Toddler Sleep Problems

Erica Neser is a UNICEF-trained Breastfeeding Consultant and Infant Massage Instructor with the International Association of Infant Massage. She has a BA degree in Psychology and is trained as an Aromatherapist, Postnatal Depression Group Leader, and Infant CPR Instructor. She has been featured in radio talks, contributes to baby and women’s magazines, and often speaks at parenting workshops and to groups of health professionals. She has been working as a breastfeeding consultant and teaching baby massage at two busy baby clinics for ten years. She is the co-author of the IAIM (South Africa) Baby Massage Parents’ Manual. She lives in Stellenbosch with her three young children, who have all learnt to sleep well.


Extract from: Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers
by Erica Neser (Protea Books, 2006)

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, and stick to your bedtime routine, which is of the utmost importance at this age. Decide how many stories you will read, and 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…

1. stay in bed…
2. Close our eyes…
3. Stay very quiet…
4. 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.

– Alternatively (for a bigger child) you can tell him the door will stay open as long as he stays in bed. If he gets up, the door will be closed. (Leave a night light on and leave his favourite fluffy toy with him.) Open the door after one minute.

– 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.

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*Important : The information provided is for information purposes only. No medical diagnosis or prescription can be inferred or is implied. Please consult your doctor for medical advice.

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