Sleep and Your Toddler.

In our article on 1 year olds and sleepwe looked at what might be preventing your baby from sleeping and in turn from letting you sleep well.  In this article we’re going to look at sleep needs as your little one grows and becomes more active.

How much sleep should my toddler have?

From age 1 to 3 year, most toddlers need about 10-13 hours’ sleep in every 24 and you’ll know by his behaviour if your toddler is getting enough sleep.  If he’s crabby, fussing or badly behaved where he’s normally well behaved, insufficient sleep could be to blame.

He may also find it harder to settle to sleep if he’s over tired so try not to skimp on naps during the day in the hope that he will sleep better/longer at night.

Why won’t my toddler sleep?

There are a lot of reasons why children of 1-3 years don’t easily settle to sleep. Here are some of them.

  • If he hasn’t had a good sleep routine since he was a little baby, he won’t have learned night and daytime activities and cycles.  Have a look at the article ‘how much should my baby sleep’ for information about making a good routine for both of you.  It’ll be hard at this age but probably no harder than the months you’ve already had without much sleep yourself.
  • He’s a ‘signaller’.  If he’s been used to you going to him and picking him up whenever he cries, he may feel insecure without you.  Babies and children who learn to settle themselves to sleep are termed ‘self-soothers.’  To help your toddler become a self-soother, put him to bed when he’s tired/sleep rather than when he’s asleep.  If he resists you need to be firm about him staying in his room, even if he doesn’t sleep, to settle and play quietly.  Leave the door open and the lights low if it’s night time so that he knows you’re there.  When he cries, leave it a little longer each time before you go to him so that you start to break the ‘signalling’ habit.  Eventually he will learn to settle on his own.
  • As he becomes more active he will just want to be with you – being away from you may mean he’s missing out on some fun!  A defined daytime and night time routine should help this.  Let him choose his bedtime toys and pyjamas etc so that he can take some control, but be firm after he’s gone to bed – there’s toddler time and grown up time.
  • Night time visits to you also need to be discouraged, for the same reasons – see above and below.  Take him gently back to his bed, don’t engage in conversation or play and keep the lights low.  Tuck him in and leave him to sleep.
  • Nightmares or disturbing dreams are not uncommon at this age, as his imagination is becoming more active.  These can often be more alarming for you than for him, especially when he’s settled.  To help him back to sleep, go to his bed/crib side and sooth him.  Talk about the dream if he wants to and have a cuddle but put him back into his own bed.  Coming into your bed gives the wrong message and means you get less sleep.  If you’re concerned then talk to your paediatrician.
  • Teething can be uncomfortable.  Use age-appropriate paracetamol or another painkiller before bed and top-up if he needs more after 4 or more hours.
  • Is he sleeping in the right place?  There’s more on where baby should sleep in this article.  The advice from the Sleep Foundation is that your toddler should sleep in the same environment every night; be aware of the stories you’re reading with him and the TV he’s watching before bed as these can make nightmares worse.  Ideally keep the TV/video out of the bedroom.

Training your toddler and understanding him can take you both some time.  Be consistent and don’t give up – he needs boundaries and discipline in sleep as in other things he learns about.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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