Toddlers are more and more aware of their surroundings, so distractions might disrupt them at bedtime. Their growing imaginations can start to interrupt sleep too.
Now more than ever, a simple and consistent bedtime routine is a parent’s best bet for getting a sleepy toddler snugly into bed.
How Much Sleep Does My Toddler Need?
Between the ages of 1 and 2, most kids need about 11–14 hours of sleep a day, including one or two daytime naps.
At around 18 months, or sometimes sooner, most toddlers condense their two naps into one afternoon nap. A toddler who fights the morning nap is probably ready for just an afternoon nap.
Where Should My Toddler Sleep?
Your 1- to 2-year-old should still sleep in a safe, secure crib. Before a child’s first birthday, blankets are not recommended because of the possible risk of SIDS. But at this age, it’s OK to put a light blanket in your child’s crib. Also, security items like “lovies” (a small soft blanket or stuffed animal) are OK and can provide a lot of comfort. But don’t put any extra-large soft toys or stuffed animals in the crib.
Watch out for items with ties or strings that could wind up around your toddler’s neck. Be on constant lookout for nearby objects your child might be able to reach from a standing position in the crib: curtains, window blind pulls, pictures, or wall hangings are all possibilities.
Your curious toddler may be looking for ways to climb over the crib railing to “break out” of the crib. Don’t leave a lot of toys that your child could pile up and climb onto. And remember: No bumper pads — a child might use those as a step at this age.
If you have an active climber who is getting out of the crib, make sure that the crib mattress is on the lowest possible setting. If it is, and your toddler is still trying to scale the crib, consider moving him or her into a toddler bed or “big kid” bed with a side rail. It will be hard at first to keep your toddler in it, but at least you’ll know your child won’t be hurt climbing out of a crib. For added safety, install a gate in the doorway of the room so that your child can’t wander around the house. Be sure your child’s room is childproofed.
Why Does My Toddler Wake at Night?
Your toddler may begin waking up at night. Sometimes it’s because of discomfort, such as teething pain or illness. Sometimes it’s due to mild separation anxiety: “Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy?”
Dreams and nightmares can begin to affect toddlers, who have a hard time telling these from reality. Be mindful of books your toddler sees just before bedtime, and keep the content mild. If your child doesn’t have a comfort item like a lovie or blankey, consider getting one to help provide reassurance.
Time spent with screens (like a TV or tablet) can disrupt a child’s sleep. That’s one reason why health experts recommend:
- limiting screen time
- keeping toddlers away from screen devices in the hour before bedtime
- not keeping devices in a child’s bedroom
Check for other causes of your toddler’s nighttime awakenings. Toddlers often push off the covers at night, so in the colder months you might want to dress your child in heavy pajamas for warmth.
Is there too much noise coming from another room? Toddlers will learn to sleep with some noise, but a loud TV or too much conversation close by can be disrupting. Check out your child’s room from a noise perspective. Make it someplace you would sleep soundly and chances are you’ll make it more comfortable for your toddler.
How Can I Help My Toddler Sleep?
By now you’ve probably found the right combination — like a warm bath and a bedtime story — to help your child relax. Stay with it and don’t let it get too long. The backrub that seems like a treat now may not be so fun when it’s demanded night after night for longer and longer periods. Decide how many drinks of water you’ll allow and how many times you’ll get the toy that’s thrown out of the crib in defiance of bedtime.
Get used to setting the rules and sticking to them. This not only helps your child get more sleep now, but also helps you later if other, more serious discipline problems arise.
If your toddler wakes in the middle of the night, you’ll still want to quietly and quickly provide reassurance that everything is OK and you are close by. But too much interaction can backfire, so keep your nighttime “visits” brief and boring for your toddler.
If you have an early riser, help keep sunlight from waking your toddler by keeping curtains or blinds closed. Also try putting a few safe toys in the crib — they may keep your child busy in the morning.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Talk with your doctor about any sleep problems that seem severe to you, such as recurring nightmares.
Making the transition from crib to toddler bed is a major milestone in a child’s life. But seasoned veterans know that the real challenge isn’t persuading your toddler to sleep in their exciting big-kid bed — it’s what to do when your toddler won’t stay in bed. Because with great freedom comes a great desire to wander back into a parent’s room.
So how do you keep your toddler in bed? For some parents, a toddler that won’t stay in bed is less of an issue. They have an open bed policy, and it doesn’t matter where their toddler sleeps as long as their toddler is sleeping. For other parents, alone time is crucial, and learning how to keep a toddler in bed is a top priority. Enter yet another round of sleep training — toddler edition.
Falling Asleep Independently Will Help Keep Your Toddler in Bed All Night
In the order of operations for helping a toddler stay in bed all night, getting them to a place where they fall asleep independently is at the top of the list. When you are able to leave their room while they are still awake, you know they have developed the skills to self-soothe and fall asleep independently in the first place.
“If your child needs you nearby in order to fall asleep and you leave (either because you have to go attend to something or because you think he or she is asleep), your toddler will absolutely leave the bed to come to find you,” says Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, director of the behavioral sleep program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and author of Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10.
