Sleep is a major requirement for good health, development and growth, especially in the toddler years. Crucial physical and mental development occurs in early childhood and sleep deprivation can threaten that.
“Insufficient sleep can lead to problems with inattentiveness, learning and memory,” said Dr. Jennifer Burkam, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Green. “We also might see behavior and emotional regulation issues, and children that don’t sleep well are more likely to get injured and become obese.”
Toddlers generally require 11 to 14 hours of sleep, including an afternoon nap of 1 to 3 hours. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer regarding how much sleep kids need. It all depends on the age, the child and the sleep total during a 24-hour period.
For example, one toddler may sleep 13 hours at night with only some daytime catnapping, while another gets 9 hours at night but takes a solid 2-hour nap each afternoon.
“Parents are often frustrated by early waking times,” said Dr. Burkam. “However, it can be normal and healthy for a toddler to sleep from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. if they take a 2-hour afternoon nap.”
Signs of insufficient sleep in your toddler
Signs of a tired, sleep-deprived toddler can be blatantly obvious: from whining, moodiness and out-of-control tantrums to constant yawning and droopy eyelids.
However, not all signs are quite so obvious. More subtle problems with behavior and schoolwork can also pop up.
“Parents are surprised to hear that hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention, oppositional behavior and other behavior problems can be signs of insufficient sleep,” said Dr. Burkam.
If you suspect your toddler isn’t getting enough sleep during a 24-hour period, start by asking yourself these questions:
- Does my child act sleepy during the day? Does she nap in the car during short rides?
- Does my child get cranky and irritable in the late afternoon?
- Is it a battle to get my child out of bed in the morning?
- Does she have a short fuse, throwing tantrums often?
- Is my child clingier or needier than usual?
- Is she inattentive, impatient, hyperactive or aggressive?
- Does my child have trouble focusing on schoolwork and other tasks?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider adjusting your toddler’s sleep or nap schedule. It may take several weeks to find a routine that works.
In addition, create a consistent bedtime routine that gives your child a chance to unwind from the day. For example, reading a book, taking a bath or listening to soft music can help kids settle in for the night.
“We strongly recommend children avoid screen time 30 minutes prior to bedtime to help with sleep onset,” said Dr. Burkam. “Most people think that watching a movie or show can help a child unwind, but it often has the opposite effect and activates the brain.”
Also, be sure to enforce a nap schedule and stick to it. Naps provide much-needed downtime for growth and rejuvenation. In addition, naps can help keep kids from becoming overtired, which not only takes a toll on their moods, but also may make it harder for them to fall asleep at night. If your child has given up daytime naps, consider adjusting to an earlier bedtime.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s sleep.