Toddler Restless at Night

Sleep problems in young children of toddler age and older should be handled with care. They may be due to any of a number of different causes, some serious, others not. (Keep in mind that our comments here do not apply to infants, since the sleep patterns of babies are a very different matter.) At this stage of a child's development, restlessness or an inability or unwillingness to fall asleep may in some cases be a sign of emotional distress. But this is not always true. Sleeplessness is sometimes due to physical causes, such as allergies or nutritional deficiencies. For this reason, we suggest you begin by discussing the situation with a qualified nutritionist or your child's physician.

If your pediatrician or family doctor concludes that you are dealing with a mere behavioral problem, we recommend that you take action to break the pattern as soon as possible. The longer it continues, the harder it will be to change.

Due to their more active temperament, boys tend to have a harder time calming themselves down and getting to sleep than girls. For this reason, it's wise to steer them away from boisterous or rowdy games (like "wrestling with Daddy") for at least an hour before bedtime. The same applies to television, which has a highly stimulating effect on young brains.

An appropriate bedtime routine is extremely important for both boys and girls. To achieve the level of calm that promotes sleep and rest, they should be allowed a period of "winding down" before hitting the sack. This means intentionally making evenings a quiet and restful time in your home. It might involve reading a book together, praying, or singing lullabies or kids' worship songs. Sometimes it's helpful to buy an inexpensive CD player for the bedroom and let your son or daughter listen to some soothing music before falling asleep. You can also make use of a night light (be sure that it doesn't cast any scary shadows on the wall) and have your child pick out a stuffed animal to be his or her special "bedtime buddy," providing comfort and security when you're not there.

If your child is getting up several times during the night, take steps to encourage him to return to his bed and stay there. Instead of scolding, ask questions like, "What do you need in order to go to sleep?" This will give your child a sense of empowerment. Once the request has been made (a night light, a stuffed toy or a goodnight kiss) grant it immediately and escort him back to his room. A few words of comfort and reassurance from Mom or Dad are appropriate, but don't overdo it. Above all, make it clear that he will not be staying with you for the night – it is definitely not a good idea for you to sleep in your child's room or to let him sleep in your bed. That will only reinforce the behavior you're trying to eliminate, encouraging him to act helpless and dependent.

Once you've set your boundaries, stand by them, even if it means allowing your to child cry it out for one or two nights. This isn't easy, but once a child realizes that you aren't going to give in, the first of many battles of the will has been won, and the necessary adjustments will soon be made. If, on the other hand, you let him have his own way, you will establish a pattern of manipulation that will make parenting a much harder task in the days ahead.

If you have further questions or would like to discuss your concerns at greater length, call and speak with one of our counselors.


Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership

Bedtime Routines and Fears

Bedtimes and Mealtimes

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

Copyright © 2010, Focus on the Family.