She explains that most kids wake up 2-6 times each night. So view bedtime as a learning opportunity for your toddler, where they develop the skills necessary to meet some of their own needs throughout the night. “If your toddler needs your help to fall asleep at bedtime and you leave only once he or she is deeply asleep,” explains Dr. Schneeberg, “your toddler will leave their bed to come and find you at night after he or she wakes as all kids do.”
Sleep-Training Your Toddler
Sleep training a toddler goes by many names, most of which include the word “walk” in them. That’s because you’ll be walking back and forth between your bed and theirs. Maybe all night. The simple steps are:
- Complete the bedtime routine as normal, including hugs, kisses, and encouragement.
- Leave quickly without fanfare and no answering last-minute pleas or requests.
- If your kid gets up, walk them back to bed calmly, tuck them in again and remind them they need to stay in bed. Leave the room.
- If your kids get up again, walk them back to bed calmly and now silently. Tuck them into bed. Leave the room.
Getting your kid to stay in bed overnight is not an easy or quick thing to do. It may take a night before it works. It might take five. But it will eventually work. The key is to remain completely calm and quiet in the face of whatever your toddler throws at you. Even if they are literally throwing things at your face.
Need motivation? Just think of the quiet nights of conversation with only you and your partner in bed. Or having sex.
Make Clear Expectations About Staying in Bed
Make sure your toddler knows what you expect from them. Dr. Schneeberg suggests using a bedtime chart if your toddler uses extra steps or requests as “If you have a chart you can say, ‘the chart says it’s time to brush teeth now’ or “hugging the dog again is not on the chart,’” she says.
Charts can be as much for the parent’s benefit as they are for the toddler’s. By bedtime, you’re tired as well and may find it a challenge to keep firm limits. “Parents sometimes think that if they grant all of the requests a child makes when they out of the room then their child will finally fall asleep,” sats Dr. Schneeberg. “In actuality, granting all of these requests actually rewards the child for staying awake.”
If the rigidity of a chart isn’t the best fit for you or your toddler, Dr. Schneeberg notes that a ticket or token system might work better. Each night, your child gets two tickets that they can “spend” on a deviation from the bedtime routine. They can use a ticket on an extra book, a quick drink, or anything else within reason. “Once the two tickets are gone, parents can remind their children to return to bed to play quietly in bed with their comfort objects until they are drowsy enough to fall asleep,’ says Dr. Schneeberg.
Getting Your Toddler Back to Bed
Kids actually have rational reasons for not wanting to go to bed. Staying up is more fun than laying still, and they have a fear of missing out on the entertaining things parents or siblings do at night. Unfortunately, they also drastically miscalculate their ability to be healthy and pleasant without adequate sleep, so it really is imperative that they get back to bed.
Dr. Schneeberg notes that you’ll want to be as brief and boring as possible when returning your child to bed. “Remind your child to play with their small, safe toy or stuffed animal until he or she is sleepy,” she says. “If your child comes to your room at night, you can either let them sleep in a spare bed in your room, you can sleep in a spare bed in their room, or you can walk them back to their room and stay nearby until they are asleep again.”
The good news is that what might feel like an insurmountable challenge at the moment is, in reality, an opportunity to gently reinforce that your child has the tools to stay in bed and that it’s a safe place for them. At some point soon they will sleep through the night. And before you know it, your kid will reach the teenage years, so you’ll be looking for strategies on how to get them out of bed.
Putting your toddler to bed can be daunting. After all, you never know if he's going to scream his head off or whimper pitifully. But the real question is, what's the best way to respond to your child once you've tucked him in? Experts are quite divided on this issue, with Dr. Richard Ferber at one end of the scale and Dr. William Sears at the other. All agree, however, that the way you choose to calm or ease your child to sleep changes over time. A young baby needs cuddling, while a toddler needs a consistent routine and a firm goodnight. Each expert offers lots of ideas to lull your toddler to sleep — pick and choose what works for you.
Once your child understands language, you can tell him that you're going to stay in his room for shorter and shorter periods of time ("I'll be staying for just five more minutes") instead of leaving for longer periods. You can help your child practice being alone by running errands such as leaving the room to get a glass of water, load the dishwasher, and so on. Or you can try telling your child that if he's quiet and stays in bed, you'll come back in a few minutes and give him an extra hug and kiss. Read more about Mindell.
Reinforce your child's appropriate bedtime by using a consistent bedtime routine. Don't hold her, rock her, or let her rely on a pacifier or bottle to get to sleep. While they work in the short term, these methods teach your toddler to depend on being put to sleep, rather than falling asleep on her own. If your child calls out to you or cries at night, go into her room at progressively longer intervals (five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes) to reassure her you're there.
If she won't stay in bed, tell her you'll close the door. If just mentioning it doesn't do the trick, shut the door and hold it closed (but never lock it) for about a minute. If she doesn't get back in bed after that, go in and put her down, then go outside and close the door for two minutes, then three, then five, and so on. Five minutes is the maximum for the first night. Once your child gets into bed on her own, open the door, offer her a word of encouragement, and leave without going inside her room. If she keeps getting up on subsequent nights, the amount of time the door stays closed can be longer — up to 30 minutes for the fourth closing on the seventh night.
