Toddler Sleep Problems or Typical Toddler Behavior?

Toddler 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 your 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 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!)

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26 thoughts on “Toddler Sleep Problems or Typical Toddler Behavior?”

  1. I am really facing very difficulties with my two little kids as they don’t want to sleep at night. It has become a common phenomena in every night. But now I am feeling so much relieved after reading your article. Hopefully these tips will work for my toddlers as well. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    • @Aliva, thank you for writing to us. I am sorry you are struggling but I do hope the tips in the article help! If you need anything else, please feel free to contact us directly anytime at [email protected]. Hang in there!

  2. Any ideas what could be going on with kiddos who wake for literally hours on end at night but aren’t upset? I have twins who have been doing this forever (they’re currently 20 months but this has been going on since their first birthday). This happened when they took two naps and still now that they’re on one. It doesn’t seem to matter what time they go to bed, how much daytime sleep they got, what time they woke up that day, etc. They don’t wake on the same nights or at the same time so I know they aren’t waking each other up. One does it quite infrequently, the other is much more consistently (like 4+ times per week). They don’t cry or complain and I only know they’ve woken because I check the camera footage in the morning and see them sitting and babbling. Restless leg syndrome is mentioned in this article. Could that cause something like this? I’m at such a loss.

    • Hi Crystal,
      Thank you for your comment! I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with this night insomnia. Although there are certainly a few babies who need less sleep than the average for their age, and thus are awake more, more often we see a problem with the schedule or the bedroom environment. It would be hard to know without seeing a sleep and feeding log for them. If you suspect any kind of medical issue, it would be worth it to check in with their pediatrician, as you’re right: something like restless leg or a food allergy can cause sleep disturbances as well. I hope this helps – good luck!

      • We have sound machines and black out curtains in their room. There isn’t much I can do about their nap time as that’s set by daycare (1-2:45pm). They’re in their cribs from 8/8:15pm to 6:45/7am due to when I have to get them up and ready for daycare but they generally don’t falls asleep until 8:30/9:00. We tried an earlier bedtime for 2.5 weeks and that didn’t cut the nighttime wakings, only created a new problem of 4am wake ups on nights they actually slept through the night.

      • Hi Crystal,
        Thanks for writing back! It sounds like your daycare naptime is pretty late, so I’m not surprised they’re naturally falling asleep late at bedtime 🙁 Without being able to adjust the nap, or moving the morning wake time later to compensate, it doesn’t sound like there’s an easy fix to this issue. They may be dealing with sleep associations on top of the scheduling trouble too, I suppose. Is there anyway to talk to daycare about moving naptime earlier? I can’t believe you’re the only family dealing with a late bedtime because of their late naptime!

  3. My 3 1/2 year has all of a sudden stopped taking naps, cold turkey, there has been no transition. She has also stopped sleeping through the night. She wakes up in the early hours of 3AM crying out for mommy and wanting to get in our bed. She used to be a wonderful sleeper but now I’m worried because she may not be getting enough sleep! Her previoud nap would usually last around 2 hours. What is going on??

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for visiting The Baby Sleep Site – I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with your preschooler’s sleep! With any sudden sleep concern, we always recommend checking in with the pediatrician, just in case you’re dealing with an ear infection or other medical issue that is affecting sleep. If your daughter is healthy, it may be she’s just ready to drop the nap – 3 is a very common age to stop napping. You might like to read our article on dropping the nap to see if she’s ready, here:
      I hope this helps – good luck!

  4. My 2yr old was great at sleeping! He would fuss a little maybe for 15 min when I first put him down but then once asleep he would sleep for 12 hoours at a time sometimes! Then he got sick. We had to stay in the hospital for 4 days and he got use to me sleeping in the bed with him and nurses running to his aid at 3 in the morning waking him for breathing treatments. Now we are home and he is all better but will wake up 4 or 5 times a night screaming and bashing around for 45 min at a time. He cried and screamed for 2 hours straight the other night! The doctor simply shrugged and said it’s night terrors and sent me out the door but i really get the feeling it’s not because i can tell him to stop and sometimes he will. My mother stayed with us when we got back and would also run in the room at pick him up and rock him the moment she heard him move but he was use to just crying a few minutes and falling back asleep now he screams for hours. Shouuld I try sleep training again? I’d it night terrors? I’m so tired and at a loss it’s exhausting.

  5. @ Lacy – sounds like this may be part of the sleep regression that happens around 2 years (you can read more about it here: 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. 🙂

  6. 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!

  7. @ 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. 🙂

  8. 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!! 🙂

  9. @ 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: 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: You could also try a personalized sleep consultation package (, 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.

  10. @ 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: 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: It’s more comprehensive than the free guide. And of course, you could always purchase a consultation package (, 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 🙂

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