Why Won't My Toddler or Preschooler Fall Asleep?!

Many toddlers and preschoolers go through a phase where they won't fall asleep for naps or before bed. Often it is a short phase that passes by itself or with a few changes in the daily routine, but sometimes, it is
as stubborn as a tantruming toddler!

Here are some tips to help you work through this.
It can be an especially tough time if bad naps are causing night time wakings, but hopefully the night will improve once the day does. Please feel free to suggest other ideas if you have them!
  • Ensure your child is getting adequate exercise. Is it winter right now? Has the TV been on too much? When was the last time you went outside? You might even want to make sure your child is getting enough fresh air. I don't know if fresh air actually does something (besides being connected to a child exercising), but it can't hurt. 
  • Make sure your child isn't getting too much daily sleep and that your expectations of how much sleep she should get aren't off. See the too long in bed problem.
  • Maybe you need to adjust the routine to allow for the right amount of sleep at the right time. If she is on two naps, maybe one needs to be shortened or it is time to move to just one nap. If she is on one nap, maybe it is time to move the nap to a later time, shorten it, or move bedtime a bit later. If you are on no naps maybe you actually need one. OR you may actually need to move bedtime and/or nap time to an earlier time, although this may sound a bit contradictory.
  • It might be a phase. I know, this answer is not the best one, but sometimes this seems to really be all that is going on! I hear about a lot of 2 year olds that sleep badly for a couple weeks then get back on track for no apparent reason.
  • Have there been any big changes in your child's life lately? A new baby? Marriage problems (kids are very perceptive!). A loss of a job? A move? If so, I suggest establishing a good daily routine which includes some one on one time with your child as well as one on one time with your spouse. Why with your spouse? Children feel more secure when they know mom and dad are close and happy together.
  • Does your child know how to happily fall asleep by herself? Is she used to your presence and can't drift off without it?
  • Some children are very tired at sleep times and know how to fall asleep by themselves but they still have a hard time drifting off. Why? It might have to do with a difficulty shutting their body and minds off. I have this problem and my son Joshua has had this at times. Maybe try doing a long soothing or calm activity before bed like reading, coloring, puzzles or independent play time. Maybe try talking to your child about his day and any worries he has (this may make the worries worse or may relieve his mind of them). Maybe you have too many distractions available in the room and your child can't help but want to play with them or look at them instead of sleep (I know I have continued to watch a movie or talk to people when I am tired because that is more fun to do).
  • Some people will enforce sleep rules for their children. This might include that their child is required to lie down and be quiet during sleep times. This can help the child that is tired but has difficulty with the urge to play, sing etc at sleep times. If you choose to do this, do make sure your child is really in need of sleep and not just cranky and hungry, ill etc.
  • Some children may only need you to go in and say "time to go to sleep"
  • Try introducing a soothing object or music to sleep times.
  • Make sure your child is going to sleep with a lovey if she has one. If she doesn't have one, it wouldn't hurt to try to introduce one.
  • You might want to do whatever is necessary to get your child to sleep during his normal nap time to get his body used to sleep at this time. Once his body gets used to sleeping again, you can often get rid of whatever prop you were using to help with sleep. If your child is new to sleeping on her own, I would be careful about doing this method.
  • Is your child scared? Do you allow her to watch scary shows (which is almost every show out there, including Disney ones)? Does she need a night light?
  • Are you stressing yourself and your child about sleep times? Some kids do not do well with stress or negative attention. Sometimes laying off (as in, not getting upset or continually telling them to go to sleep compared to putting them down to sleep, telling them it is time to sleep and leaving it at that until sleep time is over) will fix the problem.
  • Your child may not be feeling well. Is she sick? Is she teething?
  • Your child might be working on developmental skills. Is she starting to walk? Is she starting to talk or more interested in talking lately?
  • You may want to try using something, like a clock or light, that lets your child know when it is time to sleep and when it is time to get up.
  • You can try having your child put some stuffed animals or dolls to bed. Pretend that they are sleeping and that your child needs to be quiet and rest too so the she doesn't wake them up. This even helped with my 22 month old son ;)


