Here are some of the most typical toddler sleep problems, why they happen and what you can do to get your little one back on track at bedtime.
You were prepared for sleepless nights during babyhood. You didn’t expect more of the same when your baby entered toddlerhood, though. It’s exhausting enough to deal with the constant wrangling and pleading when your toddler balks at bedtime. But it’s those middle-of-the night sleep wreckers that are really wearing you down. Is your toddler just being stubborn, or is something else going on?
The answer isn’t always so simple. Sometimes the problems robbing your toddler of Zzzs are easy to spot — a head cold, say, or teething pain. But some are more challenging and might even require a check-in with the pediatrician to find out why your toddler won’t sleep.
Whatever the reason, most of the time you can power through these sleep-busters by relying on a few toddler sleep basics. That means a consistent schedule, a comforting bedtime routine and plenty of patience. Then consider these extra strategies for helping cure the most common toddler sleep problems.
What are some common toddler sleep problems?
Yes, your toddler needs 11 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, including naps. But that doesn’t mean your tot got the memo. If a perfect night’s sleep can be hard even for you occasionally, 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.
What it looks like: You put your toddler down at 7:30 p.m. and expect her to stay down for a solid stretch of sleep. Instead, she wakes up one, two or even several times during the night. There are many reasons for these night waking. Sometimes she's just not tired — and other times, she's too tired. Or she could be stirred awake by a bad dream, pain from teething or an earache, or a sound outside her door.
What to do: Try not to rush in when she whimpers, as there’s a good chance that she’ll fall back to sleep by herself. If your toddler is crying in her sleep or wakes up sobbing, go in and reassure her with minimal drama and talking. Just be consistent and try to avoid sitting with her too long or bringing her to your room. She’ll eventually learn to self-soothe.
What it looks like: Good morning, sunshine! Your toddler gets up at dawn’s first light and wants to greet the morning with some company (that would be you!). It’s true that most toddlers’ body clocks are naturally set for early risings. But there are ways to shift your cutie’s sleep habits a bit.
What to do: Adjust her bedtime by a few minutes each night so she ultimately goes down at 7:30 p.m., say, instead of 7 p.m., and sleeps a little later. If she wakes up with a soaked diaper, try to limit fluids before bedtime so wetness doesn't wake her up too early.
Changes in time
What it looks like: Twice a year, the clock shifts forward or backward, and everyone finds it hard to adjust for a few days. This is especially true with the change in the spring to Daylight Saving Time when your toddler wonders why she needs to go to bed when it’s still light out.
What to do: Stick to your routine and the times you normally do things, including eating, naps, and bedtime, until your toddler’s internal clock adjusts. You can also try to block out the light with heavier curtains or shades.
What they look like: If your child wakes up crying in the middle of the night or early in the morning, she’s probably having a nightmare. Toddler nightmares typically occur during the REM (light) stage of sleep. That’s when your toddler’s brain is processing all the things that happened that day — including the scarier stuff, like seeing the big dog at the park or hearing loud traffic noises.
What to do: Your toddler will likely have trouble separating her dreams from reality — and may even struggle with trying to tell you what frightened her. Go in and comfort your little one, explaining that it was just her brain pretending. Give her a few hugs and pats on the back and see if she falls back to sleep.
What they look like: Unlike when they have a nightmare, children don’t wake up during a night terror, though they may seem agitated and thrash around. Night terrors happen during the very deep, non-REM sleep phase, so it’s usually impossible to wake your tot up, even if she seems upset, or for her to remember what happened.
What to do: Make sure your child is safe and can’t hurt herself, and then let the night terror ride itself out (easier said than done, we realize). Sometimes a soothing bedtime routine can help set your toddler up for better-quality sleep, especially after a stressful day.
Fear of the dark
What it looks like: From monsters under the bed to scary shadows on the wall, your toddler’s imagination goes into overdrive once the lights go out or when she wakes up in a dark room. Cue the calls for your tot’s favorite people to help banish her fear of the dark.
What to do: No matter what is scaring her, these emotions are very real to your child. You can help her feel less afraid by asking about her fears. Then help your tot feel safer before you say goodnight. Before bedtime, plug in a night light and give your little one a favorite stuffed animal to sleep with. Don't let her hop into bed with you, and try to stick as close to her normal bedtime routine as possible. She’ll feel more reassured if she sees that you're not worried
Snoring and/or sleep apnea
What it looks like: It may amaze you to learn that even the littlest kids can snore like grown-ups, and 27 percent of children snore occasionally. Anything can cause a toddler to snore, including allergies, a stuffy nose and even swollen tonsils. A smaller percentage of toddlers, an estimated 1 to 5 percent, have sleep apnea. That’s more serious, as your toddler will temporarily stop breathing for a few seconds as she snores.
What to do: If your child is only snoring once in a while, try elevating the head of the crib or bed and see if that helps. If you notice pauses in between snores, bring it up with the pediatrician, as that may be a sign of sleep apnea.
Sleepwalking and sleep talking
What it looks like: It can be unnerving when your little one starts muttering and chattering to herself in bed or wanders through the halls glassy-eyed but still zonked out. But sleepwalking and sleep talking during the toddler years are common, though both can be a sign of stress or too little sleep.
What to do about it: There’s not much to do about either, since kids grow out of both. Try to keep bedtimes soothing and make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep. Also check that the house is safe and properly childproofed — keep cabinets locked, put baby gates at the top of the stairs, tack up any wires and keep the hallway free of toys and other objects that can cause falls. Don’t wake your toddler if you see her wandering but do guide her gently back to bed.
Causes of toddler sleep problems
The toddler years are exciting, stressful, scary and full of discovery. It's normal for your toddler to fight sleep — there's too much going on! But besides the normal drive to push boundaries, there are many specific reasons why your toddler won’t sleep or wakes up crying in her sleep, including:
Tips for handling common sleep problems in toddlers
One trick for better sleep habits is to let your toddler have some say in the bedtime routine, then do 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.
When to call the doctor
In general, if any toddler sleep problems are interfering with your day-to-day or making you worry excessively, it’s time to call your child’s pediatrician. Chances are, a phone call will be enough. Or you both may decide to make an appointment so your toddler’s doctor can see if there’s some physical reason your child is having sleep troubles. Specifically:
Ensuring that your toddler gets enough sleep is about more than maintaining your own sanity (although that's a nice fringe benefit!). Having her get the sleep she needs and instilling good sleep habits will help keep your little one healthy and happy as she grows.