Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Just like babies, toddlers still need a decent amount of sleep in a 24 hour period. Without it, they are more likely to have behavioural issues, will eat poorly and it will actually be harder for them to fall asleep easily and sleep well.
In the early years of their lives, there is a lot of physiological, mental and emotional development going on with your little one. In fact, they will reach half their adult size by the time they’re 2! That’s a LOT of growing! Couple this with learning to walk, to talk, to interact with other children, to think for themselves, to negotiate, to toilet train, to adjust to a new baby (the list goes on) and you have a lot on your wee person’s developmental plate. Sleep plays a crucial role in all of this. When they’re asleep is when all this stuff starts to make sense; the brain is in recovery mode, collating and storing everything new they’ve learnt that day.
As well as being essential for growing brains, sleep also governs a large portion of toddler behaviour. In fact, a lot of common behavioural issues can be traced back to sleep problems. The obvious ones include moodiness, lack of cooperation, intolerance and even a lack of appetite or unwillingness to eat. If you are encountering these behaviours on a regular basis, it would pay to have a look at your pre-schooler’s day in a 24-hour chunk and work out if they’re actually getting the right amount of sleep.
But how much sleep is the right amount?
Like babies, the amount of sleep a toddler needs varies depending on their age and of course every child is different – some may need less, some more. The following times should be used as a guide. We highly recommend using our Toddler Sleep Program to make sure your toddler is getting the right amount of sleep, at the right times.
|Age||Daytime nap hours||Nighttime sleep hours||TOTAL sleep hours|
(this may be across 1 or 2 sleeps. At this age your toddler will begin to drop their morning nap)
|12 hours||14 hours in a 24 hour period.|
Up to 2 hours
(1 daytime sleep)
|12 hours||No more than 14 hours in a 24 hour period.|
|2 – 2 ½ years||
1 – 1.5 hours
(how well they settle at bedtime will affect the amount of sleep they need in their day nap.)
|12||13 – 13.5 hours in a 24 hour period.|
|2 ½ – 3 years||Most toddlers drop their day sleep altogether at this age.||12 hours||12 hours in a 24 hour period|
A good indication of whether your toddler is ready to shorten or drop their day sleep is how well they settle at that sleep and also at night. If your wee one still has a 2 hour day sleep but then takes forever to go to sleep at night, it’s time to start reducing their nap. If you’ve already reduced their nap to an hour and they start refusing to go to sleep for it, it’s probably time to drop the nap altogether. In this case, you might need to add some quiet time into your afternoon (reading books or drawing) as they’ll definitely need some time to regroup!
Common toddler sleep challenges:
My toddler won’t go to sleep at bedtime
If your toddler is still napping in the day and then refusing to settle at their normal bedtime at night, it is likely they are having too much day sleep or it is too late in the afternoon. Start reducing the time your toddler naps during the day, keep it up for a few days and then see if bedtime has improved.
If your toddler isn’t napping in the day their bedtime antics are likely caused by being overtired at bedtime. If they are under 2.5 years we would recommend reintroducing a short nap for a few days and see if their night settling improves. If they’re over 2.5 years old try bringing bedtime forwards for a few days to see if it makes a difference.
My toddler keeps getting out of bed
If your toddler is in a “big-kid” bed rather than a cot, chances are they have worked out they can get out of it! If you are having problems with your toddler getting out of bed (either at the start of the night or during the night), firstly rule out that this waking isn't in fact caused by then not being tired enough for a deep restorative sleep. This can happen if your toddler is having too much day sleep or is napping too late in the day. If you're confident their night visits aren't caused by their nap routine, you need to treat the getting out of bed in the night as a behavioural issue. We have several methods to deal with this in the Toddler Tactics part of our Toddler Sleep Program.
Any night waking needs to be made as boring as possible for your toddler. Keep dialogue to a minimum and maintain a really low-key approach. Eventually, they’ll learn that they get no reaction or stimulation by getting out of bed.
My toddler won’t settle at bedtime despite being tired
If you can rule out nap length or time as a reason for your toddler not settling at bedtime, you need to start looking at their environment. If their room is too stimulating (too light or too many toys) of course they won’t want to sleep! If they can hear other members of the household still up and/or playing they won’t go to sleep either. Having a consistent bedtime routine is just as important for toddlers as it is for babies. Also keeping their room very dark and using gentle white noisecan help with bedtime settling. If toilet trained, make sure they have gone to the toilet before bed. And don’t give your child any sugary foods directly before bedtime or they’ll find it difficult to unwind and go to sleep.
My toddler needs me to lay with them to go to sleep
We tackle this challenge in our video:
My toddler won’t nap during the day
If your child is under 2.5 years old they definitely still need a day nap. Make sure you’re not trying to put them down for their nap too early and the length will vary according to their age. Try having a simple nap time routine (reading books is a great one), using a dark room and some calmingwhite noise.
If your child is over 2.5 years old and you have tried the above techniques with no luck, they are probably ready to drop their nap. Bring bedtime forward by half an hour to compensate.
My toddler still wakes in the night for milk
Beyond the age of around 8 months, children do not need milk in the night. If your toddler is still waking for a milk feed they have a settling problem rather than a hunger issue and are relying on the sleep association of milk to go back to sleep. This could then lead to them having too much to eat/drink during the night, which would result in them taking less food during the day.
Here are some other reasons your toddler may wake in the night:
- They are too hot
- They are too cold (a lot of toddlers can’t easily pull their blankets up and will sleep better in a toddler sized sleeping sack)
- Their need to wee is waking them – this is common in older toddlers, especially if they are day toilet trained but not night trained yet
- They are stimulated by something in their room – a nightlight, toys, an unusual or new sound
- They have had too much day sleep
- They are habit waking because their waking is usually “rewarded” or reinforced (unintentionally) by a response from their parent
Here are some reasons MY kids as toddlers have woken in the night:
- She has a hair in her mouth
- She has a hair on her face
- There is a hair on her pillow
- He can hear a bird outside
- He needs his blankets on (after getting up and taking them off)
- She can’t find her cuddly
- He needs his crown
- The light from the heater is scary
- The light from the nightlight is scary
- The dark is scary
- His sister is snoring
- She is coughing (on purpose)
- Her eyes are tired
- “I love you mum”
If your toddler is between 12-36 months, our Toddler Sleep Program is a great way to ensure their sleep needs are met in the day. If you need to address some bedtime behaviour with your toddler, our Sleep Programs contains all the tools to beat those bedtime battles!
Villar, J., Fernandes, M., Purwar, M. et al. Neurodevelopmental milestones and associated behaviours are similar among healthy children across diverse geographical locations. Nat Commun 10, 511 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07983-4
Turnbull, K., Reid, G. J., & Morton, J. B. (2013). Behavioral Sleep Problems and their Potential Impact on Developing Executive Function in Children. Sleep, 36(7), 1077–1084. doi:10.5665/sleep.2814