Toddler Sleep Habits

Michele Meleen
toddler sleeping

One of the most common problems faced by parents involves developing good sleep habits in their toddler. Some kids struggle with falling asleep while others have issues staying asleep. Dr. Kevin Johnson, AAP Fellow and former JustAnswer Pediatrics Expert, offers some helpful suggestions for parents to use so that everyone gets more sleep.

Common Toddler Sleep Issues

Toddlers have an unwavering need for independence and autonomy. While that independence will be important throughout life, it may inhibit healthy sleep patterns now. The fact that a toddler can likely get out of bed without help, coupled with the fact that toddlers tend not to want to miss anything, can create issues at bedtime.

Dr. Johnson suggests several common sleep problems many toddlers experience:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Nightmares
  • Night terrors
  • Bedwetting

These common issues may present themselves in different ways such as:

  • Waking often throughout the night
  • Inability to fall asleep
  • Repeatedly getting out of bed or playing
  • Crying out for parents

Encouraging Good Sleep Habits

As a parent, it is your job to teach your child healthy sleep habits and how to form them. Dr. Johnson along with other pediatric experts from Healthychildren.org suggest the following ways parents can encourage good sleep habits for toddlers:

  • Encourage plenty of unstructured, active play during the day.
  • Do not allow oversleeping or prolonged napping during the day.
  • Have a consistent routine with bedtime at the same time each night. Toddlers are comforted by routine so this alone can help them feel more secure when it's time for bed. Engage in quiet activities that will help your toddler wind-down.
  • Keep your child's bedroom environment the same. Use the same nightlight all the time, keep the same blankets on the bed, and leave furniture in the same arrangement. This will help prevent your toddler from becoming disoriented or fearful of things if he wakes during the night.
  • Do not let your child have caffeine or sugar before bed; this includes chocolate, soda, and juices.
  • Encourage the use of a security object like a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

Tips for Dealing With Issues

If your child repeatedly calls for you or leaves her room, there are a few simple guidelines you can follow to help nip the problem in the bud.

  • At bedtime, be sure to set limits that are consistent, communicated, and enforced.
  • Wait a short while before responding to your child's cries for you.
  • Each successive time you respond, wait a few seconds longer and be sure to remind her it is time for sleep.
  • Do what you can to avoid rewarding your child for calling you, such as giving in and laying with her until she falls asleep.

Above all else, Dr. Johnson's best advice for parents is to "Keep up the routine, be patient, be calm, and be persistent."

What's Normal?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that toddlers need 10-12 hours of sleep per day. The National Sleep Foundation notes that during sleep, toddlers will experience:

  • An increased blood supply to muscles
  • Tissue growth and repair
  • Restoration of energy
  • The release of hormones important in growth and development

Children who do not get enough sleep are not only grumpy in the short term, but are more likely to have weight problems in the long term.

When to Contact a Doctor

While sleep issues amongst toddlers are extremely common, there are some cases where a more serious problem could be occurring. Dr. Johnson suggests that if you notice any of the following issues, you should consult your child's pediatrician for an evaluation and recommendations:

  • Loud snoring: This can be a sign of sleep apnea.
  • Sleepwalking: Children who sleepwalk appear to be awake, but are not. Most children outgrow sleepwalking, but it is good to discuss the issue with your pediatrician.
  • Night terrors: Night terrors are different from nightmares. Children with night terrors scream uncontrollably, may breathe quickly and appear to be awake. If you wake them, they are likely to be confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep. They usually occur between the ages of four and twelve, but can happen to children as young as 18 months. Most children will outgrow them, but if they persist talk to your doctor.

Developing Healthy Sleep Habits

Sleep issues are common among babies and toddlers, and a stress factor for most parents. Encouraging good sleep habits, and being consistent in your routine, will go a long way towards helping solve your toddler's sleep issues.

Toddler Sleep Habits