How to Help a Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep

A Child's Sleep Needs in the Second Year

A child's sleep needs in the second year, now that he or she is a toddler, probably will decline very little and very gradually. By the end of the toddler stage, your child may be sleeping only an hour or two less during any 24-hour period than she did at the beginning of this stage. Most toddlers manage to continue sleeping through for 11 or 12 hours at night, so the reduction in sleep time most likely will come at the expense of daytime naps.

At one year of age, most toddlers will still require two naps a day, but by two-and-a-half, many get by with only one. The transition is not always smooth, and your toddler may experience an awkward period at around 18 months of age -- two naps may be too much, yet one won't quite be enough.

You can get clues about the number and length of naps that are appropriate from your child herself. Chances are, when your toddler is tired, she will take her blanket and head for her bed, tell you she wants a nap, or simply stop what she's doing and fall asleep. In such cases, you should let her nap. If, on the other hand, she's happily and busily playing, you can probably let her skip a nap. If you find that she's unbearably cranky for the rest of the day, that she is so tired and irritable later on that she can't fall to sleep that night, or that you simply need some quiet time for yourself, you could try to encourage her to take a nap the next day. If she's not sleepy, encourage some quiet playtime -- with or without you -- instead.

Likewise, if she's not ready to sleep when it's time for her to go to bed at night, put her in her bed and allow her to play quietly until she falls asleep. Make it clear to her, however, that once you put her to bed at night, she's to stay there until morning, whether she spends the whole time sleeping or not. Other tips for helping your toddler get and stay asleep at night include establishing a bedtime ritual and providing a transitional object, both of which you'll read about later in this chapter.

You may find that, even after weeks or months of sleeping through the night, your toddler starts waking up and crying in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Your toddler may be experiencing separation anxiety -- she may need to check to be sure you are really still there. These unhappy awakenings will eventually stop. In the meantime, however, for your own well-being as well as your toddler's, you need to keep short the amount of time you spend with her when she does wake up, especially if these awakenings occur every night. The next time she wakes up crying, comfort her and make sure that there's not something bothering her physically (such as a wet or dirty diaper, a cold room, or an empty stomach). Try putting a nightlight in her room and making sure a favorite toy or blanket is within reach. If she awakens again, go to her but don't pick her up; leave her in her crib as you pat her and tell her that everyone else is sleeping. If she continues to wake you up, comfort her from the doorway of her room; let her see you, and tell her that everything is fine but that it's time for sleeping. Finally, if it continues, just call to her from your room and reassure her that everything's all right. Eventually, she will learn that while you love her and care about her, it's time for sleeping.

Two-and-a-Half to Five Years

The sleep needs of preschoolers vary enormously. Typically, however, preschoolers sleep about 11 hours straight through at night. Although they usually require a short afternoon nap at the beginning of this period, by the time they are five, most have given up napping. Still, setting up a "quiet time" or "rest time" at midday is a good idea, even if your preschooler doesn't use it to sleep. The opportunity to simply take a little time out from the hustle and bustle of his daily routines and activities is certainly appropriate. It is likely to be good for your preschooler -- and it may be an absolute necessity.

On the next page, learn how to create a bedtime routine for your child.

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