“Hi Dr Justin,
We would love some advice. We have 4 year old, 2 year old and 7 month old children. The 2 year old, prior to having the new baby was a great sleeper and slept around 11 hours at night and 3 hours during the day. Always happy to go to bed and always self settled.
The baby came when the now 2 year old was 20 months old. We decided to keep her in her cot and have the baby in her bassinet and then portacot. Basically the toddler stopped sleeping during the day. Most weeks she won’t sleep at all during the day now and sometimes will have a sleep once or twice a week. On the rare occasion she sleeps, we wake her after 3 hours.
We have persevered with the same bedtime routine, tried white noise and blackout blinds but nothing seems to work. We’ve watched for tired signs and tried adjusting the time she goes to bed. She wasn’t crying out, just playing in her cot. We have in the last week given up and moved her into a toddler bed so she isn’t stuck in her cot.
The problem is that she is only just over 2 years old and seems to really need her sleep. She becomes both clumsy, irritable and much more prone to tantrums in the afternoons now.
Do you have any suggestions for how to get her to have a day sleep?”
Every child is different in relation to their sleep needs, so the suggestions that I have for you are really quite general. I think you’ll likely find some of the hints helpful, and some won’t work at all.
- Around the age of two to three years, many kids start fighting against day time sleeps. They certainly still need extra rest, but they don’t think they need it! So my first point is that what you’re experiencing is fairly normal, even if it is exasperating.
- Also, as I’m sure you are aware, we need fewer hours of sleep as we get older. While your daughter still seems to need more sleep than she is getting, it is developmentally normal that her sleep time would reduce a little bit.
- Finally, as you have probably noticed with your eldest child, sleep routines are an ongoing evolution. Temperament, personality, and personal circumstances can all conspire against us (or work in our favour) in terms of when they sleep, how they go to sleep, and how much sleep they need.
In short, while there are a few things to definitely work on, much of what you’re experiencing is normal, and part of the ‘muddling through’ we do as parents.
First, make sure that your daughter is getting ‘enough’ sleep at night. Ideally she’ll still be getting somewhere between 11and 13 hours per 24 hour period (depending on the child). This is ideal for a child her age. Bear in mind that if she doesn’t get the full compliment during the night she’ll likely be irritable in the morning and will give you those signs she needs a daytime nap.
Second, ensure sleep hygiene is good. This includes the things you’ve mentioned like having a dark room, and some white noise to minimise other distractions. But it also includes things such as reducing activity levels, stimulation, and screen time before bed. And it might also mean you sing songs, cuddle, or read a story or have a bath. The routine is an important part of sleep hygiene.
Third, make transitions clear. Some parents might play a special sleepy song on the CD when it’s rest time. Others will give verbal reminders about nap time (15 minutes, 10 minutes, and 5 minutes to go). There are all kinds of creative ways that you can help your daughter recognise that it is time to transition to sleep or rest time. Find a strategy that suits your family circumstances.
Fourth, at the risk of creating a rod for your back, often the most effective (and compassionate) way to get your kids to have a nap in the daytime is to lie on the bed with them (or beside them on the floor) until they go to sleep. When they know we’re close, and they feel they’re not missing out on anything, they will often let go of restlessness and be asleep in just a few minutes.
Fifth, if it’s simply not working you have to make a call. Do you fight it, or do you try again later? The risk with fighting it is that you end up in a power struggle. No one wins, everyone gets frustrated, and as you probably know, it’s hard to go to sleep when you’re screaming! If you try again later you run the risk that your toddler will learn that protesting leads to postponed rest time. So ensure she’s actually ready for a rest, that your transitions are clear, that sleep routine/hygiene is good, and that you are setting clear limits.
As you may have already noticed, daytime sleeps are challenging as kids get older. But they do need their rest, even up until their pre-school years. You might find that your daughter wakes up irritable after a daytime nap. She may want to sleep for several hours and then not want to go to sleep at the time you have deemed appropriate in the evening. Some research suggests that when we over-regulate our children’s sleep patterns they lose the ability to manage their sleep routines (and it can be the same with food). Other research tells us we need to set firm limits around our kids’ sleep patterns.
Ultimately, you’ll find a balance between what your toddler needs (for good health) and what you need (for sanity). As a recommendation, take a look at a book called ‘Baby Bliss’ by Jo Ryan. She is expert in baby and toddler sleep, and I’m sure it will be worth the investment.