Training Toddlers To Sleep Better

What's Covered

Sleep is a normal body function that promotes restoration of energy spent during the day, promotes physical growth, and mental rest. Sufficient sleep is important for this age since this will help them optimize their daily functioning and behavior.[1] But for their age, it is quite difficult to achieve.  A lot of factors can disrupt their sleeping patterns, derailing the quality of sleep that they should have. 

Normal sleep patterns for toddlers

Generally, toddlers need about 10 to 14 hours of sleep out of the 24 hours in a day.  This includes the nap times during the day.  How long a toddler goes to sleep will depend on how tired or sleepy they are, routines or naps, or snacks they have eaten during the day.

A study by Mindell, et.al (2016) found the sleeping patterns of toddlers are directly affected by social-emotional problems in the family.[2]  It is fairly common for toddlers to awake at night. Usually, they look for a parent to cuddle to put them back to sleep, or just to comfort them from a nightmare. Some toddlers go through a sleep regression.  This is when the toddler wakes up and does not go back to sleep by himself. Sleep regression is normal and resolves on its own.

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Become Your Child's Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor's 5-Step Guide
A great book for parents to coach their toddlers to sleeping better

This book can help parents become good sleep coaches for their toddlers. This will help their children get adequate sleep, optimizing their bodies for better functioning and brain development.  Better sleep, better brain development, better disposition, better functioning throughout the day.  The parents themselves can sleep better and have a better quality of sleep, helping them manage their time and work better. When parents know how to manage their children’s sleeping schedules, they won’t have a difficult time putting them to sleep.

Causes for not sleeping better

A lot of factors can disrupt the toddler’s sleeping pattern. When your toddler wakes up and refuses to go back to sleep, explore the possible reasons.  You might be able to help your toddler when you talk to him about it instead of just leaving him in his room, wondering what to do.  You’ll end up having a cranky kid in the morning who lacks a good night’s sleep.  Plus, his optimum functioning during the day is hampered since he is not well-rested as he should be.

Medical or internal factors for not getting adequate sleep

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

In children aged 2-8 years old, there is an enlargement of the adenoids and the tonsils.[3] The symptoms can go from mild to severe, with severe symptoms needing surgical treatments.  OSA can cause snoring in children, although not all children with OSA manifest this. Children with mild symptoms usually outgrow OSA.

Usually occurs when the child refuses to go to bed. They have difficulty falling asleep without the help of a parent or a thing (e.g., favorite blanket or toy).

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Disney Baby Mickey Mouse Plush Stuffed Animal Snuggler Blanket
This is a soothing blanket that most children prefer when going to bed

Children who are attached to transitional objects such as blankets or stuffed toys are more secure with their relationship with their mothers than children who don’t.[4] This blanket is soft and fuzzy. It makes the child want to snuggle to it all day long—and help him sleep continuously through the night.  With him well-rested, he will wake up a glowing and energetic child the following morning. This will be good for the child since his body will be able to recover from all the activities of the previous day, as well as boost his brain development since he can get adequate rest.  He would want to take it anywhere with him.  My autistic child has a security blanket that he keeps with him every second of the day. It keeps him company and secured.  He can sleep well and get enough rest every night, as long as he has his security blanket with him. 

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If Animals Kissed Good Night
This board book is a sweet book about animals kissing their loved ones, goodnight

Reading bedtime stories to your children as part of your nightly routine promotes healthy sleep and positive developmental outcomes such as language development, literacy, regulation of emotions. [5] When you do this to your child every night, you create a tradition that he will remember for the rest of his life. It affects how he develops as a human being in the sense that he becomes a person with warmth and compassion.  Children at this age usually emulate what they see at home.  And when you adopt a cozy environment for your children, you end up having compassionate adults in the future.  Additionally, they become wide readers, which is beneficial for school later on.  It will broaden their horizon when it comes to books and literature. They become cultured and educated. 

