Many parents have concerns about their child’s sleeping habits. A parent who complains of a child having a problem sleeping is more often than not referring to an undesirable sleeping pattern for the child, or an unwillingness to go to bed at all. True sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and night terrors, are a real concern; however, they are not nearly as common.
It helps to remember that a toddler does not naturally have the same sleep patterns as an older child or adult; therefore, some sleep issues are completely normal for certain developmental stages. In many cases, a simple bedtime routine will ease your toddler’s transition from wakefulness to sleep.
Toddler Sleeping Habits
Most toddlers need to get an average of 11 to 14 hours of sleep each day. Depending upon the child, this may be a solid block of sleep each night or a shorter block of sleep at night, and 1 or 2 naps during the day. Many parents feel that their child needs naps, while others believe that napping will disrupt a child’s ability to sleep longer at night. Deciding to nap or not to nap is a personal choice based upon your child’s personality and needs.
How Often Do Toddlers Sleep?
Getting an adequate amount of sleep is very important to the mental and physical well-being of a child. It is estimated that a child will spend nearly 40 percent of childhood asleep. Infants typically spend an equal amount of time both sleeping and awake. During a child’s toddler years, this balance of sleep time and wakefulness will shift.
Instances of daytime sleep will decrease during the child’s first three years and by age four, most children will grow out of napping during the day. There are two states of sleep and by age 3 the phases alternate about every 90 minutes; these alternating periods of sleep are:
- NREM or non-rapid eye movement, also known as quiet sleep. During this phase of sleep our bodies are being nourished, our energy being replenished, and hormones responsible for growth and development are at work.
- REM or rapid eye movement, also known as active sleep. During this phase of sleep our brains are on the go and dreams are active.
(See: The Five Stages Of Sleep)
Where Should Your Child Sleep?
Where your toddler sleeps is a personal preference. While many parents choose to have their child sleep in their own crib or bed, the idea of co-sleeping is becoming more popular. Co-sleeping is allowing a child to share a bed with his or her parents.
Many people disagree with co-sleeping and claim it can disrupt a child’s progress toward independence. However, no research is available to support this theory. In fact, co-sleeping is preferred in many cultures and is thought to reinforce a child’s feeling of security and love. No matter where you choose to have your child sleep, the most important factor is to ensure the child’s safety. Some safety tips for sleeping in a crib include:
- Removing crib bumpers
- Removing all toys
- Lowering the mattress
- If your child is a climber, moving him or her to a bed
Some safety tips for co-sleeping include:
- Making sure the bed is large enough for everyone
- Avoiding co-sleep in a waterbed
- Making sure that the sheets are secure
- Removing extra pillows
- Placement near the mother is best, as others may not be as aware of the child’s presence
Common Sleeping Problems For Toddlers
Many toddlers experience some type of sleeping problem at some point. Reasons for sleep disturbances can range from immaturity of the central nervous system to separation anxiety and an overactive imagination. Most of these causes are completely normal and are very common. Common toddler sleeping problems include:
- Night terrors
- Sleep talking
- Refusal to fall asleep alone
- Refusal to go to bed
- Wakes up too early
How You Can Help
There are many factors that can influence a child’s sleep. Toddlers are learning how to be more independent and a simple boost in the cognitive and motor skills can lead to sleep issues. Additionally, your child may suffer from separation anxiety, may have a vivid imagination or may just like that he or she can get out of bed. Whatever the cause, often times establishing a solid bedtime routine can help. Some other helpful tips include:
- Being consistent
- Sticking to a daily sleep schedule
- Making sure the child’s sleeping environment is the same every night
- Avoid moving the child during the night to another location
- If your child wakens, gently ease him back to sleep with a soft reassuring voice
- Avoid reading a book if your child wakes during the night, this may encourage them to stay awake or wake more often.
- Setting limits that the child understands and being sure to enforce them
- If it helps, encouraging the use of a security blanket or favorite stuffed animal
- Keeping the blinds and curtains closed for early risers
Typically, common sleeping problems for toddlers are normal and expected for their age and development. However, if you feel as though nothing you do has helped your child or that the cause of your child’s sleep disturbance is due to a medical concern, contact your doctor. It may be helpful to keep a sleep journal for you child to share with your doctor.