Solving Common Toddler Sleep Problems

At this age, every night can feel like a struggle. Discover the reasons and how to get the family sleep schedule back on track.

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Toddler years are full of many exciting new experiences for the whole family. And with all the growth and development happening, sleep is especially important. Toddlers typically need between 11 and 14 hours of nightly sleep, a schedule made easier by sticking with an established evening routine that possibly includes a bath, bedtime story, and cuddle time. But even with a regular regimen in hand, many parents find that toddlers struggle to stay in bed for the full night.

After ruling out a physical ailment, parents should consider other potential reasons behind a toddler’s problems, including these five common sleep challenges—and easy solutions.

Sleep Challenge: A New Sibling

A crying infant, whether in the same bedroom as a toddler or another room, can unsettle even the best sleeper. One solution is to place a white noise machine near a toddler’s bed, to block out as much of the ruckus as possible.

It’s also natural that a toddler might display some jealousy toward a new sibling, which in turn could make bedtime a battleground. Consider spending extra time with the older child, especially before lights out. Another option: Make a sticker chart to reward “good” bedtime behavior.

Sleep Challenge: Bad Dreams

Nightmares tend to crop up during the toddler years, as this is when vocabulary and imagination are rapidly developing. While parents are often tempted to bring a toddler into their own bed for comfort, it’s best to resist this urge since it can become a hard-to-break habit.

The better solution: If a toddler has gotten out of bed to seek comfort, walk back to his or her room together. Offer reassuring hugs and explain that the dream wasn’t real. It’s OK to sit until the child falls back asleep, but eventually parents should return to their own room. Other tips: Leave the toddler’s bedroom door open, use a night light, and install an intercom for easy parent-child communication.

Sleep Challenge: Change of Schedule

A parent’s job change, a new house, visiting guests, or family vacation can introduce unfamiliar rhythms to a toddler’s sleep schedule. The key is to keep things as close to routine as possible. Prioritize a toddler’s bedtime schedule over what time guests are served dinner, and in cases where that’s not possible, try to split guest duty and toddler duty with a partner to keep the routine intact.

For families who recently moved, add a sense of familiarity to a toddler’s bedtime routine at the new location by reading the same books and playing with the same stuffed animal as you did at the old house. Beloved toys from home can also soothe wake-ups while on vacation at a hotel.

Sleep Challenge: Tantrums

Not many three-year-olds relish being told what to do and even fewer like to stop having fun, pack up the toys, and head to bed. While there is no foolproof way to avoid a toddler meltdown, setting a quiet tone before bedtime can help, as too much pre-sleep excitement can make it hard for toddlers to settle down. Play soft music, put away any loud toys, and consider reading a book together. Once in bed, don’t engage a toddler in any new games. It’s important to distinguish sleep time from playtime.

Sleep Challenge: Inconsistent Schedule

Even the most organized households can experience the havoc caused by a disrupted sleep routine. When bedtimes change from one night to the next, toddler’s rhythms get thrown out of whack, resulting in late-night visits to a parent’s bedside. Make bedtime a priority by setting aside an hour each evening for quiet play, story reading, and listening to soft music, and try not to let lights out vary by more than 15 minutes night to night.