Why Toddlers Won’t Sleep (Plus, How to Help Them Fall & Stay Asleep)
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When things are going well, tucking your toddler in at night is a pure pleasure—the I love yous, the kisses, the glorious ZZZs! But when toddler bedtime struggles arise—running after your little wild child, wrestling them into their PJs, shutting the bedroom door while they shriek on the other side—it’s only natural for parents to fear seeing the sun go down.
Sound familiar? It turns out that many toddlers (aka your own personal Energizer Bunny) resist bedtime. They hate leaving the thrill of running, climbing, touching, and learning. The world is so exciting to them! At the same time, when your toddler reaches around 18 months they start to go through a very independent phase, where “No!” is their favorite word. They don’t hesitate to use their new go-to word at bedtime. The result: Toddlers get tired…really tired. And the more tired they get, the more rigid, hyper, and irritable they become. In fact, one poll reported that a third of toddlers—and half of preschoolers—regularly stall at bedtime…and many downright fight it.
While this type of toddler defiance is natural, toddler bedtime can get better. Below are common reasons toddlers fight bedtime—how to help them get the sleep they need during these years.
Reasons Toddlers Refuse to Go to Bed and Sleep Through the Night
Remember when your little one went to bed without a hitch and slept all night long in their own bed? Bliss! Well, I’ve got good news: That dream can come true all over again. But before we can zero in on your toddler's bedtime solutions, let’s first zero in on why your toddler is resisting bedtime right now:
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #1: They’re over-excited.
Toddlers can easily get wound up on TV, roughhousing, or thanks to something they’ve consumed, like sugary juice, sweet snacks, artificial colors and flavors, cold medicine, or a dose of caffeine from soda, iced tea, or chocolate.
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #2: Something is bugging them.
It could be bright lights, loud noises, or discomfort. For instance, your toddler might be teething. It may be too hot or too cold. Your tot may have a stuffy nose or maybe they’re agitated by itchy PJs.
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #3: They’re curious and strong-willed.
Toddlers are curious by nature. They practically invented FOMO! So, toddlers simply don’t want to go to their bedroom because they want to see what everyone else is doing.
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #4: They’re hooked on your help.
Some toddlers have never learned how to fall asleep on their own. So, they rely on things like you rocking them, feeding them, and holding them in order to go night-night.
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #5: They’re going through a fearful stage.
It’s natural for toddlers to experience some difficulty being alone—especially at bedtime. They may get anxious when you turn the lights out and fear that there are monsters under the bed. Toddlers are also dealing with a smorgasbord of other worries—from strangers to dogs to thunder.
Reason Toddler Won’t Sleep #6: Their bedtime timing is off.
There is no standard one-size-fits-all bedtime for all toddlers. That means you may be putting your toddler to bed too early (so they’re not tired) or too late (and they’re overtired and wired).
How to Get Toddlers to Sleep
No matter the reason your toddler won’t sleep, there are lots of ways to help them get the ZZZs they need. One of the best strategies to start fixing your 2- to 3-year-old toddler’s bedtime issues is to work on their bedtime skills—all day long.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #1: Try these daytime tricks.
Did you know that preparing for your toddler’s bedtime starts in the morning? It’s true! It’s important to get your toddler outside early in the day, exposing them to fresh air and natural outdoor light. This helps to regulate your toddler’s sleep hormone, called melatonin, ensuring that your tot will be sleepy when bedtime rolls around. While your toddler is outside, get moving! It’s recommended that toddlers clock at least three hours of running-around play a day because, for one, being active during the day has been shown to improve a child’s sleep quality at night.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #2: Stick to a predictable schedule.
Make sure your toddler wakes up at the same time every morning and goes to sleep at the same time each evening. Research has shown that creating a predictable bedtime routine significantly reduces problematic sleep behaviors in toddlers.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #3: Adjust naptime.
If your toddler naps hard in the middle of the day and you’re hoping to shift some of that daytime sleep to the evening, start by shortening the afternoon nap by 15 minutes. (This’ll help your toddler be a bit more tired at night.) If that goes well, trim another 15 off and slide bedtime 15 minutes earlier. Keep adjusting until you land on the schedule you want. (If your toddler gets cranky in the early evening, you’ll know you’ve shortened the nap too much.) At the same time, try to keep your toddler’s naps from going past 4 or 5pm.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #4: Create a calm environment.
At least 30 minutes prior to lights out, make sure to create a soothing environment for your toddler. Try reading a book, putting on soft music, or giving your toddler a relaxing bath. It’s also important to nix roughhousing and to avoid other high stimulation activities like watching TV or a movie.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #5: Play white noise.
White noise is not just for babies! White noise works wonders for toddlers, too. Part of the reason: White noise muffles jarring sounds—like a too-loud television or noisy traffic passing by— that could easily wake them up. SNOObie and SNOObear both offer the just-right white noise for toddler sleep by creating a blanket of sound that masks disruptive sudden shifts in sound consistency.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #6: Dim the lights.
Did you know that children’s eyes have larger pupils, and they have more transparent lenses than adults? That means your child’s eyes are more sensitive to light, likely making them even more susceptible to sleep disturbances. In fact, research has shown that melatonin is suppressed anywhere from 70% to 99% after light exposure. Because of this, about an hour before you say good night, dim the lights in the house and draw the curtains. And don’t forget to turn off other sleep-sapping lights from the television, phone, and/or tablet.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #6: Enlist help.
