How to get Babies/Toddlers to Sleep: Techniques That Really Work

Everything is a Phase, Part 1: Sleep

Parenting is full of truly terrifying moments. Google any day-to-day parenting concern, however, and you will find countless pages of fear where it does not belong. Nowhere is this fear-mongering more present than in the realm of baby/toddler/preschooler sleep.

If you rock your baby to sleep, you’ll be doing it forever.

If you snuggle your toddler to sleep, you’ll be doing it forever.

If you let your child climb into bed with you in the middle of the night, you’ll be doing it forever.

The truth? You won’t be doing ANYTHING forever. Every child is different. Your child may resist changes at times, but the resistance is temporary, and a new phase will always come along.

I wrote about my experience with baby sleep and following Beatrice’s lead on my blog when she was about 9 months old ( At the end of that blog post, I was trying to decide whether we should take more aggressive action to help her start sleeping through the night.

Spoiler alert: we did nothing. Beatrice is strong-willed and intensely emotional. I won’t say which trait comes from which parent. This particular combination of personalities in our family does not bode well for sleep training. After a couple of heart-breaking (and failed) cry-it-out attempts, we decided to give Beatrice what she needed.

When I went back to work at 13 months, we started bringing her into bed with us whenever she cried because I had to wake too early to be getting up multiple times a night to nurse. We had never coslept before that.

When Beatrice started to get hysterical every time we left the room during bedtime at 22 months, one of us had to stay in the room with her until she fell asleep, sometimes for up to an hour. Before that, she had been going to sleep on her own since she was an infant.

At times, I worried that we were going backward with her sleep. But sleep was the goal, and we were willing to do whatever it took to make sure we all got some.

So, what’s happening now that Beatrice is 3 years old?

She goes to sleep BY HERSELF in her own bed and stays there ALL NIGHT. What did we do to make it happen? Very little, aside from testing the waters every so often. When Beatrice was 22 months, I stopped nursing her in the middle of the night, which was made easier by the fact that she was in bed with us and I could cuddle her instead. When Beatrice was 2.5, she was finally able to play along with an awesome bedtime game called, “I’m going to leave the room and will check on you when you are peaceful.” And miraculously, a few months before her baby sister was born, she stopped calling for us to get her at 2am … unless she either needs to pee or has peed in her bed already (which is another blog post, ha!).

If you are experiencing sleep challenges with your child, one of the best resources I found was this infographic by “gentle parenting” expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith: The chart illustrates the non-linear nature of baby/toddler sleep development and was so reassuring during those moments when I worried about regressing. I also took her advice to use a red night light in the room, as all other light colors send signals to the brain that it is daytime. Our night light is actually an essential oils diffuser that has a red light option (and an auto shut-off timer), and we alternate between diffusing lavender and Roman chamomile essential oils during bedtime for extra sleepy dust magic.

We may have a few months of blissful sleep under our belts, but I’m sure that is just another phase. Bedtime success arrived in time to help us weather a return to newborn parenting (not to mention epic 3-year-old tantrums), which means the whole sleep cycle is about to begin again. Repeat with me: it’s just a phase, just a phase, just a phase …

Sarah McLanahan, M.S.Ed., LICSW, lives in Gloucester, MA with her husband and two daughters. She has worked for several years supporting families of very young children through the daily highs and lows that accompany the transition to parenthood. With her own family, she tries to make sustainable and healthy choices when time and budget permit, a journey you can read more about on her blog, Tales of Expansion.

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