How to Get a Toddler to Sleep

Is your child awake when they should be snoozing? Several experts offer advice on how to get your toddler to sleep—during nap time and nighttime.

toddler climbing out of crib
Photo: Getty Images

After establishing a toddler bedtime routine, it's frustrating to watch it unravel. Your little one may suddenly start crying out for Mom, expressing a newfound fear of the dark, or begging you for just one more sip of water. What gives?

"Some disruptions, such as protesting a nap or crying when you leave the room, are related to development, while others may be the result of a change in routine," says Nanci Yuan, M.D., medical director for the Sleep Center at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, in Menlo Park, California.

Toddlers may also act out to express their independence. "Toddlers test the boundaries with their parents, and refusing sleep is a prime way to do that," says Nadav Traeger, M.D., director of pediatric sleep medicine at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital, in Valhalla, New York.

Still, your child—and you—need a certain amount of shut-eye every night. Here are a some strategies for combatting toddler sleep issues.

Your Child Has Tantrums at Bedtime

Reason: Toddlers tend to melt down when it's time to go to sleep because they don't want the day to end, they want to spend more time with you, or they're overtired.

Solution: Establish a set bedtime and maintain a nightly routine. Always remind your child what's coming. Say, "After your bath, we'll brush your teeth, read a book, and then you'll go night-night."

Don't let them push for extra time, even if they seem wide awake. "Lots of parents think, 'Well, my child's not that tired because they're running around like a banshee,'" says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "But kids can become more active the more tired they are." Sticking to a schedule eases your child's transition so that when you put them into the crib they know it's time to sleep.

Your Child Cries Out for You

Reason: Your child doesn't want to be alone.

Sleep Solution: When your child is crying at night, or calling out for you to return to their bedroom, try setting a schedule of timed visits to the child's room rather than responding to every request. By following a schedule, whether it's every five minutes or another amount of time, your child will still have their needs met. In Sleep Solutions: Quiet Nights for You and Your Child from Birth to Five Years, author Rachel Waddilove recommends that parents begin with five minute increments and then extend the time to seven minutes, and then 10. As long as nothing is wrong (such as illness or a wet diaper), a child will eventually self-soothe and fall asleep.

Your Child Keeps Getting Out of Bed

Reason: They don't want to go to sleep or they have separation anxiety.

Solution: Wondering how to keep a toddler in bed? If your child is having difficulty staying put, try an hour of quiet time before saying good night. Reading, snuggling, giving them a relaxing bath, or listening to lullabies can help your kiddo get a good night's sleep. You can also use a meditation app designed specifically for kids.

If your child continues the behavior, give them a "bedtime pass," suggests Greg Hanley, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Program at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. Allow them to leave the bedroom, but only once a night, to ask for whatever is needed. It can take months to modify a behavior, so remember that consistency is key. For some children, the pass can replace the crying and calling out while still giving them a feeling of control.

Your Child Takes a Long Time to Fall Asleep

Reason: A lack of a consistent sleep routine or frequent late naps could be to blame.

Solution: Toddler won't sleep? A sudden change in your child's schedule, such as a late-afternoon nap or a night of staying up too late, can affect your toddler's bedtime routine. Sleep deprivation can also enhance nighttime issues.

For toddlers who still take two naps, experts recommend a morning nap of about 45 minutes at around 10a.m. Schedule the afternoon nap for around 1 p.m., for up to two hours. For toddlers who have adjusted to one nap, try filling the morning with activities and set naptime for after lunch, around 1:30 p.m., for up to two hours.

Your Child Has Excessive Fears and/or Frequent Nightmares

Reason: While a child's imagination is developing, they can invent faces in the dark and monsters under the bed.

Sleep Solution: Nightmares are common between the ages of two and three. If your child is prone to these fears, avoid books or movies with scary themes close to bedtime, and make their bedtime routine as cheerful as possible, says psychologist Linda Blair in The Happy Child.

Resist the temptation to tell your child that the fear doesn't exist. "If they are having a bad dream, tell them that it's 'gone' now. Don't, however, tell her the dream wasn't real, because to many preschoolers dreams do seem completely real," Blair says. Instead, "tell them there's no need to worry. Don't embellish with long explanations or distractions. Simply soothe and reassure, and as soon as they relax, say good night."

Your Child Wakes at Midnight

Reason: When your child reaches the end of a sleep cycle, they awaken enough to realize that they are alone, says May Griebel, M.D., professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in Little Rock.

Solution: Your child may not be able to fall back to sleep by themself if they're used to having someone stay with them. A new milestone may also be to blame: "If your child is learning a new skill like walking, they may be so focused on practicing it that they can't sleep," explains Nelly Maseda, M.D., a pediatrician at the Montefiore Medical Group-Grand Concourse, in Bronx, New York.

Avoid picking your child up, singing to them, or offering to read a book, which will only stimulate them. Instead, say, "Everything's fine, honey," and leave the room quickly. You can also encourage your child to use a lovey, such as a blanket or a stuffed animal, to soothe themself. "Make it clear that they need to go right back to sleep," says Dr. Maseda.

Your Child Gets Up Too Early In the Morning

Reason: As toddlers grow, some wake up as soon as it's light—or even earlier—and they don't want to spend time alone. Also, your toddler needs less sleep than they did as a baby.

Solution: If your child seems well-rested (toddlers should get 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day, including naps), move their bedtime a little later. Otherwise, try to figure out what's disturbing them in the morning. If it's sunlight, buy a room-darkening shade. Are the birds chirping? Use a white-noise machine to drown them out. Avoid giving your child milk or food right away so they don't associate getting up with eating.

"What time you get your toddler up will depend on what you need to do during the day. If you are at home with them and they don't need to go to daycare early, they don't need to get up until 7 or 7:30 a.m.," says Waddilove. If a child begins waking early, explain that it is not time to get up yet. Some toddlers will go back to sleep; others may stay awake and play on their own before relaxing and falling asleep again.

Each day, try to establish a sleep schedule that works for your family and optimize your child's room for alone time. For example, if your child wants to be awake, give them a few stuffed animals or a favorite picture book to look over in bed and tell them you'll let him know when it's time to get up.

Your Child Refuses to Nap

Reason: Between 12 and 18 months, this pushback is often a sign that your kid is ready to drop down to one nap. "Toddlers can stay awake for longer periods during the day than babies," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Boston Children's Hospital.

Solution: Cutting down to one nap is often a rocky road. Some days your child may not be able to make it through the morning without a snooze. On others, they may resist their midday nap because they're too busy playing. Try alternating one-nap days with two-nap days until they settle into a new routine.

If your kid is already down to one nap, you can still expect occasional resistance. Minimize struggles by following a consistent pre-sleep routine. "The timing and order of meals and activities helps anchor your child's circadian clock," says Dr. Owens. If your child often has trouble conking out, try pushing their nap to later in the day, such as six hours after they wake up in the morning.

Updated by Jeanine Detz
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles