It’s 2:00 AM, you wake up, and your toddler is standing beside your bed, about to crawl in. You shake your head and wonder what you’re doing wrong and why your toddler won’t stay in bed. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Most toddlers go through this stage but there are some logical reasons why. 

Why won’t my toddler stay in bed?

The term “toddler” can be a pretty large age range, depending on who you ask. Some daycares consider “toddlers” any baby that can walk, while others may consider whether they can talk as the guideline. I review my qualification for a toddler here, but if your toddler is struggling to sleep there are two major developmental milestones that could be leading to your child’s new sleep struggles. 

If your baby is 18-24 months old, then most likely you’re in the thick of a linguistics leap. This means your child is working on soaking up and possibly spitting out all sorts of new words and even short sentences! Yay, new words and new ways to communicate, but with these new words comes new insecurities and boundary testing – insert sleep regression! 

Now if your child is 2.5 to 3.5 years old, then you’re probably starting to see or are in the middle of the “imaginative play” leap. This is the fun new development where your kiddo can create whole new worlds, possibly an imaginary friend, and elaborate and detailed stories. This is one of my favorite developments since it can be loads of fun to play new games with your child. However, this big new leap into the creative realm, can lead to your child becoming scared or fearful of some of their own creations! This development is often when we start to hear, “I’m scared of the dark” or “There are monsters in my room”. And just like that, a new sleep regression happens.

Regardless of the age or leap that may have caused these new sleep troubles, the regression behavior often looks the same – “mommy, stay with me” or “no I don’t want to go to bed” and before you know it your little one now needs you in their room to fall asleep. The harder part is now they are possibly getting up out of bed (if they can) to come to your room at all hours of the night OR they are now waking up through the night calling you back into their room!

Let’s take a moment to evaluate what other factors could be affecting your child’s sleep: If your toddler won’t stay in bed, this typically means that his sleep needs are changing. Remember that toddlers need about 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day, including naps. He may need less sleep which is causing him to wake up. Other reasons are the following:

  • Change in total hours of sleep needed – As babies become toddlers, there are changes in their total sleep numbers as well. It is worth reviewing your child’s total sleep needs and their awake windows to ensure there is enough sleep pressure to fall asleep easily.
    • For 16 months to about 3 years old, about 12-14 hours of total sleep in 24 hours & for children older than 2.5-3 years old that total drops to about 11-13 hours total (this is most kids start to drop a nap and therefore the total asleep number goes down).
    • I recommend keeping a mostly balanced awake window for a stable bedtime and avoiding overtiredness from occurring. This would be 4.5-5.5 hours of awake time in the morning and 5-6 hours of awake time after the nap.
  • Separation anxiety – As mentioned above, due to their new developmental leaps, a toddler will often feel unsafe or overwhelmed when alone. These insecurities display as separation anxiety and most often are more intense when they are tired (like at the end of the day).
  • Lack of self-soothing skills – Now if your toddler has been drinking milk (bottle or cup), using a pacifier or  is used to being rock/held or otherwise, then they will continue to seek that support at bedtime and overnight. During these large developmental changes they will wake more frequently, leading to additional support overnight. 
  • Overstimulation –  This can happen if you’re coming home for high energy activities and your child may be struggling to shift into sleep mode due to the extra external stimulus. Screen time can also be highly stimulating and cause a decrease in melatonin (sleep hormone). Again, leading to your child not being able to shift into a calm and quiet bedtime and as well as struggling to stay asleep.
  • Diet changes – Since toddlers are notorious for being picky eaters, sometimes there can be shifts in their eating habits that can lead to too much starchy and sugary foods. This shift in their diet can make it difficult to settle into sleep and feel full all night long. Sugar crashes can certainly make bedtime more difficult! 

How can you help your toddler stay in bed?

Here are some tips on how you can help your toddler stay in bed at night: 

  • Establish a more positive and independent routine – Review your bedtime and routine and ensure it’s a smooth and quiet transition from the day. Also, see if there are ways to set up bedtime and all the steps so your child can more independently complete all the required steps. Giving toddler choices with positive and specific praise for their independent behaviors throughout the routine can help to reinforce your desired bedtime behaviors and set the tone for a happy and calm bedtime.
  • Falling asleep again at bedtime by themselves – I know this one is harder done than said but work on trying to pop out of the bedroom briefly while they are falling asleep or give them more space as they are falling asleep. This will encourage them to fall back asleep on their own without looking for you (long term)
  • Be all business overnight – When they come out of bed or call out for you overnight, shift into no-nonsense mode; avoid touching, holding, carrying or chatting. Being less engaging overnight can help to not reinforce desired engagement overnight. You can walk them back to their room, if they did fall asleep on their own OR if they haven’t gotten back to falling asleep on their own at bedtime, consider setting up a cot or mat in your room they can go to overnight to minimize overnight sleep disruptions until you’re successful at an independent bedtime.
  • Offer a security item – Consider offering a security item that they can have when going to sleep. I often recommend a parent offer something of theirs for the child to keep; a favorite concert tee or jacket (something they have seen the parents in often), even a necklace or bracelet can be an option. The key is for the parent to be possessive over the object and request the item back first thing in the morning. You could also build in a long term plushy or stuffie by having it with you throughout bedtime and for every wake up so they get used to having it around during comforting times. Although, this will take plenty of time to establish, so not a quick fix but a better long term option.

Keep in mind that toddler regressions will take longer to get through than their baby regressions so some patience is required. Remember, you are a good parent and toddlers are tough but you can get through this and there is help if you need it!

Contact Laura Today!

Is your baby having trouble sleeping? Good Little SleeperZzz specializes in baby sleeping consulting, providing expert help with your baby’s sleep. Our personalized solutions will help your baby get the restful sleep they need to grow and thrive. Say goodbye to sleepless nights and hello to a well-rested baby. Contact us today for the best sleep help for your baby.