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, 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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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.