When your toddler doesn't 'sleep like a baby'

Just when you’ve got ‘sleeping like a baby’ sorted, along comes your toddler, and bedtime brings about some new learning curves. Dorothy Waide offers expert support.

Parenting is a life-long journey and every so often our children remind us of this. Just when you feel you have mastered something, a new challenge needs attention. Infant and child sleep is a prime example.

Sleep regressions, as many experts refer to them, coincide with various stages of our children’s development, and I’m afraid to say these 'progressions’ (as I prefer to call them – let’s focus on the positive!) occur until our children are teenagers. Parenting to sleep is very much a part of the life-long journey I mentioned! 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we’re here to talk toddlers. The most common questions I get asked about toddlers are as follows:

☙  How do I drop a nap?
☙  How do I move my toddler from a cot to a big bed?
☙  What do I do when my toddler refuses to go to bed?
☙  What do I do about nightmares and night terrors?
☙  And – more common than we’d like to accept – how do I stop my toddler waking at or before dawn? 

One nap, or two?
Toddlers between the age of 15 and 18 months are often ready to go from two naps to one nap, and in some cases, the older toddler may have been on one nap for some time and is now ready to drop naps altogether. In my experience, some toddlers drop naps much earlier than others, so it is important to remember that all babies and toddlers are different.

Firstly, I look at which is the stronger nap and then work with this to ensure it stays the strongest. I will move it over a period of time so the toddler is having their nap straight after their lunch. You can make a sudden change in one day or you can take a period of time to do it. In my experience, it does depend on the family and the toddler. 

Here’s an example of how to manage the stronger morning nap. If I have a toddler who sleeps from 10am to 12pm and then again from 3pm to 4pm, I will start moving the 10am nap out by 15 minutes, hold for 10 days and then move again until finally I have the toddler having their nap after lunch – some time between 11.30am and 1pm. As you move the nap out, the afternoon nap will also move. At this stage I cut the nap down to a ‘band-aid nap’, AKA the Nana Nap or the Power Nap – basically a sleep for less than 30 minutes. Over time the band-aid nap will drop, as you don’t want the toddler sleeping too late in the afternoon as this may have an impact on their going to bed time.

Moving the morning nap can make it tricky to fit in lunch. When the nap starts at around 10.30am, I’ll give them a portion of their lunch and their milk before their nap and then, when they wake they have the remainder of their lunch. Eventually they will have their lunch around 11am to 12pm, and then have their milk and go down for their nap. 

And now let’s look at the stronger afternoon nap. In this case, you bring your child’s afternoon nap forward and let them have a band-aid nap in the morning. I tend to bring the band-aid nap forward, so their afternoon nap isn’t too late in the afternoon. A general rule of thumb is that your toddler will be awake for around three hours between naps initially, and eventually they will no longer need their band-aid nap in the morning. 

Moving to a big bed
There is lots of advice regarding when a toddler is ready to move to a big bed, however, remember you are your toddler’s ‘whisperer’ so you will know when the time is right. This milestone largely depends on a child’s personality and physical ability, so varies hugely. I know toddlers who are happy to sleep in their cots until they are three and others who are trying to get out of their cots at 10 months old. I’ve noticed that a lot of babies who co-sleep tend to not like their cots and will move into a bed a lot earlier than others. If your little one is vacating the cot early, I’d recommend their first bed be as close to the floor as possible. I often use a Safe-T-Sleep sleepwrap too, to keep the child safe and secure.

My best bit of advice is to keep things as simple as possible, and if your toddler is in a sleeping bag, leave them in their bag until they settle in their new bed. If you are going to move your toddler out of the cot due to a sibling being born, my advice is to do it earlier in the pregnancy, not at the end or when the baby comes home as your toddler is dealing with a lot of change at this point.

Moving on from a cot brings with it the obvious freedom of getting out of bed. Once toddlers discover this, they may well fall asleep on the floor a few times before they figure it all out. Just go with it, as long as the room is safe. Look at their drawers – can they jam their fingers? Can they open and shut cupboard doors? Limit the amount of toys out on the floor – I tend to store toys out of reach until the child is used to their new ‘big kid’ status. For the wanderers you can put a gate on their door, so you don’t have to close the bedroom door completely. If the room has blinds that have cords, ensure these are well out of reach. This also applies to electrical cords, of course.

To avoid injuries from falls out of the bed, I place the child’s cot mattress on the floor and also use a side safety rail. Another tip is to use a pool noodle underneath the bottom sheet to deter falls. 