Stick to a regular pattern of daytime and nighttime sleep; don't let your toddler set her own sleep schedules. Read more about Ferber.
The AAP's view
Separation anxiety lingers at this age, and negativism is at a high, so your child may resist going to bed. It may help if you let him make bedtime choices (which pjs to wear or what story to read), let him sleep with transitional objects, and leave on a nightlight or room light. If he still cries for you, wait ten minutes before going in to settle him down, then leave and repeat the process if necessary. Don't scold or punish him, but don't reward him by staying, either. He may just be trying to get attention, so put him right back to bed and leave as soon as he's lying down. Stay calm and consistent — he'll soon realize you won't give in. It's a good idea to stick to a schedule. Read more about the AAP.
Be firm. Make sure you're following a bedtime ritual that is supportive and comforting. Don't go right in when he calls you; instead, call to him and tell him that you're there and how proud you are that he's learning to do this by himself. Read more about Brazelton.
Be sure to stick to your bedtime ritual — toddlers this age really need the consistency that offers. Other ways to help your child get to sleep are to cuddle up with him, pretend to be asleep yourself, or take a businesslike, adult-in-charge approach: Prepare for bed and go about your own routine. Eventually he'll fall asleep right in the middle of watching you. Read more about Sears.
Have you ever crept into your child's room during the night, expecting to find them curled up in their cot or toddler bed, only to find your toddler sleep on floor?
As strange as it may sound, it's completely normal and relatively common for your toddler to suddenly express an interest in sleeping on the floor rather than in their lovely, comfy bed.
In this article, we'll talk about the potential reasons why your toddler has made this unusual transition, how long the phase might last, and even some unexpected benefits of your toddler sleeping on the floor.
Should I Let My Toddler Sleep On The Floor? The most important thing to remember is that sleeping on the floor is just a phase and it's nothing to worry about. There is no good reasons why you wouldn't let your little one sleep on the floor, if they are perfectly happy there.
If you have a toddler, you might be wondering if they really still need their naps – especially if they are becoming difficult to put down. And you might want to know when naps stop being beneficial?
Can My Toddler Sleep On The Floor?
In some cultures, sleeping on the floor is considered dangerous or unhealthy – but most of these reasons don't apply to modern Western society.
For example, old or rural houses in some countries may have had concrete or even mud floors, causing the floor to feel cold from rising damp. In these instances, it makes sense that people would express a concern that sleeping on the floor could cause a chill, illness, or even arthritis.
Today, the vast majority of houses in Western countries do not have problems with cold or damp floors.
Are There Any Dangers To A Toddler Sleeping On The Floor?
The first time you see your toddler sleep on floor, you may worry that this practice is dangerous or unhealthy for your child.
In general, there is nothing to fear if your toddler wants to sleep on the floor – provided you don't have any indoor pets or sleepwalking children or adults who could inadvertently step on your child while they're asleep.
If your child shares a room with you or a sibling, having them sleep on the floor could pose a risk, but that's something you'll need to assess based on your circumstances.
Why A Toddler May Choose To Sleep On The Floor
Toddlerhood is a tricky time to navigate – for children and parents alike. Sometimes your toddler feels like a big kid, ready to separate from you and take on the world.
But at other times, they want nothing more than to be a baby, safe and secure in your arms. They're also busy testing the waters, wondering what they can get away with and what you'll stop them from doing.
These competing feelings can leave your child feeling confused and frustrated – and this can cause some interesting behaviours.
Choosing to sleep on the floor is just one way that your toddler could try exerting some power – giving them a chance to feel like they’re in charge of something as important as where they sleep.
Alternatively, your toddler may be interested in sleeping on the floor for sensory reasons. Perhaps the firmness of the floor is comforting, or they're uncomfortable in their bed for some reason.
Perhaps your child had a nightmare in their bed and are afraid to return there. Whatever the reason, your toddler may not be able to express themselves to you.
Rest assured that the reason is most likely something to do with independence, power, or sensory preferences, and usually nothing to worry about.
Supporting Your Toddler During A 'Sleeping On The Floor' Phase
Make A Bed On The Floor
Rather than fighting your toddler's decision to sleep on the floor, why not help your toddler sleep on floor by making up a comfortable bed for them. Drag out a toddler-safe mattress or sleeping bag, and allow them to choose a pillow and favourite blanket to sleep with.
Once your toddler understands that you're supporting this unusual power-play rather than fighting them on it, the phase may be over before it's really started.
Dress Them Appropriately
If you suspect your toddler will climb out of their bed and sleep on the floor – or if you've allowed them to sleep on the floor during this period – consider whether they'll be warm enough during the night.
During colder months, choose fleecy one-piece pyjamas or winter PJs with socks, as they may end up sleeping without a banket.
During summer, a thin pair of socks will give you comfort knowing their little toes aren’t getting cold in the middle of the night.
How To Baby-Proof A Room If Your Toddler Sleeps On The Floor
If your toddler is sleeping on the floor – or otherwise regularly climbing out of their cot or toddler bed – it's important to take some practical steps to ensure your child's safety in their bedroom.
