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The Link Between Toddler Sleep and Behavioral Problems

There's a link between toddler sleep and behavioral problems. We unpack this topic to help you with your child's nightly bedtime saga.

Getting a toddler to sleep can be challenging. For parents and caregivers, bedtime can often feel like a negotiation. There’s always one more hug, one more sip of water, and one more check of the closet to ensure no monsters are hiding inside.

This quid pro quo of what you have to do for your toddler to hit the hay can be taxing on everyone involved. However, sleep plays such an important role in your child’s development that a restful slumber is imperative because there is a strong link between toddler sleep and behavioral problems.

The Bedtime Resistance Saga

In the early years of childhood, bedtime resistance, followed by night waking is common. As a child grows from infancy into toddlerhood (around 12-13 months), parents and caregivers may find themselves at a loss when it comes to getting their child to catch some zzzs. A baby who once slept peacefully, only waking up for feedings, is now the leader of the Bedtime Resistance.

This bedtime saga will only get worse if it’s not nipped in the bud before your kiddo reaches preschool age. Sleep problems throughout early childhood can lead to difficulties in neurobehavioral functions, developmental issues, disruptions in social-emotional growth, poor play skills, and low impulse control.

What the data tells us about sleep and behavioral problems

A study done by the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that after surveying 2,076 children from toddlerhood into adulthood, those who didn’t get enough sleep exhibited a higher risk for anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior as they got older.

Another study from the academic journal, Sleep, looked into the sleep duration of children. Their findings showed that of the 1,492 kids they studied, those who slept less were inattentive in the classroom and irritable. Moreover, a different study from the same journal found that depression is more prevalent in children who experience sleep disturbances. Of the 553 children observed:

  • 72.7% had sleep issues
  • 9% suffered from hypersomnia
  • 53.5% had insomnia
  • 10% experienced both hypersomnia and insomnia

Toddler Sleep and Behavioral Problems: Is Prevention Possible?

Parents and caregivers can rejoice, there are ways to get your toddler a nightly ticket to dreamland to stave off future behavioral issues.

Here’s how:

  1. No screens before bed = no blue light. Our phones, tablets, and computers use blue light because it boosts reaction times, attention, and mood. In this digital age, it’s almost impossible to keep your toddler away from screens and the blue wavelengths they emit. Yet, there is something you can do. Implement a no screens before bed rule, 1-3 hours before bedtime. The blue light coming from our screens can inhibit melatonin production, the hormone produced by our brains to respond to the dark. Melatonin helps the timing of our circadian rhythms (aka our 24-hour internal clock) and is responsible for reminding our bodies that darkness means shut-eye is near. Instead of screens, read your child a book, talk about your day and what your tomorrow will look like, or make up a bedtime story together.
  2. Bedtime routines for the win. Creating a bedtime routine and sticking with it can work wonders for your toddler. Make sure to wake them up at the same time every day and have them go to bed at the same time each night too. Besides setting a concrete wake-up and sleep time, a routine that involves teeth brushing, putting on pajamas, and storytime is key to getting your child to become a nightly resident of slumbertown. Snorble® can help with the routine. Our smart companion’s bedtime features include wind-down activities, a tooth brushing song, and other light actions to prepare your kiddo for sleep.
  3. Don’t skimp on naps until you have to. Toddlers require 11-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period which includes naps. If your child isn’t getting those 1-2 hour naps in daily, you could be setting them up for behavioral problems. An overtired child is more likely to fall asleep at night but may wake up frequently. But, if your toddler is on the cusp of entering their preschool years, they may not require more than one nap per day. This is normal and if you see that the second daily nap isn’t necessary, don’t force it. It could have a negative impact on your kiddo’s nighttime situation by making it impossible for them to fall asleep.

Fending off behavior problems and conquering the Bedtime Resistance Saga won’t happen overnight - pun intended. As a parent and caregiver, you probably already know that a toddler will take you on an emotional bedtime journey leaving you feeling stressed out or even guilty. No matter what you feel, remember that you are doing a great job and eventually, your toddler’s sleep habits will align with what you want for them.

If you do notice behavioral issues rearing their ugly head, contact your pediatrician.


Photo by Brett Durfee on Unsplash


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