The toddler phase is a wonderful time, full of surprises and achievements like walking and talking. It’s also a time filled with outbursts, meltdowns, and sleep problems. This leaves many parents wondering how to get their toddler to sleep.
Getting a toddler to sleep without issues, preferably alone, can feel like a massive undertaking. I know because I’ve been there! But I’ve come out on the other side and am here to share what has worked for me and hundreds of other sleepy parents in my medical practice.
- Establish a bedtime routine that includes calming activities, such as bathing, reading a story, and brushing teeth.
- Create a cozy sleep environment with comfortable pajamas, a dim night light, and a white noise machine if needed.
- Set a consistent bedtime and avoid letting your toddler stay up too late, as this can cause overtiredness and sleep problems.
- Encourage outdoor play and physical activity during the day to help your toddler release energy and sleep better at night.
How to Get Your Toddler to Sleep
Start by Winding Down
At the end of a busy toddler’s day, they need time to unwind before being able to sleep. Going from fifth gear to first gear requires some calm and quiet.
Although your toddler may seem calm when watching videos on a device, screens are not a good “wind down” activity before bed. Research shows that the blue light emitted from these devices can suppress melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is important for sleep onset. If it is suppressed, falling asleep will be more difficult for your toddler (1). It’s best to avoid such activities around bedtime.
Try to keep the house calm for a couple of hours before bedtime. Make it the time to pack toys away and perhaps offer a healthy snack that makes their tummy feel fuller.
Now is also a good time for a bath. If you don’t give daily baths, do a similar calming activity, such as washing your child’s face and hands with warm water, and then have them change into their pajamas.
Create a Routine
Toddlers love routines, especially for bedtime, even though they don’t always show it. A typical bedtime routine consists of dinner, a bath, brushing teeth, a tuck-in, and perhaps a stuffed toy, then a bedtime story (3).
Some parents walk around the house with their toddlers to say goodnight to other family members and toys.
Finding a procedure that works for you and your family is important. Routines should be an everyday event. Doing it only once or twice per week isn’t going to work. It just confuses your toddler and makes it difficult to know your expectations.
Keep it consistent. Toddlers love routines because they can predict what’s going to happen. If you keep switching the order, it won’t work as well.
As much as routines benefit toddlers, they aren’t always easy for us parents, as life often gets in the way. Some nights, we feel too tired for a story, or the bath isn’t feasible.
Besides keeping a bedtime routine simple, the best thing to do is to remind yourself that it’s not a chore. Look at it as some quality time spent with your little one. Trust us, they’ll appreciate it as much as you will.
Sometimes, your toddler will rebel against the routine. If that’s the case, a good solution is to utilize the clock. Create a small visual chart illustrating the routine steps with a clock time next to each illustration.
As you move along with the bedtime routine, point to each step. Soon, your little one will begin to get themselves through the ritual, telling you when it’s time for bed.
This trick gives your child a sense of independence, making bedtime more enjoyable.
Try a Snack
Toddlers go through growth spurts, which typically make them hungrier. One way to get your little one to go to bed and stay there is by offering a small snack before their tuck-in.
Try something like a small slice of unprocessed meat, toast, or a glass of warm milk — the key is that it’s slightly filling and calming. Don’t offer items that get them too excited or anything with added sugar. A banana worked wonders for my little one.
A good time for a before-bed snack is prior to brushing their teeth. You can speed up the process a little by reading your child a story while they eat their snack.
If you’re still using nursing or the bottle to get your little one to sleep, it may be time to break the association.
I recommend that parents offer this last feeding 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime. Allowing toddlers to sleep with milk on their teeth puts them at risk of cavities from the sugars in milk. To prevent this, I recommend brushing (or at least wiping down) their teeth after milk or breastfeeding at bedtime (4). Once most of the primary teeth are in, the bottle nipple can cause a gap or abnormal opening between the top and bottom teeth. To prevent this. It is best to transition to a sippy cup before age 2 (5).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
By letting them fall asleep without nursing, they can go back to sleep independently should they wake up in the night. This means fewer night wakings for you and better sleep.
Still, if your toddler isn’t ready, don’t force it — some require comfort, and that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t bother you (6).
Set a Fixed Bed Time
Having an inconsistent bedtime won’t help your toddler go to sleep. Small children require a fixed time every night to go to bed. By doing this, you’re setting their biological clock so their bodies learn to expect sleep.
