Does your toddler have difficulty sleeping?
Do they wake up in the middle of the night crying?
Do they wake up too early or go to sleep too late?
Had their sleep been seemingly normal and now all of a sudden there’s a change?
Getting your child to sleep throughout the night is a common toddler sleep problem. Toddler sleep habits can be challenging and frustrating for any parent.
So what can you do to help your toddlers get to sleep at night?
We will review some of the most common troubles and solutions for creating better sleep habits or “sleep hygiene” to getting your child to sleep the best they can!
Sleep Hygiene refers to the behaviors and the routines we put into action at home prior to going to sleep. The specifics and the consistency of such routines and behaviors can impact the quality of sleep and overall alertness for the next day. Children benefit from structure and consistency around bedtime routines.
What are typical toddler sleep habits?
- Most toddlers need between 12-14 hours of sleep over a 24 hour period
- By the end of the 2nd year, naps typically decrease from two to one nap a day
- Between the ages of 2 and 3, most toddlers move from cribs to beds
- Toddlers do not look forward to sleep
- Common problems include: bedtime resistance, night awakenings, and difficulty getting back to sleep
What to look out for?
- Wakes up in the middle of the night crying
- Shows more clingy behavior
- Prolongs sleep routine
- Changes in daytime behavior
- Ask yourself if there have been any recent changes
What can disrupt sleep?
- Surroundings – Toddlers are more and more aware of their surroundings and this awareness could distract them from getting to sleep at night
- Imagination – Their growing imagination can disrupt sleep
- Discomfort – teething or an illness could cause a disruption in sleep, and increased crying and irritability
- Mild separation anxiety– fear of separation from a caregiver could arise at this age
- Dreams and nightmares – toddlers have a difficult time distinguishing these from reality and therefore nightmares could cause distress during this time for them.
- Fear of the dark – increased fears of being in the dark and of monsters could emerge at this age
- Bed – Transitions from a crib to a bed could be a difficult transition and increase stress
- Change or stressors in the family or an increase stress among parents could cause a disruption in their sleep
What can you do to improve your child’s sleep routine?
- Consistent bedtime
- Establish a bedtime routine
- Set clear limits – i.e. how many books to read
- Dream rehearsal could help – changing the ending of a nightmare, making the dreams less scary
- Relaxation – make sure bedtime is quiet, and your child is engaging in relaxing activities – taking a bath, reading a bedtime story, lower the lights
- Night light – if your child is afraid of the dark put on a night light
- Security items/comfort items – allow your child to take security objects such as a blanket or stuffed animal to help them feel more relaxed
- Be mindful of any screen time which can stimulate the child or books – content should be mild
- If you need to go into their room, night time visits should be brief and boring for your toddler – assure them that they are ok and leave the room
- If your child is an early riser – keep blinds closed, make sure the room remains dark
- If they are accustomed to your bedroom – reverse it – spend more time in their room on a chair, dim the lights and make their room more relaxing
Signs your child may not be getting enough sleep!
Paying attention to a child’s sleep hygiene is important because poor sleep can have large effects on overall functioning. Children may feel badly the next day and present with different moods and behaviors such as:
- Poor concentration
- Lower frustration tolerance
- Over activity
- Sleepiness during the day
- Changes in their appetite
- Physical complaints (headaches)
When to seek help for your child’s sleep issues?
- If your child’s bedtime difficulties persist and/or are affecting their daytime behavior, contact your pediatrician to discuss this further and seek appropriate recommendations and referrals
Although living in NYC or any major metropolitan city can be one of the greatest experiences, many of us recognize that along with it may come stressors specific to city living – some of which may affect the quality of your child’s sleep. These factors may include:
- Crowded Living Quarters – Children get the best sleep when they are able to fall (and stay asleep) in a quiet place free of distractions. Many NYC apartments for example have limited space and therefore your child may need to share a room with a sibling; sleep in a room that is close to another living space where others are still awake; and have toys in their room due to limited places to store these items. All of these things could cause distractions while the child is trying to fall asleep or awake them once they have achieved rest.
- Noisy Neighbors – Along with apartment living comes the unpredictability of who will be living next to, beneath, and above you. If you happen to have a neighbor that can tend to be a bit noisy or stays up later than your child does, this can make it difficult for your child to fall asleep or disrupt their sleep during the night.
- City Streets – There is a reason that NYC is called “the city that never sleeps.” Although your child may be trying to achieve restful sleep, the city may still be awake with the noises of sirens, construction machinery, and people socializing at restaurants and bars – all of which may disrupt your child’s sleep.
- Busy Lives – There is always something to do in NYC and therefore a child’s day may be packed with activities and things may come up that interfere with their going to bed at the same time every night.
In the face of these stressors, it is still important to help your child maintain good sleep hygiene, as research has shown that it is important for healthy brain development. Restful sleep provides the brain with an opportunity to restore itself and strengthen connections – both factors that lead to increased learning and maturation. Therefore, not only does poor sleep hygiene often lead to a child who is tired and unhappy during the day, which can in itself result in behavioral problems, it can also prevent crucial brain development that is necessary for a child to develop the ability to think about and control their behavior. For this reason, research has found an association between poor sleep hygiene and difficulties such as ADHD and behavioral disturbances.
Although establishing good sleep hygiene for your child while living in a city may be difficult, it can be achieved. Some tips offered by Kylie Boyse, R.N. at the University of Michigan (2010) include:
- Make bedtime a special time – Bedtime should be an opportunity for you and your child to connect in a loving, healthy way.
- Use a simple, regular bedtime routine.
- Put some thought into finding your child’s ideal bedtime.
- Keep to a regular daily routine.
- Use light to your advantage – Start dimming the lights in your living quarters as bedtime approaches.
- Consider using a sound machine to drown out city noises.
If you still find yourself having difficulty achieving good sleep hygiene for your child, it may be beneficial to seek the support of a professional including a pediatrician, sleep specialist, or mental health clinician.
Written by Lauren Feiden, PsyD