Toddler Sleep: Tips for Parents

By the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake. Toddler sleep is no less important than food, drink, or safety for children. For toddlers, it is critical they get the sleep they need to develop and function properly. With working parents, crazy schedules, and other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, and toddlers become anything but peaceful. Missing naps or going to bed a little late may not seem like a big deal, but it is. We’ve compiled the best tips for toddler sleep so you can all get the rest you desperately need.

Why is sleep important for toddlers?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a quarter of children under the age of 5 don’t get adequate sleep. Sleep is absolutely vital for toddlers, and plays a crucial role in their development.

Toddlers produce a very important growth hormone while they sleep, that is vital to their development. This vital growth hormone is released just after they fall into a deep sleep. Research shows that if a child doesn’t get the right amount and right quality of sleep, growth can be greatly affected, slowed or stunned.

Sleep has important effects on growth, especially in infancy and early childhood. Proper rest also directly impacts a toddler’s mental and physical development. In toddlers, napping is necessary for memory, attention, and motor skill development. Research shows that sleep impacts alertness and attention, cognitive performance, mood, vocabulary skills, learning and memory. 

Toddlers not sleeping does not only cause developmental delays, but it also can greatly affect a toddler’s behavior, leading to mood swings. Rested children are found to be more alert and happier, they are also found to be more even-tempered than a sleep deprived child. Children who are well rested also have stronger immune systems compared to their peers who are not getting enough sleep.

What are the sleep needs during toddler and preschool years?

By the age of 2, toddler naps typically decrease to once a day lasting up to three hours. Most toddlers move from cribs to beds between the ages of 2 and 3. And unfortunately for us parents, toddlers often do not look forward to bedtime. After so much learning and discovery throughout the day, toddlers would much rather keep exploring and testing their limits. They do not want to be separated from their parents or miss out on any of the fun activities they feel might be going on. Common toddler sleep problems at this age include bedtime resistance, night wakings and difficulty returning to sleep. Other problems can include nighttime fears and nightmares. 

We know toddler sleep is imperative, but how much sleep do kids need at this age? Your child’s circadian rhythm, or “biological clock” is a 24-hour cycle that tells your child’s body when to sleep. This built-in clock is influenced by your child’s age; and children need less sleep as they get older. So, how much sleep should a 2 year old get? Toddlers 1-2 years of age should have 11-14 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. Usually this consists of 10-12 hours a night, and a nap of 1-2 hours during the day. It may take several weeks of experimenting before you discover what works best for your toddler. 

How much sleep does a 4 year old need? For preschoolers ages 3-5, napping begins to trail off, although most preschoolers can still benefit from taking a nap. Sleep helps kids stay strong and healthy during their preschool years. Most children during this age need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period and usually one daytime nap. Older children may not need any naps at all.

A routine time for relaxing every day is a good habit to establish for your preschooler. Even if your child can't sleep, try to set aside some "quiet time" in the early afternoon for your child to relax. Around an hour a day is a sufficient amount of time. Sleep problems are common during these preschool years and may include resisting sleep, waking frequently, nighttime fears, nightmares, sleepwalking and sleep terrors.

How to get a toddler to sleep?

Set up a toddler bedtime routine

Having a consistent bedtime routine is vital for a toddler and probably one of the most important steps when it comes to getting your toddler to sleep. It helps them to wind down and prepare for sleep by knowing what’s coming next. Sleep routines usually involve sleep cues that let your toddler know sleep is coming. Sleep cues in your routine may include taking a bath, reading a story, singing a song, dressing in pajamas, putting on a sleep sack, snuggling a lovey, or hearing white noise.

Set a consistent bedtime, like 8 o’clock, and maintain a nightly routine that starts 30-60 minutes before that bedtime to get them settled down. Establish calm activities in the 30 minutes right before bedtime, such as taking a bath or reading bedtime stories to help your child wind down. It is helpful to set clear limits as to how many books you will read or songs you will sing. Always remind your child what's coming next. Say, "After your bath, we'll brush your teeth, put on your sleep sack, read one book, and then you'll go night-night." Allow your child to pick out which pajamas he or she wishes to wear and which stuffed animal to take to bed, etc. This choice of security object (stuffed animal or blanket) helps your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and all through the night.

