Toddlers are active and usually on the go all the day. Most will very definitely need a daytime nap, although they could well fight it because the world is an interesting place and they don’t want to miss anything. But some other toddlers might not need very much – from 18 months old my eldest daughter stopped napping during the day – we tried everything to get her to nap but stopped when I realised she had started sleeping all night!
A lot of the advice in books and websites talks about the ultimate goal of a baby/toddler being able to self sooth to sleep without any help or reassurance from anyone else. As far as I can see, this happens eventually for every child, just at different times. I did all the ‘wrong’ things with my babies – they were fed to sleep, I cuddled them, I rocked them, I stayed with them until they were asleep and now I have older children who settle on their own and sleep all night with no input from me at all apart from reassurance.
The simple fact is that some toddlers will sleep well and others will need help and reassurance to get to bed and to stay there and there is not one right or easy solution for every toddler and family. There is no right way to tackle sleep – each family needs to find what works for them.
As a general rule:
- toddlers between 1-2 probably need about 14 hours sleep a day
- toddlers between 2-3 need about 12 hours
But this will vary hugely from toddler to toddler. If you think your toddler is tired and in need of a nap or going to bed, try to provide an environment that is conducive for sleep so they can go to sleep if they really need it.
Toddlers are constantly learning, they are really nosey and they don’t want to miss a thing so sleep can become an issue because they can be distracted really easily. As such, whatever your parenting style is, it could be that you need to provide your toddler with the opportunity to have a nap – whether that it is being at home and having quiet time and/or a cuddle so they can nap on the sofa /go to bed or be out in their buggy or in the car.
“I used to go for a longer drive on the way back from a toddler group or swimming so she would nod off. Then I would park up and read a book for a bit! It wasn’t forever and it worked for me!”
And so to bed…
To help your toddler to settle at night it can help if you:
- Have a time for bed but make it realistic for you and your toddler
- Use a simple, consistent bedtime routine – and this can be a brilliant time to spend some quiet time together
- Have a bed and a bedroom that is conducive for sleep – calm, quiet with not too much going on
- Keep battles with your toddler to a minimum – let him make choices about pj’s which book, etc rather than battling with him about everything
- are clear about what happens at bed time and limit the demands for ‘one more book’
- are nearby when they are going off to sleep because toddlers often need to feel reassured and safe
- Use praise and reward charts
- Observe your toddler so you get a better idea of when they are tired and what works for them
This can be a gentle way to help them wind down ready for bed because it might be too much to expect a toddler to go straight to sleep after all the fun of the TV or playing with toys in the living room.
- Make it simple, easy and consistent – the order is more important that the precise time. This gives you some flexibility when it comes to having a life, going away and being guided by when they are tired.
- It is a great chance to relax and chill together. Bedtime may last a while but try to enjoy it.
“some of my fondest memories with my children is bedtime – snuggling together with a book or ten was precious time together”
- Common elements of a bedtime routine include: a bath, pj’s, cuddles, chat and books. You could also include a massage after the bath and playing a quiet game such as jigsaw before stories.
What can affect their sleep?
Nightmares – bad dreams can wake your toddler up and leave them upset so they may need soothing and cuddling to help them get back to sleep again
Night Terrors – this is usually what happens when a toddler partially wakes up during non-dream sleep. They can cry out, thrash about and look very confused but, technically, they are still asleep and probably won’t remember it in the morning. You may need to soothe and cuddle them to get them back into a deeper sleep or you could try taking them to a different room in the house to gently wake them up before they can go back to sleep again.
“I remember a couple of occasions when my daughter would look awake, her eyes were open and she was crying – but she was definitely still asleep. She couldn’t be soothed so I carried her downstairs into the kitchen where it was cooler and she woke up and stopped crying. It was pretty distressing for me but she settled back to sleep again really easily and couldn’t remember a thing the next day!”
Teething – Toddlers have to cut their molars between about 1-2 ½ years old The first molars usually come through by about 16months and the second molars often come through somewhere between 20-30 months. So there could be times when your toddler’s sleep is affected by teething pains and teeth breaking through.
Development and milestones – there is a lot going on for your toddler, life is full. Not only is she learning something new every day but she is also growing and changing and hitting the different physical and emotional milestones. She is also meeting different people and could be adjusting to new environments. All of this can affect sleep. Your toddler can’t communicate to you that they need reassurance so any unsettled, whingy and clingy behaviour could be an indication that she needs you to help them settle.
“After our bedtime routine together, if he was still clingy I would tell him that I just had to do something in the bathroom, which is next to his room. This usually worked and a few minutes later he would be asleep.”
Being poorly – colds and ear infections can cause discomfort which can upset their sleep. Your toddler might need pain soothing and if they are feeling unwell, he might just need you to help him feel better and to feel safe.
