My toddler has stopped sleeping well at night – how can I improve his sleep?

Posted in Sleeping.

When our babies become toddlers, many parents find that there’s often a period of sleep ‘regression’ or general wakefulness throughout the night, as our little ones’ growing brains fill up with more and more information and they begin to learn about their own sense of independence as an autonomous little human.

And despite the fact that we know they are tired, and we know they need more sleep than they are getting, the truth is – you can put a toddler down to bed, but you can’t make them sleep. You can, however, make a few small changes to their routine to help make this phase easier for both of you.

A problem shared is a problem halved

Heather, a mum of an active two-year-old boy knows all about this particular problem. In a recent episode of Helpline, she asked sleep expert, Jo Ryan for her advice for this very common situation.

Heather explains the problem: “My 2-year-old does not sleep well at night. He has a nightly routine – goes to bed the same time every night, around 8:30pm, and takes about 45 mins to fall asleep – and starts out sleeping in his own bed.

“He always wakes up in the middle of the night, anywhere from 1:30am – 4am, and then stays awake for one to three hours sometimes. When he wakes up, I grab him and put him in bed with me, but he still wakes up in our bed.

“This has been happening for months before he turned two. And he still wakes up around the same time in the morning, around 7am. He also takes a two-hour nap during the day. Do you have any tips on how I can get him to sleep better all through the night?”

Bedtime basics

Baby sleep expert and Babybliss author, Jo Ryan, had some sound advice for Heather. Firstly, she suggests that it could help to start by bringing his bedtime a little earlier.

“I think you might be going to bed a bit late,” says Jo. “8.30pm sounds quite late for a two-year-old. And the reason is that young children – well, everyone really – gets the deepest sleep of the night before midnight. So you need to optimise the amount of hours that they get of that deep sleep, because that will actually help them sleep better.”

Jo reveals that getting better sleep in those early hours of the evening helps small children “be well rested the next day and be able to do things without ‘losing it’ quickly.”

So what is the best time to start the bedtime routine with a two-year-old? Jo says putting small children to bed closer to the 7pm mark is wise.

“I recommend 7 o’clock as a really standard bedtime for all young children, just because they get that four-and-a-half to five hours of deep sleep before midnight. And it really helps them function the next day. And it is true that sleep begets sleep. So if he’s going down late, he’s really exhausted, and that really affects the way they sleep. So they wake frequently, and they’re very difficult to get back to sleep.”

Listen to Jo Ryan on the Feed Play Love Helpline:

Daytime nap tweaks

Jo also recommends considering placing a limit on toddlers’ daytime naps, as this can help to tire them out sufficiently for an earlier bedtime.

“If he’s having a long sleep in the day,” says Jo, “you could maybe cut that back a little bit – maybe give him an hour to an hour-and-a-half.”

Starting the daytime nap from around midday can really make the difference, ensuring that there are still a few hours left in the day after they wake – time to tire them out for bed!

“So he’s up around 1:30pm,” Jo suggests. “And then going to bed at 7pm should be a very long afternoon for him. That’s about six hours of being awake.”

The co-sleeping conundrum

As Heather’s situation demonstrates, for many sleep-deprived parents, the easiest thing is to bring our wakeful tots into our bed in the hope that they’ll resettle faster there. While this can be a lovely bonding time for parents and toddlers, it can also interrupt Mum and Dad’s sleep – which is very important too!

Jo recommends avoiding co-sleeping as a method to get more sleep, as it sets up a system of the child being ‘rewarded’ for their wakefulness. As Heather has learned, this can backfire on tired parents, as the child may not, in fact, get back into a good, deep sleep.

Instead Jo suggests, “Rather than bring him to you, go to him. Maybe sit with him for a bit to settle him. It’ll take a couple of nights, but [it sets] up a new routine for how you deal with him overnight. And then there’s no expected ‘reward’ or ‘treat’ for waking.”

A few little tweaks to the way parents deal with their wakeful tots can really help to bring that bedtime routine back under control, and teach our little ones to self-settle if they wake at night.

Here’s to a more peaceful night’s sleep for this mama, and for all parents dealing with a toddler who just doesn’t want to miss a thing!


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