Why won’t my toddler sleep? How to establish a sleep routine that works

Want your toddler to start sleeping through the night? Our guide offers practical advice on establishing good sleep habits.

By the age of 3, most children will have spent  half of their lives sleeping. Some parents might find this difficult to believe because they find bedtime complicated and stressful. 

By the age of 5, around 25% of children have problems getting to sleep, potentially continuing into adulthood. Parents may feel hopeless because they believe toddlers are too old to change their sleep habits. However, some sleep consultants find that working with toddlers is easier in some ways because they react well to games and positive rewards.

Here’s how to figure out why your toddler might not be sleeping and what you can do to get them to bed.

What are the reasons my toddler isn’t sleeping?

Too much sleep during the day

One of the most common reasons a toddler might sleep poorly is that their parents aren’t sure when to reduce the number of naps they take. For toddlers that take 2 naps during the day, it's recommended that they only sleep for around 2 hours at each nap, with wake windows of 4 to 5 hours between naps.

Between the ages of 12 to 18 months, toddlers usually go from 2 naps a day to 1, and it's recommended that their total nap time lasts 3 hours maximum, with wake windows of 4 and a half to 6 hours.

From 18 months onwards, most toddlers will only need 1 nap during the day, again only lasting up to 3 hours. The difference at this age is that they can have wider wake windows between periods of sleep, around 5 to 7 hours awake. 

Between 22 months to 3 years old, toddlers will stop napping and only sleep at bedtime. It's important to understand that your child sleeps better and longer at night with fewer naps in the day, although you can still pay attention to how tired your child is and let them rest during the day if they need to.

Lack of a regular schedule

Having a regular schedule can have a huge impact on how well-rested your toddler is, so this involves putting them to bed at the same time every day and making sure they get around the same number of hours of sleep each night. 

Sometimes you may feel uncertain about whether your child is tired or not. You might start asking yourself questions like: Should I start their bedtime routine? Is my child touching their eyes because they’re tired? 

If you start your child’s dinner, bath time, and bedtime routine at different hours every day, it's quite a lot to ask your toddler to fall asleep without difficulty. It's better to have a schedule to avoid disrupting your toddler’s sleep. Consistency and repetition are key and can make for better sleep quality. 

Was it too soon to leave the crib?

Another common reason for your toddler’s sleep difficulties is a recent transition from a crib to a children's bed. Making toddlers understand that they need to stay in bed even if they don’t have bars preventing them from leaving (like a crib has) can be challenging. 

Here are some frequent characteristics parents might notice if their toddler has left the crib too soon:

  • Your child gets out of bed frequently
  • It takes your child a long time to fall asleep at night, with no improvement
  • Your child wanders around the room and refuses to return to bed
  • Your child doesn’t understand the concept of staying in their bed
  • Safety is a concern

If you can identify some or all of these characteristics, it may be better to go back to a

crib. Some sleep experts recommend that a toddler stay in the crib until they’re 2 to 2 and a half years old. By this age, they can better understand limits, and the transition to a children's bed will be more manageable.

How can I create a bedtime routine?

Everything that comes after a shower or bath time in the evening is the bedtime routine. Clear associations are the best things to help your toddler understand that it’s bedtime. Here are some things you can do with them to show them that it’s time to sleep:

  • Make sure they brush their teeth
  • Dress them in pyjamas or a sleep sack
  • Dim the lights in the room
  • Take away objects that emit blue light (TVs or tablets) at least an hour before bed
  • Offer a comfort object (such as a toy) 
  • Start a short activity, such as reading a book, singing a lullaby, praying, or anything calm that your toddler enjoys

For the last step of your toddler’s bedtime routine, you can darken the room, check the room’s temperature, and set up a white noise machine. If your child is afraid of the dark, leaving the door ajar and leaving a hallway light on may help. Putting a night light in their room tends to make unnecessary scary shadows, making their fears worse.

How can I give my toddler some extra comfort?

If you think your toddler is scared of monsters (or anything else), you can make your own ‘monster spray’ or ‘magic spray’ with a decorated spray bottle. 

You can add a nice label to make it more credible. You can tell your toddler to ‘spray’ the monsters away at bedtime. As they’re spraying, you can say, "See? All gone!" 

Have your child go to different areas of the room and let them use the spray. When they’re done, you can praise them for their effort. Only bring this out when your child mentions that they’re afraid. You don't want to start talking about monsters when they’re not even thinking about it, as this can cause them unnecessary stress.

Comfort or security objects are also popular for helping your child feel safer at night. Not every child needs or wants one, which is completely fine, although it’s common for a toddler to want something to hold during the night.

Objects like stuffed animals or blankets are great security objects. Parents' clothes (like a t-shirt) can also give your toddler a lot of comfort. Having something with their parents’ or carers’ scent on it can help them settle at night. 

Final thoughts from Kami

There are many reasons why your toddler may be struggling to sleep, and it can be frustrating when you can’t seem to figure out what’s causing it. Having a set bedtime is one of the best ways to teach your toddler when to go to sleep each night. Your child will eventually learn when to sleep, but during this period, you have to be patient with them and try out a few different methods for calming them down at night.

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