How To Help Your Toddler Establish Good Sleep Habits


At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we feel strongly that healthy sleep habits for children are as important as healthy eating habits. Sleep is an essential component of healthy living, yet something that’s sometimes hard to come by (especially for exhausted moms and dads faced with an obstinate toddler who won’t nod off).

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Since we often get questions from parents wanting advice for getting their 2- or 3-year-olds to go to sleep, we thought we’d share some guidelines from our many years of helping parents of toddlers master the art of bedtime. To learn about all the services we offer parents of infants and toddlers, click here.

How much sleep do toddlers need?

Toddlers need different amounts of sleep at various stages of development. According to Healthy Families BC, most, but not all, follow this pattern:

  • 12 months: Sleeps about 14 hours per day, partly during morning and afternoon naps.
  • Between 12 and 18 months: the morning nap disappears and is replaced with one longer afternoon nap.
  • 24 months: Sleeps 11-12 hours at night with a nap in the afternoon lasting 1-2 hours.
  • 36 months: Sleeps about 12 hours at night and may or may not take a short nap.

If your toddler goes to bed at 8pm and doesn’t wake up until 8am, he/she is getting the full quota of rest all at once with no need for a nap. But if your toddler is not yet sleeping 12 full hours at night, then ideally he/she should nap during the day. Somewhere around age 3½ or 4, most children stop napping all together.

Tips for helping your toddler fall asleep

The following suggestions from the Cleveland Clinic will help your little one fall asleep, stay asleep and establish good sleep habits:

  1. Adopt a nightly routine so your child has a quiet, calm time before bedtime and understands that it will soon be time to go to sleep. The routine should be the same each night; toddlers are comforted by routine.
  2. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Your child’s bed time and wake up time should be the same every day, whenever possible, regardless if it is a school day or not. This way, your child will know what to expect and it will help him/her establish good sleep habits.
  3. Avoid caffeinated drinks or foods, including tea, some ice pops, artificially colored and flavored snacks, and chocolate. At WHP, we don’t believe that children should be consuming much caffeine, in general.
  4. Give your child a bath, read him/her a story, followed by a cuddle and soft music. Avoid active play which will only excite your child and make sleep more difficult.
  5. Give your child some choices at bedtime. Let him/her pick the bedtime story or which pajamas to wear.
  6. Let your child take a favorite object to bed at night: a teddy bear, special blanket or favorite toy. It can help him/her fall asleep, and fall back asleep if he/she awakens during the night. Make sure the object has no buttons or ribbons that could possibly choke your child.
  7. Avoid watching TV before bedtime. TV is stimulating for your toddler, not relaxing.
  8. Make sure your child is comfortable. If he/she wants a drink of water or the night-light turned on, do these but then tell him/her it’s time to go to sleep. Don’t let these requests get drawn out into a long production.
  9. Make exercise part of your child’s daily routine. Not only does exercise help make your child tired and ready for sleep, it’s a healthy routine that will benefit your child throughout life.
  10. Do not let your child sleep in your bed. Even though some parents like to have their child sleep in bed with them, this makes it harder for him/her to fall asleep when alone. Also, studies show that letting your young child sleep in your bed increases the risk of SIDS.

What if my child cries as soon as I leave the room?

As pediatricians and as parents, our advice is to wait several minutes before you go into your toddler’s room if he/she cries or calls for you after you’ve put him/her down for the night. Then each time your child calls, wait longer before responding. Reassure your child that you are there, even when you’re out of sight. Each time you go in, remind him/her that it’s time to go to sleep now. We also suggest setting a limit of how many times you respond. For example: after 3 times, refuse to go in again, telling your child it’s time for sleep. It’s ok for your child to cry, even for a prolonged period of time, as long as you know they are safe. The more you go in, the longer the process can be drawn out.

When to take your toddler to the doctor for a sleep problem

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we recommend taking your toddler or preschooler to your pediatrician if he/she is experiencing any of the following:

  • medical problems or pain that is affecting sleep
  • persistent and loud snoring or problems with breathing while sleeping
  • seems irritable, hyperactive, inattentive or sleepy during the day
  • excessive anxiety about being separated from you during the day and/or night
  • problems with sleep that developed suddenly
  • problems changing from two naps to one nap a day
  • frequent night terrors, sleepwalking or nightmares

Count on us for all kinds of information and advice to help you raise your toddler

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re a new parent or an old hand, you can turn to us for help, whatever stage of development your child is in. We’re parents too, with years of experience helping parents raise their children and we’re ready to help you with yours.

Helpful articles you might want to read:

Questions about your toddler’s sleep? Come see us.

If you’re having trouble getting your child to go to sleep, or he/she is having sleep issues, or you simply have questions about any aspect of your child’s growth and development, please make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. We will meet with you and your child, see if there is indeed a problem, and together with you, decide on the best strategy so hopefully everyone can rest easy. Our #1 goal is to help you raise a happy, healthy toddler and for you to feel confident as a parent. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball