How much sleep does my toddler need?
Toddlers typically need 12-14 hours of sleep per day. One of the best ways to tell if your child is getting enough sleep is to look at how they act while they are awake.
If your child’s poor sleep is causing daytime problems, then they need more sleep. It’s hard to control your emotions when you are sleep deprived. The part of the brain that helps us to control our actions and our response to feelings is affected greatly by lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep can lead to behavior and attention problems, and not doing well in school.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Does your child fall asleep in the car almost every time you drive with them?
- Do you have to wake your child up almost every morning?
- Does your child seem overtired, cranky, irritable, aggressive, over-emotional, hyperactive or have trouble thinking during the day?
- On some nights, does your child seem tired much earlier than their usual bedtime?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child is not getting enough sleep.
How do I teach my child good sleep habits?
Going to Bed
Put some thought into finding your child’s ideal bedtime. In the evening, look for the time when your child really is starting to slow down and getting physically tired. That's the time that they should be going to sleep so get their bedtime routine done and get them into bed before that time. If you wait beyond that time, then your child may get a second wind. At that point, they will become more difficult to handle and will have a harder time falling asleep.
When putting your toddler to bed, it’s important to have a consistent bedtime routine. This is a time for you to interact with your child in a way that is secure, loving and consistent. A bedtime routine can include brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading a book or singing a song. At the end of the routine, the lights go off and it is time to fall asleep.
It’s important that your child doesn’t require a caregiver’s presence to fall asleep so try to leave your child’s room when they are still a little awake. We want your toddler to be able to fall back asleep on their own when they wake up in the night, which will happen.
During the night
We all have natural partial awakenings at night. Most of us are able to go back to sleep quickly and not even know or remember that we woke up. But sometimes during night awakenings, toddlers will fully wake themselves up, call out, or come find you. If your child keeps waking up, make the awakenings as boring as possible. Walk them back to their bed saying, “you need to sleep in your bed.” If you can, try not to make eye contact. Consistency is important when teaching your child to fall asleep without a parent’s presence. Your child may be very persistent in the beginning! It’s important for you to be consistent and not give in as this will make them even more persistent the next time. If your child is crying in their crib, let them fuss for a few minutes to see if they’ll put themselves back to sleep.
What do I when my child cries so hard that they throw up?
Clean up the mess with as little interaction as possible. It is sometimes helpful to have a couple layers of bedsheets on the mattress. Put down a waterproof sheet, then a regular sheet. Then put down another waterproof sheet and another sheet. Then, if your child vomits, you can pull off the top layer of bedding. Change their pajamas with the lights dim, trying to have minimal engagement, and then put them back in bed. We are trying to teach them that this is not an effective way to get out of bedtime.
When should my child transition to one nap per day?
This transition usually occurs around 15 months. It often happens naturally. At first, your child may alternate 1–2 naps per day and then gradually drop the morning nap.
When should I move my child from a crib to a “big kid” bed?
If the crib is large enough and your child sleeps well in it, there is no rush to make a change. But if your child is trying to climb out of the crib, it’s time to transition. If you need the crib for a new baby, try to make the transition before the baby comes. This way, your older child doesn’t feel as though they’re getting “kicked out” of the crib. Once they are comfortable in the bigger bed, you can discuss with them the possibility of the baby using the crib now that they no longer need it.
My child won’t stay in their room at night! What can I do?
Walk them back to their room without much interaction. Talking gives attention, which is what they are seeking. You may have to walk them back to their bed several times in a row, which may feel like a battle of willpower.
When can my child start using a pillow and blanket?
If your child can reliably play “peek-a-boo” and pull a blanket off their head, it’s okay for them to use a blanket. Many toddlers don’t stay under a blanket. Make sure the blanket isn’t so big that they can get tangled or it can get wrapped around their neck.
What are some problems that can come up with kids' sleep?
- Night waking: All children have times at night when they sleep more lightly or wake up. Night waking can become a problem when it is very frequent or when your child has trouble getting back to sleep.
- Sleep onset associations: This is the most common cause of children not being able to settle back to sleep. Whatever they associate with falling asleep, like being rocked or sucking a pacifier, needs to be present for them to fall back to sleep.
- Separation issues: Separation problems can affect either you or your child. Your child may feel anxious if you are not there and unable to relax and sleep. Likewise, you may feel anxious about your child and go in to them every time they make a peep at night, even if they don’t need you.
What do separation problems have to do with sleep?
Separation anxiety is a very common reason for children under the age of 3 to cry at night. By 8 or 9 months, children have learned that their parents exist even if they can't see them. However, the inner confidence to be able to feel secure when their parents are not there is still developing until 3 or 4 years of age. Night waking usually drops off quickly after this. You can tell if your child is waking due to separation anxiety because if you are nearby to reassure them, they will settle back to sleep. For older children, you can put a foam mattress and sleeping bag on the floor near your bed so they can come in and sleep near you if they need nighttime reassurance.
What if my child has problems settling in at night or resists going to sleep?
