If you have a toddler at home, then you know toddler behavior can often seem downright crazy. From running around naked to eating the dog’s food to peeing in their dresser drawers (yes, this actually happened at my house…). Toddlers tend to act in ways that make even the most veteran, experienced parents shake their heads and say “What?!”
Sometimes, though, it can be hard to distinguish between “normal” toddler behavior and behavior that signals some kind of larger problem or deeper issue. This can be especially true when it comes to our toddler’s sleeping habits.
Maybe your toddler throws huge tantrums every night before bed. Maybe your little guy has “jack-in-the-box” syndrome and pops out of bed every 10 minutes for hours on end. Or, maybe your little girl is plagued with nightmares that make it impossible for her to get a good night’s sleep.
What’s considered “normal” bedtime behavior for a toddler, and what’s a sign of a more serious sleep problem?
Typical Toddler Behaviors
First, let’s take a look at what kind of behaviors are considered typical for toddlers:
- Your toddler throws tantrums: Very normal! Starting between 18 and 24 months, our toddlers start to develop their own strong feelings and opinions (what they want to eat, what they want to wear, what toy they want to play with), but they don’t have the intellectual and verbal skills to discuss these preferences with us. The result? When things don’t go their way, they use tantrums as a means of communication. Tantrums before bed can also be quite normal. Many toddlers won’t like the idea of stopping play and doing something “boring” (as Nicole’s son puts it!) like going to bed.
- Your toddler refuses to obey: A general refusal to obey is also really common in the toddler years (and often goes hand-in-hand with tantrums). Remember, your toddler is pretty powerless — you, the parent, are calling all the shots. Shouting “No!” at every turn and refusing to obey even your simplest request is just your toddler’s way of trying to exert control. Therefore, if your toddler’s refusing to obey your bedtime or nap time instructions (like “STAY IN BED!”), you can rest assured that it’s normal.
- Your toddler has nighttime fears and nightmares: It’s completely normal for your toddler to start having lots of nighttime fears. You might find that your little one suddenly wants to sleep with the light on, or wants you to barricade the closet door against monsters. And you may discover during this stage that your toddler starts to wake during the night as a result of nightmares. This is very standard toddler behavior.
- Your toddler is going through sleep regressions: There are two sleep regressions you’ll have to contend with during your child’s toddler years: the 18 month regression and the two-year regression. Both of these sleep regressions can be traced to developmental milestones that are happening to your toddler, and both are quite normal.
“If there was a toddler job description, ‘testing limits’ would be on it. The whole point is to have an independent grown up one day and it starts early! And, their requests aren’t always logical or rational. Maturity does change your toddler from one who cries for 20 minutes that he can’t have the red cup to not caring what kind of cup he has as long as he has something to drink.”
Toddler Behaviors That Can Signal A More Serious Sleep Problem
Some toddlers’ bedtime behaviors are more extreme. And these can be a sign of a more serious, underlying sleep problem. While it’s usually fine to ignore normal nap time and bedtime behavior (like tantrums before bed), you probably won’t want to ignore some of these more serious problems:
- Your toddler regularly doesn’t get enough nighttime and nap time sleep: It’s one thing for toddlers to resist bedtime or nap time, but if you’re finding that your toddler is routinely missing out on the sleep he needs, that’s a problem. Toddlers should be sleeping 10-12 hours each night (depending on age), and taking between one and two naps (of at least an hour each) during the day. If your toddler is regularly getting less than that, it can start to impact her growth, development, and behavior.
This kind of sleeplessness could be a sign of an underlying sleep issue (like Restless Leg Syndrome or sleep apnea). It can also be a sign of a nutritional deficiency (like a magnesium or iron deficiency.) If you suspect an underlying medical issue might be to blame, take your toddler to see a healthcare provider.
Of course, this can also be a sign that your toddler is in need of some sleep coaching (especially if your toddler has never slept through the night, or has never taken a decent nap!) Many parents assume, when their children are babies, that they will outgrow their sleep issues. However, we’ve talked to enough parents of toddlers over the years to know that’s not always the case. If your little guy or little girl has been waking multiple times each night for years, it’s time to teach your toddler how to sleep through the night.