  • Delayed Phase Sleep Syndrome

This is also known as the “sleepy teen” syndrome.  There is a shift in the circadian rhythm for a couple of hours or so.  They have trouble sleeping at their supposed bedtime and they usually wake up late. This is difficult especially when they start attending school. 

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Young Living Essential Oil Home Ultrasonic Desert Mist Diffuser
This thing functions as a humidifier and a diffuser of essential oils for a good night’s sleep

Essential oils generally have different effects on the body once inhaled or applied.  They promote adequate sleep, relieve pain and headaches, help treat common colds, among others. Using this while putting children go to bed can help them go to sleep earlier.  The earlier they fall asleep, the better the brain development and the well-rested they will be. They can perform better, with well-rested bodies, the following day. They are less cranky and more interactive and participative.

  • Hypersomnia

This is excessive sleepiness during the daytime.  Sometimes, this can be a consequence of OSA or delayed sleep phase syndrome.  Other times, this can result in narcolepsy.  Narcolepsy is the loss of muscle control and manifested as frequent daytime dozing, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations.  However, daytime sleepiness can also be a manifestation of other conditions. It is better to have your child checked with a specialist when they show these symptoms.

  • Parasomnia

Parasomnia is more commonly known as sleepwalking. This is arousal during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. This is sometimes accompanied by hallucinations and nightmares. Some children are unable to move their bodies or extremities. Children usually outgrow sleepwalking and do not need any medical intervention at all.

Rechargeable Motion Sensor Night Light
This is a great accessory for frequent sleepwalkers in the house

We cannot avoid having accidents around the house most especially when a frequent sleepwalker is living with us. To avoid these accidents, this night sensor can help us know when someone is up and about at night. Hence, we can immediately lookout for our sleepwalker and assist him back to his room.  By avoiding these unnecessary accidents, we avoid the hassle and stress of cleaning up if things broke; we can also prevent the sleepwalker from hurting themselves. As they say, prevention is better than cure.

  • Movement Disorders

These are neurologic disorders called restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement. They are often described as an unpleasant urge to move the limbs. These two often go together and usually occur at night.  These can disrupt the child’s sleep hence decreasing the quality of his sleep. These conditions warrant a thorough check-up by a neurologist.

External factors that disrupt sleep

  1. Food and Drinks at Nighttime

Foods and drinks such as sweets, soda, and cakes, among others, can disrupt the quality of sleep as well as the bedtime routine.  These foods and drinks, when taken late at night or before going to bed can cause hyperactivity and wakefulness instead of the opposite, hence disturbing the children’s body clock.  Much of these food products contain caffeine. Caffeine, no matter how small the consumption is, can still directly affect the behavior and sleep of children.[6] The sleep is disrupted, contributing to morning tiredness and underperformance the following day, and then, later on, behavioral problems.

  • Light

Our eyes are sensitive to light.  The body responds to the light brought by morning by waking up. Hence, a child cannot sleep in a well-lit room.  Once the body is exposed to light, the body clock shifts, making it difficult for the child to maintain that sleepiness that he feels when in bed. 

Summer Slumber Buddies Projection and Melodies Soother Dozing Hippo
This is a calming light sky display with soothing music to help toddlers have adequate sleep

For children who are not comfortable in the dark, this is a great accessory to be had in any toddler’s room. It plays soothing lullabies while displaying a discreet night light, promoting a conducive environment for sleeping.  This adds to the feeling of security that any toddler can have when lying alone in bed.  He can go to sleep and stay asleep all through the night.  A well-rested child can have optimal energy by morning, increasing the quality of his brain activities and physical mobility.  There’s no problem at school for a well-rested child.

  • New Environment

When a child is exposed to new surroundings, he naturally gets excited and wants to explore all possible corners of the new environment.  A new bed, new sheets, new light, new everything can alter the mood of toddlers, most especially when they can see things that attract their attention.  This is usually the case when a family goes on vacations or trips.  Toddlers explore the beds by climbing in and out of them. They would jump up and down on the bed, which I can say, is a fun activity for them.  When they are surrounded by new people or strangers, their sleep is also disrupted.  Feelings of insecurity or excitement may alter their urge to sleep. 

