Age 2 to 3 Years: Sleeping

Between ages 2 and 3 your child may sleep from nine to 13 hours a day. Most toddlers take a two- to three-hour nap around lunchtime but some continue to take two shorter naps instead. Others give up napping entirely during this period. Unless she routinely becomes irritable and overtired from lack of sleep, there's no reason to force a nap schedule on your child.

At bedtime your toddler may become downright rigid about her going-to-sleep ritual. She now knows that at a certain time each day she changes into her nightclothes, brushes her teeth, listens to a story, and takes her favorite blanket, doll or stuffed animal to bed. If you change this routine, she may complain or even have trouble going to sleep.

However, even with a completely predictable bedtime routine, some children between the ages of 2 and 3 resist going to sleep. If they're still in a crib, they may cry when left alone or even climb out to look for Mom and Dad. If they've graduated to a bed, they may get up again and again, insisting they're not tired (even when they're clearly exhausted) or asking to join in whatever else is going on in the household. Part of this pattern is due to the typical negativism of this age, the refusal to do anything Mom and Dad want them to do, and part is due to lingering separation anxiety. Despite their insistence on independence, they still feel uneasy when Mom or Dad is out of their sight, especially if they're left alone in the dark.

To give a child who resists going to bed a feeling of control, let her make as many of the choices as possible at bedtime, for example, which pajamas to wear, what story she wants to hear, and which stuffed animals to take to bed. Also, leave a night-light on (she may even be more comfortable with the room light on), and let her sleep with her security objects to help take the edge off her separation anxiety. If she still cries after you leave, give her 10 minutes or so to stop on her own before you go in to settle her down again; then leave for another 10 minutes, and repeat the process. Don't scold or punish her, but don't reward her behavior by feeding or staying with her.

For some children, this bedtime battle is actually an attempt to attract attention. If your toddler climbs out of bed night after night and comes looking for you, immediately return her to bed and tell her "It's time to go to sleep." Don't reprimand or talk to her any further, and leave as soon as she's lying down again. She'll probably push you to your limits, getting up over and over for many nights in a row. But if you keep calm and remain consistent, she'll eventually realize she has nothing to gain by fighting you, and she'll start going to sleep more willingly.

Nightmares

Occasionally, your child may wake up from a nightmare. Bad dreams are common among toddlers, who still cannot distinguish between imagination and reality. Often if they hear a scary story or see violence on television, the images will stay in their minds, later cropping up as nightmares. And if they remember dreaming about a "monster," they may believe the monster is real.

When a nightmare awakens your toddler, the best response is to hold and comfort her. Let her tell you about the dream if she can, and stay with her until she's calm enough to fall asleep.

Your child will have nightmares more frequently when she's anxious or under stress. If she has bad dreams often, see if you can determine what's worrying her in order to ease her anxiety. For example, if she's having nightmares during the period when she's being toilet trained, relax the pressure to use the potty and give her more opportunities to be messy through fingerpainting or playing with her food. Try talking with her (to the extent she can) about issues that might be bothering her. Some of her anxieties may involve her separation from you, time spent in child care or changes at home. Talking can sometimes help prevent these stressful feelings from building up.

As a general precaution against nightmares, carefully select television programs for your toddler, and don't allow her to watch TV right before bed. Even programs you consider innocent may contain images that are frightening to her. During the rest of the day, restrict her viewing to educational or nature programs geared to her age level. Don't let her watch violent programs of any kind, including many cartoons.

At bedtime, put your toddler in a good frame of mind for sleep by playing quietly with her or by reading her a pleasant story. Soothing music may help calm her as she falls asleep, and a night-light will help reassure her if she wakes up.

Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics