To many parents, sleep seems like such a distant dream. Throw in a toddler who fights naps and bedtimes, and that makes the equation worse for parents to bear.
So, why do some toddlers go on nap strikes in the day, or have trouble turning in at night? Find out what parents can do to tackle this toddler sleep issue — and hopefully, get better quality rest, too.
Why do toddlers need sufficient sleep?
Sleep is a time when the body goes through growth and regeneration. While your toddler is sleeping, his cells and tissues get busy. Quality sleep is essential for growth and development for your toddler.
During sleep, the brains of young children are hard at work developing and strengthening connections between the left and right hemispheres of their cerebrums.
Through the splenium, which forms the corpus callosum, these connections act like thick band of fibers in the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres and facilitates communication between the both hemispheres.
What happens if toddlers have insufficient sleep?
Preliminary findings suggest that short sleep duration during toddlerhood (one to three years old) is linked to hyperactivity/impulsiveness and lower cognitive performance until the child turns six years old.
A research in 2012 shows that if children aged between two and a half and three years are not taking naps, they tend to exhibit more anxiety, less joy and interest in things and poorer problem-solving skills. Experts explain that nap-deprived toddlers miss out on fueling up their ‘sleep tank’ and, over time, this puts them at a risk for lifelong, mood-related issues.
How much sleep should toddlers have in a day?
Experts recommend that toddlers sleep about 11 to 14 hours a day, including day naps. Below is the advice from the National Sleep Foundation in 2015:
||Amount of Sleep Needed
(0 to 3 months)
|14 to 17 hours per day
(4 to 11 months)
|12 to 15 hours
(1 to 2 years)
|11 to 14 hours
(3 to 5 years)
|10 to 13 hours
Toddler sleep cycle
There are two types of sleep which alternate between Non-rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM):
- Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or “quiet” sleep. This is time when repair and restoration happens. Blood supply to muscles increase, energy renewed, tissue growth and cell repairs take place. Hormones are working to aid growth and development in your toddler. NREM is also when deep sleep occurs.
- Rapid Eye Movement(REM) or “active” sleep. During this period, your toddler has dreams or nightmares due to brain activity. At the same time, there is irregularity in breathing and heartbeat, while the body remains immobile as your child goes through this phase of sleep. Toddlers also respond to dreams and nightmares with actions, screams or cries, which is completely normal.
Sleep cycles, which are made up of both NREM and REM, last about 50 minutes for children.
Sleep patterns constantly change with age, and toddler sleep needs are different from a newborn or an adult. Source: NCBI
Why are bedtimes a battle for some toddlers?
By two years old, your toddler spends most of his time awake instead of sleeping, unlike during his newborn days.
Also during toddlerhood, your child is increasingly aware of his environment and surroundings, picking up new developmental skills and displaying them.
Here are some common reasons why bedtimes are battle times for toddlers:
- confused about his bedtime routine
- unable to self-soothe
- hunger is keeping him awake
- discomfort is making him unwell and unable to sleep
- testing out and displaying independence
- afraid of the dark
- the room is too cold or too hot
- pyjamas are making him uncomfortable
- wanting to spend more time with parents or caregivers
- going through separation anxiety, thinking that they won’t get to see Mum and Dad again once they sleep
- over-stimulated before bedtime
- over-tired throughout the day and unable to unwind
What should parents do if toddlers refuse to sleep?
Children are creatures of habit, hence, establishing a healthy bedtime routine is important so your toddler knows what to expect come bedtime. This helps ensure that your growing toddler gets sufficient rest and, for parents, the time needed to unwind and rest, too.
Here are some steps on how to create a bedtime routine so your toddler sleep needs are met:
- Just before bedtime, bathe or pat down your toddler and change him into his pyjamas
- Read bedtime stories or have a short 10-minute chat to unwind
- Offer milk, either by bottle or nursing, if you are practising extended breastfeeding
- Turn the lights off and tuck child into cot/bed or parents’ bed, if co-sleeping. This might come with requests of patting and singing to sleep.
If your toddler is refusing to sleep for certain reasons…
Try to find out what could be the cause and remain calm while you’re dealing with him. It may be difficult not to blow your top because you are already fatigued and have to deal with toddler sleep challenges, but screaming does not help either of you feel any better.
If your toddler is pushing away bedtime and wants to do something else…
Try explaining and negotiating with him by providing options. Options and end-results should be clearly explained and set. Avoid giving in to his tantrums as that would reinforce that his behaviour is acceptable, which he will pick up in no time! Be firm, speak calmly and stick to your plan.
For example, if your toddler is requesting for water or asking to engage in another activity, tell him, “After drinking water, we’ll all go to bed and sleep.” Your toddler is learning to make decisions and asserting independence, so it’s your call as to whether you wish to accede to his request first, followed by him taking yours about going to sleep.
If your toddler is getting out his cot repeatedly…
He might be displaying signs that he’s ready to transit to a big boy bed and is refusing to be confined within the limited space. Moving to a new bed may bring about new surprises, too!
If your child continues to climb out of his new bed just because he can do so within reach, you might need to look into safety measures to prevent falls by placing a mattress on the floor.
Also, speak to him firmly that he shouldn’t be doing that and that it is time to sleep, and then you should proceed to leave the room (if he is in another room) or go to sleep in your bed.
Is co-sleeping a bad habit for toddlers?
With determination and consistency, you can improve your baby’s sleep patterns.
Co-sleeping or bed-sharing, has somewhat received frowns but there have been many studies of late which refute the perceived negative associations.
In Asian countries such as Japan and Bali, toddlers often co-sleep in their parents’ bed, or with another caregiver, and this is deemed as completely acceptable.
In the Philippines, many parents co-sleep with their newborns and continue to toddlerhood, and sometimes beyond. This has also helped breastfeeding mums establish a better routine for their nursing journey.
Studies in the States have shown that co-sleeping reflects no cognitive or behavioral issues in children aged five, who have been co-sleeping beyond infancy. In fact, toddlers who share the bed with their parents feel safer and more secure, and this is an area parents may wish to reconsider when it comes to thinking that their toddler is “too old” to be bed-sharing with them.
On a separate note, parents may lament that co-sleeping affects their sexual activities, but the situation calls for (desperate) measures. Not surprisingly, several parents do manage to find creative ways for intimate affairs despite bed-sharing, proving that co-sleeping does not affect them from having more children!
Why does my toddler wake at night?
Every parent’s dream is for their child to sleep through the night, but every child is different and your toddler might still be waking up at night for various reasons:
- teething discomfort
- they want to nurse
- they are anxious about something
- they are hungry
- they could have worms
- nightmares or night terrors
Sleep deprived and need help?
Recurrent nightmares and night terrors may disturb toddler sleep and, hence, require a visit to the pediatrician to have your toddler checked. There may be underlying causes such as fears at school or certain day activities which are causing him to be affected subconsciously.
Night terrors, however, are more common between the ages of three and eight. If your toddler experiences night terrors, he is actually unaware of what is happening – shouting, screaming, panicking and jumping out of bed are common happenings. They may look like they are awake with their eyes open, but in fact, they are not fully awake.
In these cases, it’s best to see your paediatrician or a sleep consultant for kids.
Parents, what are your toddler sleep concerns? Are they getting quality sleep? Share with us how you deal with toddler sleep battles by leaving a comment below!