  • Gadgets or TV

Gadgets such as mobile phones or tablets are essential these days. However, pediatricians have warned on the use of these gadgets by children most especially toddlers.  We have been warned many times about the ill effects of gadgets on children’s mental development and have continuously advised us on limiting screen time that is appropriate to age. Gadgets have indirectly affected the academic performance of children and have also caused frequent headaches among school-aged children.[7] Screen time for children aged 2-5 years old is supposed to have a maximum of 1 hour.  The lesser time in front of these gadgets, the more time they have for playing with actual toys, discovering new things, going out, making friends, and the list goes on and on.  And the lesser time they spend time with gadgets, the better the brain development of these children. 

Gadgets emit a blue light that blocks melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep in the body. It makes the child less drowsy, hence he becomes hyperactive when using a gadget. 

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AHXLL Kids Blue Light Blocking Glasses 2 Pack
This is an anti-eye strain glasses that filters blue light coming from gadgets and TV

Using a filter for blue light when children use gadgets at night is more beneficial than not wearing one at all.  The melatonin will not be blocked; hence they can still be drowsy and still fall asleep at their designated bedtimes.  The body clock will not be pushed back, as there will be no delay in sleeping.  The child can then rest and sleep as usual.  Adequate sleep is needed for optimum performance.  There will be no disruption or disturbance in their mental activities as well as academic performance.  There is a reduction of eye discomfort, headaches, and improvement of sleep. Reasoning and perception will not be clouded by sleepiness or tiredness since they have rested well the night before.

  • Change in Routine

Any change in the children’s nightly routine can disrupt their body clock.  Children are sensitive to changes most especially when it affects how they are treated. It is said that bedtime routines significantly affect the sleep behaviors of toddlers.[8] There is an improvement in the quality and length of sleep when a bedtime routine is established.

When a parent forgot to tuck the child in bed, the child will end up tossing and turning trying to think of reasons why it was forgotten.  This will cause frequent arousal from the bed.  When he forgot to urinate or brush his teeth before going to bed, it will bother him later on and may cause the child to get up unnecessarily just to get closure for his routine.

What helps toddlers sleep better?

Set routine

A regular bedtime routine will set your child’s body clock.  It conveys a nurturing environment that is vital for positive effects on children.[9] It promotes restful sleep, emotional and behavioral regulation, parent-child relationship, and even language development.

A routine can involve a lot of things. Some children prefer having storytime with their parents, while others prefer a short chit-chat, a kiss, or a hug from a parent or sibling.  Anything that can make the child feel positive and secure will help get adequate sleep. 

Relax before bedtime

Children tend to be playful until bedtime.  It would be beneficial for both the parents and the child to try to settle them down before going to bed.  This lessens the tossing and turning for toddlers who are not settled yet.  Parents can try to read some books, or apply some essential oils, or put on some lullabies to set the mood of the toddler’s room. 

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Disney's Lullaby Album
This is an instrumental lullaby album that is great for setting the bedtime ambiance in your toddler’s room

Once the mood is set, the toddler can now climb into bed, knowing that it is his time to go to sleep. Setting the tone for bedtime is not only for the toddler, but it is a time for the parents to take their time to rest as well.  After a full day of work and chores, parents would want time for themselves.  They can also relax and can do anything they want when the children are finally in bed.  Relaxation time can also be a bonding time for both parents.  Having both a routine and this time can be beneficial for family relations all around, boosting bonds between members of the family.  There won’t be any strained relationships since all are well-rested and happy.

Keep regular times for waking and sleeping

Keeping the waking and sleeping times at the same hours each day helps keep the body clock of toddlers in check.  This will help the toddler perform better in school since he is used to waking up at the same time every day. There will be no struggle trying to wake up a drowsy grumpy child. 