The easiest way to assess any potential risks is to physically get down to your child's height and survey the room from their point of view. Consider the following:
- Ensure power outlets are fitted with secure child-proof plugs.
- Check that all furniture is appropriately anchored to the wall so it can't topple over.
- If there is a changing table in your child's room, make sure that any powders or creams are out of reach.
- Check that toys and books in your child's room are soft and safe for them to play without supervision. Remove any noisy toys, toys with small pieces, and – depending on the age of your child – heavy books or those with sharp corners.
The Unexpected Benefit Of Allowing Your Toddler To Sleep On The Floor
Extra Sleep For Parents
By allowing your child to sleep on the floor if they choose, you may be setting yourself up for some extra uninterrupted sleep. If your toddler is unhappy in their bed for whatever reason, they'll soon cry or call out as soon as they wake up.
By letting your toddler choose their sleeping location, there is more chance that they will settle themselves back to sleep if they wake up during the night, or quietly play or explore the room when they first wake up in the morning.
Should you let your toddler sleep on floor? In many respects, parenting is about choosing your battles. Your headstrong toddler is busy testing the boundaries – seeing what they can get away with and how much control they can exert over their own lives.
Wearing pyjamas to school or refusing to eat anything but cupcakes – those are battles you need to take on and win. But sleeping on the floor in an otherwise safe room, provided your toddler is warm enough, that's a battle you don't need to take on.
Your toddler will soon realise that sleep is much more comfortable in their own bed, and the phase will be over.
For some people, this might not be a problem. But if you or your child are suffering from a lack of sleep, there are some simple techniques you can try.
Every child is different, so only do what you feel comfortable with and what you think will suit your child.
If your child will not go to bed
- Decide what time you want your child to go to bed.
- Start a “winding down” bedtime routine 20 minutes before the time that your child usually falls asleep. Bring this forward by 5 to 10 minutes each week – or 15 minutes if your child is in the habit of going to bed very late – until you get to the bedtime you want.
- Set a limit on how much time you spend with your child when you put them to bed. For example, read only 1 story, then tuck your child in and say goodnight.
- Give your child their favourite toy, dummy (if they use one) or comforter before settling into bed.
- Leave a beaker of water within reach and a dim light on if necessary.
- If your child gets up, keep taking them back to bed again with as little fuss as possible.
- Try to be consistent.
- You may have to repeat this routine for several nights.
If your child will not go to sleep without you
This technique can help toddlers (over 12 months) or older children get used to going to sleep without you in the room.
It can also be used whenever your child wakes in the middle of the night.
Be prepared for your child to take a long time to settle when you first start.
You can use strokes or pats instead of kisses if your child sleeps in a cot and you cannot reach them to give them a kiss.
- Follow a regular calming bedtime routine.
- Put your child to bed when they’re drowsy but awake, then kiss them goodnight.
- Promise to go back in a few moments to give them another kiss.
- Return almost immediately to give a kiss.
- Take a few steps to the door, then return immediately to give a kiss.
- Promise to return in a few moments to give them another kiss.
- Put something away or do something in the room then give them a kiss.
- As long as the child stays in bed, keep returning to give more kisses.
- Do something outside their room and return to give kisses.
- If the child gets out of bed, say: “Back into bed and I’ll give you a kiss”.
- Keep going back often to give kisses until they’re asleep.
- Repeat every time your child wakes during the night.
More sleep tips for under-5s
- Make sure you have a calming, predictable bedtime routine that happens at the same time and includes the same things every night.
- If your child complains that they’re hungry at night, try giving them a bowl of cereal and milk before bed (make sure you brush their teeth afterwards).
- If your child is afraid of the dark, consider using a nightlight or leaving a landing light on.
- Do not let your child look at laptops, tablets or phones in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed – the light from screens can interfere with sleep.
- If your child wakes up during the night, be as boring as possible – leave lights off, avoid eye contact and do not talk to them more than necessary.
- Avoid long naps in the afternoon.
Help your disabled child to sleep
Sometimes children with long-term illnesses or disabilities find it more difficult to sleep through the night. This can be challenging both for them and for you.
The charity Contact has more information about helping you and your child sleep.
More help with children’s sleep problems
It can take patience, consistency and commitment, but most children’s sleep problems can be solved.
If your child is still having problems sleeping, you can talk to your health visitor.
They may have other ideas or suggest you make an appointment at a children’s sleep clinic, if there’s one in your area.
Read sleep tips for teenagers.
More in Health
Page last reviewed: 12 February 2020
Next review due: 12 February 2023
What will my toddler’s sleep pattern be at 12 months?
Although your child’s growing more independent each day, he still has many of the same needs as when he was a baby, especially when it comes to sleep. From 12 months to 18 months, your toddler will need around 13 hours to 14 hours of sleep a day, with 11 of those hours being at night (NHS 2015) .
At 12 months, your toddler may still need two naps during the day. But by or before the age of 18 months, he may be ready to condense this into one longer nap of one and a half hours to two hours (NHS 2015) .
