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Sleep and Your Toddler and Preschooler

The need for sleep is biological but the way you sleep is learned. Teaching your child to sleep well is one of the healthiest gifts you can give to her.

Sleep Requirements

Age 2

# of naps: 1

Nap duration: 1.5-3 hours

Night Sleep duration: 11 hours

Total Sleep/Day: 11-14 hours

Age 3

# of naps: 0-1

Nap duration: 0-2 hours

Night Sleep duration: 11-12 hours

Total Sleep/Day: 11-14 hours

Age 4

# of naps: 0-1

Nap duration: 0-2 hours

Night Sleep duration: 11-12 hours

Total Sleep/Day: 11-14 hours

Age 5

# of naps: 0-1

Nap duration: 0-1.5 hours

Night Sleep duration: 11-12 hours

Total Sleep/Day: 11-14 hours

Consistent Bedtime and Wake Time

  • You can train the body to expect sleep and waking

  • Bedtime goal: No later than 8-8:30 pm

  • Wake time goal: 11 hours after bedtime

  • Keep bedtime and wake times consistent even on weekends.

  • Make the most of your time together rather than trying to extend it into the night.

  • As your preschooler approaches elementary school, you should transition to a bedtime and a wake time appropriate for school start time.

Consistent Bedtime Routine

  • Aim for 15-30 minutes

  • Do your routine in the bedroom.

  • Include anything that she may potentially ask for when you try to leave the room (ex. sip of water, trip to the potty)

  • Give her choices whenever possible (ex. which PJs to wear, which book to read)

  • Providing a visual list or sleep book (with pictures) can help

Fix Existing Sleep Associations

  • The most common unhelpful sleep association for a child is needing parents to be present to fall asleep. The goal is to teach your child to fall asleep in the same condition that she will wake up in - alone, in her bed, and in her own room (if available). Otherwise, she will become dependent on your presence to fall back asleep when she wakes up in the night (night wakings are normal!).

  • If your child has been sleeping in your bed and/or in your bedroom, the first step is to move her to her bed, preferably in her own room if available, otherwise at least to her own bed in your room. One of the parents may have to temporarily "move in" with the child to her bedroom.

  • If you have been laying down next to your child until she falls asleep, then start sitting down next to her bed instead. Try not to talk, touch, or engage with your child during this time of "falling asleep." Do work (or pretend to) or read until she falls asleep.

  • Once she becomes accustomed to falling asleep with this arrangement, start to scoot further and further away from the bed towards the door until eventually you can sit outside the door (with the door open if they prefer). Start to leave for short periods of time (2-3 minutes) during the "falling asleep" time but let her know that you will be back. Start to gradually increase the duration of leaving but do try to return before she falls asleep in the beginning so that she is reassured that you are near by. The idea is that as she continues to be reassured of your eventual return, she will start to relax and fall asleep even before you return.

Age-Related Sleep Disturbers

  • Night terrors: There are often 2 ages during which night terrors can peak - around 18-24 months and again around 3 years. This is a similar state as sleep walking when a child may appear very awake but is actually not. Fortunately, this is a transient phase for most and waiting it out usually is all that is needed. However, if you find that your child's night terrors are lasting > 2 weeks, occurring frequently (several times a week), or becoming very dramatic, gently waking your child up (not fully, just enough to have her open her eyes briefly) about 20-30 minutes prior to when she usually wakes up may help her "skip" this phase in her sleep cycle. As most night terrors only occur once a night (usually in the early part of the night), she should not experience another episode later in the night.

  • Nightmares: Preschoolers start to develop more active imagination around age 3 which can be extremely fun but can also lead to more exaggerated fears. If she wakes up upset, do comfort her and if appropriate, talk through it. If she starts to have frequent nightmares, take stock of what she is being exposed to in books and screens. If the nightmares are becoming intense and consistent, do notify your pediatrician.

  • Fear of the dark: The over-active imagination common among preschoolers can sometimes lead to becoming afraid of the dark. Avoid allowing your child to fall asleep with the overhead light on. Instead invest in a small light source like a night light or allow your child to keep the door open a bit and keep the hallway light on.

  • Coming out of the room: If your child is in a toddler bed (and not trapped in a crib) and comes out of her room, gently but firmly have her return to her room. Do this as many times as she comes out of her room. You may need to walk her back but try not to stay or get into bed with her. Some parents have found using a baby gate at the bedroom door to be a deterrent for their child. Don't enforce getting back into bed - you may have to settle for her staying in her room for the time being. Try a reward system providing a small prize for each night she stays in her room., gradually increasing the number of nights of staying put needed to earn a prize.

  • Sneaking into parents' bed: If your child comes into your room in the middle of the night or early morning, do what you would do if she comes out of the room at the beginning of the night. Use of an alarm clock that lights up at the desired "wake up" time after which the child is allowed to leave the room can be surprisingly effective in this age group.

  • Starting daycare/preschool: Transition to daycare or preschool can disturb your child's sleep, specifically by affecting naps. If she has been taking shorter than usual naps at daycare (due to noise from the other children, unfamiliar environment), try to put her to bed earlier in the night until naps improve.

  • Outgrowing naps: If your child is starting to outgrow naps (usually age 4-5) but has to take a nap at preschool (because all the other kids do), then settling down at the expected bedtime can become very difficult. If your school will allow it, ask that your child not nap at school but have "quiet time" instead. If your school will not allow this, then you may not have other options but to wait for your child to graduate from preschool. Try to skip naps during the weekend at least so that she can get to bed earlier on those days.

  • Teething: As in infancy, teething can cause sufficient discomfort during the night and lead to night wakings. Over the counter pain medications before bed may buy you some extra hours of rest.

  • Toilet Training: Sleep disturbance can occur during toilet training as some children start to wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. Some will request that parents accompany them to the bathroom which can be painful to say the least but this period is usually transient. Limit the amount of fluid you allow her to drink during the last 2 hours prior to bedtime and try "double-peeing" prior to bed (pee, then do your bedtime routine, then pee again right before lights out!)

  • Illness: Sickness often leads to sleep regression with increased night wakings and neediness. Do comfort and attend to your ill child as needed but as soon as she is feeling better, get back on track as quickly as you can with your sleep routine. The longer you allow your child to remain in her regressed state, the longer it will take to get back to where you were!

  • Travel: Disturbance of sleep schedule, environment, and routine are often inevitable with travel. Do try to keep the bedtime routine as consistent as possible with the routine followed at home. As with illnesses, the key is to get back to the normal routine as soon as you return home.

Setting clear expectations and consistently enforcing the rules you have established will be key. Provide lots of praise for each small step she takes towards becoming a better sleeper. Small steps will add up and lead to a better night sleep for all eventually!

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