Toddler Sleep 101: How to Handle Toddler Sleep Woes

Much has been written about newborn sleep and how to tackle baby sleep issues.  For some lucky parents, once their baby starts sleeping through the night the whole family enjoys years of quality shut-eye.  However, for many others, baby sleep troubles are overcome only for new sleep woes to emerge once the baby transforms into a toddler. Toddler sleep is a whole different game!

Jack Maypole, M.D., Educational Advisory Board Member for The Goddard School, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, and Director of the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center, shares his tips. Bedtime refusal by toddlers and preschoolers is one Dr. Maypole encounters frequently in his pediatric practice.  Dr. Maypole knows that this is a topic most parents do NOT put on their ‘favorite developmental stage' list. In particular, this can be an issue that arises for kiddos aged 3-5 years.

toddler sleep
Image via Pixabay

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Get to The Root of the Problem: 

For families, it can be helpful to think holistically about what might be going on. What is the source of the trouble? To tackle the problem, start by breaking it down: are the struggles around going to bed, getting to sleep, or staying asleep once they zonk out? Mapping where the tricky patch is helps shape your strategy to solve the problem. Ages 3-5 are typically when toddler sleep woes begin because it is the age of magical thinking, and can be a time (for some kids) of vivid dreams, remembered nightmares, and imaginations running wild. A scary movie, a fright with a big dog, or a dark corner of the room can trigger kids with a tendency to be anxious or who have nightmares. Other kids can get upset if they think grown-ups or older siblings are up without them and don't want to miss the action.

Talk It Out: 

For the 3-4-year-olds especially, it can be helpful to sit in the room by daytime and talk through what seems scary. Just talking through fears can make night time seem less scary for kids who are more verbal kids.

Use Monster Spray:  

Dr. Maypole also likes to use Monster Spray, applied on a sunny day to scary closets and shadowy places. Recipe: Put water in a spritz bottle, shake it up and yell “SCRAM!” as you mist the target zone. Silly, but it can work.  Some parents leave “Monster Spray” in their child's room and spray before bedtime or even allow them to spray their room once or twice if they wake up in the middle of the night.  

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene:  

Nothing works better than great sleep hygiene. Routine can be boring, but it can be lifesaving to kids who are easily derailed by sleep resistance. Having a routine of last call for beverages, taking a bath or shower (not a bad idea to use a lavender bath soap with its soporific effects), then do chill activities like reading stories or drawing until it is time for a tuck in. Eschew tickle fights and other activities that will get kids wound up before bedtime.  

No Screens Before Bedtime:  

Keep all screens out of the bedroom. Period.  Shut down the screens a solid hour before shuteye.


{ MORE: Preschool Prep: 5 Tips to Get Your Tot Ready For School }

Some parents have also found some things that help!

Weighted Blankets:  

Weighted blankets, once used only to calm kids with autism at night, have increased in popularity for all kids in recent years. Many kids may find weighted blankets to be calming and reassuring (similar to the weighted vests dogs wear for storms, the vaunted Thundershirt).  Although the science behind weighted blankets is limited, many parents report great effects with using a weighted blanket like those from Mosaic Blankets can be customized based on your child's design preferences and bodyweight.  My children have slept much better since introducing weighted blankets.

Night Lights:  

A special night-time light can go a long way towards reassuring children who are afraid of the dark.  The key here is to use a soft light that your child associates with night time and a bedtime routine. My kids love the warm glow of The Original Moon Lamp that looks like the moon and mimics the glow of moonlight for an unmistakable signal that the sun is down and it's time to sleep. 

This is a wireless nightlight (no need to worry about your child getting tangled up) that can be set to a warm yellow or cool white depending on your preference.  It's also dimmable and is a nightlight that can grow with your child for many years to come.  You can even add different sizes to create a collection and add more lighting options.  


The importance of reading before bedtime is huge.  Not only is reading essential to developing your child's vocabulary and understanding of the world, but it's a great chance to bond, snuggle, and get your child to calm down and focus before bedtime.  Try a bestseller like Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller or the award-winning Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell to spark kids' imaginations and evoke empathy. 

Or, send them off to sleep with the story of a girl who never gave up and achieved her goals in Sonia Sotomayor's  Turning Pages:  My Life Story.  Another great option is Tomorrow I'll Be Brave by Jessica Hissche and send them off to sleep with a story of all the things a little bunny plans on doing right the next day. For bedtime reading, have a mix of old favorites and new stories available to read so that kids are always excited about their bedtime story.  A routine that helps gets your child's mind off the events of the day and onto sleep can help them stay settled. 


Lullabies or White Noise:  

Some parents find that sending kids off to sleep with the same playlist each night or turning on white (or pink) noise once their child is asleep helps their toddler sleep better and longer.  It's possible to get different machines, but the simplest solution is a Google Home Mini that can play any song or type of noise you wish just with your voice command.  

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If your child is really struggling and is having a fear of bedtime or nighttime during the day, then it may be time to check in with their pediatrician to ensure all is well.

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Toddler Sleep 101: How to Handle Toddler Sleep Woes

Jamie is a Beltway Insider who loves channeling her pre-motherhood love of traveling into spending time exploring all D.C. has to offer with her brood of two girls and two boys ages 9, 7,5, and a baby. She is a reformed lawyer turned full-time kid wrangler who enjoys photographing her everyday chaos and anything salted caramel. Since life is never dull, she loves writing about the issues and events going on in her life at any given time, including caring for a daughter with special needs and th ... More

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