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Why do Toddlers Need Sleep?

This article can also be found in the March 2010 issue of Offspring MagazineThis article was prepared by Ngala for Offspring Magazine, WA’s own family lifestyle magazine.  Visit

Toddlerhood is a time of constant and dramatic change, both physically and developmentally. This may bring about an array of daily challenges, not just for the toddler but also for the parents and carers.

Toddlers are learning and finding out more about themselves, others, and the world in which they live. Toddlers are beginning to understand how others are feeling and how their actions and behaviours can impact on others, especially to their main care givers.

Toddlers are busy people and learning all the time about their environment.  It is important to remember that toddlers need to rest and sleep in order to concentrate on all that they are doing. They are generally inquisitive, argumentative, and very imaginative, and are very good at dramatising situations. They are developing tactics to hold parents' attention. Observing toddlers tired signs is crucial in helping them to establish good sleeping patterns. 

Toddlers all show tiredness in different ways, some common tired signs may include staring, yawning, whinging or crying, clumsiness, lethargy or increased irritability. Toddlers may also display tiredness by getting over excited and running rampant around the house, sometimes until they are almost hysterical. Tired signs are unique to each individual child.

Try and have a consistent ritual or pattern during the day because this helps to give your toddler a sense of routine, consistency and security. This enables them to make the transition from being very active, to being calm, so they are able to settle for a day or night-time sleep. Preparing the environment is helpful and toddlers love to take on these tasks. For example, they may get their favourite toy, choose a book, close the main blinds, or bring in their own drink of water.

Some interesting facts that relate to toddler sleep:

    • Sleep is a critical part of your toddler’s development.
    • Toddlers process what they have learnt during the day while sleeping.
    • Rest and restoration is crucial for the child and their caregiver.
    • The growth hormone is released from your child’s brain while they sleep.
    • A newborn needs a total of 17 hours sleep in a twenty four hour period; a five year old needs 10-13 hours sleep.
    • Toddlers start to cut down the number of sleeps during the day from two to one, to just having a quiet rest time during the day.
    • A sleep cycle increases from 40 minutes at two years to 60 minutes at five years.
    • Toddlers generally stir and wake during their sleep cycles.  If they are used to their parent patting, rocking or feeding them to sleep, they may not be able to resettle themselves when they wake.
    • This skill of self-settling is a learnt skill; some children learn this easily while others struggle and take longer to master this it.
    • When assisting your toddler to develop a sleep pattern try to listen to your child’s protest or communication. Ngala advocates, as a principle, to respond to your child to meet his/her needs and to offer reassurance/comfort when needed while he/she learns the skill of settling. You may have to repeat this process numerous times before he/she settles and falls asleep.
    •  Your child’s behaviour is often a guide as to whether they are getting enough sleep. Keeping a diary of your child’s feeding, sleeping and wakeful behaviour will help you to understand your child’s patterns. You can also track his/her improvements in settling.

Some Settling Tips

    • Prior to sleep or rest time inform your child that rest time is approaching.
    • Use a timer or visual clock to indicate when it is time for settling. You may be also use the end of an activity as a point of reference.
    • Establish a pattern for day sleeps, for example having a snack, playing some quiet games, nappy change and perhaps story or cuddle time prior to settling.
    • Establish a regular pattern for night time sleep. For example, after dinner your child may have some quiet time, a bath and/or a story, then bed.
    • Remember to look after yourself and catch-up on some sleep for yourself when you can.

Enjoy your toddlers!

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