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What you need to know about sleep and your toddler

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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 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?

Toddler escaping cot

Toddler escaping cot

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

Advice and support from Sleep Scotland

Sleep Scotland 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. Email to get in touch.

Their Sleep Advisors and Sleep Counsellors will complete an initial sleep history, asking questions on current routines, diet, exercise, and the sleep problem. They will then create a sleep plan based on the responses. For those parents who require it, follow up calls are also available. Visit the Sleep Scotland website for more information and advice.

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

Last updated: 20 Jun, 2023