Toddler Sleep Problems or Typical Toddler Behavior?

203 Flares Filament.io 203 Flares ×

Toddler behavior sleep problems
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.

Nicole’s Note:
“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.

Nicole’s Note:
“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.

Nicole’s Note:
“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.

203 Flares Twitter 18 Facebook 62 Google+ 6 Pin It Share 117 Email -- Buffer 0 Filament.io 203 Flares ×
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Toddler Sleep Problems or Typical Toddler Behavior?

  1. Frannie says:

    I need help! :) I’ve used your website since my little girl was born and your schedules and articles have been priceless for us. By simply using your strategies I think I’ve avoided any serious sleep issues. Until now. She is 16 months old and the last month sleep has been pretty bad (for us, at least, we are used to sleeping!). She goes to bed by 7 pm, and used to be up between 6:30 and 7 am, with no significant night wakings. She has also recently transitioned to one nap around 12, that lasts for 60-90 minutes. She used to wake up, fuss or talk, but go back to sleep on her own quickly. For the last month, she has been waking up between 1-4 times most nights and might be up for an hour, crying and restless. This week she’s woken up at 5 am three mornings in a row and won’t go back to sleep. In the beginning, I would check on her, to be sure she wasn’t too hot/cold/wet, etc. Now I just let her cry, so I’m not reinforcing any night wakings. I am just at a loss. Eventually she goes back to sleep and so do I, but we’re losing precious night sleep. I think some of this was due to teeth, she got 6 teeth at once over the last few weeks, but they all seem to be in now and we’re still having the night wakings. I’ve tried putting her to bed earlier, as this is what I would have done before, thinking the night wakings were about being overtired. Maybe I just didn’t put her down early long enough? Maybe she needs a later bedtime? I’m SO confused. She goes right to sleep at 7pm and seems tired. If I try to put her down early she usually cries and tosses and turns for 30 minutes or so and then still wakes at night. Any suggestions? Are we going through the 18 month sleep regression early? I should note, she’s not often “screaming,” more of a restless cry. At the beginning, if I would go in, she would want to cuddle or play and would settle right down, so it made me think there was nothing “wrong.” Thanks for any advice!!

  2. Jennifer says:

    This article could not have come at a better time. We are currently having sleep problems with our two and a half-year old and have been trying to decide if there was a problem or it was just a phase he was going through. Truthfully he has never been a great sleeper, but I think we may have gotten derailed over the holidays, followed by an illness, and have never quite gotten back on track. Looks like we need to start over with the basics and go from there!

  3. Amy says:

    Hi–Will the toddler ebook address difficulty getting your child to stay in bed in the morning? I have a 2 1/2-year old who goes to sleep around 8 and sleeps until around 5. At first we thought he was just done sleeping, but his attitude and later morning crankiness makes it clear he really needed to go back to sleep. He calls for us to come into his room when he wakes up, but he refuses to go back to sleep, even if we suggest he come into our bed with us. Thanks for your help!

  4. Kirstie says:

    My 2 and a bit year old is so tired at night, sits so quietly nearly asleep until we put him to bed. And then BAM! He’s suddenly wide awake and stays awake for 1-2 hours! He’s so tired the next day but we just don’t know how to get him to sleep. He goes to bed at 7pm, would it be worthwhile putting him to bed later? It’s like he gets his second (or third) wind at bedtime. Actually, he’s tired all morning and then he’s much more awake in the afternoon/evening. I need to swap that around!

  5. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Frannie — to my (untrained) eye, it looks like you’re handling this well! It could definitely be the 18 month regression hitting a bit early. Or teeth. Or the onset of a cold. I know none of that is very comforting, though. :( Since it sounds like your daughter is normally a great sleeper, I imagine this is a phase. Maybe try to ride it out a little longer? If you get totally overwhelmed, though, and want help, you could always try a basic sleep consultation (https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/) You seem like you have all the fundamentals of healthy sleep down pat, so you might just need someone to walk you through this particular bump in the road.

    So sorry you and your little girl are struggling, Frannie! Let us know how this turns out.

    @ Jennifer — “back to basics” sounds like a good plan! In truth, you’ll probably have to do this many more times before your son is grown. Nicole wrote a post recently about having to “re-train” her oldest son (who’s in first grade), after he got into the habit of refusing to go to bed due to being afraid.

    Thanks for commenting, Jennifer! Let us know how your back to basics plan works out. :)

  6. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Amy — if the early rising is the only issue, you may want to try the Shifting Schedules e-book (http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-waking-too-early/) That book is written specifically for babies and toddlers who are struggling with late bedtimes or early rising.

    Then again, if your son is struggling with other sleep issues, too, you may want to try the toddler book. It covers a wider range of sleep topics.

    Hope this helps!

    @ Kirstie — if you’re finding your son’s schedule is a bit backwards, you might want to try the Shifting Schedules e-book, too: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-waking-too-early/. It talks about how to cure late bedtimes/early rising. May be just the thing you need to get your son on a better sleep schedule.

    Let us know what ends up working for you! And thanks for commenting.

  7. Rajani says:

    I don’t have a good sleeper, she has never been. Ferberizing thrice has been in vain and now the idea to put her down is by sitting besides her crib till she dozes off. She is 18 months old and is put to bed at 7:30. At times she goes to sleep easily, at times she takes hours to sleep. She gets up once on a good day, twice thrice on a bad day but worst nights are when she gets up and she is “UP” for hours in row, until I give her Benadryl. I feel helpless. She takes one 2 hour nap at 12:00 and is a fairly good napper. I have no idea if she has any medical issues (doc says she is good) or routine issues or what. My Ped recommends giving her “Melatonin” and I am not comfortable. He recommends “Ferber”. I can not do anymore of the crying. Any suggestion/advice is helpful. I have read many of ur books, played with sleep time a lot, seems like nothing works for us…..Do you advice “Melatonin” to a 18 month old??

