L is now 3 years old and generally her sleep is good – she sleeps twelve hours a night and that suits us fine. In order to get to this stage, though, we’ve had to navigate our way through several common toddlers’ sleeping problems – difficulty going to sleep, waking during the night and getting up too early.
If your toddlers’ sleeping problems are keeping you up, then read on for the tricks that helped us.
Not going to sleep
There are few things more frustrating than struggling to get a toddler to go to sleep, when all you want is to go to sleep yourself! Toddlers are masters at avoiding or delaying bedtime.
Are they tired enough but not overtired?
If your toddler isn’t tired then you have next to no chance of getting him to fall asleep but, as anyone who has ever been faced with an overtired child can attest, if your toddler is too tired then he will tip in to ‘hyper mode’ and you will have even less chance of getting him to sleep.
We discovered two keys to hitting the ‘tiredness sweet spot’ – naps and bedtime.
The NHS guide to children’s sleep states that a one-year-old should be napping for two and a half hours in the daytime, whilst a 3-year-old needs 0-45 minutes.
Guides to how long a child should nap are helpful, but bear in mind that they are just that – guides. L had an hour to an hour and a half nap in the morning from the age of about one until just after her second birthday. She didn’t have an afternoon nap at all, unlike most children, so she was well under the recommended sleep for her age.
A bit of trial and error demonstrated that an afternoon nap for L simply meant that she wasn’t tired enough at bedtime, so we stuck to the morning only nap. When L turned two and moved to the bigger room at nursery, the staff were too busy to put her down for a morning nap. We were therefore pushed in to her dropping naps altogether when she was two.
The result of dropping naps so early was that her bedtime had to be moved to avoid over-tiredness. We discovered when L was a baby that she needs an early bedtime. With the loss of her nap age 2 that became even more crucial.
L is now asleep each night anywhere between 5-6.30pm. In an ideal world I’d prefer it to be nearer 6.30pm but some nights she is just too tired and keeping her up when she’s overtired just leads to a longer time spent with a crying, distressed toddler. Tonight she asked to go to bed at 4pm and I fought to keep her up until 5.15pm – she was too tired!
I can’t tell you how much of a nap or what bedtime your toddler needs, they’re individuals, which is why different sleep programmes work for some people but not others. Experiment with the timing and duration of naps and the timing of bedtime until you find the combination that works best for your toddler.
Tired but not going to sleep (being a bloody nightmare)
This usually takes two forms – getting in and out of bed or delaying tactics. On a bad night it may involve both.
On a typical day L isn’t much given to this (hallelujah) as she’s normally exhausted and, as I said earlier, loves bedtime and an early night. However there are a couple of scenarios that inevitably bring this out – napping during the day (ten minutes in the afternoon is all it takes to ruin our night) or excitement (first night in a new place, daddy coming home early from work).
This is why I almost wept the time that L’s nursery worker merrily informed me that L had ‘had a lovely long nap on the tram on the way home from our trip today’ and why I border on cruelty when keeping L awake in the car on our way home from our various activities – a little bit of sleep can turn my sweet, pleasant girl in to what my mum (somewhat harshly) calls ‘exorcist child’.
L will jump on the bed, run in and out of the room, laugh her head off, play with all of her toys, shout, sing, dance, scream… picture a child being as energetic and noisy as they can be and that is essentially what I’m talking about. At night. When she should be sleeping.
On really bad nights this is usually punctuated with brief periods of her lulling me in to a false sense of security thinking she’s about to fall asleep and then suddenly popping up to ask for water/the toilet/a cuddle/to say goodnight to her stuffed animals. She is suddenly desperately thirsty and needs the toilet every five minutes.
This is not a fun phase. Some of my mum friends have said they experience this most nights and I can only offer them my utmost sympathy and respect as I find it really hard to deal with on the (thankfully few) occasions it happens to us. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to harming L – the tiredness and irritation can make the red mist descend.
If this is happening to you and the mist is descending, then you need to walk away. Get someone else to take over if you can and if not just go in to the bathroom and give yourself some breathing room.
The only way to deal with this effectively is calmly, because toddlers (bizarrely) crave attention above all else, even if it’s negative. If your toddler is in this mode then the main thing they want is your reaction and attention. Shouting or screaming at them, crying, threatening… it’s all just feeding in to their desire to get a reaction out of you.
The best thing to do (although it’s painfully difficult sometimes) is to not reward the behaviour you don’t like with attention. Calmly and quietly pick them up, put them back in bed and say goodnight. Depending on your child you may then be able to leave the room and repeat this process until they give in and go to sleep.
More stubborn children, like L, can keep this up for a good hour and the more she leaves her room the more wound up she gets and the longer it takes her to settle. I therefore stay in the room and just keep putting her back in bed each time she gets up.
Once she lies down in bed I reward her with attention – I’ll sit beside her and offer to pat her back or hold her hand whilst she falls asleep.
Sometimes I stay with her until she falls asleep but other times I’ll use the ‘gradual withdrawal’ technique – tell her I’m going out of the room but I’ll come back in and check on her afterwards, then come back in almost immediately and stroke her head or pat her back. Then repeat but leave it a bit longer each time, until she’s asleep.
If your child will allow you to just say goodnight and then leave the room then by all means do so, but nothing winds L up more than being left on her own when she’s in nightmare mode!
