What do you do when your little one starts waking in the night, refusing naps, and dragging out bed time? Don’t lose heart, your toddler’s sleep problems are common and, for the most part, fixable. With a few tweaks, you can get back to enjoying your nightly Netflix binge.
When my daughter was about two and a half, she started having trouble sleeping. Prior to that, I would classify her as a good sleeper. She consistently slept through the night since she was four months old and napped daily until two and a half. At that point, things changed and she started experiencing some of these common toddler sleep problems.
Dropping and stopping naps
Many children stop napping between 2-4 years old. Toddlers need about 12-13 hours of sleep every day. If they are getting this amount of sleep during the night, they may start dropping naps. Every child has a different temperament and some will stop napping sooner than others.
You may not realize it, but something you’ve done may be the reason why your child stopped napping. If you put your toddler down for a nap too soon after they wake up, they may not be tired enough to sleep. If you aren’t consistent with naptime, your child may not get into the routine of daily napping. I’m guilty of making both of these mistakes.
My daughter typically wakes up at 8:30 am each day. She typically goes to sleep around 8 pm. This gives her 12 hours of sleep per night.
When I’d try to get her to nap at 1 pm, she was not tired enough but if I pushed the nap to 2:30 or 3 pm then she wouldn’t be tired for bedtime. When I forced the late afternoon nap, she would end up being awake until 10:30 pm or later. The next day she would typically be overtired and grouchy. Not to mention it disrupted what little alone time my husband and I have.
Even though I suspected that naptime was reaching an end, I kept trying to make naps happen because I got a lot of work done during the quiet time. Eventually, I accepted naps were over and switched up my schedule to work in the mornings and evenings.
If your child is dropping naps, you have two choices: Double down and try to get them up earlier in the morning or down for a nap later in the afternoon or let it happen and get used to your new normal. If naps are truly over then you may want to try moving bedtime up 30-45 minutes.
A great nap alternative is daily quiet time. I started doing this with Norah when she turned three. She has the option of spending 30 minutes with me in my room resting or playing in her own room. As she gets a little older, this time will extend to an hour and be unsupervised.
Increased night wakings
Another common toddler sleep problem is waking up in the night. Depending on whether your child is night-time potty trained or not, waking in the night could be for a variety of reasons.
- Needing to potty
If your child is potty trained, they may need to go to the bathroom during the night. One way to help decrease the frequency of nighttime bathroom trips is to offer less liquid after 5 pm.
My daughter is not yet nighttime trained (and I don’t plan to do so until she’s close to 4 years old and can go to the bathroom entirely by herself) so she wears Pull Ups. However, if she has to go to the bathroom before she falls asleep, she does call out to go the bathroom.
- Asking for water
If your child wakes up and asks for water, you may want to invest in a spill proof bottle for them to keep next to or in their bed. We use this SkipHop bottle. We make sure to fill up the bottle each night so she can drink if she’s thirsty and doesn’t need to wake us up to do so.
- Bad dreams
If your child is waking up crying due to bad dreams or wanting to get up, you may want to offer a special “Sleep Helper” stuffed animal. Norah loves this super soft bunny she’s had since birth. We tell her that the sleep helper stuffie has special powers to help her sleep so if she wakes up, she should hug it and it will help her fall back asleep quickly. She usually ends up sleeping with her head on the bunny most nights.
- Waking up too early
Another common toddler sleep problem is waking up too early. This is a big problem in the summer. Where I live the sun is bright in our rooms around 5:30 am. Sometimes the sunlight can confuse a toddler into thinking that it’s an appropriate time to get up. I’m sure most mamas will agree, if we don’t have to be up that early, we don’t want to be.
One fix is blackout curtains. I have these Nicetown curtains in both kid’s rooms. They work well and come in a ton of different colors. We don’t have blackout curtains in our master bedroom and I notice a huge difference in how bright our room is compared to Norah and Miles’ rooms.
The best way we’ve found to handle this is the OK to Wake clock. The clock lights up green when it’s time for your child to wake up. We’ve been using this clock since Norah made the transition to a toddler bed. We’ve told Norah if she wakes up before the clock turns green she needs to go back to sleep or lay in bed until it lights up.
There have been a handful of times when she cries out anyway and says she wants to get up before the clock turns green. When this happens, I go into her room and tell her that we don’t get up until the clock is green and she can play in her room until that happens. After a few hugs, she usually goes back to sleep or looks through books until it’s time to get up.
Waiting for the clock to turn green is so ingrained that every morning she calls out, “The clock is green. Turn on the light. Open the door.” She’ll keep repeating this until I go in her room to get her.
Dragging out bedtime
It can be hard to resist the adorable pajama-clad toddler begging for one more book before bedtime. Stalling bedtime is something toddlers start doing when they realize that asking for things buys them more time with their parents and delays going to sleep. This is a totally normal developmental phase, but it can be frustrating when you have things to after the kids go to bed.
A few times we’ve fallen into the trap of allowing one more book or an extra song during bedtime. Whenever we deviate from the routine, it takes several days or even a week to get back to a normal bedtime routine. Our daughter has a great memory and once she’s been given an extra something she’ll continue asking for it forever.
The best advice I have for this sleep problem is sticking to the routine regardless of tears or tantrums. If you have a set bedtime routine that does not change, your child will be more willing to accept that it’s really time to go to bed.
While we were in the hospital having Miles, my in-laws stayed with Norah. Mike wrote up a list of steps for Norah’s bedtime routine. Each night Norah would ask her Mimi to check the list during the routine. She went to sleep with no issues even though she had never been put to bed by anyone but her parents.
Toddler sleep problems can be frustrating for both toddlers and parents! Working through these issues can help your toddler get the important sleep they need to stay healthy and grow properly. If you’re struggling with sleep issues, remember one day your toddler will be a teenager and lack of sleep will be a distant memory. Until then, hang in there, mamas!
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