Look out for signs that your toddler may be ready to make this transition. He may start to take longer to nod off during the day or sleep well in the morning and then resist the afternoon nap. Or he may start waking up earlier than usual from his naps.
There are lots of ways you can approach this transition from two naps to one nap. The most important thing is to find an approach that suits you and your little one.
You could try to cut out your toddler’s morning nap as soon as you think the timing is right. Your little one may adapt swiftly to the new routine, or he may have a few days of fussiness before settling down to one longer nap in the afternoon.
Or you could do try phasing out the second nap more gradually, watching your toddler for signs of tiredness. You could try alternating between one-nap and two-nap days, depending on how much sleep your toddler got the night before. Or it may help to try putting your child to bed a little earlier on one-nap days, until he settles into the new routine.
How should I encourage good sleep habits?
Have a consistent bedtime routine
A great way to help your toddler understand when it’s time to wind down is to have a consistent bedtime routine (Mindell et al 2006) . It’s never too late to start one. By knowing what to expect, your toddler will feel safe, content and calm, which is important when preparing for a good night’s sleep (IHV 2014) .
If your little one needs to work off excess energy, it’s fine to let him run around for a little while. However, don’t let this go on for too long or you may run the risk of him becoming over-stimulated. Move on to something more calming, such as his evening bath, or favourite bedtime story or lullaby. Keep your evening routine simple and activities short, calm and soothing. If it’s too complicated or it takes too long, your toddler may become overtired and find it harder to settle down (NHS 2014) .
Treat the bedtime routine as a special time that you, or your partner, get to spend with your little one. Follow the same pattern every night, even when you’re away from home if possible. He’ll soon learn to understand that a warm bath, a gentle massage, putting on his pyjamas and a quiet song or story, means sleep will follow (IHV 2014) .
Some studies have shown that watching television before settling down for the night may disrupt normal sleep patterns, although more research is needed to be sure (Thompson 2005, Hale 2015) . If you do like to watch a favourite show with your toddler before bedtime, try to allow for some time to wind down afterwards.
Follow a daily routine
A consistent daily routine helps your toddler feel safe and secure. If he naps, eats, plays, and gets ready for bed at about the same time every day, he may be more likely to fall asleep without a struggle (Mindell et al 2006, IHV 2014) .
Just as for bedtime, it’s a good idea to establish a regular naptime routine to help get your child ready for a rest. This can be a shorter version of the one you use at night, such as reading a story or having a cuddle. By going through a familiar routine, your toddler is less likely to resist a nap during the day.
If your toddler is getting too much sleep during the day, then this could have an impact on how well he sleeps at night. Try making sure any naps he does have are before 3pm, so that he’s tired enough when bedtime comes around (NSF nd) .
Avoid giving your toddler a dummy at night
If your little one still depends on a dummy to fall asleep, he may wake up if he loses it during the night. Try substituting it for a favourite cuddly toy or blanket to snuggle down with (Red Nose 2013) .
Although it may be tough for a few nights, going cold turkey is better than trying to remove the dummy gradually. Stick with it. Before long, your toddler will forget all about it.
What sleep problems happen at this age?
Your toddler is learning all sorts of new skills at this age, such as standing, climbing and walking. He’ll be eager to show off and practise his new-found abilities at all times of day (NSF nd) . So you may suddenly find yourself dealing with a wide-awake toddler in the middle of the night. The best approach is to make sure that when your little one does wake in the night, he knows how to settle back down by himself (St James-Roberts et al 2015) .
Sleep training may help you encourage your toddler to learn to self-soothe (Mindell et al 2006) . There are a variety of different methods you can use for sleep training, from controlled crying to a number of no-tears approaches. What’s most important is to choose a method that works for you and your family.
You may also find that your toddler is waking too early in the morning. It may be tempting to move his bedtime to later in the evening to see if he sleeps for longer. However, this may make your toddler overtired, which in turn makes it harder for him to settle at night. Try to be patient with early mornings, as it won’t last forever! If you can, take turns with your partner to get up with your toddler, so at least one of you has a good night’s sleep.
As your toddler discovers the wonderful things his body can do now, he may be tempted to test them out during the night. Find out what to do if he starts climbing out of his cot.
More sleep problems in toddlers:
BFWH. 2013. Information and advice about dummies and bottles. Talking Health for Babies. Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, www.bfwh.nhs.uk [Accessed January 2017]
Hale, L, Guan, S, 2015. Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, Volume 21:50-58. [Accessed January 2017]
IHV. 2014. Promoting a healthy sleep routine. Institute of Health Visiting. iHV Parent Tips. www.ihv.org.uk. [Accessed January 2017]
Mindell JA, Kuhn B, et al. 2006. Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children. Sleep. 29 (10): 1263-1276 [Accessed January 2017]
NHS. 2014. Helping your baby to sleep. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk [Accessed January 2017]
NHS. 2015 How much sleep do kids need? NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk [Accessed January 2017]
NSF.Nd. Children and sleep. National Sleep Foundation. www.sleepfoundation.org. [Accessed January 2017]
Red Nose. 2013. National Scientific Advisory Group. Information statement: soft toys in the cot. rednose.com.au [Accessed January 2017]
St James-Roberts I, Roberts M, K et al. 2015. Video evidence that London infants can resettle themselves back to sleep after waking in the night, as well as sleep for long periods, by three months of age. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 36 (5): 324-9. [Accessed January 2017]
Thompson DA, Christakis DA, 2005. The Association Between Television Viewing and Irregular Sleep Schedules Among Children Less Than 3 Years of Age. Pediatrics Volume 116, Issue 4. [Accessed January 2017]
If you’re a parent, you know the nightly challenge: to get your kids to go to bed — and stay there. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for them.
