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.