(Do note that it’s very normal for you toddler to get less sleep during a sleep regression. It’s when your toddler is regularly getting less sleep than is recommended that it becomes an issue.)
- Your toddler is having night terrors: Nightmares and nighttime fears are standard, but true night terrors are something else altogether. During a night terror, your child will seem to be awake (her eyes may be open, or he may be sitting up in bed and shouting), but you’ll find that your toddler doesn’t really “wake up.” You’ll also be unable to comfort your toddler for the first few minutes of a night terror. These episodes can be as terrifying for parents as they are for toddlers.
If your toddler’s night terrors are few and far between, then they’re probably not cause for serious concern. But if the night terrors are a regular event, and they’re interfering with your toddler’s sleep, you may want to make a trip to see a healthcare provider. There are currently no treatments for night terrors, but there are steps you can take to manage and prevent night terrors at home.
“One important note is that sometimes lack of sleep is directly related to your toddler’s behavior. With my son, I ALWAYS saw a rise in tantrums and defiance when he didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Sleep can’t cure all toddler behavior, but lack of sleep can definitely make your days more tantrum-prone (and exhausting)!”
How To Tell if Your Toddler’s Bedtime Behavior is Typical or Not
If you’re trying to determine whether your toddler’s behavior falls in the “Typical” or “Not-So-Typical” category, ask yourself these questions:
- Is my toddler getting the sleep he needs? If the answer is yes, then you can consider any bedtime tantrums or disobedience to be ordinary toddler behavior. Yes, it may be driving you up a wall, but it’s likely nothing to be overly concerned about. If the answer is no, however, then don’t ignore the problem. You’ll need to take steps to help your toddler overcome his sleep issues and start getting the naps and nighttime sleep he needs.
- Is this a phase? If your toddler normally sleeps well, but has had a few days/weeks of sleeplessness, then you can probably chalk it up to being a phase (especially if you’re in the 18 or 24 month window; if that’s the case, you’re probably smack in the middle of a sleep regression.) However, if your toddler’s sleeplessness is a regular affair around your house, and has been a long-term problem, it’s not a phase. Rather, it’s a problem that needs to be corrected through planning and sleep training.
- Are my parental instincts telling me something else is going on? Moms and Dads, hear this: your instincts are powerful things. If you have a feeling that there’s something serious underlying your toddler’s sleep problems, or that there may be a medical issue involved, don’t ignore it. Remember, you know your toddler better than anyone else, so if you have concerns, act on them.
“What’s funny is that my younger son was sooo laid back, especially compared to my first (who inspired The Baby Sleep Site). But, one day, I had to ask myself ‘What happened to my laid back son??’ A boy who once happily went upstairs when I said ‘nap time’ started to say ‘Noooo!’ It turned out it wasn’t a phase. He simply became more aware that it was more fun to play. His toughest years were actually 3 to 4 1/2 years old whereas his brother’s was 2 1/2 to 4 (and I was sooo happy I was already pregnant with his brother lest he surely would have been an only child!). ‘Terrible Twos’ is a misnomer.”
If your toddler’s behavior falls in the “Typical” category, then don’t spend too much time worrying about it. Instead, practice good discipline. Set firm nap time and bedtime boundaries for your toddler, and then enforce them. Work to establish a good routines; these can help create a sense of predictability around nap time and bedtime, and may eliminate some battles.
However, if your toddler’s behavior falls in the “Not So Typical” category, then figure out what action you’re going to take. If necessary, visit a healthcare provider, especially if you know (or even have a feeling) that something medical may be going on. If you know the problem’s not a medical one, but rather that your toddler is in dire need of sleep training, then take that first step on the road to better sleep for your toddler (and for you!)
Do you have a toddler at home? Have you struggled with frustrating nap time and bedtime behaviors? What solutions have worked for your family? Share your tips with other parents!
Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of Toddler Sleep Secrets, our e-Book offering tips to help your toddler sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.