When children don’t get enough sleep, they have a harder time controlling their emotions. They may be irritable or hyper, which is no fun for anyone. Kids who are always sleep-deprived are more likely to have behavior problems, have trouble paying attention and learning, and be overweight. So although it’s not easy, it’s important to do all you can to help your child get the sleep they need.
Regular schedules and bedtime rituals play a big role in helping kids get sound sleep and function at their best. When you set and maintain good sleep habits, it helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake rested and refreshed. They can help take the stress out of bedtime, too.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for bedtime, and every child is different. What’s important is to build a routine that works for your family — and to stick with it. Here are nine ways to get started.
1. Make sleep a family priority.
Set regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family and be sure to follow them — even on weekends. You can tell that children are getting enough sleep when they fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes of going to bed, wake up easily in the morning, and don’t nod off during the day.
2. Deal with sleep troubles.
Signs of sleep struggles include trouble falling asleep, waking up at night, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having trouble breathing during sleep, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping. You might notice problems in daytime behavior, as well. If your child seems overtired, sleepy, or cranky during the day, tell their doctor.
3. Work as a team.
It’s important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your spouse or partner beforehand and work together as a team to carry it out consistently. Otherwise, you can’t expect your child to learn or change their behavior.
If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make them part of the team by explaining the new plan to them if they are old enough to understand. For a young child, try using a picture chart to help your child learn the new routine, showing actions like changing clothes, brushing teeth, and reading a book.
4. Routine, routine, routine.
Kids love it, they thrive on it, and it works. One study found that a consistent nighttime routine improved sleep in children who had mild to moderate sleep problems. It helps your child learn to be sleepy, just like reading in bed often puts adults to sleep. It can also make bedtime a special time. That will help your child associate the bedroom with good feelings and give them a sense of security and control. There is no single routine that’s right for everyone, but in general, yours should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including brushing teeth, washing up, putting on PJs, and having a snack or drink of water. Your child may want to read a book with you, talk about the day, or hear a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (30 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it’s time to sleep.
5. Bedtime snacks.
Children may need more than three meals a day to keep them going, so a small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fueled through the night. Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Avoid large snacks too close to bed, especially with older kids, because a full stomach can interfere with sleep.
6. Dress and room temperature.
Everyone sleeps better in a room that is cool but not cold. A rule of thumb is to dress your child basically as you dress yourself, keeping in mind that very young children often kick off the covers at night and can’t cover themselves.
7. Sleep environment.
Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet and the noise level in the house is low. If your child does not like a totally dark room, turn on a small night light, or leave the hall light on and the door to the bedroom open.
8. Security object.
Bedtime means separation, and that can be easier for kids with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear, or blanket. It can provide a sense of security and control that comforts and reassures your child before they fall asleep.
9. One last thing.
Kids will always ask for that one last thing — hugs, a drink of water, a trip to the bathroom, just one more book. Do your best to head off these requests by making them part of the bedtime routine. And let your child know that once they are in bed, they have to stay in bed.
If they get up, don’t react — simply take them by the hand and walk them back to bed. If you argue or give in to requests, you’re giving them the extra attention — and delayed bedtime — they want. And don’t give into the “just this one time” pitfall. If you read one more story or let them stay up longer “just this once,” the bedtime routine you’ve built could come undone.
KidsHealth: “When Snack Attacks Strike” and “All About Sleep.”
University of Maryland Medical Center: “Sleep Hygiene: Helpful Hints to Help You Sleep.”
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center: “Healthy Foods and Snacking.”
HealthyChildren.org: “Discontinuing the Bottle.”
National Sleep Foundation: “Healthy Sleep Tips;” “Back to School Sleep Tips;” and “Children and Sleep.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “The Perils of Late-Night Snacking.”
University of Michigan Health System: “Sleep Problems.”
Mindell, J. Sleep, vol. 32: pp 599-606.
Satter, E. Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, Kelcy Press, 2005.
Toddlers: Children 1-2 years of age should have 11-14 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. This may be split up between nighttime sleeping and a nap or two during the daytime. It may take several weeks of experimenting before you discover what works best for your toddler.
Preschoolers: Sleep helps your kids grow strong and healthy during their preschool years (ages 3 to 5). 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.
How do sleep needs change during the toddler and preschool years?
Toddlers: By the end of the second year, 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. Toddlers often do not look forward to bedtime. They do not want to be separated from the parent/guardian or miss out on any of the fun activities they feel might be going on. Common sleep problems at this age include bedtime resistance, night awakening(s) and difficulty returning to sleep. Other problems can include nighttime fears and nightmares.
