What should I know about sleep and toddlers and preschoolers?
Toddlers: Most toddlers (children between the age of 1 and 3 years) need between 12 and 14 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. This may be split up between nighttime sleeping and a nap or two during the daytime. It may take several weeks of experimenting before you discover what works best for your toddler.
Preschoolers: Sleep helps your kids grow strong and healthy during their preschool years (ages 3 to 5). Most children during this age need between 11 and 13 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period and usually one daytime nap. Older children may not need any naps at all.
How do sleep needs change during the toddler and preschool years?
Toddlers: By the end of the second year, naps typically decrease to once a day lasting up to 3 hours. Most toddlers move from cribs to beds between the ages of 2 and 3. Toddlers often do not look forward to bedtime. They do not want to be separated from the parent/guardian or miss out on any of the fun activities they feel might be going on. Common sleep problems at this age include bedtime resistance, night awakening(s) and difficulty returning to sleep. Other problems can include nighttime fears and nightmares.
Preschoolers: Napping begins to trail off, although most preschoolers can still benefit from taking a nap. The best way to do this is to establish a set routine time for napping or simply quiet or relaxing time in the child’s bedroom. Even if your child can't sleep, try to set aside some "quiet time" in the early afternoon for your child to relax. Around an hour a day is a sufficient amount of time. Sleep problems are common during these preschool years. These problems can include resisting going to sleep and waking frequently at night. Also common during the preschool years are nighttime fears, nightmares, sleepwalking, and sleep terrors.
How can I help my toddler or preschooler sleep well?
There are a number of things you can do to establish an excellent bedtime routine to ensure that your toddler gets enough sleep. When setting up a bedtime routine, keep these things in mind:
- Stick to the same set bed times and wake up times each day. Don't short change nap time either – make sure that it does not occur too late in the day or that it is too brief – either of these will result in lack of a good night's sleep.
- Maintain a consistent bedtime routine. Establish calm and enjoyable activities in the 30 minutes right before bedtime, such as taking a bath or reading bedtime stories to help your child wind down. It is helpful to set clear limits as to how many books you will read or songs you will sing. Allow your child to pick out which pajamas he or she wishes to wear and which stuffed animal to take to bed, etc. This choice of security object (stuffed animal or blanket) helps your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and all through the night.
- Make sure the bedroom environment is quiet, cool, dark, and comfortable for sleeping. A nightlight or area light on the very lowest dimmer setting is fine. Playing soft, soothing music is fine. Remember to reserve the bed for sleeping only – it should not be used as a platform for playing. Television watching in the bedroom should not be allowed. Any other form of screen time (iPad, smart phones, etc.) should not be part of the bedroom environment. These can over-stimulate the child and make it harder for them to fall asleep later.
- Limit food and drink (especially any drinks containing caffeine) before bedtime. Remember, many clear beverages contain caffeine, so check the label.
- Tuck your child into bed in a sleepy but awake state. This will help your child learn to fall asleep on his or her own and help your child return to sleep again if he or she wakes up in the middle of the night.
- Preschoolers: If a preschooler has a bothersome night waking or nightmare, it is okay for him or her to call out or seek out Mom or Dad for comfort. However, once calmed down, Mom or Dad should return the child to his or her own bed. Surround the child with items of comfort, such as a favorite stuffed animal or soft blanket or other object that will allow the child to fall asleep again independently without the need to leave the bed and seek you out again.
Safety issues with toddlers
Toddlers are at an age where they are becoming increasingly aware and curious about their surroundings. Therefore, as the parents or guardians, you will need to be more cautious about your child's crib, what is placed in it, and its surroundings. For instance:
- Do not leave extra-large stuffed toys in the crib or leave on the bumper pads – your toddler can use these objects as a step to climb over the crib rail.
- Look for and remove objects with strings or ties that could accidentally end up wound around your child's neck.
- Look at any objects that might be too close to your child's crib and that your child might be able to reach from a standing position – such as wall hangings, curtains, window blinds, and dresser doilies.
- If you have such an active toddler, for safety reasons, it might be time to move him or her from a crib to a toddler bed.
When should I seek a doctor's help regarding sleep issues with my toddler or preschooler?
Contact a doctor if:
- Your child seems to have trouble breathing, snores, or makes noise when breathing or you have seen your child stop breathing while sleeping.
- Your child has unusual nighttime behaviors, unexpected number of awakenings or has significant nighttime fears that you are concerned about.
- Your feel your child's sleep problems are affecting daytime behavior.
Additional Sleep Information and Suggested Readings
- Sleepeducation.com and other educational links at American Academy of Sleep Medicine,
- The National Sleep Foundation,