  1. My LO (6.5 mo) started playing with her paci the last few days when I laid her down for her nap. After continually playing, I took the paci away but she started crying the instant I did. So I decided to give her a lovey (animal head blankie). That instantly stopped the crying but then she played with the lovey. Not a huge deal but she played with it for a good 20 min before going to sleep and that resulted in a bad nap. I don't know if this is just something she has to get use to before it stops being a toy and taking away from sleep. It just sucks because I just got her naps to be a little better and I hate backtracking. Thanks!!

  2. Lenon,
    Likely it is just a phase she is going through. She will probably go through similar phases throughout her childhood. Don't worry, you get used to it so it doesn't stress you out as much:). It certainly is frustrating when you are trying hard to get things stable though. Kids regularly have mild hiccups with sleep, some more than others. Just keep up a good routine and good sleep habits and you'll be fine overall and in the long run.

    Good luck'

  3. Hi, we just discovered your blog from a friend and we are having a really hard time with our 3.5 year old. She sleeps in her own room, with several loveys and blackout blinds. We put her to bed (read books, pray with her, snuggle and kiss) at about 7:30 pm every night. She has a difficult time going to sleep (getting out of bed 5-10 times before falling asleep). We give 1 "freebie" for her to go to the bathroom if she needs to, but she gets consequences the rest of the times. When she's asleep, she doesn't stay asleep--she gets up 2-3 times in the middle of the night, just coming into our room to say hi, turning her light on to play, or standing in the hallway seemingly doing nothing. She is fully potty trained but doesn't usually go potty when she gets up during the night. We respond by just directing her back to bed (we are usually asleep and she wakes us up at these points). She also wakes up extremely early--say 5:15 am. She naps every other day, for about an hour, and then gets out of bed even if she CLEARLY needing more sleep (and consequently is grumpy/mean to her siblings much of the afternoon). We're not sure what to do, and she seems to be surviving rather than thriving-- rather than being pleasant/enjoyable/happy (like our other kids; we have 4), she is tired, sucks her thumb a lot, she is whiny and unkind to her siblings. This has been going on for almost a year (since we potty trained her), and while I can clearly see she needs more sleep, she completely refuses it. We don't know where to go with these sleep habits, and how to start over with healthier ones. Any advice or resources would be appreciated. Thank you.

  4. Krombein,
    Since the freebee and consequences haven't helped, maybe ignoring her completely when she gets up to use the restroom will take away the novely and she'll stop getting up. If she is getting up for something besides the restroom, maybe try putting he back in bed with no emotion and, after you let her know what is going on, probably no talking. These are techniques to avoid the negative attention she is getting.

    It sounds like you guys are trying to give her very little attention when she wakes at night. Good call. But obviosly it isn't doing the job. I would consider telling her she has to either stay in her room or stay in her bed until she has permission from you to get out. Obviously in an emergency or if she has to use the potty she can get up. If she wants to get out other times, she can call for you. You could also tell her she can get out of bed when it says a particualr time (obviolys at her age it would be, time starts with a 6 etc). Or you can buy one of those clocks or night lights that lights up when it is time to get up and she can get out of bed when it gets to that time.

    Sorry she (and you) are suffereing with sleep so much. As you can tell, kids are different with their sleep. Some, no matter what you do will have issues with sleep. I really feel like you should be able to make some improvements though. Give me an update if something ends up working for you.

