I bet you didn’t know that you CAN sleep train your child even if they are not a baby! As a certified sleep consultant, I serve families with little ones through the age of 7 years old to help get them sleeping through the night. Most families and professionals in our community are surprised to hear this because there is a perception that sleep training can only happen up until a certain magical age, and then you’re doomed for life. I get it! When we think of sleep training, we think of babies and crying and not of toddlers and pushing limits at bedtime or pre-schoolers who are still sleeping in the family bed. At that point, parents resort to the sentiment of “it’s too late” or “it is what it is” and try to make the best of their current sleep situation because they may not be aware of the resources that are available to help them make a change.
So what is the best age to sleep train a child? Honestly- ANYTIME between the ages of 4 months and 7 years old.
But how do you know what is the best time for YOUR child and YOUR family? Because the answer to this question is so variable, in short, if your sleep situation is no longer serving you or causing more stress than calm in your life, it may be an appropriate time to consider behavioral sleep modifications for your child. This comes at a different age for every family I work with, therefore, you may be able to resonate with some scenarios I commonly encounter.
A mom who is 4 months postpartum and realizes that continuous sleep deprivation negatively affects her mood and/or ability to appropriately function during the day. This ongoing lack of sleep is triggering mood swings, anxiety, and resentment toward her partner who seemingly sleeps through most of the night wakings. This mom knows that improving her baby’s sleep situation will allow her to get the rest she needs in order to take on the daily load of mothering a child.
A mom of a 10 month old who has been an “okay” sleeper, but never seemed to get on track. Mom experiences some weeks of sleeping through the night and other weeks of multiple night wakings, leaving her with lots of questions to be answered by Google at 2:00 a.m. When sleep runs completely off the rails, she decides that it is time to understand her child’s sleeping habits and establish healthy, restorative sleep for the whole family.
A mom of a 2 year old who may have been previously sleep trained, but began to refuse their nap, which started to cause multiple night wakings. Mom is expecting another baby and due to the exhaustion, has resorted to bringing her toddler into bed with her to reduce the likelihood of a tantrum and get a few extra hours of precious sleep (next to a child who sleeps like an octopus). When Mom realizes that this behavior is not just a phase, she knows she has to get things in order before the baby comes. She doesn’t want to be up in the middle of the night with 2 kids!
A mom of a 3 year old who has never been the best sleeper, but eventually figured it out…until they decided to start crib climbing or needed to be transitioned to the big kid bed to make space for a younger sibling. This has now turned into a battle at bedtime, taking mom hours to finally get them to fall asleep only to be awakened by unexpected “curtain calls” at mom and dad’s bedside in the middle of the night. Not only is this preventing the caregivers from getting adequate sleep, but the 3 year old’s behavior is becoming more difficult to manage and they may even be having a hard time taking a nap as a result of the reduced night time sleep. (Yes! That is a thing…less sleep can cause less sleep, just as more sleep causes more sleep.) Mom shortly realizes she needs help with the behavior at bedtime and guidance through night wakings in order to get sleep on track for once and for all.
A mom of a 5 year old who has officially given up naps, pushed bedtime a little later, but is experiencing bedtime anxiety and therefore trying all of the stalling tactics in the book to prevent sleep from happening. They absolutely need consolidated rest in order to help prevent nightmares or night terrors, but are so panicked about all of the things that they cannot settle to sleep and easily waken in the middle of the night. As a result of not taking anymore naps, and possibly being in full-day school, there are little opportunities to make up for sleep during the day, causing a sleep deprivation cycle. Mom wants help in creating a positive sleep environment, preventing bedtime stalling, and is surprised to hear that “sleep training” is not just for babies.
How to Sleep Train at Different Ages
If you are excited to learn that your child falls into the appropriate age range within which to make positive sleep changes, but are wondering what this involves, here’s a brief overview of what I focus on according to general age groups.
Keep in mind that there are several different methods that you can use to sleep train, which should be chosen according to your child’s learning style and your parenting style. However, the method is just part of the success of sleep training. Consistency, environment, routines, and practice are all equal players in the big picture of teaching healthy sleep habits.
At this age, we focus on sleep schedules and sleep associations in order to encourage independent sleep that happens at the right time. We adjust sleep needs based on circadian rhythms and biological clocks while helping them learn the skill of falling asleep on their own (with Mom or Dad nearby).
18 Months-3 Years
While children are still in a crib and napping, sleep training at this age is as much about schedules as it is about positive behavior support and establishing healthy rules and boundaries around sleep. Parents are guided not only through routines and independent sleep, but assisted with any behaviors that likely increase sleep refusal.
At this age, naps are likely gone and little ones are now enjoying a big kid bed. The focus becomes less on schedules (although I still recommend a bedtime of no later than 8:00 p.m.) and instead involves building trust and teaching children mindfulness and calming strategies to help alleviate or eliminate bedtime fears and anxieties.
Is Sleep Training Right for You?
Sleep is not a luxury. Sleep is a biological need for both you and your little one’s growing and developing brain and body.
Sleep deprivation is not a badge of motherhood that you are required to wear. You are allowed to sleep and you are allowed to teach your children how to sleep in healthy ways, because this is a skill they will benefit from their entire lives.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated by your sleep situation, and ready for a change, you may be ready to sleep train. It can be immensely helpful to have someone guiding you through the process with your child’s unique situation in mind. A certified sleep consultant (like me!) can help make a challenging situation more manageable and provide you with the individualized support that a Google search or a book cannot. Besides, I’ve been there too and love to help Moms (and Dads) enjoy a good night’s sleep.
I would love to assess your child’s current sleep situation and determine if you would benefit from 1:1 sleep support. Book a free discovery call and let’s get you sleeping!
About the author
Formerly exhausted mama of 2. Now I run on 8 hours of sleep, my motivation to help others, and oat milk lattes. I serve women who are in the throes of motherhood and looking for the light at the end of the tunnel because I believe everyone can get through their day with the right amount of sleep.
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