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Sleep And The Terrible Twos

Sleep and the Terrible Twos

The average two-year-old needs around 12 to 14 hours of sleep daily. Helping them to get this shut eye isn’t always easy, though!

How Are Sleep Needs Different for Toddlers and Babies?

While some babies can nap ‘til the cows come home, this will typically decrease to just one nap a day lasting up to 3 hours by the end of their second year. At this stage, many toddlers will make the move from a crib to a bed. Bedtime is often a source of great consternation for toddlers. They may feel that there are still fun activities going on and don’t want to miss out, or they won’t want to be separated from their parent or guardian.

Difficulty returning to sleep, arguing about bedtimes and night awakening can become common issues at this age. Nightmares and night terrors can also become a problem.

Common Toddler Sleep Problems

Here are just some of the most common reasons your toddler is waking up at night:

  • Bad dreams. Waking up screaming during the night isn’t that unusual for young children experiencing nightmares. The toddler years are the time when most children will have their first nightmares.
  • Night sweats, or getting too warm. Your toddler’s ability to regulate their own temperature isn’t fully developed yet – they are still growing. Feeling hot and sweating excessively (night sweats) and getting too warm (overheating) are more common in children as a result.
  • Allergies. Just like adults, toddlers can be allergic to dust mites, dust mite allergens and fungal spores.
  • Night terrors. Night terrors occur when your child begins talking, screaming or lashing out in their sleep. They’re not quite the same as nightmares, but it’s easy to confuse the two.

Just to make sure there’s no underlying cause, it’s always a good idea to consult your GP if your child suddenly begins experiencing any of these symptoms. When your GP has cleared them of any health issues, you can start to work on getting them better at sleeping.


Over a 24-hour period, most two-year-olds will need between 12 and 14 hours of sleep. This doesn’t have to be all in one go, though – a nap or two during the daytime can be combined with their nighttime sleeping to reach this amount. What works best for your toddler may take several weeks of experimenting to discover.

10 Top Tips for Dealing with Two-Year-Olds at Bedtime

  1. Nap times are non-negotiable. Your tot doesn’t have any less of a sleep need just because they’ve figured out how to walk, talk and use the potty (sometimes). Find a quiet space and make sure they nap every afternoon.
  2. Work together on your family sleep rules. Create a cool poster to hang in your child’s room by turning bedtime rules into a family art project. 5 rules or so will do, it needs to be short and easy to remember. Rules could be something like…
    1. I get ready for bed at 7 o’clock. 2. I always brush my teeth. 3. We read 3 books. 4. I go to sleep. 5. I don’t get up until it’s bright.
  3. Remember: You’re the boss!
  4. Don’t leave room for arguments.
  5. Make morning rules too. While you’re laying out bedtime rules, try laying down some ground rules for the morning. Asking your child not to come through until the sun is up can be a good way to stop them from waking you at 4AM for playtime.
  6. Be firm and loving!
  7. Stay calm. Toddlers are GREAT at picking up on our stress and frustration, so try not to get too worked up at bedtime.
  8. Promptly return “jack-in-the-box” kids to bed without engaging.
  9. Use behavioural rewards if you’re struggling – good old fashioned sticker chart where your child can earn a “prize” after a few successful nights.
  10. Bedtime should be consistent and you should be firm – toddlers test limits, so you need to be firm about yours.

For both the child and the parents, moving a two-year-old into their first bed can be a big transition and a great source of stress. It’s a process rather than one big switch, and can easily take up to 8 weeks to settle in properly. You can make the transition easier by keeping as many things the same as you possibly can during the change – if your child had a cot blanket, put this on their new bed, and try to place the bed in the same position as the cot had been.

Avoid injury, crying and nocturnal disruptions by making sure the new bed has a guard-rail fitted so your two-year-old can’t roll out. During their new routine, your toddler is likely to develop a habit of jumping in and out of bed whenever they like. Be sure to praise them lots when they stay in bed like you ask them to, and remain firm without getting angry. The new routine should stick once it’s properly established, so however frustrating it is right now just remember it isn’t forever. Keep the door closed and fit a stair gate so that your toddler’s new habit of night time exploring doesn’t keep you up worrying.

For more information about the terrible twos, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to The Terrible Twos, which was written to help you understand the terrible twos and why they happen, your child’s emotions, behaviour and needs during this time, the importance of balancing freedom and limits and other strategies to help your child learn and grow. Need2Know also have some great books about child obesity, Asperger’s syndrome and Down’s syndrome. Whether your child is approaching toddlerhood, deep in the midst of the terrible twos or you’re just curious, we have all the information you need!

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