Toddler Sleep Problems and Bedtime Battles
Your toddler sees sleep as the enemy — and midnight-hour complications can turn sleep into a distant dream.
Knowing what causes bedtime battles can help you put
late-night sleep-busters to rest.
Sleep can seem like an elusive dream when you're raising a toddler, because the problems disturbing your little one's slumber can be challenging to diagnose and solve. Some of the more common culprits are physical, such as allergies, teething pains, earaches and head colds. Then there are those middle-of-the-night sleep-wreckers like pre-bed screen time and too much daytime excitement, which can usually be tackled without too much effort. Other issues — such as chronic snoring, obstructive sleep apnea and sleepwalking — can be more serious, and require a check in with your practitioner to make sure your toddler is getting enough rest to grow and develop on schedule.
You can power through these sleep-busters by creating a solid sleep foundation for your toddler. That means a consistent schedule, a comforting bedtime routine and plenty of patience. Then consider these strategies for helping cure the most common toddler sleep problems.
What are some common toddler sleep problems?
If a perfect night’s sleep can be hard even for grownups from time to time, it's no wonder that toddlers — who have trouble winding down in any situation — have their bouts with restless nights. Here's a look at some of the most common bedtime problems and tips for getting your child back on track.
Night waking. Your toddler needs 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day, but it's rare that she'll stay down for a solid night of uninterrupted slumber. Many toddlers wake up one or more times during the night for any number of reasons. Sometimes she's just not tired — or she's too tired. Or she could be stirred awake by a bad dream, pain from teething or earaches, or just because she heard a sound or noticed a light being turned off.
Early waking. Good morning, sunshine! As you may have already noticed, toddlers tend to be early risers and don't like to greet the morning without company (that means you!). While you may not be able to budge your early bird's sleep habits, try moving her nap up to earlier in the day so she's more likely to be tired at night. If she wakes up with a soaked diaper, try to limit fluids before bedtime so wetness doesn't wake her up too early.
Nightmares/night terrors. It's not uncommon for toddlers to start having scary, realistic bad dreams around age 2, then again at ages 3 and 6. Nightmares can wake anyone up, but your toddler will have trouble separating dreams from reality and will need you to comfort her, explaining "it's only a dream," before she goes back to sleep.
Fear of the dark. Toddlers' imaginations go into overdrive when the lights go out, and this can cause major sleep problems. Whether it's monsters under the bed or fear of darkness, these emotions are very real to your child. You can help put her fears to rest by letting her know you realize how scary these things may seem. Once she knows you're on her side, do what you can to reassure her she's safe. Before bedtime, plug in a night-light and give her a favorite comfort toy or blanket. Don't let her hop into bed with you, and try to keep as close to her normal routine as possible. She'll feel more reassured if she sees that you're not worried.
Sleep apnea/snoring. Having trouble breathing at night because of a stuffed nose, enlarged tonsils or allergies makes sound sleep difficult. Experts say up to 3% of toddlers and young children also have obstructive sleep apnea, a partial blockage of the airways that causes breathing to stop temporally. If you suspect your toddler has obstructive sleep apnea, or her nighttime breathing or snoring frequently disrupts her sleep, check in with your pediatrician to discuss the issue.
Sleepwalking and sleep-talking. It can be unnerving when your little one starts muttering to herself in bed or wanders through the halls glassy-eyed but still zonked out. Sleep walking and talking during the toddler years is fairly common and may not be a big deal, as long as your child is getting enough sleep.
Why do toddlers sometimes have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep?
The toddler years are exciting, stressful, scary, and full of discovery and boundary-pushing. It's normal for your toddler to fight sleep — there's too much going on! From a developmental standpoint, being contrary and battling the old routines of babyhood is part of the deal. Here are some of the most common reasons your child is battling bedtime, and tips to get her back to bed.
Screen time before bed. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages any TV or computer games for babies and toddlers, because screen time is linked to health and behavior problems. Before bedtime, it can be incredibly distracting and stimulating, even if it's on in the background. Banning TV and all screens before bed — or anytime — is a good idea.
Stress or overexcitement. If your toddler seems squirmy and overexcited at bedtime for no apparent reason, it could be the thrill of a fun new playmate or a change in the weather. Making the transition from her action-packed day to dreamland is tough, so plan to spend a little extra time helping her calm down after a busy day.
Your child is not tired. Has your child's nap schedule crept into the afternoon hours? That might explain the uninvited surge of energy she gets right about 7:30, or whenever you planned to settle her down with a board book and favorite stuffed animal. Here's the fix: Gradually push her last nap to earlier in the day. An earlier nap means more rest-inducing play time during the day, increasing the odds that she'll be ready to wind down at bedtime.
Your child is overtired. It's ironic, but the more exhausted your toddler is, the more likely she'll be buzzing with adrenaline when the clock says bedtime. Remedying this is easy: Make sure your toddler logs 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day. If that's not happening, she's overtired — no matter how energetic she seems.
Your child is in a strange bed. Expecting your child to drift off to dreamland in a strange room is asking a lot. When your child is away from home, getting her to sleep is a whatever-works proposition. When you get home, simply go back to the old routine as soon as possible.
Your child doesn't feel well. Sleep is elusive when your child is sick. Cuddling, extra hugs and special requests are all fine when your child is stuck in bed with a cold or flu, especially because she needs rest now more than ever. Once the fever is down and the sniffles dry up, go back to your regular sleep schedule.
Tips for solving toddler sleep problems
One trick for better sleep habits is to let your toddler have some say over the bedtime routine, then doing everything you can to stick to it. Here are some simple tactics you can try to end bedtime struggles and get your little rebel to bed.
A soothing routine. A warm bath, a soothing book and a cozy bed are all you need to create the best bedtime routine for your toddler, customized to fit your family, of course. Set the tone with a bath and a nice conversation about the day. With the lights dim, try a soothing massage. Once your little one comes to expect bath time, followed by one or two stories, followed by a cozy tuck-in, she'll see bedtime as just another part of her day.
Don't let her sleep with you. Once you've got your child settled in her room, you hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet or even find her curled up next to you? Don’t let that become a habit. Calmly and quietly return her to bed. It may take more trips than you'd like, but she'll soon see she's fighting a losing battle.
Play the control game — with limits. Bedtime is one of your child's favorite times to practice her budding stalling and negotiation skills. So get ahead of any potential conflict by deciding ahead of time where you're willing to cave. Allowing your child to choose between two books and which stuffed friends will sleep with her will go a long way toward a good night’s sleep.
Ending bedtime battles and making sure your toddler gets enough sleep is about more than maintaining your own sanity (although that's a nice fringe benefit!). Aside from making your child easier to be around, a good night's sleep will help keep her healthy and happy as she grows.