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What you need to know about sleep and your toddler

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 is 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 – peaceful nights are a few steps away.

What does it mean to have a ‘bedtime routine’?

The single most important thing you can do to ensure that your toddler, and the rest of the family, gets a good night’s sleep is to establish a simple and consistent bedtime routine. It’s up to you to develop your own regime, but it could go like this:

  • At tea-time talk to your child about how they are going to get ready for bed now.
  • Play a quiet game, and talk about what you did today and any plans you have for tomorrow.
  • Try to avoid letting them use electronic devices, including tablets, phones, computer games and the TV, at least an hour before their bedtime.
  • You could get them to help you tidy their toys away so they know the toys are ‘going to bed’ too (it’s also a good opportunity to show them the importance of looking after their things!).
  • Give them a warm bath, put the lights on low, keep distractions to a minimum and clean their teeth.
  • Put pyjamas on them in their bedroom.
  • Finish with a couple of stories (again, nothing too exciting) or a gentle song or rhyme.  It can help to finish off with the same story or song, as your wee one will begin to associate that with it being time for bed.
  • Kiss and cuddle them and say ‘Goodnight’ or ‘I love you’.

Is there a best way of putting toddlers into their cot or bed?

There is no best way to put your toddler into their bed or cot. For some parents, leaving the room straight away works for them, and their toddler will settle quickly, others find that staying in the room for a wee while helps give their toddler that extra wee bit of comfort and reassurance to help them get to sleep. Some parents find that leaving the room, but going back in every couple of minutes or so, helps their toddler to drift off eventually, as they learn that you’re not far away and always there if they need you.

Some toddlers find it comforting to be able to hear you going about the rest of your evening; that might be washing the dishes, unloading the washing machine, getting your older children to bed, or the low noise of the TV – anything soft, gentle and routine that lets them know you’re never far away.

How long does my toddler need to nap for?

Toddlers need a daytime nap or two. Typically, a 1-year-old needs about an hour in the morning and in the afternoon. A 2-year-old usually needs an hour or so in the afternoon, but by the age of 3 most tots are fine with a short nap in the afternoon or none at all.

Somewhere between 15 and 18 months your child may reach a stage where one nap doesn’t seem enough but two is too much. The same may happen around the age of 3, when they can drop their nap altogether. It sometimes helps during these transition periods to make bedtime a bit earlier.

Even if your tot doesn’t actually sleep during the day, some quiet time after lunch should help to relax and revive them.

Can’t sleep, won’t sleep

Issue #1: He won't go to bed

Why?

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.

Solutions
  • Establish a bedtime routine to help your little one get in the mood for sleep.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough exercise to tire them out in the day – but avoid overstimulation too close to bedtime.
  • Make sure the space where they sleep is nice and comforting.
  • Be consistent. If your child keeps getting out of bed, gently help them back without fuss, chat or attention.  But, if that’s getting tough and you feel like your patience is about to run out, it’s ok 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 deal with them again.
  • It can be really tempting, especially if you’ve just settled down to watch something really good on TV, but try not to give in by bringing them into the living room or letting them watch TV with you, as it just stimulates them and wakes them up even more
  • Avoid them becoming overtired by ensuring they get a daytime nap (or two) if still needed.

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Issue #2: They wake in the night

Why?

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, for other toddlers it’s every night, several times a night!

Some things to try:

  • Leave them alone for a short while to see if they can settle themselves.
  • If they don’t, go in and settle them down gently, then say ‘Goodnight’ firmly and leave the room. You may need to repeat this several times, or even stay with them for a bit until you feel they’ve calmed down. Each time they cry, try to leave it a bit longer before you go in and calm them down.

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Issue #3: They keep coming into our bed

Why?

One way toddlers can exert their growing independence is by getting out of their bed and coming into yours. Have there been any changes in your family routines?

Solution

First of all, decide if this is something that bothers you? You might be perfectly happy to have them in beside you, especially if it means you’re all getting a good night’s sleep. If that’s the case then relax and enjoy the cuddles – they most likely won’t want to do that when they’re a teenager!

But if it is disrupting your own sleep and you’re feeling drained by the morning, here are some ideas that might help them to stay in their own bed:

  • During the day say to your child, ‘Everyone sleeps in their own bed at night.’ Talk to them about how it’s their own special space. You could get them to help you pick out the duvet cover they like best, some of their favourite cuddlies, maybe even a book that they can have a look at to help them drift off if they wake in the night.
  • However tired you are, if they get up or come into your bed, take 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 #4: They are scared of the dark

Why? 

At this age your little one is developing an active imagination.

Solutions

  • Avoid scary TV programmes, computer games or stories.
  • Use a nightlight.
  • If they awake from a nightmare, stay with them for a bit and explain that it was just a dream.
  • 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, so again, try chatting to them about whether anything is worrying them.
  • Talk to your doctor or health visitor if their nightmares persist.

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Last updated: 6 Feb, 2019