Waking during the night
Other than nightmare mode, toddlers can be woken during the night due to actual nightmares, or when they want to come in to your bed.
Shortly after turning three, L went through a ‘fear phase’. My previously brave and confident little girl was suddenly afraid of everything – flies, spiders, going underwater at swimming, bouncy castles, slides… all things she had previously liked and was suddenly too afraid to go near.
This also brought about the start of nightmares – she would wake up crying and screaming in the night. Sometimes she could tell me what she was afraid of – a shadow or a dream she’d had – other times she couldn’t articulate it; she just knew she was afraid.
I don’t think there’s much you can do with this phase other than find ways to comfort your child. We came up with an anti-bad-dream rhyme that we say together during the night if she wakes up scared and I bought her a dream-catcher to help her feel safer when going to sleep.
The other reason that L now wakes up is a desire to sleep in our bed. We haven’t really gone in for co-sleeping, mainly due to the fact that when we have done it L has star-fished so she’s taken up most of the bed and she gets very cross with anyone disturbing her in the night by trying to move her or having the nerve to roll over.
Around the time of the nightmares L developed a desire to sleep in our bed.
Taking her back to her bed resulted in tears and screaming, so we discovered another way – we just tell her that she can stay in our bed ‘for a minute’. She has a quick cuddle and then one of us takes her back to bed. No idea why this makes a difference but it does! I suspect she feels less like her will is being thwarted with this compromise!
We put her back in bed, kiss her and say goodnight and then go back to our bed. If she gets up again we repeat the process – no chatting or engaging with her, just calmly and quietly return her to bed.
L now rarely bothers to get up unless she’s had a nightmare, as she knows we’re there if she needs us but that she is expected to sleep all night in her own bed.
Getting up too early
One of the great mysteries – how do toddlers manage to wake up at the crack of dawn with so much energy?! This is L – she likes an early night and an early morning.
If your child is like this then putting them to bed later won’t help. Despite the beliefs of family and friends, every time we’ve attempted to put L to bed late she has got up even earlier. This is because when babies and toddlers get overtired their cortisol levels rise.
Cortisol is a stress hormone but it’s also crucial in regulating sleep. It is lowest a few hours after falling asleep and then gradually rises during the night. Melatonin (the ‘sleep’ hormone) is highest when going to sleep and then gradually falls during the night. When cortisol levels reach a point where they are higher than melatonin levels, the body is triggered to wake up.
If your toddler is overtired when they fall asleep then they will start out with higher cortisol levels, so this ‘crossing point’ will occur earlier in the morning and trigger an earlier wake-up.
So if you have a problem with your toddler waking too early in the morning, they may not need a later bedtime – they may actually need it earlier!
Light also triggers this ‘wake-up’ response, so ensuring that your toddler’s bedroom is dark and quiet at night can help.
Assuming your toddler is going to bed at the right time and getting sufficient sleep, they may wake in the morning because they have genuinely had enough sleep or through habit.
Habit can be addressed using something like a gro-clock and a reward chart – the toddler knows to stay in bed when the stars are out and get up when the sun comes up. Pairing it with a reward (we went through a phase where L got a chocolate button in the morning if she slept until the sun) can help them break this habit.
This worked for L for quite a while (although make sure you only lock the clock when your child isn’t watching or they will simply disable it) but just after she turned three she started getting up between 5-6am (instead of our previous wonderful 6.30am).
She was going to sleep well, sleeping all night but waking early. It was really tiring for us as we had a new baby to look after too. We realised that L’s sleep needs had changed; she was getting twelve hours of sleep a night and that was enough so she was waking up ready for the day when G and I definitely weren’t ready for the day!
You have two choices in this scenario – gradually push bedtime a little bit later or accept the early waking. We tried the former, but she was too tired to manage much beyond 6pm and even that was a struggle some days. Plus having our evenings is really helpful to allow G and I to spend some time together and get some work done!
So we accepted that L will both go to bed and get up early. She now gets up somewhere between 5-6.30am but we don’t mind. Why? We have started using her kindle fire for kids. I’ve written previously about how to set up the kindle fire so that it encourages educational use. Some people won’t approve of screen time for a toddler, but this has been a game-changer for us.
We leave it in L’s room overnight (set so it can’t be accessed until 5am so no temptation for night play) and when she wakes up she turns it on and plays it until the sun comes up on her gro-clock at 6.30am and she comes to wake us up. She still comes in to tell us she’s up and going to play her kindle fire, but we then get to go back to bed.
Find what works for you
These strategies have worked really well for our family and we now have a toddler who
goes to sleep well, sleeps through the night and, when she’s had enough
sleep, can entertain herself until a time we’re happy to get up at.
It wasn’t an immediate fix, but patience and persistence with these techniques really helped us to get on top of L’s sleep. People may disagree with things – the gentle approach to a child in ‘nightmare mode’, allowing toddler screen time, choosing an early bedtime and wake-up time.
Toddlers, like adults, are individuals. Find what works for your child and your family and then block out any criticism from others. All that matters is that your toddler’s sleep improves to a level that you’re happy with.
I hope that you’ve found these tips for dealing with toddlers’ sleeping problems helpful. Please comment below if you have any questions or other suggestions for how to get toddlers sleeping the way we want!Please follow me on social media!