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Sleep – or rather, lack of it – is a common problem for parents. For your toddler, the world is an exciting place with tons of new things to learn every day, so sleep can seem like a dull and unwanted interruption. At this age, your child will also realise that they’re an individual, and separate from mum and dad. So if you leave, they may fear being left alone for good – a scary thought indeed.

On top of all this, it’s probably becoming apparent to your playful bundle of joy that playing up at bedtime is a great way to delay having to go to bed! But don’t despair – we have some top tips for solving common bedtime problems.

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Issue #1: They won't go to bed

Bedtime strike is common at this age. Developmental changes can affect sleep patterns. And the sheer excitement of all the new things your tot is learning to do can make it hard to let go at the end of the day. Plus, as you’ve no doubt noticed, toddlers love to push boundaries – and your buttons – by saying ‘no’!

Tip #1: Establish a bedtime routine

Mother reading to her toddler

The problem with toddlers and sleep isn’t that they don’t know how to fall asleep – this comes naturally – but not necessarily at bedtime! The trick is to help them fall asleep when we need them to, and a regular, predictable bedtime routine will help them do just that. Read our page on creating a bedtime routine for more tips. 

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Tip #2: Tire them out

Make sure your child is getting enough exercise to tire them out in the day – but avoid getting them excited too close to bedtime. Our page on helping your toddler get a good night’s sleep has tips to help you do this.

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Tip #3: Experiment with nap times

As your toddler gets older, their sleeping habits will start to change. Maybe that two-hour nap in the afternoon is stopping them from sleeping at night now? If that's the case, try bringing their afternoon nap forward so it’s finished by 2pm, or even reducing it to one hour. It might be trial and error until you find the right balance.

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Tip #4: Adjust bedtime if necessary

Are you still putting your toddler to bed at the same time as you did when they were six months old? If so, they may just not be tired! Try putting their bedtime back by half an hour – it could make all the difference!

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Tip #5: Make bed a special place

Some toddlers have a bit of trouble making the change from their cot to a ‘big bed’. So make sure the space where they sleep is nice and comforting. You could try taking them shopping to pick out their own bedding. This might make their bed seem more appealing, and bedtime a little easier. Oh, and if the bedding has characters on it, you can both wish them all goodnight before going to sleep. Night night bumble bee, night night sloth…

If your have twins, triplets or more you can find more tips for making the move from cots to beds on the Twins Trust website.

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Issue #2: They keep getting out of bed

Once your toddler moves from a cot to a ‘big bed’ and discovers they can get out of it whenever they like, they may well start exploring! This can be super frustrating, especially if you’re trying to get on with some chores or maybe put your feet up for the first time all day. But there are things you can try.

Tip #1: Don't rush them to a 'big bed'

photo of toddler escaping cot

Toddlers’ night-time issues often begin when they move to their first ‘big bed’. Most toddlers move from a cot to a bed between the age of 2 and 3, but it’s entirely up to you. So if they sleep well in their cot, don’t feel you have to move them until they’ve grown too big for it, they start trying to climb out, or they’re toilet training and need to go in the night. 

To ease the transition, put the new bed in the same place as the cot if there’s room, and use the same bedding at first, so the new sleep space seems familiar. And remember, once they can get out of bed, they can go anywhere in their room, so make sure it’s toddler-proof

If you’re moving them out of a cot because you need it for a new baby, it’s best to do this a few months before baby arrives, so they don’t resent their new brother or sister for ‘stealing’ their cot or ‘replacing them’.

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Tip #2: Invest in some bed guards

This is another good way to keep them safely in bed until they’ve learned to sleep more soundly through the night. 

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Tip #3: Be consistent

If they get up after you’ve said goodnight, gently help them back into bed without fuss, chat or attention. Tell them you’ll come back to check on them. Just remember to do just that so they know you’re following through.

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Tip #4: Take it in turns

If you feel like your patience is about to run out, it’s okay to take a break. If you can, get your partner to take a turn or few, or get them to stay in the bedroom with your toddler until you’re feeling calm and able to try again.

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Tip #5: Avoid the screen time trap

If they keep getting up, try not to give in by bringing them into the living room or letting them watch TV with you. We know it can be really tempting, especially if you’ve just settled down to watch something good! But it just stimulates them and wakes them up even more.

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Issue #3: They wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep

We all briefly surface as we go through cycles of lighter and deeper sleep. But toddlers sometimes wake up fully during one of the lighter cycles and find it hard to drop back off again. It’s totally normal for them to do this. For some wee ones it’s just once in a while, but for other toddlers it’s every night, several times a night!

Tip #1: Find out what's wrong

If your wee one calls for you in the night, it may because they need something. Maybe they’ve had a nightmare, or need the loo, or their favourite teddy has slipped down the side of the bed. In this case, help them solve the problem quietly and calmly, then say goodnight again. 

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Tip #2: Safe and secure

Children rely on you to help them feel calm and safe. So when they wake in the night they may feel confused and scared, and just need you to hold them close. A gentle sway and some loving words will help them know you are there and calm them down.

