If you’ve ever spent an evening with a toddler who has skipped a nap, you will agree with pretty much everyone that toddlers need to sleep. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind toddler sleep and how to develop and refine routines that support this much-needed rest for both toddlers and their parents!
Understand the Basics of Toddler Sleep
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep per day (naps and night-time sleep combined). Understanding why a toddler needs this much sleep is vital and will help you stay motivated as you decode your own toddler and their sleeping habits. This optimum amount of sleep supports a toddler’s:
- ability to focus
- ability to learn
- general mental and physical health
In contrast, a lack of sleep is linked to potential health concerns like high blood pressure, obesity and even mood disorders. Insufficient sleep raises the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the blood which can make it harder to fall asleep – talk about a vicious cycle!
Create an Environment that Supports Toddler Sleep
Toddlers are like little sponges soaking in everything around them and responding accordingly. One of the best ways to support toddler sleep is to send signals to their little brains that communicate “sleep is imminent.”
Considering the various senses carefully can help you unlock far more sleep signals than you might’ve thought possible. And the more sleep signals your toddler receives, the greater your chances are of success (although there are never any guarantees).
Science has proven that darkness and sleep are intricately linked. Darkness triggers a gland in your body to start the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a sleep hormone that regulates the body’s natural sleep-awake cycle, which enhances the quality of your sleep. So keep your toddler’s sleep space as dark as you can. Investing in some block-out curtains or shades is a great start.
A darker space will also reduce distractions and visual stimulation. Avoid placing a mobile over your toddler’s cot/bed.
A quiet room or some gentle white noise in the background is recommended. Avoid sudden, loud noises as much as possible.
The temperature of the room is a major player in many toddler’s experiences of sleep. Do what you can to keep the room comfortable either by adjusting the air temperature or the toddler’s clothing. Clothing should be comfortable without any irritating labels or elastics. Some toddlers respond well to a sleep sac; this is especially true for little ones who enjoyed being swaddled as infants.
Encourage the use of a comfort item. Holding a particular soft toy can be a wonderful sleep association with the sense of touch. Where possible, make these items available only at sleep time.
Develop a Toddler Sleep Routine that Works
You’ve set the stage for your toddler’s sleep, now it’s time to develop a routine that will make nap time and bedtime as gentle and stress-free as possible.
Time it right
Knowing how many hours of sleep your little one needs makes it easier to work out a sleep routine that will work for you and your unique situation.
Start with bedtime – for example, if you would like your little one to settle at 7:30 PM and wake up at 6:30 AM (11 hours of sleep) then one nap during the day would probably meet his/her sleep needs. Consider your family schedule and decide on a window of time that makes sense for that daytime nap. Avoid late afternoon naps as your little one may not be tired enough to settle for their night time sleep.
Each family is different and each child is unique. Your little one may need slightly more or less sleep than the average. Closely observe your toddler during the day, looking out for signs of tiredness (more emotional, quiet, hyperactivity) to help you time their nap’s. You might need to squeeze in two shorter naps during the day. Figuring out what works best for you may take some trial and error. Don’t give up!
Tire them out!
Toddlers need to move their bodies and spend their energy.
Incorporating exercise, preferably outdoors will make a huge difference when putting your little one to sleep. Encourage running, playing with balls, chasing bubbles or even just rough-housing on the lawn. Physically tired toddlers sleep better.
Food for sleep
A hungry toddler (or anyone, really) will not sleep well. Make sure your toddler is taking in enough calories (and fluids!) during the day to sustain them through the night. Specific foods contain nutrients that support sleep so it might help to include some of the following into your toddler’s diet:
- dairy products
- healthy fats
Going to sleep, step by step
Your bedtime/nap time routine will start long before you lay your little one down in their cot. Choose a sequence of steps that suit your family routine and make them the foundation on which to build your toddler’s sleep routine. Here are some ideas of key steps you might want to include in a bedtime routine:
- Dinner time
- Bath time
- Story time
- Singing time
Depending on how long each step takes, your bedtime routine may start up to two hours before your child actually enters la-la land.
Make it fun
This might sound like an impossible task depending on your history with your toddler at bedtime but working at making bedtime fun is definitely worth it!
Once you’ve decided on the steps that work for you, find ways to make them as relaxed and gentle as possible. Your toddler will sense your mood and react accordingly so try to be relaxed and cheerful (even if you have to fake it a bit).
Be consistent and flexible
Even though times may vary depending on the demands of the day, following the same sequence of events will send the correct, consistent signals to your toddler that sleep is going to happen soon.
Ask for help
What if you’ve set the scene, your toddler has had enough exercise, calories and a fun and predictable bedtime routine and they still won’t sleep? You might need some help.
First, eliminate any health concerns at the doctors – ears, tonsils or breathing concerns can all interrupt a healthy sleep routine. If that doesn’t solve the problem, a toddler sleep expert would be a great person to contact.
Developing a plan to monitor and support your toddlers sleep is a worthwhile investment of your energy. Be patient with the process, don’t give up. Sleep is right around the corner.