3 Strategies to End Toddler and Preschooler Sleep Struggles

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 12, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Common advice when struggling with a child’s sleep often involves “just letting them cry”, “teaching them to self-soothe”, or insinuations about toddlers manipulating their parents with tears. But, these solutions may be short-term as they may not address why the child struggles with sleep naturally.

There are many ways to help your child sleep well at night that don’t involve leaving them to cry it out on their own (or “self-soothe”)!

Here are 3 strategies you can use to start improving your little one’s sleep:

Strategy 1: Bridge Bedtime Separation With Connection

Imagine nighttime from your child’s perspective…

A small child is supervised by an adult for their entire day. They are used to being looked after by someone they trust. Finally, after a long day of being cared for, it’s bedtime. But now, they are expected to stay alone in their bed for 10-12 hours. This would feel scary, and even more, a threat to their safety! 

How are they supposed to feel safe while alone?

When a child feels threatened, they’re going to do whatever it takes to keep you close – they’ll cling to your leg, beg you not to leave, whine, or protest. In these moments, you may feel like punishing, bribing, threatening your child, or leaving them to cry, but none of these approaches are long-term solutions to sleep struggles because they do/n’t get to the root of the problem.

Long-term solutions to sleep struggles are rooted in your child’s deep, ingrained desire for connection with you.

Your child needs to know that even when you’re apart, you’re connected. In order for your child to know you are there for them, even when you are not physically there, they need a bridge between you and them. 

4 Simple Ways to Connect During Bedtime Separation

1. Introduce a Comfort Item

Introducing a comfort item, such as a stuffed animal or a blanket, can bridge the separation at bedtime for a child by providing them a sense of security and familiarity. This item becomes a source of comfort, it may carry the scent and feel of their caregiver, and it offers a tangible connection to them even when they are physically apart. 

Having a comfort item can help reduce anxiety and soothe the child’s emotions, making it easier for the child to fall asleep and separate from their caregiver.

2. Put a Kiss in Their Palm for Later

Putting a kiss in a child’s palm to save for later is a simple yet powerful way to bridge the separation at bedtime. By placing a symbolic kiss in their hand, caregivers create a reminder of their love and presence, even when they are physically apart. This act provides comfort and reassurance to the child, knowing that they can hold onto that kiss whenever they need it.

This ritual can help ease the child’s anxieties and emotions related to bedtime separation and allows the child to feel supported and cared for even when they are alone in their bed.

3. Create Matching Bracelets

Wearing matching bracelets provides a comforting reminder of a child’s connection to their caregiver at bedtime and throughout the night. The child can touch or look at their bracelet whenever they miss their caregiver or feel lonely, which brings a sense of reassurance and security. Likewise, the caregiver can wear their bracelet as a reminder of their child’s presence and love.

Matching bracelets serve as a tangible reminder of love and can contribute to a positive and calming bedtime routine and night.

4. Share “Stories of Sameness”

Bridging the connection between you and your child could also be as simple as telling them a story of sameness to help them feel seen and heard: 

“I used to struggle to be apart from Grandma at bedtime when I was your age. She let me bring her t-shirt to bed, so I could keep a part of her close to me at night. Would you like to try that?”

To go a step further, proactively bridge the separation BEFORE bedtime. This might sound like:

“I know bedtime can be tough. You want mommy with you. I get that. I’m going to give your teddy bear hugs throughout the day, so at night, you can squeeze him tight to get one of my hugs.”

Stories of sameness at bedtime can promote a sense of comfort, connection, validation, and relaxation, which can contribute to a more positive and restful sleep experience for children.

There are so many ways to bridge separation with your child! Remember: if separation is the concern, then connection is the solution. 

Related Post: Why Won’t My Child Let Me Leave at Bedtime? Here Are 3 Common Reasons.

Strategy 2: Track Your Child’s Sleep Needs

The amount of time your child is awake between their sleep is called a “wake window”. This wake window is going to change how sleepy your child is by bedtime. If your child’s wake window is too long your child will be overtired. On the other hand, if your child’s wake window is too short they will be undertired. Each case could cause a child to struggle with sleep at bedtime. 

Over or undertiredness is one of the most common reasons I see toddlers and preschoolers struggling with sleep. Parents often overlook this reason, thinking wake windows only apply to babies, or that their child’s naps and bedtimes have been working for a long time so that couldn’t be the issue. It’s honestly very easy to overlook wake windows.

