By: Helen Stevens
Tracy G. Cassels
Wendy Middlemiss
Darcia Narvaez
Sarah Ockwell-Smith
John Hoffman
James McKenna
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett

Click here for Part 1 covering Understanding Toddler Sleep

Why Do Toddlers Wake?

maddy dogThe brain of a toddler is capable of complex processes and there may be many reasons a toddler wakes and signals, or calls/cries out. Reasons can include having bad dreams, waking up and being uncomfortable with the dark, or just wanting comforting attention. A new experience a toddler has during the day can even cause additional waking and signalling overnight. Emotional and physical factors can cause wakefulness beyond what is normal.  Parents may worry that prolonged sleep without toddlers’ waking and calling for, or coming to the parent for, attention will always continue.  In the midst of wakeful nights, tiredness and the pressure of everyone around saying that toddlers should sleep through the night, it is easy for parent to fall into the trap of disciplining and harsh measures to ‘get the toddler to sleep through’.  The knowledge that the toddler needs comforting and kindness often slips to the background for tired families. 

Helping Toddlers Sleep May Mean Knowing When They are Tired

How can you know if a toddler is not sleeping because they aren’t tired enough to sleep… and when they are tired? Tired children will exhibit signs that they are sleepy. Toddlers may fight sleep and bedtime because there is so much that to do. But overtired toddlers will have more difficulty settling. It is important then, to get toddlers to bed before they are overtired. Parents can watch for the signs of sleepiness…

Being Grumpy. When sleepy, toddlers become less tolerant of change and more emotionally reactive, easily bored and cannot hold interest in play and sometimes grizzling.

Being Jumpy.  Toddlers, when tired, may become more reactive to sudden noises, even jerky movements may be seen.

Just Staring.  Toddlers may begin to transition to sleep, just as infants had, with a change in alertness. With this they may have moments of fixed gaze, not focused on anything, just staring. Sometimes briefly, sometimes longer.


 Being Clumsy.  As toddlers get more tired they may fall, tip from side to side, or drop things more readily.

 Look Tired. When tired, some toddlers’  bright complexions become pale and dull and dark areas around the eyes develop.

Unusually Cuddly or not Cuddly at all. When very sleepy, toddlers may seek the comfort of more cuddles, or they may be less easily cuddled or comforted.

To help with toddlers’ transition to sleep and nighttime routine, it is good to get toddlers to bed before a parent sees these signs. This may help with toddlers’ being able to settle and toddlers sleeping peacefully.  One of the most successful things parents can do is implement a bedtime routine that is catered to the specific child.  It has been found that implementing a bedtime routine can decrease the time to sleep onset for toddlers while having the added benefit of improving mom’s mood (Mindell, Telofski, Wiegand, & Kurtz, 2009).

Click here for Part 3 which will cover Helping Toddlers Prepare for Sleep

[Image Credit:]

Mindell, J.A., Telofski, L.S., Weigand, B., & Kurtz, E.S. (2009).  A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood.  Sleep, 32, 599-606.