Sleep Crutches: Toddler Tuesday Edition

Elyn Cone

In Part 2 of our series, sleep expert Carolina Romanyuk helps us get a toddler to bed.

A few weeks ago, we gave you some tips on tossing sleep crutches for your new baby. Today, we move on to the big kids.

Picture it: Little Ava, 4 months old, goes quietly down for bedtime in her crib. An hour later she wakes and starts crying. You enter right away, feed her and sing her a gentle lullaby while rocking in your luxurious cotton-blend upholstered glider, with your daughter’s little perfect body in your arms. While gazing at her and memorizing every part of her, even the curvature of her perfect ears, you feel complete, and wish that this feeling will never end.

Now fast forward a few months to 1 year or even 2, and little Ava is still being fed, sung to, and rocked to sleep. The main difference now is that she is older and way bigger. Your focus and functionality level are beginning to deplete because your lack of sleep from the amount of time you need to rock her has increased. So instead of a 10-minute rocking session right before bed, now it’s more like 10 minutes rocking plus 10 minutes bouncing plus singing a lullaby in your most talented Mariah Carey voice. You’re beyond exhausted and want to stop but don’t know how because it’s the only tool you know that has worked to get Ava to sleep.

These practical behavioral tools–rocking, bouncing, using a pacifier, etc.–are very common. They have many positive associations. Yet when they begin to interfere with sleep or become a necessity in order to fall asleep, then it becomes a negative association, better known as a “Sleep Crutch.”

Think about it: If you consistently rocked yourself to sleep every day, you begin to assume that the natural process for you to go to sleep is to be rocked first. Without this tool, you will feel uneasy since you have become accustomed to it. But I’m here to tell you that it IS possible to help your child and yourself to be free from these crutches and begin a healthy sleep foundation so they can go to sleep, stay asleep and wake up happy…including you!

Below are the top 3 common Sleep Crutches for Toddlers. But before you begin implementing the solutions, try them at night first, then follow through during the day. Consistency is key and nighttime is the longest period where your new tricks can begin working their magic.

And while you’re reading through our Sleep Crutch Countdown, check some of the cutest new toddler PJs out there for fall.

3. Falling Asleep In Your Arms

THE DILEMMA: The only way your child will fall asleep is if they are in your arms. Then you gently place them in the crib doing something I call “The Ninja Move.” Your baby falls asleep FINALLY! You place them in the crib, SLOWLY. All your joints are locked like a submarine going underwater–safe and secure. You’re scared that the smallest release will unleash the wake-up. The eyelids shoot open like a firecracker. They lock eyes with yours because, uh oh, they know you’re going to escape. Then the mouth slowly opens and a siren sound comes out. You quickly jump back into position to save the rest of the family from the cries. Once you finish counting up to 200 in your head, it’s the time! The Ninja Escape Route begins.

THE SOLUTION: Put your LO down drowsy but awake. We want him to be aware of his surroundings when placed in his super comfy crib. We don’t want to fake him to sleep. This means, that if he falls asleep in your arms, the last thing he remembers is you holding him. If he wakes up at night and is in his crib with no recollection of how he got there, that could stir up the heebie-geebies in anyone. So for all bedtimes and naps, put your LO down drowsy but still aware of their surroundings.

2. Pacifier Withdrawal

THE DILEMMA: When your toddler is hooked on the paci for nighttime or naps and can’t fall asleep without it.

THE SOLUTION: With a toddler, you may confront pacifier withdrawal more directly or with a more gradual approach. If you notice yourself constantly waking in the night searching for his paci in his crib or on the floor, with the lights barely on because you don’t want to “fully” wake him, then it’s time to withdraw. Here are 2 approaches:

  1. Limiting the pacifier for bedtime and naps only
  2. Cold Turkey – Out of Sight Out Of Mind! Do a trade-in. I got this idea from my friend Susie Parker over at Sleep Baby Love. This means you can trade the pacifier in for a special treat or toy at your child’s favorite store. Literally have your child hand the pacifier to the cashier so he can’t get it back and, in return, he will receive a new toy. Then praise him for being so brave and strong.

In my opinion, pacifiers only become an inconvenience when they have to be repeatedly given back to your LO right after it falls out. Yet, if he just needs a pacifier to help him soothe at night, and if it falls out when sleeping and doesn’t need to be replaced, I think it’s perfectly fine to let it be. I honestly don’t think he will be going to college with a binky in his mouth.

1. Constant Movement: Rocking / Bouncing / Strolling

THE DILEMMA: These are the most popular Sleep Crutches and often begin at a young age. It is wonderful that you can hold and rock your precious baby to sleep. But once he starts needing you as his own personal soothing technique, that can be uncomfortable, in which this once-special bond now interferes with your sleep as well.

THE SOLUTION: I’m going, to be honest here: cold turkey is the best way to go. I know it sounds impossible, but trust me, it’s the easiest and best option in the long run for your child and for you as well. When you’re in constant motion, you don’t give your body and brain the chance to fully relax, re-energize and grow. For instance, when you’re in a moving car and you fall asleep (in the passenger’s seat), you’re still in awake mode. Once the car stops, you automatically awake. The same thought process for when bouncing/rocking/strolling.


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