The Ultimate Guide to Toddler and Preschooler Sleep Struggles

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 11, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Bedtime can be a struggle. Stalling to protesting, nighttime wakeups, meltdowns, and preferring one parent over another… bedtime is often the hardest time of day. But why is it so hard for kids to go to bed? If they are tired, shouldn’t they just want to sleep?

In this post, we explore five common reasons bedtime can be difficult for toddlers and preschoolers. The 5 “S’s” of toddler and preschooler sleep struggles include: Scared, Sleep Pressure, Separation, Sensory, and Situational.

Understanding the underlying reasons for bedtime struggles is the first step to getting better sleep!

Reason 1: Your Child is Scared

If your little one is between the ages of 2-3, they may find it difficult to fall asleep because they’re starting to experience nighttime fears. Nighttime fears are an opportunity to get curious. When you get curious about the fears, it signals to your child that you believe their fear is real and you care about their fears.

3 Common Reasons Your Child is Scared at Night

1. A Growing Imagination

Nighttime fears can result from a growing imagination; this is a sign that your child has reached a developmental milestone! Amazing! But also, this milestone can transform shadows into monsters and darkness into danger. It’s especially overwhelming because kids feel that they’re being separated from the safety of their caregivers at bedtime.

2. Adjusting to Stressful Life Changes

In addition to a growing imagination, kids can experience increased nighttime fears when they’re adjusting to stressful life changes. Whether they’re adding a new sibling or moving to a new home, big changes can lead to big fears. Some kids will find a change to their sleep space intimidating, making it difficult to fall asleep. Their old room felt predictable, familiar and safe; their new room could feel strange, unsettling, and dangerous. Other kids will struggle to sleep when a new sibling enters the family – it can feel like their world is being turned upside down.

3. Watched Something Scary

When you get curious about your child’s nighttime fears, it can help to consider their temperament, personality traits, or how they normally respond to their world. If your child has a slow-to-warm and sensitive temperament, they’ll likely experience nighttime fears after watching something unsettling on TV, or overhearing something on the news.

Sensitive kids feel and process deeply, so they’re more easily impacted by the media they consume, and the stories they’re told or overhear. Whether it’s something uncomfy they saw at school, heard on the bus, or an ad that popped up while they were on their tablet – bedtime can be the first time all day that the child has to process it! This can show up as stalling, protesting, resistance or tears; these behaviours could be your child’s way of telling you that they’re afraid to be alone because bedtime is when their emotions, thoughts, and imagination run wild.

Related Post: Why Are Kids Afraid at Bedtime? 3 Reasons Behind Nighttime Fears.

Reason 2: Your Child Needs the Right Amount of Sleep

It’s possible bedtime is hard for your child because they have too much or too little sleep pressure. Sleep pressure is the body’s biological drive for sleep; this pressure builds during periods of wakefulness. An appropriate amount of time spent awake can promote the build-up of enough sleep pressure to make falling asleep easier. This period of awake time is typically referred to as a “wake window.” The longer the wake window, the more sleep drive accumulates – but, here’s the tricky part: if a child’s wake window is too long and they don’t get the opportunity to sleep within the appropriate amount of time, their bodies release hormones, like adrenaline, to give them a “second wind.” The adrenaline in their bodies makes it difficult for them to settle. This is why it’s important to follow age-appropriate wake windows.

If your child is having a hard time going to bed, it can be helpful to consider the amount of sleep pressure they have built up before they’re put down for a nap or go to bed at night. The amount of sleep pressure they need depends on their age, development and temperament.

Signs of Undertiredness (not enough sleep pressure)

They delay or try to prolong the process of going to bed by requesting additional stories, asking for water or snacks, wanting to use the bathroom repeatedly, etc.
They resist and protest going to bed, expressing a strong desire to stay awake.
Not falling asleep at bedtime within 20 minutes of a solid routine.

Use our FREE checklist to help identify why your child struggles with sleep!

Signs of Overtiredness (too much sleep pressure)

They struggle to calm down at bedtime, acting silly, hyper, or giggling uncontrollably.
They become easily frustrated, irritable, and are more likely to have outbursts of crying or screaming.

Once your child’s sleep pressure has been considered, you may realize you need to shift your child’s bedtime later or earlier! When your child is offered sleep within their age-appropriate wake times, it can make a significant difference!

Related Post: Why Won’t My Child Calm Down at Bedtime? Let’s Talk About Sleep Pressure.

Reason 3: Your Child Doesn’t Want You to Leave

Often, bedtime signals to your child that they will be separated from their trusted caregiver (you) for 10-12 hours as they sleep alone.

It’s important to understand that children are wired for closeness and connection with their caregivers. This means a child feels safest when you are around!

So, when they sense separation is coming, children will sometimes become frantic! They will do anything they can to avoid being away from you, including clinging, whining, coming out of bed, crying, having tantrums, and stalling bedtime.

