Toddler sleep issues can be a troubling problem for many parents. Lack of sleep impacts all aspects of family life. Being overtired and cranky is a major cause of toddler power struggles at bedtime. We hope that the tips in this article will be useful when bedtime comes around.
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Reasons toddlers may struggle with sleep:
1. Moving from crib to toddler bed.
Moving from a crib to a toddler bed is a major milestone in the life and eyes of a toddler. With this transition will come a number of challenges for you and your child. It is extremely important to know how to confront and properly deal with any conflicts.
Moving from crib to bed is many toddlers first taste of freedom at night. They no longer need to call you to come to them, they can go to you. It is important to set the right boundaries during this transition.
If your toddler gets out of bed, bring them back to bed without saying a word or raising your voice. Once they are back in bad, calmly reassure them are safe and must stay in their bed. You may need to do this several times. Stick with it and your toddler will learn to stay in bed and fall asleep. Learning to soothe yourself to sleep is a skill. It will take some time.
Early morning awakening can be another significant issue for toddlers and their parents. Some toddlers are late sleepers and some are very early risers. We have used clocks that told our toddler when he could get up and the kids could always play quietly in their rooms until it was time to get up. This avoided a lot of early morning conflicts.
Be patient as they move to the new bed. It is common for them to want their old bed. The old bed was familiar and comfortable. It is the same for us as adults. It takes time to adjust to a new bed.
2. Separation Anxiety.
Separation anxiety is completely normal. It may not seem it in the face of a screaming panic-stricken toddler, but it is normal. It is a sign of forming healthy attachments to caregivers and usually develops around 8 months in most babies. Separation anxiety often rears its head again between 18 months and two years when a period of sleep regression is also totally normal.
Adults often have separation anxiety. The difference is that as adults, we have developed the coping skills to deal with separation anxiety, change, etc. in our lives. For a toddler, the coping skills clearly are not in place and it is times like this when they will be starting to develop.
So what can you do to ease your child’s separation anxiety?
- Make the transition as uneventful as possible. Stick to a nightly routine. (More on routines and bedtimes ritual below)
- Be calm, confident and relaxed. Your toddler will feed off your energy and body language. If you appear worried or upset, that will just make them more frightened to be alone.
- Make the switch from crib to bed about this one thing and put off any other changes that might be overwhelming.
- Most important, develop an atmosphere devoid of temptations or conflicts that will leave you having to say “NO”.
The fewer times you have to use the word “No.” the better. Try to reserve it for issues pertaining to safety (outlets, side rails etc.) instead of having it be about something as insignificant as what stuffed animal he/she can have.
3. Nightmares/bad dreams/night terrors
There is little doubt that the transitions from the crib to a bed (assuming the room stays the same during this process) will often result in upsetting bad dreams and nightmares. Change and stress surrounding it can often be a trigger for bad dreams and even night terrors in toddlers.
It usually right around 18-months to 2 years that parents notice their toddlers having nightmares. Unfortunately, this is a part of sleep that we never truly break away from. As adults, we learn how to deal with bad dreams and easily can disengage from dreams when we awake and confront reality. We know it was just a dream.
For a toddler, this process is not so easy. Their fears are very real. Who can’t remember a time when they had to console their toddler for possibly hours before they were ready to go back to steep?
For a toddler, bad dreams can be disturbing and frightening. As the parent, it is important to not overreact or become upset. Remain calm and comfort your child. Just remember that this is a normal process and with every event such as this your child is learning how to cope with change and new experiences. Your toddler is watching you so model the response you want your toddler to learn, be calm and comforting and reassure them they are safe and it was just a dream.
Subconsciously, they are taking notes for future reference. All part of developing complex neural pathways designed to respond to different situations.
4. Afraid of the Dark/Monsters
Toddlers are exposed to the idea of “monsters” practically everywhere. Monsters are in children’s books, movies, TV shows. Toddlers are beginning to develop their imaginations and they can run wild at night in the dark. They don’t yet understand the concept of real vs make believe.
You can help your child with their nighttime fears by offering a night light, just make sure it doesn’t cast too many spooky shadows in the room which can make matters even worse. Explain that monsters are not real.
There is some controversy over the use of “Monster repellant” sprays. It may make some toddlers feel more secure but can also reinforce the existence of monsters in their mind. It is something we have used in the past and it did help.
I think this will vary from child to child. Some children do better being told monsters are not real and their room is a safe space. Some children no matter how you tell you that, feel better with monster checks and monster sprays. Do what works best for your family.
5. Long Afternoon Naps.
There is no question that toddlers need their sleep and plenty of it. A study was done years ago where an NFL player was instructed to mirror the activity of a toddler’s daily activity. The results were not surprising as the player had a hard time keeping up.
Toddlers are constantly on the go. There is no off switch and many parents will tell you that the most comforting and cherished moment of the day can be when their toddler has worn out and falls fast asleep. Watching them sleeping so peacefully, knowing that with every breath they are recharging their batteries, preparing for another uninterrupted marathon of toddler play.
The peace and tranquility of a sleeping toddler can be such a state of bliss that an exhausted parent may want to savor this moment as long as possible.