    Good luck,

  5. Great list. Answered my questions and gave me some great ideas.

    1. Ruth,
      i'm not sure what is up with this comment form but I am glad your quesiton was answsered. Good luck!


    2. ok, the form is normal now. You probably had no idea what I was talking about :)

  6. This is really a late comment to this post but I took the pacifier away from my 23 month old and he stopped taking his nap. He just plays and sings in his crib from 2-3 hours. Sometimes I think he is asleep and then after 15-20 minutes I hear him talking again. I haven't changed his routine other than taking the pacifier away and he is doing great at night with no problems. I can't tell if he is OT catching a cat nap and then playing, or just catching a second wind. He is a little young to understand sleep rules. I am at a loss as to what else to try. I have tried many things in this post already, I just keep hoping it is a phase and eventually he will learn a new method of self soothing. However he thinks it is fun to hang out in his crib for a couple of hours and sing and talk. Any other ideas?

    1. Mrs. Bob,
      If it makes you feel any better at all, this certainly isn't the first time I've heard of this happening. It seems to happen more when kids are much older than a year when the pacifier is taken away. Hopefully it will pass. It probably will. I have always found it helpful for me to go into my kids rooms after maybe 15 minutes (it depends, you will have to see what works for you) and then lay then down and tell them it is time to sleep. Make sure you mention it is time to sleep when you initially put him down for his nap and at night so he can connect the dots. This doesn't always help them go to sleep, but it often helps.

      It is possible he is having a short nap followed by playing. You'll have to listen in close and see or use a video monitor. For this, time will help. It is unlikely he suddenly needs a change in waketime. Likely it is all related to the pacifier. I would definitely do an earlier bedtime though until the nap issues (hopefully) resolves.


  7. My daughter is 23 months now, and since 21 months has started playing in her crib for up to 3 hours before naps and bedtime.

    About 90% of the time, if I give her a bottle of milk (water doesn't work anymore) after 30 minutes, she will sleep. I don't want to do this consistently, though, because after a few days she starts needing the bottle to get back to sleep during the night if she wakes up -- it becomes a prop she can't sleep without.

    She has never needed any props to get to sleep, and has never used a soother. She usually puts herself back to sleep if she wakes up in the night.

    We got back from a trip last week and she slept like an angel for a whole week! 7:30-7:30 every night, and 1-3 pm for naps, usually. Went straight to sleep 5 minutes after lying her down. Then BOOM! Yesterday she started staying awake for hours.

    People tell me to just skip her naps, but I know she needs the sleep because she gets SO grouchy without it, and she was SOOOO happy this past week. Her obedience level drastically drops when she doesn't get enough sleep, which leads to more problems.

    As for some history, she screamed herself to sleep from 4-12 months. She's not a baby you can rock to sleep, or get to that "drowsy but awake" point and then put her down. After 12 months she started going to sleep without screaming. We didn't change anything -- she just stopped on her own. Hallelujah!

    Right now, singing to her for half an hour, rubbing her back while she's in bed, lying on the floor beside her bed to make sure she's quiet, winding down before bed with half an hour of story books, taking her outside to wear her out -- nothing seems to work consistently. We watch very little TV in our home.

    I am at my wit's end with her. Do you have any advice?

    1. Logwenis,
      Ok, here is my suggestion. It is very simple and short but don't let that deter you. I would 1) make sure to spend 1:1 time with her for at lest 15 minutes ech day(true 1:1 time 2) put her to bed confidently and not drawn out. Have the expectation that she is going to go to sleep and let her feel it in the way you act. Then leave nd don't come back in until morning. That is it. No going back in to remind her to sleep etc. I think it is hurting the situation. At this age you might be able to tell her beforehand that you will see her in the morning and not before etc. And of course before you leave tell her you love her like crazy too :)

      It may take several days if you are consistent, even longer in some stubborn kids. Also double check things from the top sleep post.

      Good luck! How frustrating for you!!

    2. Thank-you for your quick response!!

      That sounds like what we did at the beginning of her playing-and-not sleeping stage. We were just so happy she didn't have to cry herself to sleep anymore! We'd let her play as long as she wanted, till she fell asleep on her own. It became a problem, however, when she would keep herself awake so long that she was getting VERY grouchy during the day.

      We laid beside her a few nights and found that in an hour she would get very close to sleep several times, but then suddenly get up or do something to wake herself back up.

