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Consistency and a good bedtime routine are as important for toddlers and preschoolers as they are for babies. But some things are changing as your baby grows up: Nighttime sleep becomes even more of a priority because many children switch from two naps to one around 18 months. And with kids this age, there are also more sleep-busting distractions to contend with, including electronic media like smartphones, tables and TV.
Here's what the experts say can help your 1- to 4-year-old get a good night's sleep:
Keep the bedtime routine short and sweet
An elaborate variety show – a bath, three books, two songs, and a back rub – can stretch on indefinitely. "Before you know it, your well-intentioned sleep routine turns from transition time to playtime for your child," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, a pediatrician and author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn & Infant.
LoFrumento suggests that parents of kids who resist sleep keep the post-bath bedtime routine brief, no longer than 15 minutes. (Longer is fine if your child falls asleep easily.) That should be all the time you need to put on pajamas, read two short books, and say goodnight, she says.
Recognize when your child needs more sleep
"One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not connecting a child's sleep to his daytime behavior," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. She attributes many of the behaviors labeled as terrible twos to signs of sleep deprivation. "Fussiness, whininess, fighting with siblings – all have their roots in the lack of a good night's sleep." Her advice? Move up bedtime.
Set a bedtime – and stick to it
Kids sleep best when they're on a regular schedule. So pick a bedtime you can commit to, preferably some time between 7 and 8 p.m. "These kids aren't looking at the clock to see what time it is," says Pantley. "They're simply waiting for someone to tell them it's time for bed."
Keep the room cool
Sure, 76 degrees Fahrenheit sounds cozy for a young child's bedroom, but the ideal sleeping temperature is cool and comfortable. And a sharp drop in body temperature can induce sleepiness, which is why giving your child a warm bath before moving her into a cool bedroom is so effective. So nudge the thermostat lower – between 65 and 70 is about right – at least an hour before bedtime.
Dim the lights and minimize distractions
A good sleep environment is not only cool, it's quiet. So keep anything with a screen – TV, tablet, phone – out of your child's room. If your child is sensitive to sound and light, try using a white noise machine and room-darkening shades. Establishing a comfy spot in your child's room to read and cuddle before bed can also create soothing transition to sleep.
Wake your child up at the same time every day
Children are more likely to sleep well if they get up at roughly the same time every day (give or take 30 minutes). Fight the urge to let them sleep in on weekends. "What we are doing is asking our children to live in two different time zones – a weekday zone and a weekend zone," says Pantley. "As a result, they get perpetual jet lag."
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