Toddler sleep: what you need to know
Toddlers need 11-14 hours sleep every 24 hours. Usually this is a sleep of 10-12 hours a night and a nap of 1-2 hours during the day.
Toddlers are developing fast, and their relationship with sleep changes a lot at this age. You might see behaviour that looks like sleep problems. This can include challenges like getting toddlers into bed, settling them for sleep or getting them to sleep through the night. This is one way that toddlers test boundaries and practise being independent, which is a natural part of toddler development.
Once you can spot your child’s signs of tiredness, you’ll be able to settle your child to sleep before grumpiness sets in. A positive bedtime routine will be a big help with many toddler settling and sleep concerns.
Understanding sleep and sleep patterns is an important starting point for helping your child develop healthy habits and a positive attitude towards sleep.
Toddler sleep schedule
A common daily sleep schedule for toddlers might look like this:
- 7 am: wake up.
- 1 pm: have a nap of no more than 2 hours.
- 3 pm: wake up.
- 7.30 pm: get into bed and say goodnight.
If your toddler’s day nap is too long or too late in the day, they might not be ready for bed until late at night.
Some toddlers like to wake at 5.30 am or 6 am. There isn’t much you can do about this. Putting your toddler to bed later at night in the hope that they’ll wake later in the morning doesn’t tend to work. Your toddler might still wake up early then be grumpy from too little sleep.
If you live with an early riser, you might want to make your bedtime earlier too.
Toddler bedtime routine
A positive bedtime routine helps toddlers feel ready for sleep and settle more easily when they wake at night.
Most toddlers are ready for bed between 6.30 pm and 7.30 pm. This is a good time, because they sleep deepest between 8 pm and midnight. It’s important to keep the routine consistent on weekends as well as during the week.
A bedtime routine might look something like this:
- 7 pm: brush teeth and change nappy.
- 7.15 pm: have quiet time (read a book or tell a story).
- 7.30 pm: get into bed and say goodnight.
Before you turn out the light, it’s a good idea to do a quick check of your child’s room to make sure the sleeping environment is safe.
If your child takes a dummy to bed, you might consider encouraging your child to let go of the dummy.
Taking a bottle of milk to bed isn’t a good idea, because it can cause tooth decay and lead to more problems with sleep. It’s better for your child to finish their milk at least 30 minutes before going to bed.
Calling out and getting up after bedtime
Your toddler might go through a stage of calling out or getting out of bed after you’ve said goodnight.
Try these tips:
- Avoid boisterous play before bedtime. This can make it harder for your child to settle.
- Turn off the TV, computers and tablets an hour before bedtime, and avoid letting your child watch scary or exciting things close to bedtime.
- Set up a consistent, calming bedtime routine.
- Before leaving your child’s bedroom, check that your child has everything they need. Remind your child to stay quietly in bed.
If your toddler shares a bedroom with a brother or sister, you might need to delay your other child’s bedtime by half an hour until your toddler is settled and asleep. If you’re firm and consistent, your toddler will quickly get the message that bedtime is for sleeping.
Check whether your child actually needs something when they call out. If your child has done a poo, change the nappy with the lights dim and no talking. If your child is scared of the dark, think about using a night-light.
Many toddlers have settling and sleep problems. But problems like going to sleep and staying asleep can be more severe in autistic children. You can manage and overcome many sleep problems in autistic children using common behaviour strategies.
At 12 months, your toddler might be having 2 naps a day, but by 3 years, they’re likely to have just 1 nap or to have dropped their daytime sleep altogether. You might find the first nap gets longer and later in the day as the second nap gradually stops.
You can encourage your toddler to nap by having a quiet, consistent pre-nap routine. For example, you could sing a gentle song, have a cuddle or read a story before naps. It’s also good to make sure your toddler has daytime naps in their cot or bed. And if your toddler stops sleeping at nap time, you could try giving your toddler a rest at the same time each day.
Your child might be having a night terror if they get very distressed during the night but won’t respond to comforting or soothing. Stay calm and avoid waking or touching your child unless they’re at risk of hurting themselves. Night terrors can be distressing to watch, but they don’t harm your child, and your child won’t remember them in the morning.
Night terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares tend to happen in older children. After a nightmare your child might be distressed, but they’re awake and you can usually comfort them. They might remember the nightmare and still feel upset in the morning.
Moving to a ‘big bed’
Most children move from a cot to a bed when they’re around 2-3 years old. But there’s no hurry, particularly because some young toddlers might try to get out of a big bed more often.
You might need to move your child if they’ve started climbing out of the cot or need to use the potty at night. Or you might need the cot for a new baby.
Many children grind their teeth at some stage. Children won’t usually be woken up by the sound of their own teeth-grinding – but other people in the room might be! Teeth-grinding doesn’t usually cause any damage to children’s teeth.
Sleep medications aren’t usually the solution to children’s sleep problems. There are better ways to deal with these difficulties. If you have concerns, see your GP or paediatrician.
Children’s sleep problems are one of the most common reasons that parents seek help from professionals. Your child’s sleep problems will be much easier to manage with the support of a trusted child health professional.