Your toddler needs about 15 hours of sleep to function at his best. Not all of that happens at night, but a good stretch of it does. If you're regularly putting your child to bed late at night, chances are he's not able to fit in all the hours he needs. As a result, you'll see behavior problems, mood swings, clumsiness, irritability and evening meltdowns. Some things you may also see if it goes on for long include decreased learning, developmental deficits and increased illnesses.
This is why I'm an advocate of an early bedtime schedule for toddlers. Not only does it ensure your toddler a full night's rest, it helps pad those times when your child's sleep is disrupted due to circumstances beyond your control. If your child is already experiencing a sleep deficit, then a week filled with teething, a night terror and a drop-in visit from his cousins is going to absolutely wreak havoc on his life. When you go into a week like that with sleep needs fully met, those incidents are just bumps in the road that may not cause more than a little crankiness.
What Does Your Toddler's Sleep Look Like Right Now?
For about a week, write down and tally up your toddler's sleep. Be brutally honest with yourself. Write down every nap (including the time) whether it was planned or not. That means count those catnaps in the car seat, too. Write down the time you put your child to sleep and then the time he actually fell asleep, as well as what time he woke up. Make a note, too, of your child's overall behavior that day. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does my toddler have a meltdown around the same time every night?
- Is it hard for him to fall asleep at night?
- Is it hard for him to wake up in the morning?
- How many hours of sleep is my child really getting?
- Is he frequently cranky and can I tie that to days where he slept poorly the night before?
You've already mentioned that he's having trouble sleeping at night, but some of these other questions may have been elements that you either didn't notice or didn't attribute to lack of sleep. Now, if your child is getting all the sleep he needs and is functioning well, you may not need to change his bedtime at all. But most parents find that even small shifts in bedtime correct these problems.
Get Naps in Order First
Now that you've written down your child's sleep times, you can see when he's napping. If there are unplanned naps, try to eliminate them so that your child can experience longer, deeper, healthier sleep. It may be easier to handle that trip in the car if your toddler takes a quick nap, but do your best to keep him awake or plan the trip for a time when he won't be sleepy.
If your child is a younger toddler, he's probably still taking two naps a day. This is fine and I wouldn't change that at all unless you've already started to see indicators that this is changing on its own. For example, if your toddler is starting to have trouble falling asleep at what would be the normal time for this nap or doesn't seem tired at the same time in the morning, it may be time for just one nap per day. The same is true of the afternoon nap. If it's starting to get later and later, chances are you can just transition out of the morning nap and move to an afternoon nap only.
For an early bedtime, you don't want the afternoon nap to be too close to bedtime, however. If your toddler isn't getting that afternoon nap started until late in the afternoon, that time will need to shift, too. Toddlers function well with about 4 to 4 1/2 hours of waking time at a stretch.
Get a Good Bedtime Routine in Place
If you don't already have a calming bedtime routine in place, get one worked out so that your toddler is relaxed by the time you'd like him to begin falling asleep. That means you should get the routine started plenty of time before the actual bedtime. Taking a warm bath, keeping lights low, turning electronics off and snuggling up with a book are wonderful ways to wind down.
Don't Be Afraid of Early Waking
You might be afraid that if you put your toddler down early, he's going to just wake up early, too. This is not the case. Remember that your toddler is actually needing more sleep, not less. He has nothing to "make up for" with an earlier bedtime and will sleep just as late as before. The difference is that he'll wake up refreshed and mornings will be easier.
Don't Make the Change Too Fast
If your toddler's bedtime has been especially late, you'll want to take it slowly. Moving from 10:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in one night works for some, but for most, moving the bedtime back 15 to 30 minutes each night until it's where you want it works best.
Give Your Toddler Time to Reset Before You Give Up
If the first few nights are rough, just hang in there. It may take your toddler a week or two to reset and get used to the new bedtime. Make sure you've given it your best before giving up. You'll be glad you waited when you see those happier moods and have a more cooperative toddler as a result of your effort.
What Does It Look Like?
If your toddler wakes at around 8:00 a.m., a nap should naturally come around 12:30 and last about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. This would put your toddler waking around 3:00 p.m. which is optimal for a 7:30 p.m. bedtime. Sleeping from 7:30 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. provides about 12 1/2 hours of night sleep. Add in the nap and that brings you to 15 hours.
These are rough times, of course. Family schedules will dictate differences, however, remember that simply shifting the times doesn't always work to alleviate problems. It's actually the bedtime and wake-up time that is important. Getting to sleep at an earlier time in the evening coincides with the natural, internal rhythm of your toddler in addition to getting the right amount of sleep each night.
Rethink Your Schedule if Necessary
You may be thinking there's no way you can do this if you work or if you have another child who has a schedule conflict. Just remember that your toddler's sleep is every bit as important as a sibling's soccer game or any time you think you'll miss. Get someone else to handle bedtime while you go to the game. And remember, the time you do get to spend together will be so much better and you'll have more time to take care of your own needs in the evenings, too.