If you consistently get your toddler into bed at 7:30 p.m., they’ll begin to predict this. Soon, you’ll see them yawning and feeling ready for sleep around this time.
The best time depends on you and your family — but the earlier, the better. By letting your toddler stay up late, you’re not helping them fall asleep quicker. Instead, they’ll get overtired, triggering hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which will keep them going for longer (7).
Once they eventually crash and fall asleep, you can expect them to wake up several times during the night (8). They might even wake up earlier in the morning.
That’s why an early, fixed bedtime is ideal for toddler sleep. They’ll go to bed happy and wake up feeling refreshed.
Don’t Skip Naps
Napping depends on your child — some toddlers don’t need naps, whereas they’re crucial for others.
Many experts recommend that you keep a nap schedule until age 5 (9). For toddlers aged 1 to 3 years, try to fit in a one- to three-hour nap every day.
If your child skips naps when they still need one, they’ll likely get cranky, throw tantrums, and even become adrenalized. It can make bedtime challenging for both of you.
If your little one doesn’t seem to need a nap, it’s best to have an early bedtime. Toddlers usually need around 12 to 14 hours of sleep (10). So, if they skip naps, ensure they get all the required hours during the night.
I occasionally hear a parent complain that their infant or toddler “just doesn’t nap.” The parent has tried a variety of calming techniques to encourage naptime, but it never happens. In these situations, I recommend scheduling some “downtime” by dimming the lights and creating a calm, less stimulating environment for an hour each day. In this way, their toddler still gets some rest time.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Create a Cozy Environment
It’s completely normal for toddlers, and children in general, to go through cycles of sleep where they are prone to night awakenings (11). These are the times when we’re generally awakened by our toddlers, who need our assistance to fall back asleep.
One way to combat this is to create a cozy environment where your toddler sleeps. This can be achieved by placing a subtle night light or a white noise machine in the bedroom. A comfortable bedroom might also encourage your little one to sleep on their own (12).
If you do choose to use a night light, make sure it’s dimmed. Darkness is essential for a restful sleep.
Consider blackout curtains or shades, particularly when living in a region where sunsets occur later than their bedtime. If light is still shining through the bedroom window, it can be challenging to fall asleep.
Finally, have your toddler wear comfortable, warm pajamas. If they tend to kick off the cover, this will prevent them from feeling cold and waking up. However, dress them according to the weather — if it’s warm in the room, ensure they don’t overheat.
Let off Some Steam
During the day, have your toddler spend a few hours outdoors, being active and playing, if possible (13). A couple of hours before you begin their bedtime routine, engage in some fun play to make them laugh.
This is very important for older toddlers who attend preschool. They often do not get enough physical activity in this structured setting. I recommend an hour of outdoor play after preschool daily. It can reduce bedtime resistance and make mealtime and other evening activities much calmer.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Laughter and play are two vital factors for humans (14). They help us release some of our stress-inducing hormones, which can keep us up at night.
Look at it this way — your toddler is carrying a heavy emotional backpack. To make it lighter, they require some help to release the stress that’s weighing them down. Play a fun game with your toddler — chase them around, let them sit on your back, or even tickle them.
If you don’t get all the stress out, your toddler is more likely to become cranky and have an outburst before bed. If so, all they probably need is a good cry, and then they can settle down.
Consider Breaking Old Habits
During infancy and before the age of one, it’s common to use rocking to get our babies to sleep. However, getting your toddler to sleep alone without waking you up at night means these habits need to change.
This is easier said than done and will require some patience.
If you’re consistent, this will work.
In the beginning, it’s tempting to pick them up if they cry. Instead, you can lay down with them or sit next to the bed — as long as you’re not holding or rocking them.
Stay close until they settle down, then slowly reduce your physical proximity.
If your toddler is still nursing to sleep, gradually wean them and use rocking instead. Once they’re used to falling asleep without nursing, you can then wean them off the rocking.
Avoid weaning from both habits at the same time — a two-step process is a lot kinder and easier to deal with for your toddler (15).
Try Success Training
Success training helped immensely with my little one — it’s also quite rewarding for the parent. You can do it how you like, but here’s an example:
Once finished with the bedtime routine, ask your toddler to set a time for when you should check on them. This could be in two or five minutes. Set the timer and leave the room.
