When toddlers won’t sleep: 5 things we learnt from a child sleep expert

Kinderling News & Features

Sleep is never the same after you have kids. All parents will experience the initial sleep deprivation thanks to feeds, teething, nappy changes, and cries in the night. But most expect as they grow into toddlers and early childhood that it’s back to a full night’s rest. Sadly, that’s not always the case. 

We asked Natalie Hermann, sleep consultant and mum of two, how to navigate the trials and tribulations of toddlers, children and sleep. She shares five common issues and suggests how to manage them. 

1. Getting the right amount of sleep 

A lot of the information on children and sleep tend to be focused on infants and newborns, establishing patterns from crib to cot. But how much sleep does a toddler and young child actually need? 

“11 to 12 hours is the optimal amount of sleep for a toddler, anything way under 11 [hours] would say your child would be in minor sleep,” Natalie says. 

Listen to Natalie on Kinderling Conversation:

For toddlers that still sleep during the day, she has some advice. 

“Those parents are very lucky and in those situations, you don’t really want them sleeping more than an hour and a half because otherwise they’ll be difficult to be put to bed at night,” Natalie says. Moving up to the five-year-old mark, she suggests 11 hours a night without the day sleep. 

2. Over-stimulation and over-tiredness 

Natalie suggests winding back the activities a little bit. “School age children are using their brain a lot it and can actually make them very exhausted,” she says. “Minimise the amount of activity they do after school. I think parenting these days, we tend to overbook our children a lot during in the week and fill up their days quite heavily, which causes them to be very exhausted and wake up at night. Minimising the amount of technology they’re watching right before bed is very important because a lot of the time that causes them to have nightmares, which at the age of four, five, and six is very common.” 

How can you tell if they’re overtired? 

“It’s sometimes really difficult to differentiate as a parent between a child that has a lot of energy is happy and awake, to a child actually being in an overtired state.” Natalie says. “So I always say if your child has a lot of energy between the hours of 7 to 9 [pm], are very active, verbal and just wanting to play in their room, they are probably actually quite overtired.” 

To get kids to bed earlier, Natalie recommends bringing forward the bedtime by 15 minutes every couple of days. 

3. Sleeping solo 

What if you lay next to your child until they fall asleep? How do you change that habit if you need or want to? 

Natalie says it’s a common issue for children of the toddler age group. “It goes back to what kind of message and expectation to you want to set for your children in terms of their sleep, they’ll always be guided by us in terms of learning what to expect,” she explains. “I would say a habit is developed in three days, so if you spend three days laying down next to your child then they’re going to expect that that would happen every night. 

“For a lot of people they don’t have a problem with that it doesn’t bother them, the child falls down to sleep next to them at night and they take them straight away to their room once they’re deep in sleep but for other people it causes them issues. So if you are one of those parents and you don’t want to continue this you probably need to go cold turkey, because you’re either setting the expectation that it’s allowed or you’re setting that it’s not. Your child will be guided by you.” 

For more help from Natalie, head to natalieherman.com

It's all about making sure there’s boundaries in terms of sleep and understanding what the boundaries are. 

“If you’re allowing your child to come into your bed in the middle of the night they’ll think that’s a part of their routine and they’re going to expect that every night. If you want to change that as a parent you need to ensure that every time they do come into your room - which is very difficult, I have this problem myself - that you gently take your child back into their room and explain that they’ve got their own room to sleep in versus yours.” Natalie reiterates.

4. Multiple kids in one room 

Let’s say you’re a family that has two kids and your little one has just made the journey from tiny tot cot to big bed in their sibling’s room, how do you find the delicate balance of appropriate bed times? 

Here’s are a few tactics Natalie recommends for transitioning rooms; 

“Put the two-and-a-half-year-old to bed 20 minutes before you bring in the older child, just to give that younger child a chance to fall asleep on their own initially before the sibling comes in,” Natalie explains. “The good thing about having a five-year-old is it really is an age you can rationalise with them and explain the new dynamic beforehand, and try and get them on board in terms of minimal disruption once their younger sibling comes in the room. Before the bed time routine take them aside I always say and recruit them in the process. Say it’s going to be exciting to have their sibling in the room but they are a bit younger and they do really need a bit more sleep.” 

5. Staying consistent

Sticking to your guns isn’t always easy but Natalie strongly recommends consistency in routine and bedtime. 

“A consistent bedtime routine but also consistent hour is really important,” she says. “This depends on every family, between 7 and 8pm if we’re talking about that age range would be perfect.” 

And just remember: “it’s never too late, you can always establish healthy sleeping patterns for your children.”