Helping toddlers to get to sleep, and stay asleep, is a challenge for many sleep-deprived parents. There are many reasons why a toddler's sleep may be unsettled, and strategies to help them.

It is helpful to know that, just like many adults, 75% of under-2s wake once or twice during the night. The difference is adults don’t scream for a parent when they awaken.

Disrupted sleep patterns

Toddlers’ sleep patterns can be stressful for parents. Parents are often sleep-deprived, because of having unsettled nights due to their child’s night waking. But unlike their toddler, parents may not be in a position to have a daytime nap. Parents may also feel stressed if they have unrealistic expectations about their child’s sleeping patterns.

Unfortunately for a child, their sleep patterns can define them as being good or bad. Good babies sleep and naughty babies don’t. Parent groups or play groups where children’s behaviours are often discussed and compared can become quite competitive places for parents regarding the topic of sleep.

It may be helpful for parents to understand that children may not sleep well when they’re:

  • sick, teething or having medical interventions
  • over-stimulated – they can have difficulty relaxing sufficiently in order to sleep
  • overtired – keeping a child awake longer with the idea that they will sleep better later is a mistake, regular routines and patterns help more
  • in homes where family violence, alcohol and drug addiction is present in the lives of their caregivers. With unpredictable caregivers, children are never sure what’s happening next. This causes stress for them, which results in their stress response system being activated. This releases stress hormones, including cortisol. A stressed or anxious baby doesn’t sleep well.

The same strategies that parents used to help calm and prepare a younger baby for sleep will also work with toddlers. Rocking, a warm bath, singing to them, using the same ritual before each sleep time, darkening the room, and avoiding overstimulating playtimes before bedtime will all help.

Sleep is important

Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts their mental and physical development. Sleep is the power source that keeps us mentally alert, emotionally calm, and physically relaxed. While every child is an individual with their own biological rhythms (internal clock or circadian rhythm), most toddlers in the 19–24-month age range will need about 10–12 hours of sleep each night. Often they will also need a nap for up to two hours in the daytime.

Healthy sleep for a toddler requires:

  • a sufficient amount
  • uninterrupted sleep
  • the proper number of age-appropriate naps
  • a sleep schedule that is ‘in sync’ with the child’s natural ‘internal clock’.

Putting a child who is not tired into their bed or cot, hoping they will go to sleep, will not work. You cannot make a child sleep if they are not tired.

Sleeping patterns can be disturbed very easily and this often happens in response to change or worry. A new sibling, a new home or a new bed are changes that parents can plan for, or influence. However, parents have much less influence over changes like a new early childhood teacher, illness, or even a death in the whānau. Additionally, these changes may also have an emotional impact on parents.

Sometimes the cause of sleep disturbances is not so easily identified, which adds to parents’ frustration.

There is no one perfect answer to the sleep issues parents face.