Many parents face bedtime struggles with their toddlers and preschoolers. You’re not alone if your little one screams and cries when it’s time for bed or takes hours to finally fall asleep. It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting dealing with these nightly bedtime battles.
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Let me tell you a story about Emma, a spirited 3-year-old girl who started resisting bedtime out of the blue. She used to be a champion sleeper, easily drifting off after storytime. Now, when Mom or Dad tucks her in and tries to leave the room, Emma shrieks, “No, stay!” and pops out of bed to cling onto their legs. Or she asks for glass after glass of water or cries for yet another lullaby or back tickle. Her bedtime tantrums drag on and on for hours before she finally surrenders to sleep, leaving her parents wiped out.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It’s very common for toddlers to start fighting sleep at bedtime. In this blog, we’ll explore the reasons behind bedtime struggles and how you can help your little one wind down. With patience and consistency, you can ease these temporary sleep setbacks and get your whole family the rest you need.
How long is too long?
Before we dive into some of the main reasons children struggle to fall asleep, it’s important to clarify how long it typically takes a toddler to fall asleep so we’re seeing realistic expectations for your little ones.
On average, it takes between 30-45 minutes for toddlers to fall asleep (keep in mind that this number depends on several factors – check out this blog for more details!).
If your little one is taking longer than 45 minutes to fall asleep, that would be considered “too long.”
Reason 1: Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety in toddlers occurs when a child becomes fearful of being away from parents or caregivers. Signs of separation anxiety at bedtime include:
- Crying, screaming or panicking when a parent tries to leave the room.
- Clinging to parents and resisting being put down to sleep.
- Stalling techniques like repeated requests for drinks or bathroom visits.
- Begging the parent to stay in the room or lie down with them.
- Only falling asleep in a parent’s arms or while co-sleeping.
Separation anxiety makes it difficult for a toddler to relax, so they’re unable to fall asleep. The fear of being apart from loved ones keeps their mind and body on high alert. This anxious state prevents sleep cues, like darkness, from making them feel sleepy.
Reason 2: Nighttime Fears
Around ages 2-3, children develop the ability to create new ideas, images, or concepts in their minds. With a growing imagination, it makes sense if they may begin to express fears or concerns about monsters under the bed or scary creatures hiding in the closest.
Nighttime fears are very common during this stage of development. This is especially true if a child has seen an unsettling movie or heard something disturbing on the bus. When kids are exposed to something scary, it makes sense that fears are heightened in the evening time – the slowness of the evening often brings to surface thoughts, fears, and concerns that a child could distract themselves from during the day.
It’s also common for little ones to have nightmares when they undergo big life changes. The stress from moving, adding a new baby to the family, or switching schools can produce nighttime anxiety for kids.
Some common nighttime fears include:
- Fear of the dark.
- Fear of being alone.
- Fear of monsters, ghosts, or bugs.
- Fear of bad dreams.
Signs your child may be struggling with nighttime fears include:
- Crying or screaming when the lights are turned off.
- Calling out for their caregiver in the middle of the night.
- Asking for night lights or the door to be left open.
- Trouble falling asleep or frequent waking.
- Asking parents to check under the bed or in the closet.
- Talking about scary creatures or bad dreams.
If your child is experiencing nighttime fears, there are steps you can take to help them feel safe and secure at bedtime, such as providing comfort through routines, night lights, and reassurance.
Reason 3: Sleep Pressure
Sleep pressure refers to the need to sleep that builds the longer someone is awake. It is a natural, biological response that makes us feel sleepier the longer we’re awake. Often, this means sleep pressure increases throughout the day and peaks at night.
When sleep pressure is too low at bedtime, a child will be undertired, so they’ll have a harder time falling asleep. Signs your toddler is undertired could include:
- Taking 1-2 hours to fall asleep.
- Playing or talking in bed instead of sleeping.
- Waking up early, refreshed and ready to start the day.
- Refusing naps or skipping naps.
- Resisting bedtime and wanting to stay up later.
Overtiredness means sleep pressure has built up too much. When overtired, toddlers have a hard time relaxing and shutting off their mind and body. Signs your toddler is overtired could include:
- Crying, screaming, or tantrums at bedtime.
- Tossing and turning for a long time before falling asleep.
- Waking frequently through the night.
- Waking up grumpy and irritable.
- Needs rocking, nursing, or other sleep crutches to fall asleep.
Getting bedtime right means ensuring your toddler is tired enough to fall asleep relatively quickly but not so exhausted that they have a meltdown. Tracking sleep pressure can help find the sweet spot.
