Understanding your toddler's sleep

Toddler sleeping at the dining room table

What happens when my toddler falls asleep?

Just like adults, toddlers go through four phases of sleep:

  • drowsiness
  • light sleep
  • dream sleep, also known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
  • deep sleep

Throughout the night, your toddler will pass in and out of these phases. As he transitions between them, he's likely to wake up briefly. You may have heard him mumble and turn over in the middle of the night, sometimes banging his arms against the side of the cot, only to drift back off.

How can I help my toddler stay asleep at night?

Making sure he falls asleep in his own bed is a good start to ensuring he gets a good night's sleep. If he drifts off in your arms or watching the television, then he'll associate this with sleep and want it when he wakes in the night!

If your toddler sees familiar objects around him when he wakes during the night, he'll feel comforted and find it easy to relax back to sleep. He'll probably only fully wake if there's something out of place. This is one reason why toddlers tend to be more wakeful when they're in strange surroundings or on holiday.

A consistent bedtime routine will help your toddler learn how to settle himself to sleep. Choose quiet, relaxing activities, such as a bath and a story, and try to do them at the same time every night.

Your routine should end with you placing your toddler in his bed or cot, giving him a goodnight kiss, and leaving. If he cries, go back for another kiss after a few minutes. Repeat this, leaving it a little longer before you return each time. You should eventually find that he's fast asleep when you go in.

If your toddler can get out of bed, he may follow you when you leave his room. When this happens, just pop him quietly back in his bed, and give him another goodnight kiss.

You may find this frustrating to repeat this over and over again. But if you're consistent he'll soon learn that he should be in bed.

The important thing is that he feels reassured and safe. It may be difficult for you to stick to the same routine night after night, but if you're able to stay firm, he should quickly get better at settling himself to sleep.

How much sleep does my toddler need during the day?

As your toddler grows, he'll start to need less sleep during the day. By the time he's about 18 months, he's likely to drop to just one nap a day. Don't worry if he's not quite there yet, some toddlers take a little longer to make this transition.

On average, your toddler's nap should be about two hours at 18 months, an hour and a quarter at two years, and just one hour at three years.

Every toddler is different, though. Some will sleep much longer than this in the day, and some won't nap at all. Learn your toddler's cues for when he's not getting enough sleep, and change his nap and bedtime routine if necessary.

If you can, time your toddler's nap for shortly after lunch. This will refresh him ready for the afternoon, but won't affect when he tires at bedtime.

How can I stop my toddler from waking up so early?

It can be heart-warming when your toddler calls for you from his cot or comes into your room for a morning cuddle. Unfortunately, his interpretation of morning may be very different from yours. It may even be causing you sleep deprivation.

Your toddler goes to bed much earlier than you, so he may well have had all the sleep he needs by 5.30am. Although it can be frustrating, early-morning rising is perfectly normal.

There's no point in trying to get your toddler to sleep for longer if he's already had all the shut-eye he needs. However, you may be able to teach him to stay in his bed without disturbing you for a while.

The trick is to provide a clear clue as to when morning-time actually begins. Set an alarm for when you're happy for your toddler to get up. If you like, you can buy a children's sleep-training clock that lights up or dances at your chosen time.

If your toddler wakes and begins to cry or grizzle before the alarm signals the start of the day, go into him briefly. Tell him that it's still night-time, and that he needs to wait for his clock, then leave again. Your toddler should soon catch on that it's not morning until his clock tells him.

Discover what to do if your toddler keeps stalling at bedtime.
Last reviewed: May 2015

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It is very sad that some of this advice is basically emotional neglect that could have serious implications for the long term mental health of the child...
I agree that a good sleep routine for the baby can help a lot in ensuring that parents get good night sleep. Although there's a lot in there that I don't agree with..
To be honest, some of the other commenters are right here. It is *not* okay to assume that your toddler will be fine when left by themselves. What if they have growing or teething pains?! What if they're poorly? Autistic? Developmentally behind their peers? Have nightmares? This is stupid. There is NO correct way to parent, and no-one knows our children like we do. So, fellow mums, go with your gut instinct. Shame on you baby center son is 4 and grinds his teeth at night. Should i be worried??????
Wow, nothing like putting the parents needs first! This article is sad, it doesn't consider the needs of the child at all, just ensuring the parents get more sleep, which is unfair. If your child needs you at bedtime then they need you, just because it happens to be 'at night' doesn't mean they need you any less than during the day. Young children still need reassurance, cuddles and love throughout the night too, just like adults do. It's sad that such this article tells parents that the way to 'solve' sleep problems is to leave their child alone and teach them not to get up before the parents are ready.... This sounds like part time parenting to me. Shame on you baby centre for not giving alternatives.
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