Toddler Sleep Challenges & Solutions.

Prior to your little one’s arrival, you had most likely prepared yourself (mentally, at least) for the sleepless nights of the newborn stage. What you were probably unprepared for was for this to continue or restart in the toddler stage. Throw in a whole host of exhausting challenges during the day (tantrums, pushing boundaries, bedtime stalling, etc.) and, hey presto, you’re treated to another level of sleep deprivation.

Sleep problems in toddlerhood can be frustrating for all involved, and often cause behaviour problems during the day. These problems are far more difficult to deal with, rationally, when you’re also sleep deprived yourself. 

As an Infant Sleep Coach, I have worked with many families of toddlers and supported on a wide array of sleep challenges. In this blog, I will take you through many of these challenges and provide you with solutions for each. 

A toddler needs anywhere between 11-14 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps. It might seem like they have boundless energy, but it’s important to get them the right amount of sleep for their development (of which there is lots going on at the moment!). This boundless energy or hyperactivity can also be masking a major cause of sleep disturbances amongst toddlers – overtiredness. 

In my experience, the most common toddler sleep problems include:

  • Frequent night waking;
  • Early risings;
  • Nightmares;
  • Night terrors;
  • Sleep walking;
  • Sleep talking;
  • Fear of the dark;
  • Snoring and/or sleep apnea. 
  1. Inappropriate routine for age:

During toddlerhood, there are a number of nap transitions – from 2 to 1 naps, and then to no naps at all. These transitions can be difficult to know exactly how to handle, which can often cause toddlers to become either over or under tired before bed. Both of these issues cause sleep problems such as bedtime battles, frequent night wakings, early risings and split nights. 

Solution: I recommend following an age appropriate routine for your toddler. If they have dropped a nap recently, make sure you bring bedtime forward to compensate for lost sleep in the day and a longer wake window. Conversely, if their wake windows have extended but they haven’t yet dropped a nap, make sure you push back bedtime so enough sleep pressure builds before sleep time. 

  1. Sleep environment isn’t conducive to sleep:

Toddlers can be very aware of their surroundings. Toys in their room can become tempting during the bedtime routine, the night and in the early morning. Any light coming in from outside can also signal that it’s time to start the day and have fun. Noises from outside or inside of the home can also induce a form of FOMO. 

Solution: I recommend that a toddler’s room is dark, calm and quiet. Use additional black out blinds to block out sunlight (especially during nap times, but also early mornings during the Summer). Clear the room of toys during sleepy time – tidy them away into cupboards. Use white noise for the duration of sleep to block out any unwanted sounds. 

  1. Developmental changes:

Toddlers go through so many developmental changes. During the toddler years, children learn to walk, talk, run, draw, etc. They may also transition to new childcare providers, move house, start potty training and/or welcome a new sibling. All of these changes can have an affect on their sleep. They may want to practice new skills during sleep time, or need more comfort and affection from their parents. Separation anxiety can also come back in a big way around 18 months. 

Solution: if your little one is learning a new skill, make sure they have plenty of time during the day to practice it. If it’s walking, get them outside into the garden or the park to have a toddle around. Encourage them to do as much of their new skill as possible during waking hours. If it’s separation anxiety that’s kicking in, make sure you have lots of 1:1 time with your little one during the day. You can also incorporate some ‘special time’ into their bedtime routine so their ‘love tank’ is full by the end of the day and they don’t feel like they need that connection during sleepy time. 

  1. Sleep onset associations:

Toddlers can be very particular in how they fall to sleep. It could be that they need you to lie down next to their cot, or they need you to hold their hand. Others may still need feeding or rocking to sleep. This can cause issues for the night, as whatever a little one uses to fall asleep at bedtime (e.g. feeding, cuddling, etc.), they’ll need that again when they wake up at night in order to go back to sleep.

Solution: support your little one in learning independent sleep skills. So, when they wake in the night, they are able to quickly and easily put themselves back to sleep again. Choose a method that is best suited to your little one’s temperament. And always choose a method whereby you respond.

  1. Not enough wind down time before bed:

As we’ve established, toddlers often have what seems like boundless amounts of energy. They are also obsessed with fun, and don’t want to miss out on anything. This means going to bed is often very tricky. 

Solution: I recommend including some wind down time before you even start the bedtime routine. Around 5.30pm, put your house into ‘bedtime mode’. Close the curtains, put on the lamps, calm down all play. This helps toddlers transition from the fun of the day to the calmness of the night. 

  1. Testing boundaries:

Toddlers are very good at testing a parent’s boundaries. They’re exploring autonomy and learning what’s safe and acceptable. It’s normal and natural for them to do this – it’s part of their social and emotional development. And this also happens at bedtime. Cue them getting out bed countless times, trying to get into your bed, resisting bedtime, etc. 

Solution: I recommend using a Sleep Clock for toddlers over 18 months to place visual boundaries around bedtime. And it should be visual, especially for the younger toddlers – with colours and graphics signalling when it’s time to stay in bed and sleep, and when it’s time to get up and have fun. Reward charts can also be helpful for encouraging positive choices. 

  1. Transitioning to a bed too early:

The final common cause of toddler sleep issues I encounter is little ones being transitioned to a bed from a cot too early. Children are not developmentally ready to transition to a bed until they are closer to 3 years old. Before this point, they don’t understand the concept of staying in their bed. 

Solution: Hold off on moving your little one to a bed until they are at least 3 years old, unless they are in danger of hurting themselves. And, even then, try and find ways of keeping them safely in their cot before making the move (e.g. move the mattress down to the very bottom of the cot or use a sleeping bag).

Ensuring your toddler gets enough sleep is about more than maintaining your own sanity (though that is also a plus!). Having them get the sleep they need and instilling good sleep habits will help keep your little one healthy and happy as they grow. After all, sleep is a key need of all humans (just like food and water). 

If you need help with your toddler’s sleep then get in touch and book a free Discovery Call with me. I’d love to speak to you.