Getting Your Toddler to Sleep: Tips and Secrets

Vivian Sonnenberg, Pediatric Sleep Consultant of www.VivianSonnenberg.com
Are you struggling with bedtime meltdowns and getting your toddler to sleep at night? Vivian Sonnenberg, a pediatric sleep consultant with more than 20 years of experience solving sleep issues for thousands of babies all over the world, will share tips that might not only help save your sanity but also help promote healthy brain development.
Full Interview Transcript

Kelly: we’re here with Vivian Sonnenberg, a paediatric sleep consultant with 20 years of experience teaching babies all over the world how to sleep. Today she’s going to talk about how to get our fussy toddler to go to bed, and give us tips on how to help them sleep through the night. Vivian, thank you so much for being here.

Vivian: Thanks Kelly. Always a pleasure. You know I love talking about babies and toddlers.

Kelly: Yes. My first video with you was one of my most popular ones. People are just wanting to know how to get their babies to sleep. I think a lot of times that doesn’t happen and then people have toddlers that are still not sleeping.

Vivian: Something just came to my mind. It was an article in the New York Times a few years ago which of course I read ‘Tired Toddlers, Troubled Teens’. We do not want that! I feel that toddlers up to the age of 3 years or it can take a little bit longer. I see that the trouble is that parents negotiate too much, and the parent is tired, it’s working and the child pushes and pushes. ‘Mommy, I need a book. Mommy, I need pee-pee. I need water, I’m hungry. Leave the door open. Leave the door closed’. Before you’re done with all that, if you listen it’s 10 o’clock and you are way too tired!

So the first thing is – don’t negotiate!! You are the mom, you are the dad or whoever it is and you set the rules. You give the toddler calm, you give it dinner, bath, no bath. You need a book? Don’t negotiate on how many books. If you say how many books do you want to read tonight, you will get of the fattest books. They are super-smart, these toddlers. You say ‘two books, honey’. That’s it! You read two books, lights out, go to bed.

Many toddlers immediately jump out of bed. ‘But Mommy, I’m hungry now’. You had dinner. You could have eaten dinner at the right time now. No food now. You’ve brushed your teeth. Goodnight! Walk away! Don’t negotiate, because you are going to negotiate for a long time!

I also do rewards and consequences with toddlers. Rewards are…you can do stickers they have never seen before. You make a little chart with 15 squares, and every morning that the toddler stayed in bed, didn’t scream, didn’t get out, he gets to put a fabulous sticker on the square. After 15 nights of perfect behaviour, whether they just lie there in bed and talk to themselves, that’s fine – no getting out of bed, no screaming, no nothing. At the end of the 15 days, they can have a special treat with Mom or Dad. Go to the zoo, go to the museum, go to the aquarium or a new toy. I would prefer the aquarium or an outing with Mom or Dad.

Even from the age of 2, they start jumping out of the bed. In my times, that was unheard of. I don’t know why they are doing it now, but anyway, a sleep sac works because they can’t get their legs out. A sleep sac works and the word NO with angry little face works also, and if No doesn’t work, you can threaten and tell the boy or the toddler or the girl, you buy a gate and leave it in the box and put it by the door, and it’s totally fine to put a gate by the door. If you get out one time – and you make it very clear, ONE time – the gate is going up. End of the story! And it’s pretty fabulous with toddlers is that they do listen. Every single time that they are threatened, they never got out.

The other thing is, I just went to a little toddler. The Dad had to sleep with the child on the floor until it went to sleep, and sure enough as soon as she woke up, she got out of the room because where’s Dad? Please do not lie down or sleep on the floor with your child, because that is going to create problems. They wake up and you’re not there, they start screaming. You read them a book, goodnight, I love you. You have needs too. You worked, you’re going to have dinner with Mom or Dad, your friend, whoever. You have your own needs and they have to accept that. Easy if you stick to the rules. If you waffle and you feel scared of your toddler, don’t be. Your toddler will love you regardless! Actually, they will love you even more because they feel like you’re in charge. It must put a lot of stress on a child if you say that he’s in charge or she’s in charge.

