Toddler Sleep 101: Schedules, Problems and Solutions
January 5, 2018
Just one more story. I want a cup of water. I’m not tired. I’m scared. It’s too dark. It’s not dark enough. Putting baby to bed was hard enough, but the needs, demands and fears of a toddler can draw bedtime out for hours, frustrating parents and caregivers and cutting into that precious block of toddler sleep that your little needs oh-so-badly.
“Adequate sleep is essential for your child’s healthy development and behavior,” says Eboni Hollier, MD, a Houston-based pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “Children who don’t get enough quality sleep have more challenges regulating their behavior. Inadequate sleep may result in an irritable or cranky mood, excessive tantrums and increased aggressive behavior, and may also affect learning, attention and concentration.”
So how to get a toddler to sleep? While it’s not easy (and answers can differ for each individual kid), there are some tried-and-true techniques that can help your child get to bed, stay in bed and even (gasp!) wake up after the sun rises.
The short answer: More than you think! “Toddlers need less sleep as they get older, but all toddlers still need naps. In fact, some children may need naps up until age 5,” says Whitney Roban, PhD, a family sleep specialist and founder of Sleep-eez Kids, a sleep consultant service in New York City.
That said, toddler sleep does tends to consolidate as kids grow. “The amount of daytime sleep a child gets decreases significantly over the child’s first three years of life, because toddlers often sleep more deeply at night than infants do,” Hollier explains. “While most toddlers nap at least once per day, this may vary depending on several factors, including familial cultural expectations, daycare schedule, parents’ developmental expectations for the child, parental work schedule and the child’s own need for sleep.”
Some toddlers may need a bit more or less sleep than their peers, but toddler sleep can by and large be mapped out according to age. “In general, children between the ages of 12 and 36 months require an average of 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day,” Hollier says. “This often consists of about 11 hours of sleep at night and one to three hours of daytime naps. Keep in mind that children who have shorter daytime naps or who don’t nap during the day will likely sleep longer during the night.”
How much sleep does a 1-year-old need?
One-year-olds generally need 11 to 14 hours of sleep. “At 12 months, toddlers typically nap twice per day,” Hollier says. “By 18 months, most children only nap once a day.” How will you know when you’re child is ready to drop a nap? If they can operate on slightly less sleep without meltdowns. “If your toddler is exhibiting crankiness due to missing a nap, then they aren’t ready to cut out the nap yet,” says Chris Brantner, a Houston-based sleep coach and co-founder of SleepZoo.
How much sleep does a 2-year-old need?
Two-year-old toddlers should also be getting about 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, although the National Sleep Foundation notes that some kids can get as little as 9 to 10 hours or as much as 15 to 16 hours. Two-year-olds shouldn’t be getting less than 9 hours of sleep or more than 16 hours of sleep a day.
How much sleep does a 3-year-old need?
Once kids get to be preschool age, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 10 to 13 hours of sleep a day. Keep in mind that lifestyle factors, like preschool schedules, can make it tough to find an optimal time for a preschooler to nap. “If a 3-year-old does drop a nap, then ideally they should be going to bed by 6 p.m. to get the recommended hours of sleep,” Roban says.
How much sleep does a 4-year-old need?
Four-year-olds should also be getting 10 to 13 hours of sleep, although they may be getting as little as eight to nine hours or as much as 14 hours. Many kids this age still need naps, but if squeezing a snooze into their schedule isn’t possible, aim for an earlier bedtime.
How much sleep does a 5-year-old need?
Again, 10 to 13 hours is optimal. If your 5-year-old is attending kindergarten, an after-school nap may be appropriate. If your child drops a nap, try pushing bedtime up earlier, Roban says, especially if they need to get up early for school.
No matter how late it is, or how exhausted they (or you!) seem, it can be tough to get young kids to wind down at night, let alone stick to a specific toddler sleep schedule. The good news: Even if your little one has always been a “bad” sleeper, it’s never too late to implement good habits, says Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. “Just like anyone can learn how to ride a bike, anyone can learn to put a toddler to sleep.” Here are some strategies:
• Have a bedtime routine. Whether it’s bath, books and bed, or pajamas and cuddle time, having a set routine you follow every night—even on weekends, even when you’re at grandma’s house—is important. “Toddlers thrive on consistency, and having the same cues can help a toddler’s body and mind know it’s time for bed,” Schneeberg says.
• Watch the clock. Remember that toddlers need a lot of sleep. Count up the hours your little one gets—if it falls short of the recommended amount of sleep for his age, you may need to rethink your toddler sleep schedule, Roban says.
• Cut out screen time. The television, iPad and even FaceTime on the phone should be shut off at least an hour before bed, Roban says. The less electronics you use before bed, the better.
• Save rough play for the morning. Think running around will make your toddler eager for bed? Think again. Toddlers are different than adults, Rodan explains: When we’re tired, we’re ready to lie down—but kids react to exhaustion with hyperactivity. Consider rough-housing or hitting the playground in the morning instead of the evenings, and save the hours before bed for calm activities, like reading a book or listening to relaxing music.