When the time is up, return and praise your toddler. Praise how good they were at staying in their bed, not kicking off the covers, or simply remaining in the room.
Tell them you understand it wasn’t easy remaining in bed or doing a new routine. By empathizing with them, you’re building their confidence and letting them know their feelings are acknowledged.
Increase the time between each visit, and continue returning until they are asleep. Continue to consult your toddler with how many minutes to stay away. As their confidence grows, you’ll notice they’ll ask for longer intervals.
Yes, during the first nights, it will take a while before they’re fully asleep. They can think you’re not coming back or trying to trick them. Just be consistent and always point out their strengths. You’ll see progress soon.
Sleep Is a Gift, Not Punishment
When I was little, my parents always used sleep as a punishment. It was straight to bed if I didn’t pick up my toys. Many of us are guilty of doing the same with our kids.
This is a terrible strategy when you’re trying to teach your toddler healthy sleeping habits. If your toddler misbehaves before bedtime, use a different consequence. It’s also not a good idea to use the crib or toddler bed for “time out” during the day. Doing so will create confusion and make this discipline technique less effective (16).
Associate sleep with positivity. Tell your toddler that bedtime is your special time when you get to sit together and read. You can also call it “snuggle time” and cuddle while reading or singing.
When your toddler is a little older (closer to 3 years old), try to explain the benefits of sleep. Use language at their level to explain that rest makes us healthy and happy. It gives us energy for more play during the day and heals any bumps or scratches.
Sleep Problems in Toddlers
We all have trouble falling asleep at some point, and it’s the same for toddlers. Some nights are great, while others require a temporary change of strategy, and that’s fine.
What isn’t ideal is when these problems occur more frequently, interfering with your child’s day.
Signs that your little one isn’t getting adequate sleep include:
- Increased injuries and accidents.
- Frequent tantrums.
- Mood swings.
- Learning and concentration problems.
- Slower reaction times.
If you notice any of the following, your toddler might suffer from sleep problems:
- Pauses in their breathing while they sleep.
- Snoring and frequent sleeptalking.
- Unexpected night wakings occur more frequently than they used to.
- Difficulty staying awake between naps.
- Night events such as nightmares and sleepwalking.
It’s a good idea to consult your pediatrician in such cases, particularly if you notice breathing problems. Your child could suffer from a condition such as sleep apnea (17).
Parents often question me about their child snoring. Snoring alone isn’t necessarily a problem, and it commonly occurs in the presence of nasal congestion from an upper respiratory infection or allergies. However, I’m concerned when there are pauses in breathing between the snores. These pauses may be followed by a gasp or “choking” sound before breathing resumes. This is classic sleep apnea that warrants medical attention.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Poor or interrupted nighttime sleep is a common cause of inattention and hyperactivity in toddlers. I have seen many toddlers whose preschool teachers have suggested an evaluation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In many cases, these toddlers do not have ADHD; they are simply dealing with inadequate sleep (18). Once sleep habits improve, the unwanted behaviors resolve.
Is It Sleep Problems or Meltdowns?
It’s easy to confuse sleep problems with occasional meltdowns. The best way to spot the difference is to note the consistency.
Sleep problems are consistent, something you’ll see every night before bedtime. Your child will wake up at unexpected times or refuse to even go to sleep. If you’re struggling, your pediatrician or a sleep specialist will be able to help (19).
Meltdowns, however, are only occasional. Perhaps your little one didn’t get a good nap, or something hyped them up right before bedtime.
At these times, it’s okay to break the routine for a day — that won’t ruin your progress. Do what it takes to calm them down, like hugging or cuddling them.
Tips on Dealing with Bedtime Meltdowns
1. Get Rid of Distractions
For an excited toddler, being in a room with other people, hearing the TV, or seeing toys can be distracting. Things like that attract your toddler’s attention, making it difficult for them to sleep.
Ensure that there’s quiet throughout the house. Older siblings should understand it’s time to settle down as well. If the bedroom is close to the TV, turn the volume down. Verify that the bedroom is as dark as possible.
A white noise machine is excellent at creating a calm environment. You can also try essential oils like lavender or cedarwood in a diffuser; then they can smell it before sleeping and if they wake up. However, avoid applying these oils to the skin, as some essential oils are not safe to use in this way (20).