If we dig even deeper into brain science, we know that toddlers and preschoolers have a one-track mind; they only feel one thing at a time. When they feel anxious about separating from a caregiver, that’s all they can feel. Being away from you can feel all-consuming.

The way a child is impacted by separation at night also has a lot to do with their temperament. A highly sensitive, deeply feeling, or strong-willed child will typically feel the impacts of separation more intensely than a mild-tempered or easygoing child.

Parents of highly sensitive or deeply feeling kids might notice their little one is anxious, clingy, or upset when bedtime is rushed. If your child can sense that you need them to go to sleep, or you’re frustrated with them at bedtime, it can amplify their anxiety.

For strong-willed kids, separation anxiety can be related to a deep sense of injustice; if they sense they’re not being seen, heard, or considered at bedtime, they might push back as an expression of this anxiety.

Whether your child is clinging to you desperately or angrily pushing you away, their behaviour is telling you that separation feels really hard. When we tune in and get curious about their behaviour, you can see that your child isn’t trying to make bedtime difficult. It truly IS difficult for them.

Now, take a deep breath.

This doesn’t mean that the only solution to your sleep struggles is co-sleeping or staying with your child until they fall asleep every night. Instead, when we understand separation is a struggle, we can focus on creating ways to help our child feel close to us even when we aren’t right there.

Related Post: Why Won’t My Child Let Me Leave at Bedtime? Here Are 3 Common Reasons.

Reason 4: Your Child Needs Movement Before Bed

Every child has a unique set of sensory needs, meaning that in order to stay calm, they should seek or avoid certain activities. Understanding if a child is a sensory-seeker or sensory-avoider can help caregivers adjust the bedtime routine or sleep space to promote better sleep, and make bedtime easier.

Sensory-seeking Children

Sensory-seeking kids are typically very active. If they haven’t had enough sensory input during the day, like running around outside, they may find it hard to settle at night. If your child is struggling with sleep and you suspect they are a sensory-seeker, incorporate movement into the bedtime routine or before bedtime to help them get these needs met.

This could look like:

  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Rough and tumble play
  • Twirling, cartwheels, or somersaults

Sensory-avoiding Children

If your child is a sensory avoider, you may notice that they are particular about their sleep environment and bedtime routine. These kids are often overstimulated by loud noises, rough textures, strong smells, and bright lights. If the bedtime routine is rushed or inconsistent, you might notice more protesting and tears at bedtime. These kids might need more time to wind down in the evenings. Keeping the bedtime routine calm and consistent can help promote better sleep.

NOTE: It’s possible for a child to be a mixture of both sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding. In fact, it’s pretty common. For example, they may enjoy (or need) rough and tumble play before bed, but bright lights and loud noises would be overstimulating.

Related Post: How Your Child’s Sensory Needs Affect Their Bedtime Routine

Reason 5: Your Child Is Experiencing Something New

Kids thrive in predictable environments, especially when it comes to sleep. If your little one is having a hard time going to bed, it can help to consider if there have been any major life changes, situations, or transitions.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Has my child moved to a new home, room, or bed?
  • Have there been any recent additions to the family?
  • Has my child started a new school or daycare?
  • Has my child lost a friend, pet, or family member?
  • Could my child have seen something disturbing on TV or YouTube?

These are just a few questions to ask yourself if your little one struggles with sleep. These situational changes can turn a child’s world upside down, so it makes sense that they would also impact sleep.

If you suspect that your little one’s sleep struggles are the product of their situation, maintain as much consistency as possible to support them through this transition. Consistency is a huge component of sleep success. Consider creating bedtime rituals and adding comfort items to their sleep environment.

Related Post: 3 Life Situations that Make Sleep Tricky for Kids

A New Perspective on Sleep Struggles

Sleep pressure, nighttime fears, separation anxiety, sensory input and situations/transitions can make bedtime hard for kids. When we view these struggles from our child’s perspective, it can shift the way we see our little ones. They’re not trying to be bad or manipulative, and getting curious about their struggles can move us from frustration to compassion.

If you’re struggling at bedtime and want resources to expand your parenting toolbox, we have the perfect course for you. The Solving Bedtime Battles course will help you determine the amount of sleep pressure your child needs, confidently respond to big feelings or pushback at bedtime, and create a connected bedtime routine to support separation anxiety.

Grab the course today!

Key Takeaways

  1. Understanding the reasons behind common bedtime struggles is the first step to getting better sleep.
  2. Too much or too little daytime sleep can make bedtime difficult for children.
  3. A growing imagination or adjusting to stressful life changes can make children feel scared at bedtime.
  4. Separation plays a big role in bedtime struggles, and creating ways to help children feel connected with you can help to alleviate their worries.
  5. Sensory needs (either more activities or less) can impact a child’s ability to settle at night.
  6. Maintaining consistency and creating comforting bedtime routines can help during stressful life situations or changes.
  7. Viewing bedtime struggles from your child’s perspective can help you feel more compassion toward them and get them to sleep quicker.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.