  8. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Rajani — if your doctor is okay with Melatonin, then that’s something you could consider. Of course, you need to be comfortable with it, too! But if it’s been approved by your doctor, then you can probably consider it safe.

    In terms of helping your daughter sleep better — it sounds like sleep has never been an easy thing for her. It also sounds like you’ve tried to work on the problem yourself, with the help of books, but to no avail.

    Have you considered a sleep consultation? (https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/) These can be a great solution for those parents for whom the “do it yourself” sleep training solutions don’t work.

    Just something to consider. Let us know what you ends up working for you, Rajani! :)

  9. Maraleze says:

    Hallo! This was a very interesting read as my little one is now 19 mnths old. I have a question: He was sick and our routine was a bit odd with us moving house etc. We then made the fault to go to bed with him. Now I am pregnant again and we would like him to get in the routine of going to bed on his own again. We are struggling a bit with this one and he screams when we want to put him to bed. We did buy him a nightlight to help with the dark. Any other ideas? Crying it out, going on with going to bed with him???????

  10. RaeJean T. says:

    My 2 1/2 yr old daughter SUDDENLY stopped sleeping thru the night at the beginning of Nov.(it’s now FEB!) No environment changes, no illnesses, no poddy issues, no nightmares, not on the bottle anymore. Room temperature and humidity levels are good. She goes to sleep fine but wakes up 1-4 times a night asking for milk in her sippy cup. If she doesn’t get it, the crying and screaming starts. I’ve put a sippy with water in her toddler bed and told her why it’s there. But she doesn’t want it. She wants milk. She eats well all day and I’ve started watering her milk down so maybe it’s not as tasty and she’ll stop asking for it. I’ve even tried soft music on all night. Nothing is working and I’m so exhausted I can’t fully enjoy her during the day. I don’t know what else to do.

  11. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Maraleze — Sorry to hear you’re going through this. You must be so tired right now, what with being sleep deprived AND pregnant.

    It sounds to me like continuing to sleep with your son isn’t a good solution. I say that because, based on your comment, it sounds like co-sleeping isn’t working for you. And that’s fine!

    In terms of how to get your little guy sleeping on his own — have you checked out our free toddler sleep guide? You can access it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/toddler-sleep-training-secrets-free-ebook/ That’s a good place to start; it’ll offer some basic guidelines on how to get started with sleep training your toddler.

    If you need more help than the free guide offers, you could always check out our toddler e-book: http://www.toddlersleepswell.com. It’s more comprehensive than the free guide. And of course, you could always purchase a consultation package (https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/), and have a sleep consultant walk you through the process of teaching your son to sleep in his own bed again.

    Let us know what ends up working out for you, Maraleze! And thanks for commenting :)

  12. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ RaeJean T. — So sorry to hear you and your little girl are struggling with sleep right now! No fun :(

    While there’s nothing wrong with a toddler waking up sometimes in the middle of the night and needing a drink, waking 1-4 times EVERY night is definitely excessive. No wonder you’re tired!

    In terms of how to handle this: have you checked out our free toddler guide yet? You can find it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/toddler-sleep-training-secrets-free-ebook/ That’s a good place to start; it’ll offer some basic guidelines on how to get started with sleep training your toddler.

    If you need more help than the free guide offers, you could always check out our toddler e-book: http://www.toddlersleepswell.com. You could also try a personalized sleep consultation package (https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/), and have a sleep consultant help you develop a sleep training plan for your daughter.

    Let us know how this develops, RaeJean! And thanks for commenting.

  13. Frannie says:

    I wanted to check in, my email is above! My little girl had been waking at night and we were all exhausted. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I really think it was a combination of development, teething, and changes in her life. She’s one who really shows this in her sleep. After two colds AND a bout with the flu, she seems to be back sleeping through the night. She has night wakings of course, but mostly seems to just sort through it herself. We just kept doing what we had been doing and eventually got through it… until the next big developmental leap/sickness/change!! :)

  14. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Frannie — yay! Thanks for this update. SO glad to hear that all is well (for now, anyway), and that you’re back to sleep-filled nights. :)

  15. Lacy says:

    What a timely article as our nearly 22 month old has for the past 3 weeks been very hit or miss on naps. On bad days she screams bloody murder the instant I put her in the crib and continues to stand and scream without any break. This is I spite of doing things the same way and at the same time every day. I’ve tried leaving her for a full hour, I’ve tried going back in and telling her it is time to sleep. One time my husband was able to rock her and she slept in his arms for an hour but she won’t do that with me and it’s not sustainable anyway. We put her down early on the days she doesn’t nap and she typically crashes right away so she is catching up a bit but overall I think she is getting less sleep than she needs. She’s always been a poor daytime sleeper but this seems extreme and certainly too early to give up naps. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks!

  16. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Lacy – sounds like this may be part of the sleep regression that happens around 2 years (you can read more about it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/toddlers/5-things-about-2-year-old-toddler-sleep/) If she’s normally a decent sleeper, then this is likely just a phase. I’d suggest sticking to your normal routines as much as you can. On days when she screams, you might try going in every __ minutes to give her a quick hug and say ‘Time for sleep!’ in a cheery voice, as a way to let her know that you’re not ignoring her, but that you’re not going to give in, either. I did that with my kids when they went through the 2 year regression, and it helped (at least, it did for me!) And absolutely put her down early on days she misses the nap – good call there.

    You might also try giving her a small choice – maybe put a few books and a toy or 2 in her crib and say, “You don’t have to sleep, you can choose to play quietly” and that way, she may feel like she has a bit of control over what’s happening.

    Hope these suggestions help, Lacy! Keep us posted on what happens. :)