We all know the telltale signs of sleep deprivation in ourselves. We're irritable, impatient, forgetful, and drowsy. And we know what we're supposed to do to prevent all that from happening: Go to bed earlier (yeah right). But what about when it's your toddler? What are the signs that they need to be getting more sleep?
If you notice signs that your little one isn't getting enough sleep, fear not, for you are in good company. "About one in four children have sleep issues," says Ancy Lewis, LCSW-PC, of Sleeping Little Dreamers.
The good news is, there are some clear steps you can take to try and improve your toddler's sleep patterns. Melissa Zdrodowski of Sleep Sisters, a certified maternity and child sleep consultant, recommends sticking to a consistent routine every day. "Toddlers especially need predictability and consistency," she says. This includes non-negotiable naps, an age-appropriate bedtime, regular exercise, good nutrition, and a "sleep-conducive environment (cool, dark, white noise, free of distractions)" explains Zdrodowski.
Like Zdrodowski, Angelique Millette, Ph.D., a parent and family coach, also recommends clear limits and boundaries around sleep. Once you start pushing those boundaries, problems often crop up. For example, if a parent starts to sleep in the child’s room or in the child’s bed with them, or if the child wakes up at 4 a.m. and the parent gives them an iPad to play with, "the child starts to develop a new habit or expectation that they need an iPad every morning at 4 a.m." or that they always need Daddy in the room, says Millette. If parents are "rocking a child to the point of sleep each night," they won't learn how to fall asleep on their own, says Lewis.
There are often contributing factors when sleep disruptions occur, says Millette. It's usually due to a change of some sort, like a new developmental stage, a change in routine, a new baby in the family, starting to have nightmares, or moving from the crib to a toddler bed, she explains. To fix the problem, Millette starts by trying therapies as simple as playing hide-and-seek. By learning how to cope with the separation anxiety that comes when their parent is hiding, a child figures out that it "feels safe to separate from their parents." Later, when bedtime comes and they have to say goodnight for several hours, they learn to "feel safe in their bodies, self-regulate their bodies, really slow down, relax, feel safe, and go to sleep."
But while you may need to give it some time, you should also be prepared to stand your ground. "If parents are struggling for more than 2-4 weeks after being very consistent with changes, they may want to consider professional help," says Zdrodowski. And she reminds parents to be alert to any possible medical issues, such as snoring or interrupted breathing (which your pediatrician will usually ask about anyway). "If parents notice these conditions, they should contact a doctor to discuss a sleep study," Zdrodowski advises.
Whatever sleep issue you're facing, Lewis has some reassurance: "Parents may feel they did something wrong or it’s too late [to fix the problem]." But that's not the case. "They didn’t do anything wrong and their child can learn to be a good sleeper even at an older age."
So if you're wondering what to be on the lookout for, here are seven red flags that your toddler needs more sleep.
1. They fall asleep right away during unstimulating activities
It's one thing if you find yourself dozing in front of the TV, or while you're the passenger in a car. It's another thing if you see your toddler doing it. If they're "falling asleep the instant they are in the car or moving stroller," it's a clear sign they're overtired, says Lewis. A child who's getting enough sleep shouldn't be able to snooze that easily during the day, according to Sleep Training Solutions. So if you notice it happening, you'll want to take a look at your child's sleep schedule, especially their naps, to see if there's a problem.
2. They sleep more on weekends than on weekdays
Both Judith Owens, M.D., M.P.H., Director of Sleep Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, and Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night, point to this one as a problem. While we adults have learned to take advantage of a calmer weekend schedule to catch up on our ZZZs, toddlers shouldn't have any ZZZs to catch up on. If they're sleeping in on weekends whenever they get the chance, this could indicate that they need more sleep during the week.
3. They become more entertaining
We expect that sleep-deprived kids will refuse to listen, and do things like bite and hit, says Millette. But sometimes they "become more entertaining and become party kids as they become sleep-deprived," she explains. In those cases, it's about knowing your own child and figuring out what's normal for them. If your quiet little introvert is suddenly becoming "more entertaining and goofy and silly and hyper," as Millette puts it, you may need to take a closer look at her sleep schedule.
4. It's hard to wake them in the morning
A toddler needs 10-12 hours of sleep per night, not counting naps, says Millette. So a toddler who's getting enough sleep shouldn't need help waking up. "If you have to wake your child to get up for school or child care, then your child isn't getting the sleep that she needs," said Mindell to Today. She advised that parents "figure out how much sleep your child needs, and count backwards from what time she has to get up in the morning. This will help you determine what is her ideal bedtime."
5. They get bursts of energy
This is the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a toddler being sleep-deprived, but it definitely happens. In fact, according to Dana Obleman of The Sleep Sense Program, it's actually much more likely than sluggishness and lethargy. "Kids get into a very hyperactive state when they’re exhausted." So keep an eye out for that second wind: It could be an indicator of sleep deprivation.
6. They're unusually resistant to naps or bedtime
Toddlers are known for bad behavior, but "if they’re resisting sleep and it’s becoming like a fight ... that’s lasting for a month or longer," that's a clear sign of a sleep problem, says Millette. You may notice this behavior at bedtime, at naps, or both, and if it keeps happening, you'll want to address it.
7. You notice mood changes
"Parents can usually tell when toddlers need more sleep by their behavior," says Zdrodowski. "Although developmentally, toddlers are testing everything, so it may be tricky to determine whether the behavior is due to over-tiredness." Try comparing any new behaviors or mood changes to your child's baseline: Are they crankier than usual? Suddenly throwing more tantrums than before? As Obleman has wrote on her site, "We all know that being tired makes our tempers flare. It’s no different for children. If you find that your child is consistently short-tempered and angers easily, it might just mean he needs more rest."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.