Let's Talk About Toddler Sleep
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Let's talk some real talk about toddler sleep.
For some kiddos, the ebb and flow of sleep evens out after the first year, and they may ask for little to no nighttime parenting at night.
For others, even those who slept large stretches at night early on in the first year of life, toddler sleep can come with night wakings and a need for nighttime parenting.
As I've shared before (see blog), part of being a Certified Infant Sleep Educator means understanding sleep as developmental and deeply connected to attachment as well as a huge spectrum of normal variation from child to child, even in the same family with the same parenting. So what this means is not only is it on the spectrum of normal for your child to need you at night more (or less) than your best friend's child, it is also on the spectrum of normal for one of your own children to need you at night more than an older or younger sibling did.
For context, a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics demonstrates that "sleeping through the night" (which they defined as a 6 or 8-hour stretch) is not found in the majority of 6 month olds and that even at 12 months of age a significant percentage of those in their study were sleeping less than a 6-hour stretch without nighttime parenting.
And, this does not account for how many times even those deemed sleeping through the night woke after that first stretch - meaning a 12-month-old could have slept for 6 hours and then woken every hour after that for nighttime parenting (for a total 4+ night wakings in a given night) and they STILL included that child in the group that slept through the night.
So what about sleep norms after year one? You can expect lots of variability based on child personality and developmental moment. For instance, a child working really hard on walking will likely wake more frequently than a child who has mastered this skill.
When I work with clients one-on-one going through a tricky patch of toddler sleep, one thing we talk about a lot is the notion of progression v. regression. While we tend to label these rough patches with more night waking as a regression, I often ask my clients to share with me where they are seeing progression in their child's development - motor, language, social skills, etc. Most often they share that their child is working on so very much at that exact moment.
How can framing rough patches of toddler sleep in terms of progressions help us? Instead of thinking of sleep and development as a line, I prefer the image of a spiral, where we picture our child moving on that spiral, working on some skills in that perfect developmental moment and perhaps needing more emotional support and physical reassurance from us before moving to a new place on the spiral.
Most significantly, when we recognize our children as working out something tricky and in need of more support instead of a quick fix, we can offer them what they need AND see that as caregivers in an intense season of parenting WE need more support to - asking for help and accepting it when offered.
This doesn't mean we have to simply "wait it out" - if you feel resentful of your sleep situation and are called to make a change, gentle, respectful transitions are totally possible, and perhaps just what your family needs. (If you think gentle and respectful sounds awesome, but you need more support to get there, check out my one-on-one consultations where we develop a Sleep Strategy Package tailored to your specific family values and unique sleep situation.)
Because all toddler sleep situations are varied and family sleep situations are unique, it can be hard to provide generalizations that speak broadly to toddler sleep. Instead, I'm going to share with you a snapshot of toddler sleep in our house RIGHT NOW, and how we work with the flow of the spiral.
***Because sleep situations and family situations are UNIQUE this is not a prescription or a "should" for you - rather, it is a personal account of our little family. What works for YOUR family likely looks very different, and that's okay!***
If you follow along with Nested Mama, you'll likely know that not too long ago my littlest made a grand leap and asked to start sleeping in her "little beddy" rather than the "big bed." (Read that adventure over here.)
While that first night was, ehem, eventful to say the least, she has gone on to start every night in her little bed and even wakes a majority of mornings still in that space, with a nighttime pilgrimage to the big bed occurring a few times a week in the early morning hours. This gentle transition to solo sleep with occasional shared sleep works perfectly for our little family in our right now.
Long view, littlest will move to share a room with big siblings (and she has even asked some nights to start out in their room!), but for now, we wait until she seems fully ready to make that choice on her own.
Having made this transition and finding it works well for us all, does that mean she never needs nighttime parenting? If I'm honest, I find I sleep more deeply without her often horizontal positioning in our bed - those rib kicks can be brutal! But, as I'd expect for her age and personality, she still wakes some nights and calls out for parental assistance.
Why then does she wake?
-wet nighttime diaper
While many of these are areas we actively encourage independence (grabbing a drink of water from the bottle next to her bed, taking herself to the bathroom, taking off her pjs when hot, and so forth), she still feels most confident announcing even these independent actions to us - and that's okay.
This sleep situation works for ALL of us - no one is frustrated or resentful. We feel confident that she will manage these nighttime needs when ready and make her way on the spiral in her own time.
We've found balance in our nighttime parenting where everyone's needs are met, and we know that a transition to more independence is on the horizon.
So what does toddler sleep look like? As with baby sleep, toddler sleep can look different from night to night, month to month, and child to child. But, most importantly, it isn't an all or nothing, you vs. your child thing - at least, it doesn't have to be. With understanding, support, and gentle transitions when needed, it can be exactly what you all need it to be.
Registration now open for Gentle Transitions: a toddler sleep workshop taught LIVE via small group webinar. Find all dates and details here.
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My reaction: I love reading books that gather and work through the research, and Nichols certainly does that in this book. She also nicely includes highlighted statements and summary sections, so if you are more interested in her conclusions than how she gets there, you can get a nice handle on the material in a short amount of time. I especially enjoyed Chapter 4 where Nichols works through recommendations on lunch meat, alcohol and more. I also appreciated the balanced approach she takes when she notes that first-trimester nausea may make a diet overhaul unrealistic, but that it is something you can work toward as you feel able. And, she also shares that eating "real food" doesn't have to be all or nothing. As with so much in pregnancy and parenting, having the information you need to make the best choices for your family - even if those choices include small-scale changes in prenatal nutrition rather than following her advice to the letter - is what truly matters.
Some quotes of note:
"Part of listening to your body is recognizing when your food choices don't leave you feeling well and making a mindful choice to opt for a more nutritionally balanced option the next time you eat. Your body deserves nourishing foods and you deserve to enjoy your food. There is a place for these two things to coexist" (27).
"Calorie and macronutrient needs vary widely and there fore there's not a single meal plan that will work for all women" (82).
"When you ignore your hunger cues, you tend to ignore your fullness cues as well" (26).
Real Food for Pregnancy gives you all the research with practical ways to apply it to your eating during pregnancy. While some nutrition books can load you with pressure, this one incorporates mindfulness and emphasizes that we are all different, making plenty of room for you to take what you need from the book without feeling completely overwhelmed. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking to trouble shoot their pregnancy nutrition or make changes preconception.
Looking for more evidence-based info as you prepare for birth and baby? Nested Mama offers a full range of classes including childbirth education, breastfeeding, infant sleep education, and planning for postpartum.
Johanna received a Ph.D. in English in 2014. Now a postpartum doula and educator of childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.