toddler sleep struggles are common, toddler awake laying in crib

Seven Common Toddler Sleep Struggles and How to Address Them

You hear so much about babies not sleeping, but what about toddlers? Do toddlers magically start sleeping well and through the night when they hit a certain age? Nope, this is not the case for the majority of toddlers who were not sleeping well as babies. Many parents face toddler sleep struggles and toddlerhood can bring up a host of new challenges as well. 

Toddlers are learning their place in the world and learning how to assert their independence. Without healthy sleep habits, strong independent sleep skills, firm boundaries, and a little know-how, this independence can be a recipe for disaster. Even if your toddler was sleeping well as a baby. 

Whether your toddler’s sleep struggles have been ongoing or are just popping up, now that your toddler has learned to voice her opinion on things, you will likely be up against some new challenges. Here are seven common scenarios that may cause sleep struggles for your toddler.

toddler boy sticking tongue out, hyperness before before can be a sign of toddler overtiredness which leads to sleep struggles.

1. When your toddler gets overtired

Toddlers need between 11 and 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. When your toddler becomes overtired, their body helps them get a ‘second wind’. This allows them to stay awake past their natural sleep window by sending stimulating hormones into their bodies such as adrenaline and cortisol. 

Your silly, giggly, crazy hyper toddler right before bedtime may seem cute at first glance. But in reality, he may already be overtired. The problem with overtiredness is that the stimulating hormones make it harder for your little one to go to sleep. Your toddler’s body is almost working against them in a sense, making it difficult for them to lay down and fall asleep. This can lead to epic bedtime struggles that become a scream-fest or an exhausting battle of wills. And a toddler has a lot more stamina to protest bedtime than an infant. 

Once they fall asleep, usually later than normal, many parents think (or hope) that now their toddler will sleep in. It is a very rude awakening when their toddler is up multiple times throughout the night, and then up for the day even earlier than normal! Our sleep becomes lighter as the night goes on, and our sleep pressure also decreases throughout the night. When our sleep becomes lighter in the early morning, that overtiredness from bedtime comes back to bite us. It often cause wakeups that can be difficult to recover from. 

Making sure your toddler is getting the recommended amount of sleep and has an age-appropriate bedtime is important for helping them avoid overtiredness. An-age appropriate bedtime is generally between 7 and 8 PM. If your toddler had a rough night the night before, didn’t nap well or had an extra exciting, active day, don’t be afraid of an early bedtime. Getting your kids to bed earlier, before the overtiredness really hits them for the night can help them fall asleep more easily, sleep more soundly, and sleep until their usual wake up time. 

toddler boy with confused look

2. When your toddler is under-tired

Yes, I know you just read about overtiredness and are likely convinced overtiredness is the enemy. But unfortunately, under-tiredness can also cause similar sleep struggles for your toddler. (Child sleep is weird and confusing!)

As your child moves through toddlerhood, their sleep needs will change. Making sure your child is on an age-appropriate schedule that helps them meet their sleep needs in important. This includes schedule changes, limiting daytime sleep, and adjusting bedtimes as needed. 

Closely watch your toddler’s behavior and track their sleep for a week. This can help you determine if your child is overtired or under-tired.

toddler girl with flowers on head and grumpy face, toddlers can have sleep struggles when they have no sense of control

3. When your toddler has no sense of control

It is not secret to toddler parents that our toddlers want to be in control of their lives. They are just learning about their world and figuring out that they have autonomy and independence in making decisions. Naturally, they want to practice this as much as they can. This can lead to some epic struggles of power if you let it. As parents, we want what is best for our children, even if that does not align with what they want at the time or what they think is best. We want to avoid power struggles at bedtime in order to keep bedtime a peaceful and positive part of the day, which can lead to better sleep when kids are able to fall asleep at a reasonable time without being all worked up. Plus, our sanity as parents needs this! 

Help your toddler feel a sense of control over bedtime by offering them choices. Such as the choice between a few acceptable options in their bedtime routine. 

‘Do you want to wear your purple pajamas or your green pajamas tonight?’

‘Please pick out two books from this shelf for us to read together before bed?’

toddler with pregnant mom

4. When your toddler is experiencing big life changes

Big changes in a toddler’s life (such as starting preschool, potty-training, or a new sibling being born) can cause fears and anxiety during the daytime. These changes are huge for toddlers! They can drastically change what they have come to know and expect about their world. Big changes can often cause fear and anxiety for adults. So it is understandable that changing a big part of your toddler’s daily life is going to have an effect on them. 

While you know that a new sibling is going to change aspects of daily life, it won’t change your love for your toddler or other children. But this is a totally new experience for your child. When they see a decrease or change in the amount or type of attention they get from their parents, it can cause anxiety, fear, and jealousy. This can lead to all sorts of different potentially, unwanted behavior. 

