Toddler sleep problems

Toddlers can be very stubborn and it should not be surprising that 20-30% of toddlers (up to 3 years) suffer from common “sleep problems” and 20% of two year olds still wake up and cry most nights.

General Tips

  • Make sure your toddler gets enough physical exercise and fresh air during the day.
  • Avoid using TV or video as a babysitter, especially in the afternoon and evening.
  • Don’t be afraid of setting boundaries. Be consistent. Try to tell your toddler what you would like him to do, rather than telling him what you don’t want him to do.
  • Toddlers (and babies) like predictability and repetition.
  • Older children who are sleep deprived often complain of headaches and tummy aches.

And Off To Bed We Go…

  • When toddlers become over-tired, unlike adults, they can become hyperactive and bounce off the walls, due to secretion of adrenaline. Catch him and get him down before that happens!
  • Don’t let your toddler decide when he should go to bed. You decide.
  • One of the main causes of toddler sleep problems is because bedtime is too late.
  • Toddlers like to stall the whole going-to-bed process.
  • Be firm, stick to your bedtime routine, which is of the utmost importance at this age. Decide how many stories you will read, how many lullabies you will sing, and don’t be wheedled into doing more.
  • Rub his back when he is in bed. Tell a story and “illustrate” it on his back. This is a wonderfully calming bedtime ritual.
  • Dr. Marc Weissbluth (Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, p. 325) suggests that you let your toddler repeat after you the following sleep rules every night: At bedtime we…
  • stay in bed…
  • close our eyes…
  • stay very quiet…
  • and go to sleep!

Falling Asleep

  • Remember: over-tiredness can lead to neediness.
  • If your toddler wants you to lie with him until he is asleep, make a compromise – tell him that you would like to lie with him, but you can’t (think of a good reason), so you will sit with him and hold his hand. If he makes a big fuss, leave. You can offer to come back again on your terms.
  • You can “negotiate” with a toddler who has a fair command of language, by saying, “Would you like Mummy to sit with you / sing a song / tell a story? OK, if you lie down and close your eyes, I’ll do that.” If he gets up or starts talking again, repeat what you expect of him. If he doesn’t keep his side of the bargain, leave for a minute or so, then come back and repeat what you want him to do.
  • If he keeps coming out of the room, put up a safety gate. It’s less scary for a toddler than a closed door.
  • Popping in and out works well with toddlers. You can tell him that you have to go and do something, but will be back in a minute. Tell him to wait quietly until you come back. You can repeat this trick a few times. Sometimes toddlers fall asleep while waiting for you.

Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers (Protea Books, 2006) offers parents a practical, baby-friendly approach to establishing good sleep habits and solving baby and toddler sleep problems. The book can be ordered from and in bookstores nationwide.

Erica Neser is a Breastfeeding Counsellor (UNICEF) and Infant Massage Instructor (IAIM) who has been working at two busy baby clinics for the past 12 years and runs a private practice from home. She also has a BA degree in Psychology and is trained as an Aromatherapist and Postnatal Depression Group Leader. She is the author of Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers (Protea Books, 2006) and Coping with Crying (self published, 2008). Erica often gives talks to groups of parents or health professionals, contributes to parenting magazines and websites, and has participated in talks on radio and television. Erica has three children - Roald (16), Aniek (14) and Mila (7). For more information, please visit

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