What makes toddler sleep problems at night different to younger babies? Parents and children I work with typically come with a few toddler sleep problems. Commonly we see early morning waking, bedtime delays, room escapes, erratic schedules and night wakes. Getting to sleep, and getting back to sleep can be hard work for a toddler!
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There’s some similarities here between baby and toddler sleep problems like early mornings and night waking but also some differences. The bedtime delays can be clever and quick witted and the room escapes end up being things prisoners would be proud of! Overtiredness can reach new, highly emotional levels and frustration can be the icing on the cake for all involved.
Also, those toddler lungs are larger, the shouts and cries are bigger! The strength and energy a toddler can muster at bedtime can make an Olympic marathon run seem like a short stroll around the block. Many parents who have children that experience sleep difficulties talk to me about stubbornness, relentlessness and that they just WILL NOT fall asleep easily. Crying, protesting and pushing boundaries is unfortunately a right of passage as a toddler and toddler sleep rarely is straightforward.
Why won’t my toddler sleep?
Toddler sleep problems can stem from one thing (such as still requiring support from a caregiver to fall asleep) or there can be many other reasons. Here we look at a few.
Cot to bed transition
Typically most toddlers transition to a cot around the age of three. Toddlers who transition early are usually climbers and safety always comes first. Some could transition earlier but it’s all about impulse control! They know they could stay in bed at this hour, but just can’t help themselves and the pull to get out of bed and visit their favourite family members is just TOO MUCH!
Naps (or lack of!)
Typically toddlers progress from two naps a day to one nap around the age of 14-18 months. They then usually drop their last nap around the age of 3. When their schedule goes off track there’s less room for catch up and an overtired toddler is more trouble at night! Some toddlers cope really well with transition between nap schedules and others struggle and need a bit more time.
Ideally most toddlers (15 months plus) will need around 2 hours of day sleep, 10.5-12 hours of night sleep – around 14 hours of sleep in total. If they’re way under this, then overtiredness may be your culprit!
Toddlers get massive FOMO! Quite simply they just want to keep playing, exploring, and chatting. A toddler’s bedtime may feel like entering a battleground as they would much prefer to do anything rather than sleeping!
A consistent bedtime routine becomes really important here and the transition between daytime routine and nights needs to be managed carefully. Expecting your child to just go to bed and fall asleep is pretty unrealistic!
Toddler sleep regressions
Regressions! Even if you do have a perfect routine, you can’t always get away from regressions. Typically in this age group they are typically related to developmental leaps. Toddlers will tend to resist naps in the day and would much rather go back to playing! Separation anxiety and fears of the dark can also creep in to add to the mix.
Everything is new and everything is exciting. During the bedtime routine they may ask for more books, more time in the bath, can’t stop playing with toys in their bedroom, jumping on the bed… Like FOMO above, why would they sleep when it’s all just so much FUN?!
In the daytime, sit in your child’s bedroom alone. Check out their environment, what seems calming and what seems distracting? Their sleep environment needs to be calming with no distractions, we’re going to bore them to sleep!
Top tips for reducing bedtime battles!
#1 Keep nap time.
Tired by mid-afternoon? Try to keep those naps! Daytime sleep is as important as night. Ideally aim for at least a good lunchtime nap until they are 3. Aiming for 1.5 – 2 hours, reducing the time gradually when they start nearing 3 years of age.
Keep offering naps, even if your child’s sleep feels an impossibility. If they’re not crying, happy (or faffing!) but awake, then at least they’re still resting in their bed.
#2 Have a consistent bedtime routine.
There’s always a sense of familiarity and reassurance when we know what to expect and what’s coming next, especially at night. Try to stick to a pretty predictable bedtime routine every night so there’s no curveballs and they settle easier!
Children benefit from quiet (screen-free) play time, bath, story, and cuddles in their bedroom. This can help set the scene and reduce crying.
If you currently experience a delayed bedtime then you may want to shift their sleep schedule to start a little earlier. This helps to avoid your child becoming overtired and allow for delays. They will then still get to sleep at a reasonable hour. As with most tips and resolutions for sleep problems, be consistent.
#2 Reduce separation anxieties.
Help curb that separation anxiety at night. Play lots of games with your little one in their sleep space during the day. Help them spend time alone in their cot/crib in the day too. Keep the light bright and play games with your child’s favourite toy. This can help develop a lovely relationship with their comforter and their sleep space.
Go back, pop in and out as you get on with the daily routine and they’ll gradually get used to being alone and you coming and going. This will help them spend increasing periods of time awake and alone, trust that you always come back and will help them settle in the night hours.
#3 Think about their development
“Go to sleep”. Think about development, and what your child should understand as a toddler. The whole concept of sleep, and ‘going to sleep’ is a really strange thing, even for adults! Instead, give them actions, such as lying down, being quiet as a mouse and closing their eyes. Your little one will understand these ‘tasks’ and it may make a lot more sense to them. Practice with their favourite toy in the day.
#4 Encourage independence!
What can your little one do proactively at bedtime? Toddlers like to have tasks. Involving them in activities during the bedtime routine can make it more fun and exciting. Ask them to choose their pyjamas, their story, get them to turn off the light and which stuffed toy gets to go in the cot/crib tonight. It can all help give them a sense of control.
#5 Actions and words
If you have a loud, protesting toddler at night then bedtime battles can delay sleep by hours and may also hinder getting back to sleep! Remember actions and words are easy to mimic. If they’re shouting at you, then it’s really hard not to raise your voice in response.
Keep calm and always demonstrate what you are expecting in return. If you need to take a breather then pop them in their cot (or another safe space), say goodnight, leave the child’s room and say you’re going to the toilet. You’ll go back soon to check on them. This break, and a little mental ‘reset’ for you will help.
#6 Minimise distractions
There’s a whole industry dedicated to helping children sleep. However, children’s ‘sleep aids’ can sometimes turn out to be more of a distraction than a help. I’m talking about fancy lights, projectors, noise machines etc. They promise to help your child go to bed or fall back to sleep but often simply just provide a distraction. If you’re working on sleep then you could make the call and choose to remove these items until morning and try to work with a distraction free bedtime!
#7 Keep that cot!
If your little one is struggling to stay in their bed and you have night-time visits then perhaps we need to think about going back to the cot at night for a little longer. If that’s not possible then you may need to toddler proof their room, essentially making the room one big cot. Make sure to secure furniture to the walls too.
If your toddler is not planning on sleeping, then we need to keep them safe at bedtime and at night.
If keeping them in a cot isn’t possible, or they’re close to 3 years then my bedtime pass kit can be really helpful!
If you are experiencing difficulties with your child’s sleep at night or sleeping patterns, please get in touch, reach out via Instagram, book a free call or see my other services. You can also check out more of my blog posts and printed media articles here.