin.

You can accomplish this by slowly and periodically "checking out" of the bedtime process. For example, start out by sitting in a chair facing your toddler's bed while he falls asleep. The next night, change the direction of the chair so you're facing the other way. Then begin leaving the room for a brief period of time (5 to 10 seconds) and returning, gradually increasing the amount of time you're gone. Eventually, your child will realize that even though you leave the room, you always come back, and he doesn't have to call out for you.

"Over time, this will grow the child's self-soothing skills and help them fall asleep independently and, perhaps most importantly, fall back to sleep independently in the middle of the night," says Dr. Lewin.

More from CafeMom: 6 Tricks to Getting Your Toddler to Sleep in His Own Bed

Establish a positive bedtime ritual.

Bedtime routines help to create healthy sleep patterns because familiar cues help your child know it's time to settle down, explains Dr. Lewin. This can be especially important during chaotic times, like when a new baby comes home or you're on the road. "When children know what to expect, they feel much safer," he says.

Some ideas for positive bedtime rituals include reading stories together, snuggling, or listening to soothing music. "Transitional sleep objects," like a stuffed animal or blanket, can be helpful, too.

Give your child some control.
 

If your child is resisting your bedtime rules, win her over by making her feel like she's playing a part in the process. "When a child needs to transition back to a normal sleep schedule, it can sometimes be helpful to allow the child the opportunity to choose a special activity, snack, or drink they would like to have as part of their normal bedtime routine," says Dr. Lewin. Naturally, you'll want to set some limits  -- the promise of getting to eat ice cream in bed might get your kid in her pajamas fast, but ultimately it's not the best idea. 

Be patient as your child readjusts. 

"When you're teaching a child a routine, you should almost always expect a setback, or what we call an 'extinction burst,'" says Dr. Lewin. "When you're helping a child stop a behavior -- for example, calling out repeatedly for more water or another story at bedtime -- the problem returns within three to four days with a vengeance. This setback, after an improvement, is all part of the learning process. Don't be discouraged, and stay your course. Two to three nights later, everything will be back on track."

Stick with it, and your child -- and you! -- will sleep through the night again, we promise.

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