However, keep in mind that you will want to get your needed sleep. Once again, as adults, we have learned that if we take too long a nap in the afternoon we may have trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night. With your toddler, it is important to determine how much sleep is enough and how much might be too much, if you expect your child to sleep through the night.
Naps that are too long, may require a later bedtime. So consider an earlier nap time or shorter nap time.
6. Overtired/No Naps
Being overtired and not having a nap can be as bad as a long nap for a toddler. Most 2-year-olds have transitioned to one nap a day, but some want to give up napping altogether.
Children between the ages of 2 and 4 still need to nap or at least have a quiet rest time. When I was teaching preschoolers, they had a “nap” period of about 90 minutes in the afternoon and 85% of the children did fall asleep on most days. Being overtired can lead to frustrating evenings and bedtimes.
Toddlers are extremely active, their metabolism is in high gear and they are growing. As a result, they burn a tremendous amount of calories relative to their weight and this leaves them hungry and snacking constantly.
Anyone who has a toddler will tell you what it can be like to get a hungry toddler ready for bed. Much like when they are overtired, they can get cranky and their appetite can seem insatiable.
It is not only about how much they are eating but what they are eating. If sweets, chocolate, and snack items (baked goods, etc.) top the list, they are likely on a sugar high as they are not getting any protein.
Offer a snack 30 minutes before bed. It is best that the snack be a carbohydrate and a protein.
8. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
Toddlers are at an age where they have a fear of missing out. They can hear mom and dad in the other room doing things and talking, they can hear the TV and they want to be part of it.
Try to limit distractions and noise in the house at bedtime. Turn off the TV, lower the lights, talk softly. Try to make the activity in the other room look boring.
What can you do to help your toddler go to bed and stay asleep?
1. Stick to a Routine/Ritual.
Develop a bedtime routine and stick to it. You know your child best, so develop the routine that works best for them.
That might be bath time, teeth-brushing, putting on pajamas, reading a story and then saying goodnight. The most important part of the ritual/routine is consistently doing it. This teaches your toddler what to expect at bedtime every night.
2. Stay consistent with sleep rules.
The best way to get your toddler to learn to sleep on their own is to have a consistent rule surrounding sleep. Be prepared on how you’ll handle requests for drinks, bathroom, getting out of bed, tantrums, and refusals to go to bed or nap.
3. Remain calm and do not raise your voice.
Toddler sleep issues don’t just make for cranky and overtired toddlers, it impacts parents as well. You may feel frustrated and tired which can cause you to react with anger or to lose your cool with your child.
Losing your cool only ensures your child will do it again. Remain calm, in control and do not raise your voice. If you need to stop, take a deep breath and count to ten.
4. Night lights and monster sweeps
It isn’t uncommon for toddlers to be afraid of the dark or afraid of monsters. You can put a night in their room, just be sure it doesn’t cast shadows that make the problem worse.
It doesn’t hurt to do what we call “monster sweeps” of the room, even if you teach your child monsters are not real. Some toddlers still struggle with the belief that they are and that you don’t believe them. So do not dismiss their fears. So show them under the bed is clear, the closet is clear. If certain toys frighten them at night, remove them from the room. Consider leaving the hallway light on. Help them feel safe and secure.
5. Let the family pet sleep near the room.
This is a tip I haven’t seen before, but one that worked for me as a child and one that worked for our toddlers. We have always had dogs and cats and the pets generally like to sleep near the kids.
Many parents are concerned about pets being in the room alone with their child. This is very understandable as pets can be unpredictable. Your family pet must be extremely tolerant when it comes to typical toddler behavior such as pulling their ears or tail.
Many children do feel more secure when their pet is near them during the night. Use a dog gate at the doorway to the bedroom and arrange your dog’s bed outside the doorway such that your son or daughter can see your pet.
6. Give a little independence with bedtime choices.
Toddlers are beginning to assert their independence and have a need to feel in control. Bedtime struggles often result from their need for independence. It can be helpful to give your toddler choices but within boundaries. Offer two choices…Do you want to wear batman or superman pajamas to bed?” “Do you want me to read “Goodnight Moon” or “Runaway Bunny” before you go to sleep?”
Try not to give too many choices or it won’t take long for your toddler to learn they can stall bedtime with an endless array of demands.
7. Reward and praise progress.
Reward and praise progress. Falling asleep and staying asleep are learned skills, so praise your toddler when they stay in bed all night.
Some toddlers do well with visual cueing so consider making a bedtime sticker chart with a reward for staying in their bed.
8. Limit screen time and distractions before bed.
Try to limit screen time before bed. That is solid advice for adults too. Try to make bedtime a quiet time in the household.
If there is too much going on, your toddler could get overstimulated and have trouble shutting down and going to sleep. Keeping lights down low can help signal the transition to sleep time.
Other posts you may find helpful:
- 9 Ways To Stop Toddler Temper Tantrums
- 10 Classic Toddler Toys Your Child Will Love
- 20 Fall Sensory Bins For Toddlers
- 9 Easy Sensory Bins For Toddlers