What to Expect when Sleep Training a Toddler or Preschooler

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What to Expect when Sleep Training a Toddler or Preschooler

17+ months

Aug 25, 2022

Wondering what it’s really like when it comes to sleep training a toddler or preschooler?

 In this episode of the Little Z’s Sleep podcast, Sarah Leach and I are digging into what to expect when sleep training a child instead of a baby!

Who is considered a toddler or preschooler? 

When we talk about a toddler or a preschooler, we are referring to two different ages. 

The Little Z’s Toddler Sleep Training program is for children ages 17 months to three years old. This age is trained in a crib.

The Little Z’s Preschool Sleep Training program is for children ages 3 years and older. This age is trained in an open bed!

These two programs are very different than my Baby Sleep Training course ,which is for little ones ages 4-16 months.

Over the years I’ve developed a special place in my heart for families who are training toddlers and preschoolers because we all know that you’re dealing with a child who can interact with you using their words and emotions in very clear ways. They aren’t a baby anymore! 

Toddlers and preschoolers can cry out for you, or express that they are afraid of the dark, or tell you that they are having nightmares.

The sleep training process is more complex with a child than it is with a baby.

And arguably, that’s what makes these programs so rewarding!

Preparing to sleep train your toddler or preschooler

When it comes to sleep training, there is nothing more rewarding than working with a family who has a four or a five year old who has NEVER slept through the night!

The toddler and preschool programs are my favorite programs because although they require a lot of perseverance and diligence, they are as I have said, so rewarding.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to prepare your mind and your heart for what is to come!

Step One: Acknowledge your current reality 

First of all, the most important thing to do when you are about to sleep train a toddler or preschooler is to take a step back and acknowledge your current reality.

What is going on right now?

Maybe your child is getting up three to four times a night, or coming to your room, or calling out for you.  

It’s really crucial to write down and acknowledge what is actually going on with your child’s sleep.

My first question when working with a toddler or preschool family is, “Can you tell me about last night?” 

Sometimes, this is the first time they have stopped to think about what is actually happening when their child sleeps. 

That’s HUGE.

When you are in the trenches with a child who isn’t sleeping through the night, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just doing it. 

In fact, so much of the sleep training process for toddlers and preschoolers is actually RETRAINING the actions of the parent.

I can’t begin to count the times I’ve heard a parent say, 

“I know it’s me.”

 “I know I just need to change.” 

“I know I just need to stop letting them do this.” 

As the parent, you’ve finally realized that you are LETTING your child do this or that before bedtime or during the middle of the night. 

So – pause for a moment – and look at what’s ACTUALLY happening. 

As a team of sleep consultants, my team and I are coming to the table and sharing with you that it’s our desire and passion to help you THROUGH this and to change your current reality. 

Just like you wouldn’t hire a personal trainer or invest in a diet nutrition program only to lie about how much you are exercising or what you are eating, you wouldn’t hire a trained sleep consultant only to lie about what is or isn’t happening when it comes to your child’s sleeping habits. 

You have to come to the table with the truth.

We’re here to listen to you and to support you through this process.

We know you’re in survival mode, and its okay. we’re not judging you for what’s going on. 

So stop, and acknowledge the truth as it’s VITAL to your sleep training progress and success!

Step Two: Identify your goals 

Not only is it crucial to acknowledge your current reality, but it’s also extremely important to focus on what your goal is throughout the sleep training process.

What’s your goal(s) for sleep training?

What do you want to see? 

Don’t settle for a low-bar goal with your toddler or preschooler.

They are MORE than capable to sleep a full 11-12 hours at night!

But don’t stop there – Your goals shouldn’t just include the amount of sleep you want your child to get. 

Rather, I want you to look at the domino effect that sleep has on all aspects of your life and consider those areas too. 

Maybe your goal includes you being able to hire a babysitter so that you can go on a date night, or a girls’ trip, or a night out by yourself somewhere.

Maybe your goal is that you and your toddler or preschooler can now transition to having a successful, independent, quiet time instead of mindlessly watching YouTube videos on your phone while you rub their back – or whatever the situation might be.

What goal(s) are you and your child trying to reach? 

What would it mean for you to have a whole night of sleep?

What would it mean for your job? Your marriage, friendship, child? 

Write your goals down and make them VISIBLE so you can refer back to them again and again. 

Step Three: Understand the impacts of sleep deprivation

Dr. Matthew Walker, the author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams explains that,

“Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.”

We used to think that when you were sleeping you were comatose and that your brain was off and nothing was going on. 

But now with modern research, we are forced to believe that there is literally no part of your body that goes untouched by the benefits of sleep.

Just do a quick google search of, “The impacts of sleep deprivation.”

You will see that sleep deprivation affects everything you could possibly imagine. 