There are different reasons your child may not want to go to bed at night. Your child may have issues with autonomy. In other words, they may want to have more control over their body and their environment. This usually starts to happen after about 9 months of age, and is what 2 year olds are famous for! Give your child some limited choice and “control” over the type of bedtime activities and the order of the bedtime routine. If your child has more control over these activities, they may feel less need to exercise control over when they fall asleep.
If your older child resists going to sleep at night, remember this: It’s your responsibility to put your child to bed, but it’s your child’s responsibility to go to sleep. Put your child to bed at a reasonable time after a reasonable bedtime routine. Have clear rules (stay in bed, no eating, etc.). Then, if your child doesn’t fall asleep, it may be that they don’t need so much sleep. If they stay awake late, and then want to sleep late in the morning, wake them up 10 minutes to a half hour earlier every morning until they are falling asleep at the time you want at night.
Basically, you should discuss the bedtime routine during the day so that the child knows what to expect at night. Then stick with it each night. If kids know what to expect, then they'll usually do okay.
How can I help my child (and myself) sleep better? What are some strategies I can try?
There are different reasons kids have trouble sleeping and there are different expert opinions on how to help them. Your family should learn about the various approaches and decide what feels most comfortable for you and for your child. Remember, with any of these approaches, be consistent, keep bedtime calm and let your child know you love them. You should not follow any program if your intuition tells you it’s not right for your child. Different approaches may work better or worse for different children in different families. If you feel you or your child are just too distressed by a given method, try something else more comfortable for you.
- Getting your child out of your bed: If your child will only sleep in your bed with you, and that is not working out well for your family, then read about how to help your child learn to sleep in their own bed. Most children are accepting of leaving the parents’ bed between ages 2–3. The key is to wean them gradually into their own bed. Start with a futon or pad on the floor in your room and, after a while, move them into a bed in their own room.
- Getting your child to stay in bed in the morning: Learn some tips on how to handle an early riser.
What about medications to help my child sleep better?
Research has shown that behavioral treatments (in other words, parents using good sleep time strategies) work better and have longer lasting effects than medicines. If your child needs more than a behavioral program to help them fall asleep, you may want to speak with your child’s doctor about trying melatonin. When used under the direction of your child’s doctor, melatonin can be a safe and effective treatment for kids and is especially useful for kids with special needs who have more troublesome sleep problems.
List of some common "do’s and don’ts:”
- Keep to a regular daily routine – consistent waking time, meal times, nap time and play times –which will help your baby feel secure and comfortable and help with a smooth bedtime. Children like to know what to expect.
- It can sometimes be helpful to make a bedtime routine chart with pictures of the different steps. There are several examples of these on the internet.
- Make sure the sleep routines you use can be used anywhere. This way, if you are travelling, you can help your baby get to sleep wherever you are.
- Some children are soothed by “white noise” made by a fan or white noise machine. The white noise can block out the distraction of other sounds.
- Make sure your kids have interesting and varied activities during the day, including physical activity and fresh air.
- Use light to your advantage. Keep lights dim in the evening as bedtime approaches. In the morning, get your child into bright light, and, if possible, take them outside. Light helps signal the brain into the right sleep-wake cycle.
- Never soothe your child to sleep by putting them to bed with a bottle of juice, milk or formula. Water is okay. Anything other than water in the bottle can cause tooth decay.
- Don’t fill up your child’s bed with toys. It’s probably best to keep your child’s bed a place to sleep, rather than a place to play. Too many toys in the bed can be distracting. One or two transitional objects – like a favorite doll, a security blanket or a special book – are okay and can help with separation issues.
- Never use sending your child to bed as a threat. Bedtime needs to be a secure, loving time, not a punishment. Your goal is to teach your kids that bedtime is enjoyable, just as it is for us adults. If the feeling around bedtime is a good feeling, your child will fall asleep easier.
- Don’t give your child foods and drinks with caffeine in them, like hot chocolate, tea, cola, chocolate, etc. Even caffeine earlier in the day could disrupt your child’s sleep cycle.
- Don't let your child watch more than one to two hours of TV during the day and don't let them watch TV at bedtime at all. TV viewing at bedtime has been linked to poor sleep.
- If your child has a TV set in their bedroom, remove it. Research shows watching TV is linked to sleep problems, especially if the TV set is in the child’s bedroom. The presence of other media, such as a computer, video games or internet in a kid’s bedroom is also associated with worse sleep.
- Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weisbluth.
This book teaches parents the basics of sleep science and helps them find their baby's optimal window for falling asleep, both for naps and at night time. Many parents are startled to discover that their baby is sleep deprived, which is actually making it harder for the baby to fall asleep! This approach falls within the "cry-it-out" school of thought. The book addresses mainly infants through age 3 but also discusses older children's and teens' sleep.
- Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep: The All-In-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens by Judy Owens and Jodi Mindell.
A comprehensive guide to kids’ and teens’ sleep issues.
- Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber.
A practical, easy-to-understand guide to common sleeping problems for children ages 1–6. Detailed case histories on night waking, difficulty sleeping and more serious disorders such as sleep apnea and sleepwalking help illustrate a wide variety of problems and their solutions. New parents may benefit from the proactive advice on developing good sleeping patterns and daily schedules to help keep sleeping problems from occurring in the first place.
Updated March 2021