      She gets a lot of one-on-one time with me, because I am almost always home with her. We read, play, have tickle fights, and she "helps" me cook a lot.

    3. Logwenis,
      The lying next to approach helps a lot of kids fall asleep sooner--but it isn't exactly the best long term approach so I usually suggest not starting it in the first place. But that's hard not to do when it actually works! You might also want to try an earlier bedtime, sounds like she may be having one second wind after another.


  8. Hello,
    I just found this blog and am so glad I did! Any advice you have would be great. My daughter is 14 months old. She has been a great sleeper, sleeping thought he mug since 3 mo. Her typical schedule was: bed 7:00/7:30, wake up 7:30-8, nap at 10/11ish and 2 ish, some days it was only 1 nap at 12. After a trip to Texas (we are from MI) she has been sleeping until 8:30/9ish, bed time has remained the same. BUT nap times have been no existent... Because she has been waking up later we tried later nap times and she only sleeps for 30-45 minutes. Thoughts??

  9. Hello,
    My 3.5 year old has always been a great sleeper--of course he has always had phases where he didn't sleep easily for a time but usually were able to get back on track. However, the past couple of months or so he has been having a very difficult time falling asleep. He will lie in bed for 2-3-4 hours every night (only getting up to use the bathroom). He will call out to us from time to time, and would love it if we stayed with him the whole time. Even if I lay beside him, it takes 1.5-2 hours. He still takes a 1.5 hr nap most afternoons, and usually takes 1-2 hrs to fall asleep then as well. Plays outside every day, practically zero screen time, consistent bedtime routine. We've tried moving bedtime earlier or later by 30 min to an hour with no change. We did move recently and also have a 6 month old, and he says he doesn't really like his room or the big bed. Usual sleep was 8p in bed 8:30p asleep, 7a or 7:30 wake up. He has started waking earlier (6ish) as well and waking during the night. Any ideas or tips?

    1. Allison,
      I would start off by trying to drop that nap. It can make it incredibly hard for some kids to fall asleep at night until very late, even somewhat suddenly at this age. You can still give him a little rest time in his bed or have him play quietly or read by himself in his room for a bit instead of a nap. I do wonder if he's anxious at all and that is making it harder to fall asleep and then the over tiredness is making night wake ups. I would try to have bedtime routine that is a bit longer that involves you sitting in bed with him and reading and cuddling for a while before bed. I would have the light off with you in the room maying singing to him for a few minutes before you leave to help him with the transition and make him feel comfortable in his room. The playing in the room during the day (maybe a bit with you for extra fun and by himself too) can also help. Just general more time with you and other important people in his life can help with situations like this at times. Sometimes when sleep gets off it can be helpful to do a short term melatonin (just like .3 mg) for a couple weeks to reset things, but that's something you would want to run by your pediatrician.


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  11. Hi Rachel--I love your blog and have been using it as a resource since my son was born (he's now 2.5)! He has always been a great sleeper, with the exception of a couple separation anxiety phases, but lately I'm about to rip my hair out during nap time!! Last month he discovered that he can climb out of his crib. Every day at nap time, he would climb out, run over to my room, and play (for some reason he won't stay in his own room). My husband and I transitioned him to a toddler bed in hopes it would be a fun and exciting new sleeping experience. At night, he does amazing. He stays in his bed and goes right to sleep. At nap, he refuses to stay in his bed. For a couple of days, he would fall asleep if I sat next to his bed (it would take at least 30 minutes). Then he stopped and I had to snuggle with him in my bed for him to fall asleep. For the past week, he hasn't been sleeping all together, regardless of my snuggling efforts. Yesterday I spent 1.5 hours snuggling him!! I even just bought a video monitor and gated him in his room, but he managed to climb both under and over the gate. Such a little stinker! OH and the worst part, he fell asleep in a pack n play at my parents the other day (while I wasn't there). I think he is just being defiant but I don't know where to go from here.

    I am open to any suggestions!! Thank you so much.