Once your baby has celebrated their first birthday, it’s safe and recommended to introduce a lovey like a blankie or a teddy bear to their night-night routine. (SNOObear is both a lovey and white noise machine.) These cuddly friends help little ones build confidence and comfort, which makes toddlers feel more secure when it comes to saying good-night to their grown-ups. To amp your lovey’s power, try to keep it for sleepytime only and include the stuffie or blanket in your child’s bedtime routine by giving goodnight kisses to the lovey, too!
Toddler Sleep Strategy #7: Veto the before-bed snack.
If your tot is still hungry after dinner, it’s okay to offer a (healthy and boring) snack, like a banana or a cheese stick, about 45 minutes after dinner, but I’d avoid giving a toddler a snack any later. Do you remember the old movie Gremlins? One of the rules was not to feed these furry creatures—or give them water—after a certain time. Practice this same rule with your toddler to avoid having them go from cute and cuddly to full-on monster mode! (Declarations of I’m Hungry at bedtime is often simply a stall tactic.)
Toddler Sleep Strategy #8: Tuck your child into bed.
Make sure to tuck your child into bed while they’re in a sleepy state, but still awake. You want them to learn to put themselves to sleep. Plus, your nightly tuck-in is the perfect time to engage in some toddler sweet talk. At bedtime your tot’s sleepy mind is calm, open, and ready to absorb the good things you say. Once your tot is tucked in, snuggle up next to them and in a soft, understated way, recount some of the fun experiences and acts of kindness from the day just past. Also, list a few things that might happen tomorrow and good deeds your toddler may do. Sweet talk is a wonderful way for parents to bond with their toddler and it makes bedtime something your toddler looks forward to, instead of something to avoid!
Toddler Sleep Strategy #9: Handle nightmares like this.
Nightmares are fairly common and can start as early as 2 to 3 years old. If your toddler has a nightmare and runs into your bed, it’s more than okay to provide your tot refuge under your covers. However, once they’ve calmed down, it’s best to place them back into their own bed. Try surrounding them with various items of comfort to make them feel safe and learn to fall asleep on their own.
Toddler Sleep Strategy #10: Consider moving your toddler’s bedtime.
While a 7pm to 7am sleep schedule might be your dream toddler bedtime routine, most toddlers do best when their bedtime falls between 8 and 9pm. If your toddler fights night-night, it’s an indicator that their bedtime may be too early...or too late. When bedtime is too early, your toddler may show no signs of fatigue (like rubbing their eyes or yawning) at bedtime and fight sleep for up to 60 minutes. On the other hand, fighting sleep can also be a sign that bedtime is too late! If your toddler has trouble waking up and shows clear signs of tiredness at bedtime, bedtime is later than it should be. If you think your tot’s bedtime is too early, push their bedtime routine 15 minutes later every two to three nights. Too late? Start your toddler’s bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier every two to three nights. Either approach should work within a week or two.
How to Put Your Toddler's Bedtime Demands on Hold
If your tot runs over your rules like a steamroller, try this little technique (a twist on patience-stretching) to put their demands “on hold.”
Step 1: First, spend a week practicing patience-stretching 5 times a day and using white noise for all sleep. Once your tot gets used to all this, you’re ready for this toddler sleep training trick.
Step 2: When your sleepy tyke toddles up to the night gate in their PJs and pleads for water, come immediately and say, “Okay, sweetheart, Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here.” Listen to their request and say “Sure, honey, sure.” But then raise one finger (as if you just remembered something important) and exclaim, “Wait! Wait! I forgot something! I’ll be back...really fast!” And tell your tot to cuddle their lovey until you come back. (They’ll be familiar with all this from her experiences with patience-stretching during the day.)
Step 3: Hurry out of view for 5 seconds. Then, return and innocently ask, “Honey, I’m so sorry I forgot––what do you want?” Or say, “Oh darn! Silly Mommy! I forgot the water! I’m sorry, honey. I’ll be back in just a sec!” Then leave for 10 seconds, but this time actually get it for your little one.
Step 4: The next time your tyke summons you, do the “Wait! Wait!” routine again––but this time, disappear for 15 seconds. When you return, ask what they want, but then do the routine again, and return 30 seconds later with the water. Over a few days, you can build the waiting period up to 1 and then 2 minutes. Eventually, your tot will discover that asking for things has turned into a pretty boring, no-fun game.
(Your little bug may get tired and fall asleep on the floor while they’re waiting for your return. So, leave a pillow and blanket on the floor by the door gate in case they choose to fall asleep there instead of in bed.)
Step 5: If your sweetie gets impatient and starts yelling, wait 5 seconds, then return and acknowledge their frustration (in your best Toddler-ese). Then repeat your “Wait! Wait!” routine and disappear for another 15 seconds.
More help getting your toddler to sleep:
- Advice for Sleep Training Your Toddler
- What to Look for in a Toddler Nightlight
- Three Big Reasons Toddlers Wake Up at Night
- How to Deal With Toddler Sleep Regressions
- Wean Your Toddler from Bed-Sharing Today!
- At What Age Do Kids Need a Pillow?
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.