When you are sleep deprived, you can’t regulate your emotions or appetite. You’re also at a higher risk for heart disease, obesity and the list goes on.

But let this contrasting fact sink in.

When your child sleeps, 75% of their growth hormones are secreted.

Is that not AMAZING? 

However, if your child is not sleeping, or if they’re getting broken sleep, then that’s directly hindering their growth and overall development.

As parents, we don’t ever want to hinder our child’s growth and development. 

We desire for our child to be healthy, strong and vibrant.

However, if you are in survival mode and your child is waking up throughout the night, asking for a snack, or a back rub, or a song, or cuddles in your bed, then that is DIRECTLY hindering their ability to grow and develop. 

And you, as the parent, are being hindered by this as well.

You feel the strain personally and in your relationships.

You’re living in survival mode. 

But sleep can be a thing for you and your family!!

You don’t HAVE to be sleep deprived.

The benefits of sleep undoubtedly bring a deeper sense of happiness and enjoyment to all aspects of your life and your child’s life. 

Consider the affects that sleep deprivation have on you and your child and let those drive you to a deeper place of commitment when it comes to sleep training.

What to Expect When Sleep Training a Toddler or Preschooler

You did it! You’ve decided to take the plunge and sleep train your toddler or preschooler. You’ve marked Night 1 on your calendar and you’ve committed to following the program for three solid weeks. You’ve read and watched through all of your materials and you’re ready to begin.

So what should you expect?

Expect there to be protest

You’re going to be radically changing whatever your toddler or preschooler is used to doing before they go to sleep.

Expect your child to PROTEST!

When you go in and explain that you are going to do bedtime routine a new way that’s going to help them sleep better, they are not going to understand. 

Instead, they are going to protest the new changes in the only way they know how!

They are going to cry, or reach for you, or whine and fuss.

Your toddler may stand up in their crib, demanding you to pick them up. 

Your preschooler may get out of their bed and try to leave their room.

That’s all normal when it comes to sleep training and it’s extremely important to remember that,

Teaching your child to sleep might be one of the first things you teach them in life but it’s certainly not going to be the last thing.

They’re going to learn to ride a bike, tie their shoes, use the potty, and read.

New skills can be challenging and frustrating and it’s normal that children do not like to do them at first. 

As parents, it’s not our job to remove them from these situations but rather to help them THROUGH these learning experiences! 

So expect your toddler or preschooler to protest and expect them to dislike the change. 

Practical ways to lessen the amount of protesting

Although there will likely be protesting, there are a few practical things you can do to set your child up for success and limit the amount of protesting.

Both of my toddler and preschool programs focus deeply on your child’s bedtime routine and how it can be an encouragement and confidence builder for them. 

First things first, it’s CRUCIAL that you provide your toddler or preschooler with a consistent, clear bedtime routine.

(Not sure what a bedtime routine should look like for your child? Check out my Ideal Bedtime Routine for Kids (Toddler and Preschooler) HERE and my Ideal Bedtime Routine for Babies HERE. )

No matter if it’s mom, dad, a babysitter, an older sibling, or grandma putting them to bed, your child deserves and desires to know what to expect when it comes to going to sleep and a solid, consistent bedtime routine will provide them with the necessary confidence to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Next, it’s extremely helpful to instill and build your child’s confidence DURING their bedtime routine.

They need to believe that they really can sleep in their own crib or bed.

They also need to know that you believe in them!

One way to easily and practically build your child’s confidence is by focusing on what they are doing WELL during the bedtime routine – even if what they are doing seems very ordinary to you!

“You did so well putting on your pajamas tonight!”

“I LOVED playing with you in your bedroom, you’re so much fun!”

“It takes a lot of effort to take a bath, use the potty and brush your teeth but you did it!”

A consistent bedtime routine that is showered with words or encouragement will lead you and your child to more progress and less protesting. 

Expect to second guess yourself

I want you to keep your goals visible because you will have moments when you think to yourself, “What am I doing? Do I need to go “rescue” them? Is it okay that they are crying for this long? 

You truly do need to push through the first few nights because the change does get easier as your toddler or preschooler begins to master the new skill and expectations of independent sleep. 

(I know there are a lot of you who do not want to “push through” for fear of it damaging your child. You are not damaging your child during this process and crying is all a part of the process! In fact, check out my post on How Much Crying is Involved in Sleep Training? where I talk about this in greater detail! )

It’s really helpful to think of your child’s emotions as “dark tunnels.”

Emotions are like dark tunnels and we’re the train moving through the dark tunnel. It’s necessary to move all the way through the tunnel and a period of darkness (deeper, unregulated emotions) in order to get to the “light”  at the end of the tunnel –  (lighter, regulated emotions).

There are no short cuts when it comes to exiting a tunnel. You have to travel all the way through it to reach the other side. 