Poor sleep schedules for this age directly influence behavior and may lead to problems later on.[10] Hence, good sleeping habits are important for the mental and psychosocial development of a child. 

Keep naps short

Toddlers usually take naps in the morning and afternoon.  So as not to disrupt their sleeping time at night, we should keep these naps short.  Naps are just short rest periods that children (or adults) take when they get tired after playing around so much. Longer naps will affect the bedtime routines and schedule at night. 

Make sure they feel safe and secure at night

Make sure to avoid watching scary movies or shows when your child is within range of a TV.  They tend to remember scary stuff from movies that will affect their sleeping habits.  Before putting them to bed, assure them that they have nothing to be afraid of.  Tuck them in and praise them for being brave for being able to sleep in their rooms. 

Check noise and light in child’s room

Make sure to turn off any unnecessary light or noise in your child’s room. Any light or noise coming from TV, gadgets, and toys will greatly affect their sleep.  Bright light can block melatonin and can, later on, mess up his body clock. It is best to tuck them in bed in dim light. A night light will suffice provided it is to your child’s preference.

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Summer Slumber Buddies Projection and Melodies Soother, Eddie The Elephant
This is a projector and melodies soother that will help the toddler get a good night’s sleep

This calming device can set the mood for sleeping time.  Toddlers can get through the night, accompanied by a soothing melody playing in the background and a calming projection of lights coming from it.  The child will be able to get plenty of rest and wake up an energized child.  A night of adequate sleep will boost both mental and physical development, thereby consequently yielding a productive child the following day.

Eat the right amount at the right time

Avoiding sugary treats and caffeinated drinks before bedtime is one of the best practices in getting quality sleep, even for adults.  Eating at the right time also will influence the quality of sleep that the toddler will have.  A child can not go to bed hungry or too full. This will make him feel uncomfortable or too awake, consequently affecting his bedtime and quality of sleep.  To make him sleep better, have him eat 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. By that time, the toddler would have digested his food. This will also prevent the child from getting up and going into the kitchen if he’s still hungry, or going to the toilet if he wants to defecate.  Also, the child can eat a healthy and full meal once he wakes up.  This will contribute a lot to his performance during the day. 

Get plenty of natural light in the day

During the day, it is best to get your child outside to enjoy the outdoors. Exposing him to natural light will block melatonin, hence he will feel awake and alert.  This can also influence his disposition during the day. Happy children make happy helpers.

Other tips for better sleep

Co-sleeping

Early co-sleepers (those who co-slept with mothers since infancy) turn out to be more self-reliant and have more social independence than non-co-sleepers.[11] Some studies have negated the possible hindrance of co-sleeping to the development of the child. But as it turns out, some children are more secure and more self-reliant than those who were left in their rooms too early. Whether co-sleeping for convenience (low socioeconomic status) or psychological stability and security of both mother and child, co-sleeping is another way to help the child get better sleep. 

Toddler Bed Rails Guard – Universal Baby & Children Bed Rail
A bed rail that will make the mothers feel secure about co-sleeping with toddlers, making sleep more peaceful

With the security that your child will not fall off the bed while co-sleeping with you, there will be no need to get up constantly at night to check on your toddler.  He can roll into whichever way he wants when sleeping. Undisturbed sleep for both of you can mean longer sleeping time, a better quality of sleep, and a stronger mother-child bond since you are co-sleeping with your child.  You prevent an accident and at the same time, making your child feel secure and loved.

Toilet trips

Toilet trips before going to bed are a must.  A toddler is easily trainable when it comes to toileting.  Make it part of his routine before bedtime.  This will give him uninterrupted and dry sleep.  No more wetting of the bed and no more unnecessary trips to the toilet while sleeping. This is also good for the parents since they won’t have to escort their kids to the toilet in the middle of the night. They won’t have to get up to change the sheets and change the toddler’s clothes.  Because everything is dry (and won’t stink!).

