- Jessica Berk
3 Reasons Your Toddler Doesn’t Sleep Well
When there’s sleep drama at your house, it can feel like you’re drowning: you don’t know which way is up, and you can’t find your way out of it.
But sleep problems really aren’t that complicated when you know what to look for.
If your toddler doesn’t sleep well, there are typically 3 reasons why. And the best part is – you can start fixing them tonight!
>>Watch this blog on my Awesome Little Sleepers YouTube channel! 👇
Why the heck does it seem like my toddler doesn’t sleep?!
Toddler sleep problems commonly start with bedtime drama like stalling, neediness, or feeling scared of something (or everything…). Often, they’ll later wake you up in the middle of the night – sometimes multiple times.
But why won’t your toddler sleep? Especially when you know how tired they must be!
Toddler sleep problems are caused by one of the following three things - or a combination of all three. Let’s dive in so you can get started fixing them!
Reason 1 why your toddler doesn’t sleep: they’re overtired
“Overtired” is a sleep coach term meaning your child hasn’t been getting enough sleep each day. Kids aged 2 to 8 years old should be getting between 10 and 14 hours of sleep between nighttime and naps (if they still take them). If your child has been getting less than this, they’re overtired.
Overtired kids get a rush of cortisol, which is a stress hormone that feels like getting a second wind.
Once cortisol is spiked, it makes sleep really, really difficult. You’ve probably experienced this before yourself. When you stay up later than your normal bedtime, it feels tough to wind down enough to fall asleep at 1 a.m. when you normally go to bed at 11 p.m.
Overtired kids struggle to fall asleep – cue the bedtime crankiness, clinginess, and tantrums. It’s tough for their body to calm down because it’s so amped up from the cortisol spike.
In addition to delaying the onset of sleep, cortisol also trashes their quality of sleep. That means once they do fall asleep, you’ll see more frequent overnight wake ups, and even super early wake-ups like that little 5 A.M. hand to your face. Thank you, cortisol.
The BEST way to overcome overtiredness to get your child MORE sleep. Once they start banking good quality sleep, sleep will come easier. The easiest way to get your kid more sleep? Put them to bed earlier.
Reason 2 why your toddler doesn’t sleep: they have too much control at bedtime
Now, we know that our toddlers and preschoolers love to be in control and I’m a huge fan of giving them the opportunity to have plenty of control over their bedtime routine. In fact, the way I teach families inside Sleep Tight Without a Fight is to set up a bedtime routine that’s almost entirely child-led.
BUT – this is the part most people get wrong.
Parents have to provide the boundaries for a child-led and efficient bedtime routine. This does not mean you just let your child do whatever they want before bed.
Just like yellow lines on the road keep drivers safe by guiding them along and preventing them from veering off course, the boundaries that parents set during a toddler's bedtime routine help keep the child on track. Boundaries at bedtime prevent toddlers from adding in a million things, becoming too distracted or overtired, and ensure that they get the rest they need. These boundaries could be set using a timer, a visual guide, a star chart or any number of creative ways.
While kids may occasionally resist these boundaries, just as a driver may feel constrained by lines on the road, ultimately they provide a sense of security and structure that allows the child to relax and fall asleep peacefully on time.
The biggest problem with giving your child too much control at bedtime leads us back to our #1 reason why kids don’t sleep well - because they’re overtired. When your bedtime routine is like a car speeding down the highway paying no regard to the yellow lines, you miss their ideal bedtime window and end up with an overtired kid really quickly.
Reason three why your toddler doesn’t sleep: they’ve become too reliant on you
What kids have around when they fall asleep is what they’ll need to stay asleep.
You’ve seen this happen with loveys or pacis in the past. Kids fall asleep with them, and at some point, the paci falls out or the lovey gets lost in the covers and your child wakes up upset and searches for it in order to get back to sleep.
That’s because they’re trying to recreate the exact conditions they had when they fell asleep.
If you’re always with them when they fall asleep, you’re making your presence vital to their sleep.
And sure enough, after you sneak out and your child stirs around (even if it’s hours later), they’ll notice that something is missing - YOU! - and wake up to come find you.
The conditions in your child’s room when they fall asleep need to stay consistent all night. This is why the goal of all sleep training is to get your child to be a solo sleeper. Once they learn to fall asleep alone, they can sleep all night in their room without waking up.
To learn more about this, check out this video: Why can't my toddler fall asleep without me!
And for more tips and tools for sleep training your little ones, check out my FREE Toddler Sleep Masterclass.