The biggest problem that parents are doing today is that they are letting the kids be in charge and not putting up enough boundaries, is that what you are saying?

Vivian: Absolutely! I see that. The parent is tired and they read all these things about a toddler is a toddler, and if the toddler has a fear, you pick the toddler up so it doesn’t get hurt. You don’t discuss anything, and if it’s time to go to bed, it’s time to go to bed in the crib or in the bed. I don’t recommend you put toddlers, unless you need the crib, to take them out too soon.

Kelly: What happens when you take them out too soon?

Vivian: They get out of bed, unless it’s been trained really, really well from birth to sleep well. Sometimes they don’t but the percentage is very small. Most of them get out of bed.

Kelly: And so you recommend having a crib as long as possible?

Vivian: As long as possible.

Then you make a big deal about buying a bed. They can pick their sheets, if you don’t mind and they get a new friend.

Kelly: you talk about you don’t work with kids older than three to train them, why not?

Vivian: Well, I’ve done 4 years that slept with his mom for 4 years and I did that one because it was a referral from a paediatrician that I felt very close to, and I did the 4-year old super easy the way we did it, and the reason is Kelly, that I don’t work with older children because I think that the mom would have a very, very hard time. If I’m going to be super honest, the mom would have a hard time with that. A 5-year old that never slept…and I’ve heard that

Kelly: You talk about some of the things that parents should be doing to help the child go to bed, are there things that would help them get in the sleeping mode

Vivian: Definitely! Just like the baby, keep calm. If Dad comes home and they are wrestling and having a great time, playing aeroplanes with them and chasing them all over the house to make them laugh and scream, it’s going to be hard to get them down. Dad can play with them, or Mom, and have fun and read and ask them how the day went, but try not to excite them too much.

Kelly: So no screens?

Vivian: No screens! No screens for various reasons, because if a little 2, 3 year old watches something on TV, everything even kids’ movies have something scary. A little something and they dwell on that and they wake up in the middle of the night and say ‘Mommy, mommy, a monster under the bed. Scary monster in the closet’ so nothing scary, even anything in a book. Little Red Riding Hood that nobody reads any more or the Three Little Pigs that got eaten by the wolf. No more! Really calm and simple, and if they say before they go to bed to keep you in the room ‘I’m scared’, there’s nothing to be scared of. Mommy’s here. You do a little night light not shining in their face, but a little night light. Everything is fine. I love you. Good night! Don’t keep repeating the same thing because then you are going to get but, but, but. I need, I need, I need…

Kelly: What if they keep coming out?

Vivian: If they keep coming out, if you keep going in, they keep coming out. If you say ‘honey, stay in bed’ really sweet mom, loving mom like we are doesn’t work. No, I’m going to put the gate up if you keep coming out one more time, and then you put the gate up, and then what happens is that they scream in front of the gate. They scream one night, they won’t scream the second night and they’ll stay in bed. Super easy!!

Kelly: So why do you think some of these children are having problems for sleeping? How do they get to that point?

Vivian: Definitely! If they never had very good sleeping habits, they are not going to have good sleeping habits as toddlers. Babies that are trained, the mom tells me ‘oh, my 2-year old is sleeping so well, no problems’, if they call me for baby number 2, number 3, no problems. If it slept well from 4 months on or even earlier, no problems because it’s a matter of fact. Why should it change? It changes if they are sick. Of course you take care of them but don’t put them in your bed because then they are going to go into your bed.

Kelly: And then it’s hard to get them out, and you’ll say oh they’ll probably just grow out of it

Vivian: No, no, no. Very hard. Then you have to go through the same training program. Very hard to get them out of your bed. So the other bump on the road which some people might call regression. It’s no regression. It’s no 4-month regression. It’s just a bump on the road. They get 4 months, they roll over. Well, we deal with that, but it’s not a regression. At 2 years, there is no regression.

Kelly: So why do people think there is? I have heard a lot of moms say ‘oh, they are 2 and they are getting up.’ Why do people think that?

