Here’s a list of 4 common perpetrators of sleep problems in toddlers and preschoolers:
Your child cannot fall asleep on his own.
If you are still nursing or rocking your toddler to sleep, or if your child “needs” you to lie with him in his bed until he falls asleep, and you’re ready for your toddler to be sleeping through the night, now is the time to stop. If a toddler can’t fall asleep on his own without any help, he will struggle falling BACK to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night. Give your toddler the opportunity to develop independent sleep skills is essential, especially if he’s giving you a run for your money in the sleep department.
Your child is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with his sleep environment.
If your toddler regularly falls asleep anywhere other than his crib or bed (i.e. the car, stroller, your arms or your bed) and is transferred to his sleep space while asleep, this can affect his sleep. Imagine falling asleep in your bedroom and waking up on your kitchen floor? You would get startled and wake up! It’s very important that your toddler fall asleep in the same space that he wakes up in.
If your toddler isn’t used to sleeping the whole night (or any part of the night!) in his sleep space, and your goal is to transition him to his bed or crib, spend lots of time playing with him in his bedroom, specifically while he is in his bed or crib. Play in the bedroom allows your child the opportunity to develop wonderful associations with his sleep space. You want your child to learn that this sleep space is a fun, safe and secure place to be.
Your child isn’t getting ample age-appropriate activity & stimulation during the daytime.
Toddlers are extremely active little creatures and require lots of regular daily stimulation. All too often, some toddlers end up spending hours in front of the television, iPad, or computer. Overexposure to various forms of media can cause sleep problems for two reasons:
(a) Exposure to blue light from television, iPads and computers can suppress the production of melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy). In order for our toddlers to sleep properly, it’s important to make sure we’re not suppressing our child’s natural wake/sleep cycles!
(b) If a child is spending hours every day playing with an iPad, it likely means he’s not getting enough gross motor activity, nor is he engaging in regular sensory and imaginative play that he needs! I can’t emphasize how important it is for your child to be regularly engaged in various forms of play. Explore the different options for your toddler at your local Ontario Early Years Centers, indoor playgrounds, and community centers.
Your child is not napping appropriately for her age.
Many parents are quick to transition their toddler to one nap once she’s 12 months old. Transitioning a toddler to a one nap schedule prematurely can result in an overtired child- and no one sleeps well at night when they’re overtired! As a result, I always encourage parents to keep their children on two naps for as long as possible. If your toddler begins fighting her afternoon nap, shorten the morning nap so that she’s not napping for longer than 45-60 minutes. This will help “protect” the afternoon nap.
Your toddler will likely be ready to transition to one nap when she’s 15-18 months of age. Once your child is consistently taking one nap, this nap should be approximately 2-2.5 hours in length. Anything shorter and she’s probably not getting the daytime sleep that she needs. By the time your child is 2.5-3 years of age, a 90 minute nap might suffice.
Your child’s bedtime is too late
I sometimes feel like a broken record when I talk about the importance of an early bedtime, but here I go again.
Even if your child knows how to fall asleep on her own, it doesn’t mean she’s going to sleep through the night. If your child is going to bed too late, she is going to bed overtired- and, once again, overtired children don’t sleep well! When a child becomes overtired, her body begins producing a hormone called cortisol, which is a stress-related hormone. Putting a child to bed too late can cause your child to have a cortisol rush, which leads to difficulty falling asleep, nightwakings, and early rising- and sometimes you get all three!
Giving your child a consistent early bedtime will allow her to get the sleep that she needs- and you’ll avoid having a cranky overtired toddler on your hands!