The same can be said about experiencing our emotions and regulating them.

Toddlers and preschoolers can have big emotions and as parents it’s easy to feel really uncomfortable when they cry or protest.

As a result of this discomfort, we try to prevent our distract our child from experiencing these types of emotions at all.

However, parental discomfort can lead you to over-responding to your child’s emotions, preventing them from ever successfully regulating their emotions at all. 

In order for your child to learn how to regulate their own emotions they must be able to travel all the way through the “tunnel” (emotion). 

It’s true that the sleep training process helps to teach your child how to both self-regulate and self-soothe.

Self-regulating and self-soothing are invaluable skills for toddlers and preschoolers to learn and we shouldn’t let our discomfort as parents get in the way of that.

Expect to provide physical and emotional support

When it comes to sleep training your toddler or preschooler, you’re not going to try to explain the process to them. 

They simply will not understand that if they learn to sleep in this new way, they will be healthier and happier. 

Rather, you are going to provide tangible strategies of support for them throughout the process. 

In both our toddler and preschool programs you will be providing emotional and physical support whenever it is necessary. 

You are not going to have to stay out of the room for hours on end while your child cries and protests. 

[Want to learn even more about the sleep training methods we use in our programs? Check out my YouTube video on Baby Sleep Training Methods Explained (Ferber Method, Cry It Out Method)]

In the preschool program, you are actually going to begin the program by sitting in your child’s room the first few nights of training. This is because we want your child to know you’re right there, supporting them as they learn the new skill of independent sleep.

Supporting your child and offering them comfort throughout this journey is vital. 

It’s not about giving them an “out,” but rather a boost of confidence and assurance that they CAN do this!

Expect your child’s progress to be unique to them

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably wondering,

“When will I begin to see progress with my toddler or preschooler?”

It’s true that sleep training a toddler or a preschooler is a longer process than training a baby because it takes a lot of work and consistency to make a clear and consistent change in your family’s everyday habits and rhythms.

Your child is used to your family’s current rhythm when it comes to sleeping, potentially the only rhythm they’ve ever known, and old habits are hard to break. 

Because of this, progress and success with training will look different for every child.

This is why my toddler and preschool programs are longer, a full 3-weeks in length. 

Some children show progress after night three, and others won’t show progress until the very end of the program. 

However long it takes, your child WILL be happier and more well rested.

Occasionally, it may even if it take longer than 21 days to really solidify the new habits, expectations, and skills.

LONGER?!

Yes! Sometimes, there are a few things that haven’t been completely resolved throughout the 21 days of training that you will need to continue to work on.

If your child is three to five years old and has NEVER slept through the night, then it’s very possible that it will take them longer three, short weeks to build their new foundation of sleep. This is because they have a lot of new ground to cover. Again, old habits die hard!

The older the child is, the longer it may take to see progress. 

Most importantly, you shouldn’t feel like you are doing something wrong if you’re not seeing instant change or an instant turnaround. 

Sleep training a toddler or preschooler takes time, patience, and perseverance and it’s not going to magically happen overnight. 

Need additional support?

As the parent or caregiver, you’re investing a lot of effort and time into this process of sleep training and we are here to help you every step of the way!

My favorite avenue of additional support that’s included right in your program is the daily voice memo feature. 

Once you begin your training journey, a daily voice memo (from me, Becca!) will be sent to your email every day during the training process!

Each daily voice memo will provide you with all you need to know for that specific day of training.

I’ll tell you when a regression is about to occur, when it’s time to move to the next strategy, and how to successfully implement a reward system that works for your child.  

If the daily voice memos don’t address everything you are concerned with or wondering about, it might be necessary for you to talk directly to a trained sleep consultant about your child’s specific situation! 

At any point during the sleep training process, you can:

  1. Schedule a 30-minute phone support appointment 
  2. Purchase two weeks of live chat support

My team of trained sleep consultants LOVE partnering with families who are currently carrying out the sleep training process.

You can chat with them over the phone or through our live chat support.

Whatever avenue you choose, our team is ready to assist you with any and all questions that you might have when it comes to sleep training a toddler or a preschooler. 

Ready to make sleep a thing for your family? 

It’s no surprise that the ultimate goal of all of our programs is to become a well rested family. 

Yes, we definitely want your child to be well rested.

But we want YOU to be well rested, too!

Above all else, we want you to truly ENJOY being a parent instead of feeling like you are in survival mode every single day.

You only get this time in your life with your children once. If you and your family are not currently joyful and thriving, then it’s never too late to make sleep a thing for ALL of you!

Why not make tonight the night? 

Get your child’s sleep plan HERE so you can begin sleep training your toddler or preschooler and ALL of you can be happier, healthier and more well rested. 

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