However, before using an essential oil, do your research. Some require diluting, and others contain chemical fillers you don’t want near your child. A diffuser may also be beneficial, but ensure it’s safe to run in the child’s bedroom.
Cradling is your best weapon when your little one is having a meltdown due to being overtired. Hold your toddler as high as you can on your chest — ideally, you should reach their ear with your lips.
Hold them firmly, but not overly tight — just enough to prevent them from wiggling or kicking. The idea is that you’ll act as a human swaddle blanket — you’re holding your little one with your face, arms, and chest.
3. Start Swaying
Creating some movement can help settle your toddler down. How you move depends on your toddler. Some prefer slight swaying or rocking, while others require vigorous bouncing and a steady sway.
Find a movement that works, and keep the rhythm until they begin to get sleepy. You should continue until they’re fully asleep.
We understand that cradling and rocking a heavy toddler isn’t ideal or comfortable, and it’s easy to give up. However, it will only work if you continue. Depending on your toddler, it can take 20 minutes or more if they’re distraught.
To make this easier, remember that you are not expected to do this every night or all night. Stop focusing on when it will be over or why they aren’t sleeping. This will only make it harder and more frustrating, hindering the process.
Utilize some distractions for yourself rather than watching the seconds go by on your clock. Music is excellent — a soothing playlist can calm you and your little one. You can also sing a song.
If it’s dragging on and you’re starting to feel frustrated and irritated, take a break or have your partner take over. Getting angry with your toddler won’t help at this point. They may stop crying if you yell, but they’ll feel more stressed and even scared.
5. Put Your Toddler down
Once your little one shows signs of sleepiness, like yawning, rubbing their eyes, or curling their fists, it’s time for bed. This can be tricky, and your toddler can begin to cry once you put them down. On the bright side, this is probably because you’re not holding them anymore.
By this time, you’ve probably soothed away the major stress that was bothering them, and a little shushing should get them settled. If they continue crying, perhaps more cradling and holding is necessary. You could pick them up again or curl up next to them in bed.
When you lie them back down, try placing your toddler on their side, keeping your hands firmly on their back and front. If they start to cry or whimper again, press firmly to let them know that you’re there. Once your little one is quiet, you can slowly get up.
Should Toddlers Sleep in Their Own Bed?
Whether your toddler should or shouldn’t sleep in their own bed is entirely up to you. Some children are confident and ready to sleep alone early on, while others will stay in the family bed for longer.
Getting your toddler to fall asleep while you lie next to them is generally easy, but it isn’t always ideal. Many parents, including me, tend to nod off along with their child, thus losing our evenings. Alternatively, many parents complain of getting limited sleep themselves due to their toddler moving during sleep or having less room in the parent bed. This is a difficult problem because they want their child to sleep, but they also need sleep.
Another drawback if your toddler sleeps in their own room is that you have to quietly move back into your bedroom when you awake.
This disturbs your sleep, and later, if your child wakes up, they’ll probably come looking for you.
If you aren’t willing to continue with this, you need to break the habit and get them to fall asleep by themselves (21). If you prefer having them in your bed, it’s perfectly fine. Many parents are happy to continue co-sleeping throughout toddlerhood.
It’s an individual call — as long as you’re happy to continue with it, go for it, whether it’s co-sleeping or not.
You should never force your toddler to sleep in their own bedroom before they show signs of readiness. The transition should be gentle, and you should respond to any fears or worries your toddler might have.
Don’t get concerned if your toddler isn’t ready yet. As your child grows and matures, so do their sleeping habits. Many outgrow the family bed and will soon happily go to bed alone.
Giving Toddlers Melatonin
The natural sleep-inducing hormone our bodies produce is also sold as an artificial sleep aid. You can buy it as a dietary supplement over-the-counter at pharmacies or health food stores.
Melatonin is a short-term solution to help get children to rest as you’re establishing bedtime routines. Parents also use it for older children in their teens to ensure a well-rested child following vacations or summer breaks.
However, melatonin isn’t FDA-regulated nor approved for use as a sleep aid. It’s also essential to keep in mind that melatonin doesn’t work like a sleeping pill. You should never use it without discussing it with your pediatrician.
I do not recommend using melatonin under the age of 6 in my practice. Unfortunately, many infant and toddler products contain melatonin and are marketed as safe without the science to support this claim.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP