Solving typical toddler sleep problems

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Toddler sleep problems are big kid versions of younger baby sleep troubles. Psychology plays a bigger role now: scared at night, not wanting to sleep, stuck in a bad habit, ... Combining good sleep habits, consistency and flexibility with setting simple boundaries will be your most successful approach.

That's why we start out with top toddler tips and then find out in detail what sleep is like now and how to tackle toddler sleep problems well.

Top toddler tips

In the second year and towards 4 years old, sleep gradually starts to resemble that of a big child.

Toddler girl sleeping - in pink

As at any age, sleep cycles are still a sequence of lighter and deeper sleep, but deep sleep becomes more and more important. The length of a sleep cycle goes from just 50-60 minutes to a 90 minute sleep cycle.

Overall that means that your toddler can sleep more deeply and for longer. In fact, she now truly needs long uninterrupted stretches to keep healthy and well-rested.

As a toddler, your child can do much more than before. She becomes stronger, talks more, is more independent and understands better and better what is going on around her.

A stronger will is also typical at toddler age … terrible two's are no myth ...

The biggest advantage, also at bedtime, is that it becomes possible to reason with your child. By showing and explaining what and why you want her to do certain things, you can accomplish a lot. And not in the least ... it's also plain fun and interesting to have this little person to chat with, in true two-way interactions.

On other hand, being able to do more by herself means that she can come out of bed in the middle of the night, take up toys at bedtime, use temper tantrums to make it clear that she does NOT want to go to sleep …

Setting boundaries is the way to make it through these phases well. Rules may sound a bit harsh to you, but setting boundaries simply means that you make it clear to your toddler what is allowed and what isn't. You may need to explain things 100 times or more, but with consistency and calm, you will accomplish a lot.

What to do
  • Set clear boundaries and be consistent about them. Your toddler cannot comprehend complicated rules. But simple, easy-to-remember boundaries that you stick to consistently are very doable. These boundaries help build her confidence and understanding of the world around her.

    And sleep matters are not so different from other situations. It is OK to have a clear rule about staying in bed past bedtime, or until an allowed morning wake time.

    Exactly as you have a rule about not throwing with food, not use crayons the carpet, etc.
  • Toddler girl sleeping - cuddly toy

  • Talk talk talk! Talk with your toddler, a lot. She may not understand everything yet but definitely more than most of us realize. Hearing the same thing several times helps.

    So include her in what you're doing together, explain why you do things, what's happening …

    It will help with understanding and accepting what you expect of her, also and especially when it comes to sleeping. Make a habit of this and it will pay dividends in the months to come …
  • Help her be prepared. Avoid surprises at bedtime such as suddenly skipping the bedtime story, not allowing a drink anymore, the new bed, etc. Always announce and talk things through well in time.

    As an example, imagine you're staying at a friend's house for the weekend. If unprepared, your toddler may panic at bedtime when she discovers that she's expected to sleep in a foreign bed …

    But if you'd talked it through beforehand, checked out the bed and bedroom during the day when you arrived, showed where you will be during the night, … it all becomes so much easier (simply less scary) for your little one.
  • Relax and keep a positive attitude: the rest and comfort will shine onto your toddler and help you both sleep at best.

    Also, show confidence. Don't worry, you wouldn't be the first parent to lose confidence if your toddler just won't sleep, night after night. But if you can at least act confidently, give her the feeling that you know what you are doing, that has a huge effect.
  • Praise and applause. A young child wants to please her parents. Positive encouragement is one of the most powerful tools to improve a toddler's sleep.

    Whenever she wakes up after a good nap, night, has settled well all alone, ... tell her how proud you are and how well she's been sleeping. Be indulgent enough: even staying in bed for 5 minutes longer than usual is worth a praise ... and has the best chance of becoming longer thanks to your applause.

    As soon as your child will understand the principle (usually sooner than parents expect) sticker reward charts are a helpful tool for this.