Toddler bedtime mistakes

Many of the common baby bedtime mistakes parents make, are carried through to toddlerhood. Whether your toddler’s sleep issues have always been there, or whether they are a new phenomenon, with a bit of work and perseverance, they will soon be a distant bad memory! Ann Richardson, author of Toddler Sense, discusses the common bedtime mistakes we make when our children are toddlers.

The toddler years are fraught with sleep disruptions. If you are battling to get your toddler to settle at bedtime you are probably making one of the following bedtime mistakes:

  1. Extended awake times and misinterpreting your toddlers’ signals.

Just as babies get over stimulated with too much input into their sensory system, so do toddlers. When your toddler is exposed to stimulation (sensory input), her behaviour will vary depending on how her nervous system interprets the input, as well as how much time she has spent awake since her last sleep. Telltale signs that your toddler is reaching overload and is ready for a sleep include:

  • finger, hand or thumb sucking
  • decreased eye contact with you
  • excessive mouthing on objects
  • nose picking, fidgeting, plucking at clothing
  • whining
  • wanting to lie down

These signs are often misinterpreted as bad behaviour or naughtiness, and are easily missed. Monitor how much time your toddler spends awake between naps during the day, and facilitate a sleep when that time is up. (see table below).


0-6 weeks40 – 60 minutes18 – 20 hours
6 – 12 weeks60 – 90 minutes16 – 18 hours
3 – 6 months1 – 1 ½ hours14 – 18 hours
6 – 9 month2 hours14 – 18 hours
9 – 12 months2 ½ hours14 – 16 hours
12 – 15 months3 hours14 – 15 hours
15 – 18 months3 – 3 ½ hours13 – 15 hours
18 – 24 months3 ½ – 4 hours13 – 14 hours
2 – 3 years4 – 5 hour13 – 14 hours
3 – 4 years5 – 7 hours13 – 14 hours
4 – 5 years7 – 12 hours13 – 14 hours
  1. Not putting your child to bed in her ‘sleep zone’

Toddlers need to have their own space, and sleep space is interconnected with physical and emotional boundaries. Encouraging your child to foster some independence from you in the sleep zone paves the way for a sense of security with his own separateness. It is a good idea to separate your child’s’ play zone from his sleep zone so that he does not get confused. Even if you choose to have your toddler sleep in a ‘family bed’, be sure it is calming and consistent.

  1. Not sticking to a bedtime routine

Toddlers thrive on routine, so having the identical bedtime routine every night will soon become a trigger to him to start shutting down to a calmer state. Try to keep this time of the day calm and quiet.

  1. Keeping her up too late

Keeping your toddler up late at night in the hope that she will be so tired that she will sleep better is a recipe for disaster. We already know that overtiredness and sensory overload impact on her ability to shut down effectively without assistance. So, it’s early to bed (between 6 & 7 pm).

  1. Staying with your toddler until she falls asleep

If your toddler is unable to go to sleep by herself at bedtime (and is unable to put herself back to sleep when she wakes in the night) and expects you to interact with her by tickling, stroking, or lying with her, this behaviour may soon take its toll on your family life. As long as you continue to do what she wants, she will never learn how to self calm and put herself to sleep without help.

Follow these simple strategies:

  • Take control of the situation – set clear boundaries about sleep time.
  • At bedtime, always tell her that she is safe and loved.
  • Re-enforce a ‘sleep friend’ such as a security blanket or soft toy – remind her to seek comfort from this object should she wake in the night.
  • Keep a dim light in the room so that she is able to recognize her sleep zone.
  • If she is still in a cot, adopt the controlled crying strategy

If she is able to talk, it is then easier to negotiate with her about sleep time. Try the following strategies:

  • always acknowledge how she feels (say “I know you want me to lie with you”)
  • then “mirror” the feeling (say “I would like to lie with you too”)
  • then give her a reason for your decision (say “I can’t lie with you, I have a sore head”)
  • Offer an alternative solution such as saying to her “I know what: I will sit on the chair next to your bed”.
  • Gradually wean yourself away from her by moving further away from her, then start to pop in an out of the room (always come back though).
  • If she pushes beyond the boundary that you have set, by arguing and crying, move to the next stage which is to threaten to leave the room unless she stops arguing with you. If she complies, stay with her and give her an extra hug, but then try to leave again after a minute or two.
  • If she persists in her arguing and crying, walk your talk and go!
  • Go back and reassure her after a minute or two, then repeat the process.
  • Gradually extend the amount of time spent out of her room, so that she is on her own for longer and longer periods of time.
  • Go at your own pace, but be consistent in your approach so you don’t confuse her with mixed messages.
  1. Offering night bottles

If your toddler is healthy and thriving, she will not need any feeds in the night. Many toddlers cannot put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night (should they wake) unless they have a bottle of milk, juice or water. Apart from the disruptive sleep for all, frequent night feeding at this age can cause teeth decay, ear infections, and delay potty training. A sodden nappy from excessive liquid intake can also cause night wakings. All good enough reasons to stop night feeds! Try these strategies:

  • remove the expectation of this middle of the night “event” by not offering any further night feeds, and with time, your toddler will no longer wake for it.
  • It is important to implement sleep training as discussed above at each waking session, no matter how much she protests. (controlled crying and some negotiation).
  • Have a cup of water on her bedside table, and tell her at bedtime (she can help you fill it up at the tap as part of the bedtime routine) that it is there for her should she be thirsty in the night, but that she needn’t wake you to tell you!
  1. Offering foodstuffs containing stimulatory chemicals

Offering sweets and chocolate after supper, as well as sugary drinks may cause your toddler to become hyped up at the very time you need her to be calm and quiet! Take extra care of what she eats at suppertime.

The toddler years are trying for many reasons and being tired makes it harder to manage their labile mood and temper tantrums during the day. Setting the stage for sleep and addressing bedtime mistakes will go a long way to improving you and your toddler’s sleep and mood.

By Ann Richardson