Make sure that during and after big changes, you maintain their bedtime routine, and the expectations around this routine and going to bed each night. This has likely become a special and anticipated part of the day where your toddler is getting one-on-one time with one of their parents during bath time, maybe a lotion massage, and reading together. Ensuring your child still receives this one-on-one dedicated attention, especially before going to sleep on their own for the night, can help manage these life changes and prevent the overwhelm and anxiety that can create challenges and battles when it is time to go to bed.

toddler imaginative play with princesses

5. Your toddler’s imagination

Toddlers’ imagination can start kicking into overdrive around two to two and a half years old. This can cause fear of the dark (or the unknown in the dark) and bad dreams. Darkness is very important to helping our bodies sleep well, but when fears of the dark pop up, many toddlers want a light on. Use a soft red or yellow nightlight. Do not place it right next to their head/bed. Instead, place it on the other side of the room in order to help ease their fears but still allow their bodies to sleep well. 

Toddlers have a hard time differentiating between dreams and real life. So offering them comfort when they wake from a bad dream, helping them see they are safe and you are there for them while helping them understand it was just a dream can help your little one feel confident and secure going back to sleep.

Be cautious and aware that your toddler might start using bad dreams as a reason to have the rules and expectations around bedtime or sleeping change. Sometimes kids see that when they say they had a bad dream, they suddenly get to come into Mom and Dad’s bed. This is pretty cool, they want it to continue. So they keep saying they had a bad dream because they have learned that this causes a certain situation to occur that doesn’t otherwise. If your toddler is having bad dreams every night and cannot give you any information regarding what their bad dream is about, the bad dream may have become a catalyst to getting something they have found desirable.

moving to a big kid bed can lead to toddler sleep struggles

6. When your toddler moves to a big kid bed

As discussed in my recent post, moving from a crib to a big kid bed is an exciting milestone for your toddler. In order to avoid chaos and wreaking havoc on bedtime and good nights of sleep at your house, you want to make sure your toddler is ready to handle the responsibility of a big kid bed. In general, I recommend keeping children in their cribs until age three. This is because around age three is when kids typically have the cognitive development necessary for impulse control and to help them remember the rules at bedtime and throughout the night.

Making sure your child can handle the new responsibility of staying in bed is critical to keeping sleep on track. It’s so easy to hop out to play with toys or to go see what Mom and Dad are doing. Ensuring they are ready helps set your toddler up for success in the transition.

Many parents move their children to a toddler bed earlier than two-and-a-half years old, which creates challenges and sleep struggles. Generally, I recommend moving them back into the crib and setting clear expectations, using rewards and consequences to help them understand the expectations and how to follow them. The beauty of this is that you can then use the same expectations, rewards, consequences system when they are ready to move to a big kid bed. Because after the transition they may test the rules a bit again. Staying consistent and enforcing the rules will help them see exactly where the boundaries are. Then they can feel comfort and security in those boundaries. 

grumpy toddler with sleep struggles while sick

7. When your toddler gets sick

Kids are going to get sick. When they do, they likely will have some trouble getting comfortable and sleeping well. Offering more comfort and snuggles when your child is sick is usually warranted. However, I caution parents not to completely change the rules and boundaries around sleep due to a cold or other common childhood sickness. If you completely change the rules your child may get into new habits and ‘feel sick’ for the foreseeable future because they know that feeling sick gets them a different result at bedtime and throughout the night.

You will need to help your toddler feel comfortable and get the rest they need while they are sick. In order to do this, I recommend the following:

  • Keep their bedtime routines the same. The routine serves as a cue for their brain and body that it is going to be time to go to sleep. Even when sick, it helps prepare their body to go to sleep. 
  • Treat symptoms before the start of the bedtime routine. 
  • Prepare yourself for night wake ups! Respond to your child right away and offer any remedies or comfort necessary. Then help them get back to sleep in their own bed. Depending on how sick your toddler is, the level of support and help they need to get back to sleep can vary. You want them to get back to sleep in their own bed. Then after they are feeling well again, you can smoothly get back into the normal sleep expectations and boundaries.  

Toddlers push boundaries – It is their job

As every toddler parent knows, toddlers push boundaries. It is what they are supposed to do. It helps them learn where the boundaries are and feel comforted and secure within them. Of course, this includes sleep. The saying that ‘no one has more on their to-do list than a toddler when they are told it is bedtime’ rings true for pretty much every toddler parent.

Helping your toddler understand the boundaries and expectations around sleep in a clear and simple way, can help you diagnose the main issue behind your toddler’s sleep struggles. Once you have determined where the struggles you are seeing stem from, it can be much easier to make appropriate adjustments and tweaks to help your toddler get back to or continue to sleep well.  

Life with toddlers can be tough. Helping them get the sleep they need can help make things seem more pleasant and manageable! Adequate sleep helps them be able to better regulate their emotions and be more adaptable to change. Sleeping well helps boost their immune system. It is also important for healthy growth and development. When challenges around sleep come up with your toddler, it is worth investigating and addressing quickly. Because sleep is too precious for their little bodies and brains to not get enough of. 

If you and your toddler are struggling with sleep and you want help and support getting things back on track, reach out to me. We can schedule a time for a free sleep evaluation call. On the call we can get to the bottom of what is going on and how to resolve the challenges. Because adequate, quality sleep is too important for toddlers to go without – and it is pretty important for parents too!

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