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Tip #3: Night lights

Toddler boy asleep hugging a teddy bear with a night light next to him

Night lights aren’t just a good idea for your baby –  your older toddler might still like one in their room, as it’ll help them feel safe if they wake up.

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Tip #4: Track naps

Long naps in the afternoon can have a big impact on sleep. Remember, your child is growing all the time, so their needs and habits are constantly changing. Reduce the length of their nap gradually and they’ll hopefully be back sleeping through the night again. You can find more tips for nap time here.

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Tip #5: Be aware of changes

Changes in routine can affect your child’s sleep patterns. Things like starting nursery or going to a childminder for the first time can impact their sleep. Going back to more babyish behaviours, like wanting you to stay with them until they fall asleep or calling for you in the night, is quite normal at times of change or stress, so please don’t worry if things seem to go backwards for a bit. You might not be able to avoid these changes, but it can help you keep calm and stay patient if you know why their sleep may be disrupted. 

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Tip #6: Play helps sleep

A walk (even just to the shops and back), a run outside in the fresh air or playing hide and seek inside can all help your child sleep better at night. Here are some tips for keeping active that will help them burn up some energy.

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Tip #7: Bedtime snack

They may be waking up because they’re hungry. A small bedtime snack, like a rice cake or a banana, before they brush their teeth could help keep them full through the night.

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Tip #8: Don't rush night time toilet training

Many toddlers are dry through the day long before they are at night. Their bladders simply aren’t big enough for them to last through the night and it takes them a while to learn to wake up when they need a wee. It’s perfectly normal for a 2 year old to be toilet trained but still wear nappies or pull ups at night until they’re 4 or 5 years old. 

So don’t be in a hurry for your child to be dry at night. This this can lead to bedwetting, which can be stressful for everyone. You can find out more about bedwetting on the Sleep Action and ERIC websites.

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Tip #9: Don't wait for them to fall asleep before putting them to bed

If your child has difficulty getting to sleep it can be tempting to let them stay up with you until they drop off, and then put them to bed. But this doesn’t help them ‘learn’ to fall asleep in bed, so if they wake in the night, they won’t know how to settle themselves again.

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Issue #4: They keep coming into your bed

One way toddlers can exert their growing independence is by getting out of their bed and coming into yours. 

First of all, decide if this is something that bothers you. You might be perfectly happy to have them in beside you. But if it’s disturbing everyone’s sleep, here are some ideas that might help them stay in their own bed.

Tip #1: Explain night time rules

If you and your partner sleep in the same bad, your toddler may not understand why they have to sleep on their own. So try talking to them about how bed is their own special space. Things like leaving a nightlight on, choosing cute bedding or having a favourite teddy close by can help them feel their bed is their own personal place.

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Tip #2: Make the transition gradual

If they’ve got into the habit of sleeping with you and you’re finding it exhausting, try introducing a favourite toy into the mix. Encourage them to cuddle the toy when they sleep with you, and then gently suggest that they and teddy will be more comfy in their own bed.

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Tip #3: Stay calm

Father cuddling sleepy toddler in a dark room

When they get up to pay you a visit in the middle of the night, however tired you are, just calmly put them back and settle them down gently. 

Be prepared to repeat this. After a few nights they should get the idea. You might want to reward them for staying in bed by using a star chart.

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Issue #5: They’re scared of the dark or have nightmares

At this age your little one is developing an active imagination – which means nightmares may start. Bad dreams and nightmares are something a lot of young children experience at some stage. This leaflet from Sleep Action explains more. Here are some tips for help with little ones who might be afraid of the dark.

Tip #1: Keep things upbeat before bedtime

Be careful what they’re watching or reading before they go to bed and avoid scary TV programmes, games or stories. You’d be surprised how easily these things can bother your little one when they’re trying to sleep.

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Tip #2: Use a night light

If your little one doesn’t like the dark, a night light can help them feel secure. The light will also prevent you from tripping over toys as you tiptoe from their room!

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Tip #3: It's just a dream

If they awake from a nightmare, stay with them for a bit and explain that it was just a dream. But try not to be dismissive of their fears or say they’re being silly – the nightmare may have seemed very real and scary to them.

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Tip #4: Have a chat

If your child is waking regularly with nightmares, ask them if they are upset or worried about anything. A stressful event, such as starting nursery or the arrival of a new baby, may be the cause. Our page on supporting your child’s mental health has tips for helping them calm down and cope with worrying thoughts.

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Sleep tracking

If you’re worried about your child’s sleep, keep a diary to get an accurate picture of their sleep patterns. You could note down things like:

  • how long it takes them to settle down and fall asleep
  • what time they eventually get to sleep
  • how many times they wake during the night
  • what time they get up in the morning
  • any naps they take. 

This will help you find possible reasons why they are having difficulties – or you may even realise that they’re getting more sleep than you thought. If you have any concerns you can talk to your health visitor, who is there to help.

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Advice and support from Sleep Action

Sleep Action offer advice and support to parents and carers, or to young people themselves, for any child aged 18 months to 18 years with a sleep problem. Visit the Sleep Action website to find out more and get in touch.

You may also find this leaflet from Sleep Scotland about toddler sleep helpful.

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