Ask almost any parent if a sleepy toddler is a happy toddler, and you’ll probably get an exhausted, “No!”
In fact, research shows that lack of sleep or disordered sleep can be a serious problem for toddlers over the long term. A recent Norwegian study followed more than 32,000 pairs of mothers and children to examine the effects of interrupted or poor sleep on the toddlers’ health. The results were sobering. Researchers found that toddlers who wake up three or more times per night or sleep less than 10 hours a night are more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems by age 5. These toddlers are also at increased risk for anxiety and depression, attention issues, and even obesity.
Unfortunately, if you’re the parent of a sleep-challenged toddler, knowing that your toddler needs sleep doesn’t make it any easier to make sure he or she is actually getting enough quality sleep.
If you’re struggling with your toddler’s sleep challenges, don’t give up! Instead, start small and try to make gradual improvements in the bedtime ritual and how you handle episodes of waking.
For example, you can try bumping up bedtime a half-hour and adding soothing rituals like a bath or reading to the nighttime routine (if you aren’t already doing these things). Sign a song, recap the day’s fun events, or just spend quality, quiet time with your toddler before actual bedtime. The idea is to relax and soothe your toddler so he or she is better prepared to fall asleep.
It’s a mistake to wait for signs of tiredness to start the bedtime ritual. A toddler who is rubbing his or her eyes, crying, whining, running around aimlessly, or flopping around the house is an exhausted toddler, which can actually make it harder to get to sleep. Many toddlers even get hyper when they are tired, before they “crash.”
Another issue to consider is how to handle episodes of waking up. A toddler who wakes up during the night should be handled differently than an infant. First, if your toddler shows up in your bedroom in the middle of the night, try talking to your toddler, using age-appropriate words, and explaining that it’s time to sleep in his or her own bed, just like other members of the family. If your toddler is frightened, you can suggest a nightlight or stuffed animal. Your tone of voice should be gentle and soothing, not threatening.
If the problem continues, think about what other factors might be affecting his or her sleep. Recent changes like moving or the birth of a sibling can cause sleep issues. It’s important to talk about these things, but to also reinforce the idea that it’s still important to get good sleep “like a big boy or girl.”
Children thrive off of consistency. If you maintain a fairly consistent schedule and bed time routine, your child will learn to expect a sequence of events that will reassure him or her that sleep time is a positive, relaxing, and restful time.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Lack of sleep or disordered sleep can be a serious problem for toddlers over the long term.
- Try bumping up bedtime a half-hour and adding soothing rituals, like a bath or reading, to the nighttime routine.
- Many toddlers even get hyper when they are tired, before they “crash.”