Bedtime refusal
This common behaviour in toddlers can be gradually formed, or appear literally overnight. Having a good evening routine is the key to getting through this stage, as routines help a toddler to understand what is happening. I encourage parents to work through the evening routine – PJs, milk, stories etc – in another room in the house and then, when you go into your child’s bedroom, the only things left to do are saying goodnight, hopping into bed, cuddling the toys and going to sleep. If you have a toddler who wants ‘just another drink’ or ‘just another story’, it helps that you’ve done all these things outside of the room, as you can remind them the day has finished and they’ve already gone to bed.

It’s important that your evening routine is calm and not rushed – easier said than done for the typical busy family, but sometimes we need to make changes to get things to go the way we want them to. Rushing this time of the night can add more stress and, in the long run, make it take longer for the toddler to go to bed.

Daylight saving and the summer holidays can make it hard for a toddler to understand that it’s time to go to bed. I ensure I have  a black-out blind or curtain  that does not let even a crack of light in. When it's bedtime, I talk about how lucky the child is that the fairies have brought bedtime to their rooms. Once in their rooms, darkness does encourage a child to hop into bed.

Toddlers have very good imaginations so take care regarding what they are viewing on the television and be aware of the books you are reading. Keep to nice calm 'good night' stories at bedtime.

It’s okay to stay in your toddler’s room if you choose – everyone parents differently and it is important you embrace what suits your family, rather than do something that doesn’t feel right to you. My advice is to either lie or sit on the floor, rather than be on the bed with them. Being in the room with your toddler while they fall asleep offers great comfort, but it can obviously seem very time-consuming. The reality is that toddlers grow up. Before you know it they are off out into the big world and you have lost this special time with them. 

Bad dreams and the boogie man
Nightmares happen in the early hours of the morning and are like a bad dream. The toddler will often be calmed with a cuddle and some verbal reassurance. Nightmares tend to be related to what the toddler has experienced during the day.

Night terrors tend to happen once your toddler has been asleep for one or two hours. These can be very frightening for both the toddler and the parents, as your toddler may not recognise you and may try and push you away. Their body looks awake but their mind is still sleeping. When they finally go back to sleep and wake in the morning, your toddler will tend not to remember that they woke up. 

Night wakers and early birds
We all wish our toddlers would sleep all night, however it is important to understand that all babies, toddlers, children and adults wake up overnight. We stir, catch our thoughts, then go back to sleep. Ideally a toddler is able to resettle without intervention, but sometimes they need reassurance – as do we all.

To address toddler night-waking, I look at the daytime routine. Once the daytime routine is sorted, the evening routine usually follows suit. Toddlers need food before milk and this is particularly important for their first feed of the day. When I was working in a hospital in Australia, one of their theories was that, from 10 months onwards, if a child’s first feed of the day was a sucking feed and they wake constantly overnight, then the night waking is due to them looking for sucking comfort. I have worked with many families using this theory and have had a good success rate at reducing night waking. The other part of their diet I look at is how much fruit, processed sugars, yoghurt and cheese a toddler is eating after lunch. By lunchtime our toddlers have often had their fruit intake. It is interesting to see how well toddlers will sleep after removing all of the above foods from their diet after lunch. It certainly doesn’t change all toddlers' sleep habits, but my clients have seen a positive change in their toddler’s overnight sleep issues when restricting afternoon intake of these foods.  Cheese contributing to nightmares seems like an old wives’ tale, but it has a lot of truth in it.

If your toddler is a night-waker, it’s important to check there are no medical conditions causing them to wake, such as sleep apnoea. Always check with your doctor if you're concerned. Alternative therapies such as NET or cranial sacral therapy may help.

The best approach to resettling a toddler who has woken in the night is gentle reassurance that it is still sleeping time; everyone in the house is asleep – including all their toys. If your child gets up and comes to your room, you have the choice whether you take them back to bed and wait with them until they go back to sleep, or let them join you in your bed. Different approaches suit different families.

Waking too early is a tough one, especially with daylight saving, however having good black-out blinds and curtains will help. Another culprit is the outside world (birds, cats, rubbish trucks), and sadly, you can’t avoid this. Having low white noise on a timer can help. This is the hardest time to resettle, as toddlers feel they’re ready to start the day. It could be that, for a season, your day starts early – enjoy a cup of tea and some quiet moments with your little one. “Alright for you to say”, I know – but this too will pass. Before you know it, your child will be a teenager you have to shake awake at 10am! 


Dorothy Waide is a baby consultant and Karitane Mothercraft nurse with over three decades of experience, and a member of the OHbaby! panel of experts. She is the author of You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn and is currently working on her next book on 12 weeks to toddlerhood. Visit her at or ask her a question in our Experts Section.


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