Bedtime stories

This is a bedtime routine staple.  Children who are frequently read to, have more brain activity, are more creative, better memory, and have a more vivid imagination. [12] Their literacy and emotional regulation are boosted, as well.  They become more compassionate as they grow older.  I think children whose parents read to them will make better citizens of the world. They are also more cultured and knowledgeable since they become wide readers themselves. When you start reading to them at a young age, their interests peak. And this will amplify their curiosity, making them seek out the facts and information to satisfy their curiosity. And this tradition will be passed on to the next generation, producing more compassionate human beings down the line.

Goodnight kisses and hugs from mom

Aside from bedtime stories, goodnight kissed and hugs from parents capping the day should also be staples of bedtime routines.  A child that grows in a nurturing environment, with parents, or family members who are loving and caring, come out as compassionate and kind adults. Nurturing touch practices such as these influence the emotional well-being of toddlers as well as their mental development in school and the community. [13] It is a great way to end the toddler’s day. Aside from the sense of security and comfort these actions bring, it gives them that warm fuzzy feeling that can strengthen the attachment of the toddler to his parents. 

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the quality of sleep of children is dependent on how we as parents set our environments to be. Our attachments to them, how we set their sleep schedules, what and how we feed them are all interconnected and can affect how they sleep or behave or think or perform in the world.  They put out what we put out. Children who get adequate sleep are better learners, have better brain activities, and overall physical and mental well-being. They are better performers in school and are in a good disposition.


[1] Bathory, Eleanor, and Suzy Tomopoulos. “Sleep regulation, physiology and development, sleep duration and patterns, and sleep hygiene in infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children.” Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care 47.2 (2017): 29-42.

[2] Mindell, Jodi A., et al. “Sleep and social-emotional development in infants and toddlers.” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 46.2 (2017): 236-246.

[3] Carter, Kevin A., Nathanael E. Hathaway, and Christine F. Lettieri. “Common sleep disorders in children.” American family physician 89.5 (2014): 368-377.

[4] Passman, Richard H., and Roderick E. Adams. “Preferences for mothers and security blankets and their effectiveness as reinforcers for young children’s behaviors.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 23.3 (1982): 223-236.

[5] Mindell, Jodi A., and Ariel A. Williamson. “Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond.” Sleep medicine reviews 40 (2018): 93-108.

[6] Watson, Emily J., et al. “The relationship between caffeine, sleep, and behavior in children.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 13.4 (2017): 533-543.

[7] Hegde, Amitha M., et al. “Effect of electronic gadgets on the behaviour, academic performance and overall health of school going children-a descriptive study.” Journal of Advanced Medical and Dental Sciences Research 7.1 (2019): 100-103.

[8] Mindell, Jodi A., et al. “A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood.” Sleep 32.5 (2009): 599-606.

[9] Mindell, Jodi A., and Ariel A. Williamson. “Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond.” Sleep medicine reviews 40 (2018): 93-108.

[10] Kobayashi, Katsuhiro, et al. “Poor toddler-age sleep schedules predict school-age behavioral disorders in a longitudinal survey.” Brain and Development 37.6 (2015): 572-578.

[11] Keller, Meret A., and Wendy A. Goldberg. “Co‐sleeping: Help or hindrance for young children’s independence?.” Infant and Child Development: An International Journal of Research and Practice 13.5 (2004): 369-388.

[12] Klass, Perri, and M. D. August. “Bedtime stories for young brains.” New York Times 17 (2015).

[13] Svinth, Lone. “Being touched–the transformative potential of nurturing touch practices in relation to toddlers’ learning and emotional well-being.” Early Child Development and Care 188.7 (2018): 924-936.

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Author

Diana Lucas

Diana Lucas

Hi, Diana here. Welcome to my blog and hope you like my sharing. I am a mother of 2 boys, 3 years old and a 1 year old. I dedicate my career in child development research and I focus on parenting tips, positive parenting, educational toys for my babies. Your time here means a lot to me! Diana A. Lucas

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