But, just like a baby, a child’s biological need for sleep changes as they grow. As they get older, they need less daytime sleep, so changes to their daytime sleep and bedtime need to shift.

Every child has a unique sleep needs but, on average, the amount of sleep a child needs in a 24-hour period determines how much awake time they need before sleep. See below for wake window guidelines for children ages 1-12 years old.

Age (Years)Approximate # of Hours of Sleep Per DaySuggested Wake Window
1-212-14 hours4-6 hours
311-13 hours6-7 hours (if napping)
11-13 (no nap)
4-510-13 hours11-14 (no nap)
6-129-12 hours12-15 (no nap)
*Use these wake windows as guidelines to help determine your child’s sleep needs. Remember, every child is unique!

For example, if your preschooler wakes up at 7 a.m., and has a nap from 1-3 p.m., they may not be tired enough for bed at 7 p.m. because their body doesn’t need 14hrs of sleep in a 24hr period. In this case, you can either shorten their nap so their total sleep falls within the guidelines for their age, or push bedtime back to increase the wake window before bed.

I recommend tracking your child’s wake times and sleep times to help you determine a sleep schedule that works for your child. 

Tuning in with your toddler’s sleep needs is a practical way to know where to make changes. Instead of expecting them to fall asleep when we put them to bed, and fighting with them for hours, we can use the guidelines above and shift our expectations based on our unique children. 

Your toddler or preschooler doesn’t have to cry it out. We can simply set more realistic expectations, and proactively support their specific sleep needs.

Related Post: Why Won’t My Child Calm Down at Bedtime? Let’s Talk About Sleep Pressure.

Strategy 3: Switch Up the Bedtime Routine

Sometimes tantrums become a part of the routine. Stalling after storytime, melting down while brushing their teeth, or crying when the lights go out… tantrums can start to become predictable occurrences. 

If your child has a predictable bedtime routine that includes a meltdown, their brains might be getting stuck in a pattern. Your child’s brain might associate the end of a book or the lights switching off with the start of a tantrum.

Switching up the routine can help break this pattern! 

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

3 Ways to Break Negative Bedtime Patterns

1. Switch the Order of the Bedtime Routine

Switching up the routine might be as simple as creating a visual bedtime checklist. Visual schedules can help your little one maintain predictability, while shifting the pattern in the brain. You can draw out the plan or print it off and put it on their bedroom door to make it accessible.

2. Slow Down the Bedtime Routine

Changing the length of the bedtime routine can also help your child break up the negative associations. Try bumping the routine up 20 minutes earlier to prevent your child from feeling rushed, especially if they’re highly sensitive. This can also give you an opportunity to build in more connection time (maybe even an extra book) with your little one before bed.

3. Change How You Do the Bedtime Routine

There is no one-size-fits all bedtime routine and there are lots of ways to mix it up to break the pattern. Instead of reading the same books every night, shake things up by telling a story. Whether it’s make-belief or a story from your own childhood, telling a new story can shake up the routine and boost connection. 

Remember to give your child as much notice as possible if you decide to make big changes to your routine. Helping your child know what to expect might sound like: 

“Hey Zoe, we’re going to change up the routine at bedtime. Let’s draw it out together before you go to preschool!”

“I think it’s time to switch up the routine tonight. I noticed you had a lot of energy before bed, so we’re going to do some movement before we settle down for story time. Would you like to play chase or hide-and-seek?”

“We’re going to make a change to our bedtime routine! We’ll start getting ready at 6:15 p.m. Would you like me to set an alarm so you know when it’s time?”

If you’re looking for more sleep solutions that don’t involve leaving your little one to cry, check out our Solving Bedtime Battles course! Packed with easy-to-digest lessons, practical bedtime tools, visual bedtime schedules, and so much more, this course is your guide to better sleep!

Key Takeaways

  1. There are alternatives to help your child sleep better that don’t involve crying-it-out or “self-soothing.”
  2. Bridging the separation between you and your child during bedtime can help them feel safe and connected through the night.
  3. Tracking wake windows and adjusting sleep schedules can improve your child’s sleep. Wake windows change as they get older and so do their sleep needs.
  4. Changing your bedtime routine can break negative associations with the routine.
  5. Set realistic expectations and proactively support your child’s sleep needs.
  6. Visual schedules and clear (and early) communication can help ease transitions or changes in the bedtime routine.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.