Toddlerhood is a busy stage of life with exciting new developments as children learn to explore their world. Often, toddlers are so busy learning, they don’t want to slow down, even at night. This can lead to bedtime battles, frustration, and a lack of sleep. But sleep is important for health and development, so it’s important that toddlers get the rest they need each night.
Why Toddlers Need Sleep
Toddlers are learning every second of the day, whether they are mastering new motor skills, processing new words and information, or picking up on social cues. This takes an incredible physical and mental load, and children need sleep to process new memories and allow their bodies to recover from the day.
A lack of sleep can be detrimental to development and may perpetuate sleep problems. Without enough consolidated REM sleep, children will have shorter attention spans. Too little sleep can make it difficult for toddlers to function and may lead to challenging behavior during the day as sleep-deprived toddlers struggle to keep up. Additionally, too little sleep can cause children to release more cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can contribute to anxiety, and can cause shorter naps and frequent night wakings.
It’s important that parents work with toddlers to establish healthy sleep habits now. At this age, children are still learning about sleep, so the habits you establish now can help them maintain a lifetime of healthy sleep.
Why Toddler Sleep is Challenging
Babies often go through sleep regressions during certain periods of development, and this can continue into toddlerhood. Major developments are far from over as children become toddlers, and sleep troubles may pop up or become worse as they develop motor skills, grow more teeth, or learn new things.
Toddlers don’t sleep as much during the day as babies, but often, toddlers still take naps. Naps can be an important supplement to nighttime sleep, especially if toddlers struggle to rest enough each night. However, naps can sometimes interfere with nighttime sleep. Children who nap for too long during the day may get so much rest that they don’t feel tired at bedtime. This is especially true if toddlers nap late in the day.
Toddler Potty Training
Toddlers who are potty training may still be working on staying dry at night. It’s not unusual for children to find it difficult to stay dry until they are five years or older, so toddlers may not be biologically ready to stay dry at night or wake up to go to the bathroom when necessary. Bedwetting can be an unpleasant and jarring way for children to wake up, and may give toddlers bedtime anxiety.
Like babies, many toddlers still experience separation anxiety at night. They do not want to be separated from parents. Additionally, as toddlers start to understand more about the world, they can feel more fear and anxiety, and that can manifest at night when there are fewer distractions. This can lead to bedtime struggles as toddlers resist going to sleep and being left alone.
How Parents Can Alleviate Toddler Bedtime Battles
Toddler sleep can be difficult, but there are a few things parents can do to relieve the nightly battles and help toddlers sleep better:
- Be consistent. As with most toddler behavior challenges, consistency is the key to working through sleep struggles. Children thrive on routine and predictability, so a consistent sleep schedule can be reassuring and let them know what they should expect each night. Create a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends, and follow a predictable bedtime routine that can help signal to your toddler that it’s time to wind down and go to bed.
- Be cautious with naps. Although naps can be useful, they can interfere with nighttime sleep. Avoid allowing toddlers to nap for too long during the day. Late afternoon naps should be avoided as well.
- Offer reassurance and alleviate fears. Toddlers may be scared to go to bed and sleep alone in their bedroom. Offer reassurance each night, and address any fears about going to bed that they share with you. Create a calming, comfortable sleep environment that your child enjoys sleeping in. Consider encouraging them to help you pick out a new mattress, bedding, and decorations so they will be excited about their bedroom. Some children may benefit from a night light, music, or white noise machine.
- Consider sharing a room with siblings. If your toddler has an older sibling, they may benefit from sharing a room, as this can alleviate separation anxiety. However, sharing a room may be too disruptive if siblings don’t share a similar sleep schedule, or they keep each other awake talking or playing.
- Consider nighttime diapers or pull-ups. Toddlers may not be biologically ready to stay dry all night, and bedwetting can disrupt sleep. Your child may not be physically ready to stay dry if they are wetting the bed twice a week or more. Consider using diapers or pull-ups at night until your child is consistently dry in the morning.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she dreams up new ways to sleep better. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.
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