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What you need to know

  • At around 18 months, toddlers start to feel separation anxiety, and this can mean they're harder to settle into bed.
  • It's common for them to start calling for you after they've gone to bed.
  • Many children rock on all fours, roll from side to side, or rhythmically bang their heads on the bed as they’re falling asleep - these are all soothing behaviours and are nearly always harmless.
  • It’s normal for toddlers this age to wake in the night. It doesn’t mean they’re being naughty.   
  • Lack of sleep can be very stressful for parents, and it can affect their health. Remember you need rest too. Ask family, whānau, or friends for help so you can have a break.

It’s normal for babies and toddlers to become harder to settle as they start feeling separation anxiety at around 18 months. They may become more clingy, and more resistant to you leaving them at bedtime. Be calm and soothing with them. Try leaving a small night-light (a dim lamp) on in their room, and quietly popping back into their room after they've first gone to bed so they know you're still there. 

Having a good sleep schedule and routine will help toddlers know what to expect when it comes to nap- and bedtime, and will help them prepare for sleep. 

Many toddlers have settling and sleep problems, but in children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), these problems can be more severe.  

How to manage and overcome sleep problems in children with ASD

Calling for you and getting up after bedtime

After you’ve put them to bed, your baby or toddler might start calling out or getting out of bed. They do this for a range of reasons.  

It’s a good idea to check whether your child genuinely needs something when they call out. If they’ve done a poo, change the nappy with the lights dim and no talking. If your toddler's scared of a monster under the bed, quickly check (with the light off) to confirm the room is monster-free. If they’re scared of your the dark, think about using a night-light. 

If they call out and you're confident they're not scared of anything and have everything they need – they've gone to the toilet, had a drink, and don't need a nappy change – call back to them, but it's fine not to go in.  If your child gets out of bed, keep returning them gently to bed. 

Read more about how to deal with calling out and getting out of bed

When your toddler won’t settle

If you’ve tried putting your child to bed and they keep crying, or continue to be distressed:  

  • pick them up and cuddle them until they’re calm. Always check their nappy. 
  • quietly tell them it’s time for sleep, and lie them down on their back in the cot or bed awake. 
  • if they keep crying and won’t go to sleep, try giving them a small drink of water and stay in the room with them, not talking, until they nod off. 

Body rocking, head-rolling and head-banging

Lots of children rock on all fours, roll from side to side, or rhythmically bang their heads on the bed as they’re falling asleep. Believe it or not, this behaviour can comfort and soothe them, and help them settle themselves to sleep. These behaviours often start between six and nine months of age, and they’re nearly always harmless.  

Most children outgrow the behaviour between three and five years old, but some take longer.  

If your child is developing well in other ways, you don’t need to do anything about this behaviour.  If it worries you: 

  • try to pay no attention to it – your kids may do it more if they see it’s an effective way of getting attention  
  • try to make sure the child goes to bed tired so they don’t have so much time for the behaviour 
  • comfort and support your child during the day if they seem anxious.  

To reduce the risk of the child being hurt:  

  • shift the bed away from the wall, remove any hard bed heads 
  • try putting your child’s mattress on the floor.  

If you’re really worried about it, talk to your Plunket nurse or GP. It helps if you have a video you can show them so they can see exactly what your child is doing.  

Body rocking and head banging can be especially intense in children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), developmental delay, and in blind children too, and they’re also more likely to show this behaviour during the day. For these children, the rocking and banging can be harmful. 

More on body rocking, head-rolling and head-banging in bed

Waking at night

It’s normal for toddlers to wake in the night. It doesn’t mean they’re being naughty.  

  • If they’re sick, or they’re teething, they might wake and need your care and comfort. Once they’re feeling better, they should soon settle back to normal. 
  • Sometimes they’re feeling separation anxiety, and they just need to know you’re there.  
  • Your toddler might be having dreams or nightmares, and they have a hard time telling these from reality. Be mindful of books you read to your toddler before bedtime, and keep the content mild.  
  • Screen time isn’t recommended for children under two, and it can disrupt their sleep. If your child does use screens, it’s a good idea to:  
    • limit screen time  
    • keep toddlers away from TV, iPad, phones etc in the hour before bedtime 
    • keep devices out of a child's bedroom. 
  • Check whether your toddler is warm enough at night. Some push the covers off at night and may get cold – try warmer pyjamas in cooler temperatures.  
  • Toddlers can normally sleep with some noise, but a loud TV or loud conversation may wake them up.  

If they do wake up, try not to rush in straight away. They might settle themselves back to sleep.  

Getting help with toddler sleep

Lack of sleep can be very stressful for parents, and it can affect their health. Remember you need rest too. Ask family, whānau, or friends for help – they may be able to watch your children so you can have a break.  

If you’re concerned about your toddler’s sleep, talk to your Plunket nurse, GP, or paediatrician for advice. You can call PlunketLine any time, day or night, on 0800 933 922