Get Your Child To Bed! The Importance of Sleep for Toddlers

I asked Dr. Lisa Powell, pediatric psychologist, to write an article on sleeping issues for this site. I have been very fortunate to serve on several IFSP teams with Dr. Powell and am always impressed by the depth of her knowledge of developmental and behavioral issues and inspired by her compassionate delivery of advice. With her recommendations Dr. Powell has been able to step in and affect positive changes for several families who were experiencing challenging parent-child dynamics. The one common denominator in all of these situations was the lack of consistent sleep for the child and, consequently, the parents. I, like the families she works with, am always grateful for her wise contributions. If you’re struggling with sleep issues in your household, I hope that you will implement these recommendations so that you and your child benefit. Sweet dreams! Laura


Lisa Powell, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Is your preschooler frequently whining, hyperactive, irritable, angry, aggressive, crying, oppositional, distracted, defiant, or impulsive? If any of these characteristics are common in your child, it may be time to consider if the amount of sleep your child is getting is impacting his/her emotional and behavioral functioning.

The importance of sleep for children cannot be underestimated!! The quality and quantity of children’s sleep impacts their brain development as well as their emotional and behavioral functioning. In order to regulate children’s emotional and behavioral functioning – the first place to start is with regulating their eating and sleeping habits.

(Since eating is a whole other article, we are going to focus here on sleep!)

Establish Structure and Routine

(Throughout the day AND at bedtime/naptime)

Why is it important?

* The sameness provides a sense of safety and security for the child.

* The sameness allows them to know what to expect and what is expected of them.

* The sameness reduces the need to discuss, negotiate, beg, whine and battle – they won’t even try once they know the rules!

* Structure and routine establishes parents as having authority in family and increases compliance with “rules” of the family – you are teaching them to follow rules!

* It is much easier to work on compliance with rules now at 2, 3, and 4, then at 10, 11, and 12.

Schedule eating and sleeping times consistently

*  This is important in many respects….

* It regulates their bodies and “sets their clocks” for when to eat and sleep

* Hunger and fatigue are major contributors to unwanted behavior

* Sleep and Wake times should be the same every day to regulate their sleep cycles

Thoughts about Sleep:

* The amount of sleep each child needs varies for children just like adults, but an average would be 11 – 14 hours for the preschool age group. This would include the number of hours a child sleeps during nighttime and naptime.

* Think about how many hours of sleep your child gets and also look for signs in your child that maybe they are not getting enough sleep such as: you have to wake them up in the morning, they fall asleep in the car or at odd times, or any of the characteristics discussed at the beginning of this article.

* Also, think about what time your child goes to bed at night – new research supports the importance of sleep in the earlier hours of the evening during which major brain development occurs.

Implementing a Bedtime Routine:

* Create a “bedtime routine” (about 30 minutes) this should include the same steps everyday in the same order.

* For example, AT THE SAME TIME EACH NIGHT begin.

1) Take a bath 2) brush teeth 3) put on pajamas 4) read books 5) go to bed

* When the routine is the same everyday the steps are cues to prepare them

* REMINDERS about the bedtime routine:

* No T.V. (T.V. does not “relax” children as many parents think – it stimulates their brain)

*Do not let them decide when they are tired, when they are ready for bed – have a set bedtime and stick to it!

* Do not let them decide where to sleep (for example, sometimes the couch, sometimes your bed, sometimes their bed)

* Watch your child’s intake of sugar and caffeine (in general, but especially near bedtime)

* No roughhousing before bed

* Rocking, feeding and/or lying down with your child is NOT recommended otherwise these things/or YOU will become required for them to go to sleep

* Instead, encourage your child to use a “transitional object” (for example, a stuffed animal or a blanket), which will help comfort them and relax them

* Make sure your daily schedule includes plenty of physical exercise during the day

* Turn the lights down low; close the curtains (in the morning open the curtains and make sure your child gets plenty of exposure to natural sunlight)

* Create a calm, quiet and positive atmosphere to implement your bedtime routine

* End your child’s day with positive parent-child interactions and physical affection

Common Sleep Problems:

1) ” I have to lie down with my child in order to get him/her to go to sleep!”


2) “My child wanders into our bedroom every night and gets in bed with us.”

Most parents who have one of these problems have the other one as well. Why? Because if you lie down with your child you have become his/her sleep aid”. He/she is dependent on you to go to sleep and to remain asleep. So, if you are there when they go to sleep, you will need to be there when they wake up in the middle of the night (which all children do many times). Children who are able to soothe themselves to sleep initially, will be able to do so when they wake up during the night as well.

Managing going to sleep and nighttime awakenings:

1) First, make sure your are ready to follow through with changing their sleep behaviors – do not do anything yet if you think you will not be consistent or will not follow through.

2) Follow the above recommendations about sleep and implementing a bedtime routine.

3) Do not talk or give any attention to your child if they come out of their room at bedtime or into your room in the middle of the night.

4) Simply return them to their bedroom and put them back into bed (no talking, yelling, kissing, hugging, feeding, or hanging around)

5) You may need to do this over and over, but they will eventually stop when they realize they are not going to get what they want (to stay in your room or for you to give them attention). Unless of course just that 1 time you give in! Then it will start all over and last even longer the next time you try to change their sleep behaviors.


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