Why your toddler needs a good night's sleep

toddler boy1

Sleep at 18-24 months

An energetic toddler usually needs a substantial amount of sleep, around 12-14 hours in a 24-hour period. But every toddler is an individual, and some will thrive on just eight hours sleep a night while others need 16. Also, if your child didn’t sleep a great deal as a baby, the painful truth is he probably won’t sleep much as a toddler-sorry!

Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, toddlers’ naptimes will probably decrease to one a day lasting about one to three hours. Naps should not occur too close to bedtime as they may delay sleep at night. Children, like adults, have biological clocks and will become used to being awake and sleeping at the same times each day. The more consistent you are with your toddler’s naptimes and bedtime, the more likely it will be for him to fall asleep without too much fuss.

The optimum time for an 18-24 month old to go to bed is around 7pm, and the optimum time for getting up between 6.30 and 8am.

Offer choices

Toddlers crave independence and so offering them choices can make the difference between a smooth transition to bed and a full-blown tantrum. For example, rather than saying to your child, “It’s bedtime now,” say, “Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes?” Either way, you can’t lose and your toddler will feel as if they have had a say in the matter. You could also ask your child what pyjamas they would like to wear or which bedtime book they would like to read.

Getting to sleep

By this age, your child should be able to drift off by himself without you having to stay and soothe him to sleep. If you do rock or sing your child to sleep, you could be making a rod for your own back as, when your toddler wakes up in the night, he will be dependent on having you there to get off to sleep again, and it’s a rare toddler who sleeps more than six to eight hours at a stretch.

Sleep at 24-36 months

At two to three years old, your toddler will still require between 11 and 12 hours sleep a night, although his daytime nap might be shorter (on average one to two hours), and, if he has been having two naps a day up until this point, he will most likely only require one.

If your toddler doesn’t want to nap, don’t force the issue, but do make sure he has some quiet time by, for example, reading with him. This will give him some downtime from the rest of his active day.

Between 18 and 36 months, the optimum time for bedtime remains at 7pm, and getting up between 6.30 and 8am.

Toddlers experience much more REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep during which they are more likely to dream) and the deeper stages of REM sleep than adults, meaning that they move from one sleep phase to another regularly, which in turn makes it much more likely that they will wake up. That's why it's so important that your toddler learns how to soothe himself back to sleep.

Sleep tips for toddlers

  • Ensure your toddler’s bedroom environment stays the same every night, ie: use the same nightlight in the same place; the curtains closed if they always are; don’t move his bed around, etc.
  • Keep to a daily sleep schedule and a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Don’t fret if your toddler becomes dependent on a security object such as a blanket or stuffed animal; if it gives him comfort, there's no harm in letting him have it. 

Night terrors

Between the ages of two and six, children become more prone to night terrors (although people of any age can experience them).

Night terrors are not the same as nightmares. If your toddler wakes in the middle of the night crying but consolable, he’s probably experienced a nightmare. If he is hysterically crying, screaming and non-responsive, it is more likely he is in the throes of a night terror.

There is very little you can do to stop or reduce a night terror. Despite appearing to be awake, a toddler experiencing them is actually in a very deep sleep pattern and will be unlikely to respond to calming words or cuddles.

Try not to talk to or restrain your child – both could aggravate him further. Instead, make sure your child is safe (some children make a bolt from the bed in their fear) and sit with him until it passes. Remember that most night terrors last only a few minutes – although it will feel like a lot longer.

What causes night terrors?

It’s thought that being overtired is linked to night terrors. Encourage your toddler to have a nap at a regular time everyday day, and do not put him to bed too late or wake him up too early.

If your child has a fever or has recently been through a stressful situation, he may also be more likely to experience terrors during the night.


Some experts recommend interrupting your child’s sleep cycle. This is accomplished by waking your toddler up after about one to two hours of sleep (night terrors usually strike in the first half of sleep), or about 15 minutes before the time the terrors usually occur. This change in his sleep pattern could be enough to ward off night terrors.

The only other common advice is to stay with your child and sit it out. Remember that night terrors are scarier for you than they are for your toddler – who will probably remember nothing about it the next day. If you are concerned about the frequency or duration of your child’s night terrors, do speak to your GP.

The information on this feature is intended for educational purposes only. If you have any concerns about your health, the health of your child or the health of someone you know, please consult with a doctor or other healthcare professional.

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