Preschoolers: Napping begins to trail off, although most preschoolers can still benefit from taking a nap. The best way to do this is to establish a set routine time for napping or simply quiet or relaxing time in the child’s bedroom. 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. These problems can include resisting going to sleep and waking frequently at night. Also common during the preschool years are nighttime fears, nightmares, sleepwalking and sleep terrors.
How can I help my toddler or preschooler sleep well?
You can do a number of things to establish an excellent bedtime routine to ensure that your toddler gets enough sleep. When setting up a bedtime routine, keep these things in mind:
- Stick to the same set bed times and wake up times each day. Don't short change nap time either – make sure that it does not occur too late in the day or that it is too brief – either of these will result in lack of a good night's sleep.
- Maintain a consistent bedtime routine. Turn off overhead lights and use dim table lamps starting 30-60 minutes before bedtime to minimize light exposure. Establish calm and enjoyable 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. 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.
- Make sure the bedroom environment is quiet, cool, dark and comfortable for sleeping. A nightlight or area light on the very lowest dimmer setting is fine. Playing soft, soothing music or sound machine is fine. Remember to reserve the bed for sleeping only – it should not be used as a platform for playing. Television watching in the bedroom should not be allowed. Any other form of screen time (iPad, smart phones, etc.) should not be part of the bedroom environment. These can over-stimulate the child and make it harder for them to fall asleep.
- Limit food and drink (especially any drinks containing caffeine) before bedtime. Remember, many clear beverages contain caffeine, so check the label. A light snack before bedtime is OK.
- Tuck your child into bed in a sleepy but awake state, then leave the room. This will help your child learn to fall asleep on his or her own and help your child return to sleep independently if he or she wakes up in the middle of the night.
- Preschoolers: If a preschooler has a bothersome night waking or nightmare, it is okay for him or her to call out or seek out Mom or Dad for comfort. However, once calmed down, Mom or Dad should return the child to his or her own bed. Surround the child with items of comfort, such as a favorite stuffed animal or soft blanket or other object that will allow the child to fall asleep again independently without the need to leave the bed and seek you out again.
Safety issues with toddlers
Toddlers are at an age where they are becoming increasingly aware and curious about their surroundings. Therefore, as the parents or guardians, you will need to be more cautious about your child's crib, what is placed in it and its surroundings. For instance:
- Don’t leave extra-large stuffed toys in the crib or leave on the bumper pads – your toddler can use these objects as a step to climb over the crib rail.
- Look for and remove objects with strings or ties that could accidentally end up wound around your child's neck, such as cords on blinds or curtains.
- Look at any objects that might be too close to your child's crib and that your child might be able to reach from a standing position – such as wall hangings, curtains, window blinds and dresser doilies.
- If you have such an active toddler, for safety reasons it might be time to move him or her from a crib to a toddler bed.
- Consider anchoring large furniture to the walls to prevent them from falling over if your child tries to climb on them.
When should I seek a doctor's help regarding sleep issues with my toddler or preschooler?
Contact a doctor if:
- Your child seems to have trouble breathing, snores or makes noise when breathing, or you have seen your child stop breathing while sleeping.
- Your child has unusual nighttime behaviors, unexpected number of awakenings or has significant nighttime fears that you are concerned about.
- Your feel your child's sleep problems are affecting daytime behavior.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/28/2020.
- Sleep Foundation. Children and Sleep. (https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/children-and-sleep) Accessed 8/31/2020.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need? (https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/Healthy-Sleep-Habits-How-Many-Hours-Does-Your-Child-Need.aspx) Accessed 8/31/2020.
- Mindell JA, Williamson AA. Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6587181/) Sleep Med Rev. 2018;40:93-108. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2017.10.007
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It's natural for children to test boundaries at bedtime (particularly between 3 to 6 years).
Many children do this at bedtime. Some children resist going to bed while others go to bed but get up repeatedly.
Follow the bedtime routine in the same way at the same time each night. Your child will then know what to expect. It will help your child feel secure and loved.
How long it should take
A bedtime routine including supper should take between 30 to 45 minutes.
The key to success is consistency. Keep going even if you meet resistance initially, it will get easier.
To help keep their bedtime routine consistent:
- try to make sure your child goes to bed and gets up at about the same time every day
- avoid screens like TVs, tables and phones in the hour before bed. Do some quiet activities such as jigsaws or colouring.
- make sure your child has had a good supper, a drink and has been to the toilet. This will avoid requests to get out of bed
- help them get into their pyjamas and brush their teeth
- set clear limits and boundaries on story time – if you say you’ll read them 2 stories, then stick to this
- say goodnight and tuck them into bed
- turn off the lights
- If your child is afraid of the dark, switch on a dim night light to help them settle. Or leave the bedroom door slightly open with the light on in the corridor or hall
- if your child gets out of bed, return them to their bed
- do not put your child to bed too early – they should fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes of going to bed. 7pm to 8pm is a good time to start a bedtime routine
Reward your child for staying in their own bed. Use a reward chart and give them a sticker for staying in bed. Have a ‘bigger’ reward if they get 3 stickers on their chart. The ‘bigger’ reward could be an activity like a trip to the park.
