How to get your toddler to sleep

As your baby grows, their sleep needs change too. Developmental changes, separation anxiety, and sleep regressions can all cause disruptions to your toddler's sleep. You can help them catch more zzz's by sticking to a consistent routine, creating a cozy sleep environment, reminding them how to self-soothe, and finding just the right balance between daytime and nighttime sleep.

A father with a sleeping toddler on his lap
Photo credit: / Dean Mitchell

Your baby has grown into a toddler, so they should start sleeping better now, right? Unfortunately, not always: Toddler sleep can be just as challenging as infant sleep.

Thankfully, there's plenty you can do to teach healthy sleep habits at this stage. From creating a restful sleep environment to using a comfort object, here are ways you can help get your toddler to sleep.

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Why your toddler won't sleep

Maybe your baby was a great sleeper and now they're refusing naps and resisting bedtime, or maybe they always struggled with sleep and toddlerhood has only made things worse. Whatever your child's history with sleep, the toddler years can throw off even the finest-tuned sleep routine.

Why do toddlers resist going to sleep? There are several reasons:

  • Their growing independence. Your toddler is realizing that they're a separate person from you – one who has their own thoughts, ideas, and opinions on things. They might be wondering why they have to take a nap just because you said so when they would rather play.
  • Their nonstop curiosity. To a toddler, the world is a place full of new and interesting things to explore. Why waste time sleeping when they could be chasing bugs, picking flowers, pulling all the tissues out of the box, and coloring on the walls? Their brains are telling them to go, go, go all the time – meanwhile, you're telling them to stop and sleep.
  • Separation anxiety. Most young children go through phases of separation anxiety, but this can happen at different times for different kids. It usually starts around 8 to 9 months and peaks around 12 to 24 months, though it can last until your child is 3 years old. And even though you're still in the house somewhere, leaving them in a room to sleep at naptime or bedtime can induce the same feelings of anxiety as if you left them with a babysitter.
  • Sleep regression. Unfortunately, sleep regressions don't end as your baby grows. They can wreak havoc on a previously good sleeper's routines, causing more frequent night wakings and naptime battles. (These regressions can happen at any time, but are most common around 12 months and 18 months.)
  • Changing sleep needs. The average toddler needs about 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, with the bulk of that sleep happening at night. If your toddler is taking really long naps – sleeping more than four hours during the day – they might not be feeling sleepy at bedtime. On the other hand, if your toddler is sleeping 12 or 13 hours at night, they might have a hard time winding down for a midday nap. Try making some slight tweaks to your child's sleep schedule to match the recommendations for hours of sleep for their specific age.

What to do if your toddler won't sleep

Establishing a calming, consistent bedtime routine is one of the best ways to help your child make the transition to sleep. Your ritual can include any (or all) of the following: giving them a bath, playing a quiet game, helping your toddler into their pajamas, reading a bedtime story or two, singing a lullaby, and giving them a goodnight kiss and cuddles.

Your bedtime routine can be anywhere from a few minutes long to up to 40 minutes, if it includes a bath. It may take some experimentation, but try to keep it brief enough that you can get through every step every night without losing your toddler's interest.

Whatever routine works for your family is fine, as long as you do it in the same order and at the same time every night. Setting and sticking to a consistent bedtime – on weekdays and weekends alike – is key to establishing good sleep habits.

This is a good time to mention that kids who were sleep trained as babies may need to be reminded how to self-soothe. If you've changed your routine since your little one was a baby – for example, if their bedtime is later, or you stop giving them a bottle or pacifier at night – your toddler may need some help adjusting to this new normal.

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Try to avoid rushing into their room as soon as they call for you or begin fussing; give them a chance to troubleshoot a little on their own. And if you do go in to help, keep their room dark and quiet, and your interactions minimal, so they don't think it's time to wake up and play.

Sleep training methods like gentle, cry it out, and Ferber can help your toddler get back to sleeping well on their own.

In addition to giving your toddler a chance to self-soothe during naptime or nighttime wakings, here are some other things you can do to help your toddler sleep:

  • Let them sleep with their lovey. Your toddler may fall asleep more easily if they have a soft, cuddly blanket or stuffed animal nearby to keep them company. This is called a sleep prop, and while it can introduce a whole other element to the sleep routine (as any parent who has ever searched frantically for a lovey at bedtime can tell you!), there is a benefit to your child having an object they associate with sleep and feel comforted by.
  • Put a night light in their room. Many toddlers get disoriented and upset when they wake up at night in a dark room and can't see anything they recognize. The night light can help reassure your child that they're in familiar surroundings and help them settle back to sleep.
  • Use a white noise machine. If you haven't yet, try investing in a white noise machine. Playing ambient noise, lullabies, classical music, and other kids' favorites for your toddler at bedtime may help them drift into dreamland. Music and white noise supply calming background sounds to help your child fall asleep.
  • Give them a pacifier or let them suck their thumb. This habit is usually okay for toddlers to keep – usually, sucking on a pacifier or thumb doesn't pose any oral or dental issues until your child's permanent teeth start coming in, or between the ages of 4 and 6.
  • Try giving them warm milk. If your toddler isn't breastfeeding anymore, a warm glass of milk or a snack before bed might comfort them and help them fall asleep. Do this at the beginning of the bedtime routine, and be sure to brush your toddler's teeth as part of the bedtime routine too. Don't let them take a sippy cup to bed, though, since that can lead to tooth decay.
  • Make sure they're the right amount of tired. It's a delicate balance! Too much daytime sleep will make it hard for your toddler to settle down at bedtime, but if they aren't napping enough during the day, they'll likely be overtired by bedtime – and that will make it harder for them to relax into sleep. Try to time their nap so they're awake for at least three hours before bedtime; this is usually long enough for them to be ready for bed but not so long they can't unwind.
  • Keep them active during the day. Your toddler has tons of energy, so it's important to keep them busy during the day with activities that will tire them out. They're excited to practice all those new skills they're developing, like walking and talking, so give them plenty of opportunities.

Sleep aids for toddlers

When your toddler is struggling night after night, it can be tempting to offer them a medication designed to promote sleep. Many of us rely on drugs like Benadryl and Tylenol PM, as well as non-pharmaceutical supplements like melatonin, chamomile, and magnesium, to help us sleep better, so why can't we offer these options to our kids?

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Not all drugs are safe or effective to give to toddlers, and experts don't recommend giving children medications to help them sleep, since there isn't much research on the long-term impact that may have on children.

While melatonin isn't a "drug," per se, its safety for kids hasn't been established yet. Most experts also advise against giving other herbal remedies to toddlers because safe pediatric doses haven't been established. Also, a child's body may react differently to medicines and herbs than an adult's body does.

Always talk to your pediatrician before giving your child any medications or supplements to help them sleep.

Follow your baby's amazing development

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

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Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer from Connecticut, where she lives with a lot of boys (a husband, three sons, and a golden retriever). When she isn't writing, Bradley is usually homeschooling, binge-watching TV shows, and taking care of her many houseplants. She might also be baking a cake.