Transition from Cot to Bed – If your baby was in a cot, the time will come when he will need to move into his own bed, usually when they are climbing out of their cot! This transition can seem a little daunting for some parents – it can be helpful to let your toddler be involved in choosing their new bed and/or some new bedding and, if you are concerned about them falling out or climbing out, a bed rail can help. And, with any change, be prepared to sit with them and spend more time with them at bedtime in case they need some extra reassurance.
As they can climb out of their bed, you may need to be clear about the bedtime routine and it can also be helpful to tell your toddler that that can come into your room if he needs you in the night or when he wakes up in the morning.
It can also be helpful to talk about the move into a big bed and you could also read a book together about it…
I am always wary of advice that says ‘make sure your child can fall asleep on their own’ and ‘your toddler can sleep through the night now.’ Every child is different, as is every parenting need and parenting style. A child’s needs change as they grow and develop and they will eventually be able to settle on their own. As parents if we expect our children to do something they are not capable of yet, it leads to stress and feelings of failure but I reckon that if we tune in to our children and provide the opportunity for winding down and sleep, they will get there eventually.
“Sleep deprivation is hard but tell yourself over and over again that it won’t last forever!”
Words from other parents…
- Toddlers get scared and it’s ok if they need to come in with you as and when – they will be able to sleep on their own eventually knowing that you are available if needed
- We are big fans of routine and a good bedtime story
- If they wake up there’s usually a reason and even though they may seem so grown up and eloquent in some ways they are still tiny and often struggle to deal with the developments/changes in their life. Nothing’s forever, just because you let them stay up/come in your bed/sleep on sofa (not all night, just til I went to bed!) doesn’t mean it’s forever!
- It’s totally normal for a toddler to wake lots, to be cuddled to sleep, to be unable to ‘self settle’ (I loathe that term). It’s extremely tiring, but it’s not a failing on your part.
- My best lesson – if they don’t fall asleep in half an hour, accept they aren’t ready for sleep and let them get up. That’s better than losing your whole evening trying to force sleep!
- Consistency with bedtime, baths, stories, chat, whatever works for you and your family. One of ours had a gentle back massage before she went to sleep. Our really placid laid back boy was helped with some lavender oil in a burner before he went to sleep.
- Our solution was that it didn’t matter if they played a bit before sleep either. We got very used to picking up a sleeping child off the floor and putting them into bed.
- One of ours used to take the quilt off the bed and make their own bed on the floor. Another one had a spell of sleeping at the foot end of the bed. I think some of this is an issue of who has control and, for me, some of this isn’t worth fighting over. You do learn to pick your battles the more children you have and where they were sleeping wasn’t one of them!
- Rigid routine worked for both my boys. 7pm prompt. Never changed the rules and flexibility was not an option. Did this from day they were born and its 2nd nature to them now.
- Routine routine routine! Bath, story & milk, bed has been working for us
- I just went with the flow of my children. They had a bath, got ready for bed and either played or cuddled with us on the settee, then either went to bed of own accord or needed carried to bed.
- I agree with routine. But I’ve also found recently that my 3 year old goes to sleep better if I promise to stay upstairs… I potter about tidying so she can hear me. It’s too distracting being in the room with her, yet she needed the extra security (since I had baby 5 months ago) Such a simple thing that’s worked wonders!!
- They change so you have to change with them. My daughter started getting really upset after we had left her, after a week or so we told her we would check on her and so now we pop in after 5 minutes and she’s happy as a clam again
- Consistent routine so she know its wind down time and what is coming next. I relax about her playing in room before going to sleep and the amount if toys that will end up in bed with her as she ends up falling asleep within a good time.
- If she wakes upset then either she comes in with us or one of us will get in with her because she needs reassurance and cuddles. When she gets it the whole house gets some sleep it’s usually one night and then back to normal again the next
- I think as well, you can have a routine, that doesn’t have to be at the exact same time every night
- We co-sleep because it means we all get the best sleep we can
- I once read that bedtime issues can be caused by separation anxiety and to respond lovingly and gently throughout the routine is more important than the routine itself. I had a one year old who wouldn’t go to sleep without me and wouldn’t stay asleep for long without me. I now have an 18month old who I can pop in his cot, leave the room and he sleeps until atleast 5am. We used gradual withdrawal over months and it has worked. He is a happy little chappy!
- musical beds.. the only sleep training for me is to train everyone to be capable of sleeping in any bed in the house, including the living room floor if necc or even on the loo. Whether your choosing to sleep together or needing to do an outright escape in the middle of the night (this is fresh for me..half an hour on the sofa with no squiggling baby at half past 4 in morn did the trick), musical beds is the way. Oh and no tiny sized baby cots or kiddie beds.. one size fits all
Janine Rudin | Birth, Baby & Family
A specialist in pregnancy, birth and early parenting