Contact your GP or public health nurse for advice if you're worried that your child is not sleeping and you find it hard to cope.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot from parents who ask me the secret to keeping their toddler or child in their bed all night.
Usually, the toddlers take forever to fall asleep, and either mom or dad has to lay down with them or else there are endless tears. Sometimes, it’s taking one or two hours for them to fall asleep. And very often, they are awake just a couple hours later, either needing to repeat their bedtime routine, or climbing right into bed with their parents.
These parents have shared that their sleep challenges may have started when they moved their toddler into a big kid bed, or when a new sibling arrived, or maybe they started co-sleeping when he was a baby.
But all of these parents have one thing in common: their child isn’t sleeping well, and they are all ready for a change.
If this sounds like you, I’m sure you are exhausted. You aren’t getting enough sleep because your nights are fragmented, you are frustrated because you have to be the one to do bedtime routine every night or your child is a stall tactic master, asking for another glass of water or another trip to the potty. You’ve probably tried a ton of different things, but nothing is working.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. You CAN make a change in your child’s sleep!
So What’s the Secret?
I hate to break it to you… but when working with toddlers, there isn’t a one size fits all, magic approach that will instantly solve your problems. Anyone that told you that giving them melatonin, or trying a weighted blanket, or moving them into a toddler or adult bed is unfortunately misleading you. These things might work for a short period of time, but they are kind of like a band-aid: the behavior is still there, and when the novelty wears off, you’ll be right back where you started.
Toddlers need several things in order to change any behavior, and yes, this absolutely includes changing their habits around sleep, too. They need consistency, firm boundaries, and a quick response when your expectations are not met.
Keep reading, and I’ll explain what I mean by these things, and how to make some lasting changes for your toddler’s sleep.
#1: Firm Boundaries
The more clear and consistent you can be around your expectations, the easier it is for your child to understand how to achieve them.
For example, having a consistent bed time and bedtime routine are huge. These signals tell your toddler it’s time to go to bed, and it’s hard to argue or stall when bedtime occurs at the same time every night.
On the other hand, it’s confusing to a toddler when sometimes it’s ok for them to sleep in your bed, but other nights you want them to sleep in theirs. Your toddler doesn’t understand that some nights you might want to watch Netflix or have a glass of wine downstairs, but other nights it’s ok for them to fall asleep in your lap. Having one consistent place to sleep is very important, especially if you want that place to be in their own bed.
#2: Avoid Giving Attention to Non-Ideal Behaviors
What you give your attention to, you reinforce.
If that’s a good behavior, like going pee ON the potty, then praise can go a long way in motivating your child to keep going potty.
But the same thing is true for behaviors you don’t want your toddler to repeat, like waking up and crawling into bed with you in the middle of the night. Even if you get mad and storm your child back into his room, you are reinforcing the behavior because your toddler is getting attention. Even negative attention can still be rewarding to a toddler. If this were to happen, then the best way to handle it is by returning your toddler to their bed, without any emotion.
And if you happen to have an early riser, allowing them to get up for the day at 5am only reinforces the behavior. You could try getting an OK to Wake clock (at our house, we use the Hatch Rest- and no, that’s not an affiliate reference). Your clock might turn green when it’s time for your toddler to wake up, or it might be a digital number like 7:00. Before that time, it’s important to train your toddler to treat it like nighttime, and quietly lay in bed trying to sleep. Then, when it’s time to get up, is when you go in and get them up for the day.
You might be doing both of the things above, but still not seeing any progress with your child’s sleep. Which is why this one might be the most important of all.
Having consequences for any action that isn’t ideal is a way to firm up those boundaries and share your expectations with your toddler.
I’m not talking about physical punishment here, so don’t get all upset on me. And I believe that toddlers, who are still learning right from wrong, should be given one warning and have the opportunity to make the right choice.
But if your toddler is repeating those actions, and it’s cutting into their sleep- and yours- then it might be time to instill a consequence.
A consequence can be anything that is unpleasant to your child. Since every child is unique, it’s hard for me to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach here, and you know your child best. Choose something that matters to them, but at the same time, balance that with avoiding things that will make them scared or angry.
Expect that this consequence will probably upset your child in the short run, and there might be some tears that accompany this action. However, if you stay true to your consistent routine and your expectations, you should begin to see progress in just a few days.
It’s So Worth It
While it may be tough in the short term to deal with your toddler’s tantrums or multiple middle of the night wakings, making some changes to your current routine will be so worth it in the long run.
Imagine your child, looking forward to falling asleep peacefully in their own bed at bedtime, while you get to spend some adult time, maybe with your partner or enjoying a nice glass of wine.
And then visualize them staying asleep and in their bed the whole night, while you get to stretch out in your own bed and enjoy a restful night of sleep yourself.
The results of sleep training are so worth the work it takes in the first little bit of any sleep plan.
With that, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you have found this post to be helpful. If you have any questions about the suggestions posted above, or feel like your family could benefit from a straight-forward, step-by-step action plan with sleep strategies proven to work, then I encourage you to reach out.