Use blackout curtains or a night light

Light in your toddler’s room can stimulate their eyes to wake up, so if light is creeping into your little one’s room in the early hours of the morning, it may be hard for them to stay asleep or go back to sleep once being woken. Keeping your child’s room dark, especially during time changes, can greatly help at bedtime and early morning. Use blackout blinds to keep your child’s room dark and conducive to sleep.

Some toddlers or preschoolers develop a fear of the dark at this age, or suffer from nightmares or night terrors during the night. If this is the case, try using a nightlight instead to cheer up their room and give them peace of mind. Every child is different, so find what works for your toddler.

Be consistent & don’t skip naps

A 2 year old sleep schedule should not only stick to the same routines and set bedtimes and wake times each day, but it should also maintain consistent naps. Naps too late in the day, too brief, or skipping naps entirely will cause your toddler to become overtired. This will result in lack of a good night's sleep. Parents may feel skipping naps or keeping their toddler up later will mean he’ll sleep longer and wake later in the morning, but this is often not the case. The later a child goes to bed the earlier a child wakes. It seems counter-intuitive, but once a child becomes that little bit overtired from going to bed too late, or from not napping well during the day, it can carry over and affect the morning – leading to early morning waking.

Don't let your toddler push for extra time, even if he seems wide awake. Lots of parents think, “well, he couldn't be that tired because he's running around the room with so much energy,” but kids can become more hyper-active the more tired they are. Sticking to a schedule eases your child's transition, so that when you put him to bed, he knows it's time to sleep.

Make sure your child is comfortable

Your toddler’s bedroom environment should be quiet, cool, and comfortable for sleeping. The ideal room temperature for sleep is 65 to 70 degrees fahrenheit. Dress your toddler in some soft pajamas and a cozy toddler sleep sack. Sleep sacks are not only a great sleep cue in a toddler sleep training routine, but they also stay on and keep your toddler warm all through the night while they toss and turn. No need to worry if they kicked the covers off and are too cold.

Woolino 4-Season merino wool toddler sleep sacks help to naturally regulate body temperature and can be worn in temps ranging from 63-77F, making them the ideal sleepwear option year round. They also come in toddler sizing up to 4T! Once your toddler outgrows a traditional sack and wants more freedom, you can transition to a Woolino sleep bag with foot cuffs (for walkers) - a perfect solution when making the toddler bed transition. 

Allow your child to take a favorite thing to bed each night

If your toddler or preschooler suffers from bothersome night wakings or nightmares, try surrounding them with items of comfort, such as a favorite stuffed animal or soft blanket or other object that will allow them to fall asleep again independently. It is okay if they need to call out or seek Mom or Dad for comfort. However, once calmed down, Mom or Dad should return the child to his or her own bed. 

Do not return to your child's room every time he complains or calls out

Toddlers don’t want to be alone, but the reality is - you know what’s best for them! When your child is crying at night, or calling out for you to return to his bedroom, try setting a schedule of timed visits rather than responding to every request. By following a schedule, your child will still have his needs met. Start with 5-minute increments and then extend the time to 7 minutes, and then 10. As long as nothing is wrong (such as illness or a wet diaper), your toddler will eventually self-soothe and fall asleep. The goal is to eventually get them to soothe themselves and not have to intervene at all.

For preschoolers who continue this behavior, give them a "bedtime pass”. Allow them to leave the bedroom, but only once a night, to ask for whatever is needed. It can take months to modify a behavior, so remember that consistency is key. For some children, the pass can replace the crying and calling out while still giving them a feeling of control. 

Be patient & give it time

Toddlers are growing, changing, experiencing night fears and toddler sleep regression. Give them time to grow and adjust and give them patience in the process. The terrible two’s and toddler sleep training don’t last forever. Hang in there and stay consistent. Your child will be sleeping like a champ before you know it.

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