Sleep Challenges, Part One: The Toddler Years

Making sure your child gets enough sleep is a challenge every parent faces. And the reality is that sleep needs to be managed differently as kids pass through different developmental stages – their sleep requirements change, their daily schedules evolve, and the cognitive and emotional platforms they bring to the sleep issue also can pose issues. With all this in mind, this is the first of a three-part series that takes a look at the sleep challenges that emerge during key developmental phases. First up – the toddler years. 

What are the expectations? During the toddler years – I’m focusing on ages 2-4 – the idea is that your child will settle into a consistent pattern of sleep. This should happen no matter what sleep method you choose. The two big transitions in sleep patterns that are expected to happen between ages 2 and 4 are:

  • decreasing the number of daytime naps (going from 2 naps a day to 1 and then to none)
  • decreasing the amount of total sleep during a 24-hour period (dropping from about 13 hours a night at age 2 to 11.5 hours a night at age four)

What are the  challenges? The biggest challenge is that you are, um, dealing with a toddler. As you have found out (or will find out), toddlers like to express their independence and their emotions and can be very strong willed. They might resist going to sleep or start waking up during the night. All of this is normative, reflecting both their expanding repertoire of behavior and also some physiological changes in sleep patterns. There can also be transitions in terms of moving from a crib to a bed and potentially from your room to their own room. New routines may be introduced. They may start daycare or preschool, which could change wake-up times, nap times, and amount of energy expended during the day.

How should you handle these challenges? Most importantly, be prepared to modify your child’s sleep routine (you may not have to modify it much, but it’s better to be prepared for a bigger transition in case you need one) – especially in light of the changes in sleep patterns noted above (e.g., stopping the daytime nap routine; getting less sleep at night). Some ideas to think about include:

  • Work backwards from the reality of your child’s daily routine (e.g., What time to they need to be at preschool? How much time do you all need to get ready?) AND the amount of sleep they should be getting for their age. Figure out the new bedtime and wake-up time and try to stick to it as much as possible.
  • Reevaluate sleep methods that have worked well and see if you can modify them to be more age appropriate. Whatever the method, this probably means more talk about when it’s going to be bedtime (to get your child to partner with you and to help them understand that you are setting a limit that is going to be upheld) and finding good pre-bedtime rituals to get them relaxed and ready for bed (this typically means more soothing talk from you – stories, songs, whatever – along with reading).
  • Turn off the electronics. TV is not considered a good winding down bedtime ritual. Neither is any other form of electronic stimulation.

There are lots of changes that happen throughout the toddler years. Knowing what the changes will be in terms of sleep patterns and altering your sleep methods to acknowledge the complexity of dealing with a toddler may help both you and your toddler handle these challenges well.

Image of toddler sleeping via

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  1. by ToddlerDad

    On January 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

    I hope you plan to provide some more specific tips. We could sure use some.

  2. by Laurab

    On January 3, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I agree with ToddlerDad. I was hoping for more specific information and tips. You’ve got some tired parents out here!

  3. by Richard Rende

    On January 3, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Will do!!

  4. by Greer

    On March 15, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Right. My 2 year old sleeps for 10 hours a night–if I’m lucky. 8:30-6:30. To get him to fall asleep by 8:30, I have to put him down around 7:15.