For more on sleep pressure and how to get your toddler’s bedtime right, check out our blog post, “Why Won’t My Child Calm Down at Bedtime? Let’s Talk About Sleep Pressure.”
Reason 4: Sensory Needs
A child’s unique sensory needs can significantly impact how easily they fall asleep at bedtime. Sensory needs refer to the way a child’s nervous system responds to sensory input like sounds, textures, tastes, and movement.
Some children are sensory seeking, meaning they crave sensory input and can handle extra sounds, textures, etc. Other children are sensory-avoiding, meaning they are easily overwhelmed and bothered by sensory input.
Sensory-seeking children can have difficulty settling down at bedtime because they may be looking for more sensory input to satisfy their nervous system. They may jump on the bed, make loud noises, or repeatedly get up after being tucked in.
Sensory-avoiding children can struggle to fall asleep due to sensitivity to sound, light, textures of pyjamas or sheets, or other sensory cues in their environment. Some of these sensory cues are so subtle that parents don’t even know their child could be affected by them. But for a sensory-avoiding child, these types of inputs can feel overwhelming, which can prevent them from relaxing and falling asleep.
Understanding a child’s unique sensory needs and making adjustments to their bedtime routine can help them fall asleep more easily. Parents may need to provide extra heavy work sensory input for sensory-seeking kids or limit stimuli and create a calming environment for sensory-avoiding kids.
Reason 5: Life Situations
When a toddler experiences big life changes or transitions, it can cause sleep disruptions. If your little one is taking a long time to fall asleep, get curious about any shifts or changes in their life.
Here are a few life big changes that might disrupt a toddler’s sleep:
- A new baby in the family.
- Starting daycare or preschool.
- A significant loss in the family.
- Moving to a new home.
- Family conflict (divorce or separation).
Some of the big changes in a parent’s life can also affect a toddler’s sleep. For example, if a parent is ill, travelling for work, or going back to work after being home for a period of time, it can shake up a little one’s sleep.
For highly sensitive toddlers, change can be significantly disruptive to sleep. These changes might appear to be small or simple to a parent, but for your toddler, it can be overwhelming. For example, transitioning to sharing a room with another sibling, sleeping in a new “toddler bed,” or moving to a different bedroom can feel really tricky for a toddler. Consider these types of situations when you’re trying to understand why your toddler is taking a long time to fall asleep.
Significant life changes can be distressing, overwhelming, and all-consuming for parents, as well. Even if these changes aren’t directly happening to the toddler, they can feel the “ripple effects” from the way life transitions impact a parent’s time and temperament. When we lose sight of how our own lives impact our little ones, it can prevent us from noticing a key piece of the puzzle when we are trying to solve sleep struggles.
Related Posts: 3 Life Situations That Make Sleep Tricky for Kids
There’s a Reason Behind Every Bedtime Battle
It’s very common to go through periods where it a long time for a toddler to fall asleep. The good news is that toddlers don’t take a long time to fall asleep just to be “bad” or manipulative – there’s always a reason! Whether it’s separation anxiety, nighttime fears, sleep pressure, sensory needs, or life situations, there are tools to end the bedtime battles.
With an attitude of curiosity, you can better understand why your toddler is taking a long time to fall asleep – this is the most important step in starting to solve sleep struggles!
If you’re looking for more support to get to the bottom of your little one’s bedtime battles and tools to help solve the problem, we can help! Our course, Solving Bedtime Battles, will guide you through exactly what to do for night wakings, early mornings, transitions like naps and beds, room sharing, and, of course, long bedtimes!
- Understanding Sleep Struggles: Toddlers and preschoolers often resist bedtime due to one or more common reasons, from separation anxiety to sensory needs. Recognizing these challenges is the first step toward peaceful nights.
- Separation Anxiety: A common cause of bedtime resistance or difficulty falling asleep is when a child becomes fearful of being away from their parents or caregivers at night. This makes it hard for them to relax and fall asleep.
- Nighttime Fears: Imagination can lead to fears of the dark or imaginary creatures, which can be alleviated with reassurance and a secure environment.
- Sleep Pressure: Ensuring your child isn’t overtired or undertired at bedtime is crucial for a smoother sleep onset.
- Sensory: Addressing specific sensory needs by adjusting the bedtime environment can help children relax and fall asleep more easily.
- Life Changes: Big transitions in a child’s life can disrupt sleep patterns, requiring extra attention and adjustments to their bedtime routine.