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Toddler keeps waking up

You might have been looking forward to finally sleeping well as your baby gets older, but that doesn’t always happen. Read our tips for a better sleep.

Why won’t my toddler sleep at night?

It’s not just babies who get you out of bed. It's common for toddlers to have more breaks in their sleep than you might like (Barry, 2021). In fact, a quarter of parents say their under-fives wake up at night (Bathory and Tomopolous, 2017). As well as just wanting to reassure themselves that you’re still there, reasons toddlers wake up could include:

  • teething
  • bad dreams, which tend to be more common from two years old onwards
  • hunger or thirst
  • illness
  • a wet nappy or needing the toilet
  • being over-tired at bedtime.
     (Byars et al, 2012)

What can I do to help my toddler sleep?

Start with the basics. Having a regular, calm bedtime routine has been shown to improve sleep quality (Hoyniak et al, 2020). A study of eight 18-month-olds found that having a consistent bedtime routine led to improvements within three nights (Mindell et al, 2017). Their bedtime routine involved a bath, massage and quiet activities.

Don’t be in too much of a rush to try out a new toddler bed. Research has suggested toddlers sleep better if they stay in their cot until around the age of three (Williamson et al, 2018). You’ll have a lifetime of them in a ‘big’ bed so enjoy the reassurance a cot can give your toddler for a while longer if that's what suits you all.

Some research also suggests that technology can have an impact on children’s sleep (Cheung et al, 2017). The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recommends avoiding screens for an hour before bedtime (RCPCH, 2019).

Check out our tips here for helping toddlers to sleep.

How does napping affect my toddler’s sleep?

When some toddlers drop their daytime nap, they can find themselves tired earlier in the evening than before. If this is the case, you could try moving their bedtime forward. This has the added benefit of giving you some time to yourself in the evening if you’ve lost that nap break in the day.

You may hear that your baby might become overstimulated if they don’t nap and you don’t move their bedtime, but there is no evidence for this. However, later bedtimes have been associated with shorter night-time sleep (Mindell et al, 2016).

Some evidence suggests that napping beyond the age of two can mean your child will go to bed later and not sleep as well or as deeply (Thorpe et al, 2015). Yet given that all children have different sleep patterns, some will still need to sleep in the day (Galland et al, 2012; Price et al, 2014). You can make a judgement on what works best for your child and family.

The effects of sleep deprivation on parents

Long periods of disrupted sleep can really affect parents, particularly if they are working or caring for other children as well. Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling more emotional or irritable and affect your ability to concentrate. And as any sleep-deprived parent who has eaten half a packet of chocolate biscuits for energy knows, it can affect your appetite (Insana et al, 2011)

It’s important to look after yourself if your toddler isn’t sleeping well so you can meet the demands on your time. Try to cut yourself some slack and don’t make yourself do everything when you’re tired.

Relaxation has been shown to have a beneficial effect on a parent’s stress levels (Hakansson et al, 2016). So don’t feel guilty about doing something to chill out in the evening rather than tackling the DIY.

Keeping your energy levels up

To help get through the day, you could prioritise jobs according to what's really necessary. If you're back at work, you might be more productive in the mornings, so schedule important tasks for then. If you feel drowsy in the afternoon, try opening a window or going for a short walk. If you get a lunch break, and it’s possible, a 10 minute nap can help recharge your batteries.

Top tips from other parents for keeping your energy up are:

  • eat well during the day
  • get organised the night before
  • get plenty of fresh air and activity
  • ask for flexible working
  • don’t drive when you’re tired.

… and share the housework fairly if you have someone to share with.

Research has shown that women tend to do more household tasks and more parenting duties even when both partners are working (Lewis et al, 2007). So if you’re in a couple, it may be necessary to renegotiate roles and expectations to make sure both parents can enjoy an occasional lie-in to catch up on sleep.

This page was last reviewed in January 2022.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Barry ES. (2021) Sleep consolidation, sleep problems, and co-sleeping: rethinking normal infant sleep as species-typical. J Genetic Psychol. 182(4):183-204. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33783334/ [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Bathory E, Tomopoulos S. (2017) Sleep regulation, physiology and development, sleep duration and patterns, and sleep hygiene in infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care. 47(2):29-42. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28117135 [Accessed 20th December 2021]

Byars KC, Yolton K, Rausch J, Lanphear B, Beebe DW. (2012) Prevalence, patterns, and persistence of sleep problems in the first 3 years of life. Pediatrics. 129(2):e276-e284. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3357046/ [Accessed 20th December 2021]

Cheung CH, Bedford R, De Urabain IRS, Karmiloff-Smith A, Smith TJ. (2017). Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Sci Rep. 7:46104. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46104 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Galland BC, Taylor BJ, Elder DE, Herbison P. (2012) Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: a systematic review of observational studies. Sleep Med Rev. 16(3):213-222. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21784676 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Hakansson C, Axmon A, Eek F. (2016) Insufficient time for leisure and perceived health and stress in working parents with small children. Work. 55(2):453-461. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27689587 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Hoyniak CP, Bates JE, McQuillan ME, Albert LE, Staples AD, Molfese VJ, et al. (2021) The family context of toddler sleep: Routines, sleep environment, and emotional security induction in the hour before bedtime. Behav Sleep Med.19(6):795-813. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33356565/ [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Insana SP, Stacom EE, Montgomery-Downs HE. (2011) Actual and perceived sleep: Associations with daytime functioning among postpartum women. Physiol Behaviour. 102(2):234-238. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010463/ [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Lewis S, Gambles R, Rapoport R. (2007) The constraints of a 'work-life balance' approach: an international perspective. Int J Hum Resource Manage. 18(3):360-373. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09585190601165577 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Mindell JA, Leichman ES, Composto J, Lee C, Bhullar B, Walters RM. (2016) Development of infant and toddler sleep patterns: real-world data from a mobile application. J Sleep Res. 25(5):508-516. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsr.12414 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Mindell JA, Leichman ES, Lee C, Williamson AA, Walters RM. (2017) Implementation of a nightly bedtime routine: How quickly do things improve? Infant Behav Dev. 49:220-227. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6587179/ [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Price AM, Brown JE, Bittman M, Wake M, Quach J, Hiscock H. (2014) Children's sleep patterns from 0 to 9 years: Australian population longitudinal study. Arch Dis Child. 99(2):119-125. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24347573 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

RCPCH. (2019) The health impacts of screen time: a guide for clinicians and parents. Available at: www.rcpch.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/rcpch_screen_time_guide_-_f… [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Thorpe K, Staton S, Sawyer E, Pattinson C, Haden C, Smith S. (2015) Napping, development and health from 0 to 5 years: a systematic review. Arch Dis Child. 100(7):615-622. Available at: https://adc.bmj.com/content/100/7/615 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

Williamson AA, Leichman ES, Walters RM, Mindell JA. (2018) Caregiver-perceived sleep outcomes in toddlers sleeping in cribs versus beds. Sleep Med.1(54):16-21. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30529772 [Accessed 15th January 2022]

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