Vivian: Absolutely! Why do toddlers behave better with grandparents? If the toddler pulls the strings with Mom or Dad, and we’re all in love with our children, but we cannot give in. Don’t give in! Of course, if the child is sick, you go and tend to the baby or the toddler. You do whatever the paediatrician says. As soon as the toddler is fine, back to cold turkey!

Kelly: is it a lot easier or really difficult if you have not sleep trained your baby, or if your child has had no rules for 2 years, or getting up for 2 years?

Vivian: Much harder, yes. Many times they have said that the baby or the toddler has done well and now he’s two and he’s jumping out of the crib. That’s what I get the most.

Kelly: And you think that the parents are starting to give in?

Vivian: Exactly! It’s scary to jump out of the crib and you just say it. Say NO. Just say NO, you are going to hurt yourself. Don’t put pillows on the floor and do not take them out of the crib. Everybody takes them out of the crib. That’s when you have the big problem.

Kelly: So we talked a little bit about the middle of the night, you just give them the rules before they go to bed?

Vivian: Ahead!! Exactly, because if they come out at 2 in the morning or at 4, and you are too tired and you just let them come in, you’re done for! That’s it and to keep going in doesn’t work because the next night, they get programmed because it is always at the same time. 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock they come out…Mommy, I need you. I’ve heard things like ‘I love you so much, I can’t be without you’. What mom won’t give in to that?

Kelly: Right.

Vivian: Don’t! Not at 2 in the morning! I love you so much too!

Kelly: So if the toddler is not sleeping, what are some of the implications? Does it affect cognitive development in any way?

Vivian: Really bad behaviour! Tired, throwing things on the floor, not eating properly, running around with the food, problems in school, day care, wherever it is. I know one child that had three day cares. Nobody would take them. Behaviour, and mom said they weren’t sleeping. Because most parents are working now, I think it’s super hard to have discipline with a toddler, so some 2-year olds don’t have naps. They need to now, but if they don’t they need to be in bed by six-thirty. End of the story and sleep at least twelve hours!!

Six-thirty, seven if they don’t take a nap or if they are sick at 2 years old. 3 year olds can go to bed at seven, but if they start ‘I need a book, I need this. I need a pee-pee, I need a poo-poo, I need whatever’, then before you know it, they can’t sleep.

Kelly: So you need to get them in the bed by seven, or it takes them twice as long?

Vivian: Exactly, and if they start saying I need a drink, I need food, then the next evening, you remind him or her, drink your milk now, your water or whatever your food is, because that’s it !

Discipline. I swear by discipline. You don’t have to be mean, you don’t have to be angry but just stick to your rules, to your beliefs. If you believe your child should be sleeping by seven, don’t listen to toddler regression and mind is developing. It will develop more if the toddler sleeps. For sure it will develop and less phone during the days.

Vivian: A lot of them. A lot of them. I see a lot of them at the age of 2 with a phone. It impedes looking at the trees, the dogs when they go for a walk. It just takes them away from nature. So sad!! I have so many mons that say my child is bored. I don’t know what to do. A baby is bored!! A baby of 3 months is not bored! It has the whole world to look at.

Kelly: Yes.

Vivian: A toddler has books. Don’t buy too many toys. Less is more, because the children that have too many toys – I see this every day- too many toys, they run from one to the other. No focus on anything. Less is more!

Kelly: Less is more. They are calmer, more focussed. Is there any one take away that you would want parents of toddlers to know?

Vivian: Trust in yourself! Trust in yourself. You are a good mom, a good dad. Don’t listen, don’t think yes, your toddler is special. Yes, your toddler is wonderful but the rules are kind of the same. Do as you think you should be doing with your toddler. It’s going to be good in school, it’s going to be calmer, it’s going to eat better, it’s going to be smiley-er, more loving and just calm.

Kelly: It’s a universal thing, and my belief because I’ve seen it with my 2 children, if parents aren’t sleeping, then you aren’t as good of a parent as you can be

Vivian: Exactly! You lose your patience, everything

Kelly: So where can people go if they need further information? Can they contact you?

Vivian: They definitely can contact me. I love talking about babies, toddlers, sleeping.

Kelly: Well, thank you so much for coming again. It was great having your insights.

 

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