Sleep – or rather, lack of it – is a common problem for parents. For your toddler, the world is an exciting place with tons of new things to learn every day, so sleep can seem like a dull and unwanted interruption. At this age, your child will also realise that they’re an individual, and separate from mum and dad. So if you leave, they may fear being left alone for good – a scary thought indeed.

On top of all this, it is becoming apparent to your playful bundle of joy that playing up at bedtime is a great way to wind up the grown-ups. But don’t despair – peaceful nights are a few steps away.

Routine matters

The single most important thing you can do to ensure that your toddler, and the rest of the family, gets a good night’s sleep is to establish a simple and consistent bedtime routine. It’s up to you to develop your own regime, but it could go like this

  • At teamtime talk to your child about how they are going to get ready for bed now.
  • Play a quiet game, and talk about what you did today and any plans you have for tomorrow.
  • Give them a warm bath, put the lights on low, keep distractions to a minimum and clean their teeth.
  • Put pyjamas on them in their bedroom.
  • Finish with a story (again, nothing too exciting) or a gentle
  • song or rhyme.
  • Kiss and cuddle them and say ‘Goodnight’ or ‘I love you’ then leave the room with confidence and without fuss.

Time for a nap?

Toddlers need a daytime nap or two. Typically, a 1-year-old needs about an hour in the morning and in the afternoon. A 2-year-old usually needs an hour or so in the afternoon, but by the age of 3 most tots are fine with a short nap in the afternoon or none at all.

Somewhere between 15 and 18 months your child may reach a stage where one nap doesn’t seem enough but two is too much. The same may happen around the age of 3, when they can drop their nap altogether. It sometimes helps during these transition periods to make bedtime a bit earlier.
Even if your tot doesn’t actually sleep during the day, some quiet time after lunch should help to relax and revive them.

Can't sleep, won't sleep

Overexcitement or bad habits can quickly lead to sleep problems. Here's how to get round them.

Bedtimes routines can be helpful.

Issue - He won't go to bed.

  • Why? Bedtime strike is common at this age. Developmental changes can affect sleep patterns. And the sheer excitement of all the new things your tot is learning to do can make it hard to let go at the end of the day.


  • Establish a bedtime routine (see previous page) to help your little one get in the mood for sleep.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough exercise to tire them out in the day – but avoid overstimulation too close to bedtime.
  • Make sure the space where they sleep is nice.
  • Once you’ve put them to bed, say goodnight and leave the room quickly.
  • Be consistent. If your child keeps getting out of bed, gently help them back without fuss, chat or attention –
  • however many attempts it takes.
  • Don’t give in by bringing them into the living room or letting them watch TV.
  • Avoid them becoming overtired by ensuring they get a daytime nap (or two) if still needed.

Issue - She wakes in the night

  • Why? We all briefly surface as we go through cycles of lighter and deeper sleep, but toddlers sometimes wake up fully during one of the lighter cycles and find it hard to drop back off again.


  • Leave them alone for a short while to see if they can settle themselves.
  • If they don’t, go in and settle them down gently, then say ‘Goodnight’ firmly and leave the room. You may need to repeat this several times. Each time they cry, leave it a bit longer before you go in and calm them down.
  • Don’t give in, and whatever you do, don’t reward them for waking up by taking them out of their room.

Issue - She keeps coming into our bed

  • Why? One way toddlers can exert their growing independence is by getting out of their bed and coming into yours. Have there been any changes in your family routines?


  • During the day say to your child, ‘Everyone sleeps in their own bed at night.’ However tired you are, if they get up or come into your bed, take them back and settle them down gently.
  • Be prepared to repeat this. After a few nights they should get the idea. You might want to reward them for staying in bed by using a star chart.

Issue - He's scared of the dark

  • Why? At this age your little one is developing an active imagination.


  • Avoid scary TV programmes, computer games or stories.
  • Use a nightlight.
  • If they awake from a nightmare, stay with them for a bit and explain that it was just a dream.
  • If your child is waking regularly with nightmares, ask them if they are upset or worried about anything. A stressful event, such as starting nursery or the arrival of a new baby, may be the cause. Talk to your doctor or health visitor if their nightmares persist.
Last updated: 7 February 2018
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