• Try some sleep props. Does your child like to nestle into you to fall asleep? Consider swapping your arm for a body pillow. Does she always twirl your hair? Buy her a stuffed animal with a long tail or a doll with long hair. “The trick is to make sure your child can always self-soothe,” Schneeberg explains.
• Realize it’s a process. If your toddler has trouble falling asleep, know that his behaviors won’t change overnight. If he always sleeps with you, plan to hunker down on his floor so he can see you and hold your hand. After a week or so, you can move to a chair, Schneeberg says. This is an adaptation of the “chair method” of sleep training used for infants, and works by gradually moving farther away from your toddler until you’re out the door. Children learn that you’re not leaving them for good, and that they can fall asleep without you.
Once you’ve managed to put your toddler to sleep, the next hurdle is making sure he stays asleep. Maybe your child wakes up at the crack of dawn, or maybe he has nightmares. Toddler sleep problems are common, but they can manifest in exhausted, cranky kids and parents. Here, some typical toddler sleep challenges and how you can overcome them:
Your toddler wakes in the night
Toddler night waking tends to be linked to overall toddler sleep hygiene habits. Is she going to sleep too late? Try moving up her bedtime in 15 minute chunks, Roban says—so if she was going to bed at 8 p.m., put her to bed at 7:45 p.m. for a few days in a row. If that’s still not enough, put her to bed at 7:30 p.m. and keep adjusting until she’s at the time you want. The toddler night wakings may also be because she’s overstimulated late at night. Cut out electronics and practice a lowkey bedtime routine. A nightlight or white noise machine may be helpful to help her drift back to sleep, Roban says.
Your toddler wakes up crying
“Toddlers experience more nightmares than adults. These nightmares often start when they’re around one-and-a-half years olds,” Brantner says. “It’s a completely normal stage of development: Children can have nightmares due to the stress of going to sleep, separation anxiety, and as a coping mechanism for working through various fears.” If your toddler wakes up crying, Brantner recommends going into her room and reassuring her with minimal engagement, like patting her back—but encourage her to keep lying in bed, and resist bringing her into your bed.
If your toddler wakes up crying, don’t let yourself get agitated. “Toddlers take your cues from you, so the more calm and matter-of-fact you are, the better,” Schneeberg says. Saying, “you had a nightmare and it was scary, but you’re safe now” can be a far better strategy than fussing over him. “If you act like it’s a big deal, he may think, ‘hmm, should I be scared?’” she explains.
Your toddler wakes up too early
Bad news for night owl parents: Anytime after 6 a.m. is considered a “normal” wake up time for a toddler. But if your child is waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. or even earlier (yikes!), take a close look at her toddler sleep schedule. Surprisingly, adding more sleep to her routine—either in the form of a nap or an earlier bedtime—may help.
You can also train your toddler to recognize an acceptable wake-up time. “Okay to wake” clocks feature fun lights and sounds to let kids know when they can get up, but there’s no need to buy an additional accessory. “I tell parents to buy a digital clock and put a sticky note over the minutes part of the clock. On the paper, draw a picture of a six and tell your child that when the number on the clock looks like that, it’s time to wake up,” Roban says. “Even 2-year-olds can match the number, and it can be a helpful way of involving them in the process.”
Your toddler isn’t napping
Your little one may be resisting a nap, but is he really ready to drop it? Probably not. If your toddler isn’t napping, you may need to revamp your pre-nap routine. He may be revved up from too many activities, so setting aside some quiet time can be helpful.
Your toddler needs you to fall asleep
This toddler sleep problem may be one that you both play into, Schneeberg says. Your child doesn’t need you to fall asleep. If she always falls asleep with you, try giving her a lovey or one of your t-shirts instead. Practice having someone else, like your partner, a grandparent, or a caregiver, put her to bed. There may be tears, but the more your toddler learns that she can fall asleep without you, the more independent she’ll be.
Your toddler is potty training
When a toddler is in the middle of nighttime potty training, you want him to wake up to use the toilet—but you also want him to go back to sleep quickly. If you can, Schneeberg recommends placing a potty in your child’s bedroom, near a nightlight, so he can go all by himself. Navigating the toilet can be scary in the middle of the night for a toddler, but a nearby potty and no-rinse soap in a dispenser can help make them more independent.
Your toddler moved to a big-kid bed
First off, there’s no rush in moving a toddler into a big-kid bed. “I encourage families to wait as long as possible,” Schneeberg says. If you’ve made the transition, make it clear that at night, the bedroom is a place to sleep, not play. Put toys in a closet overnight with a childproof knob and a gate over the door. “If your child calls for you, come as far as the gate, but don’t enter the room,” Schneeberg says. Once he knows nothing “fun” will happen when he wakes up, he’ll go back to sleep.