Toddlers not only need the right amount of sleep, but the right kind of sleep to ensure that they grow and develop to their fullest potential. Toddlers sleep an average of 12 hours a night, plus a nap during the day of 90 minutes to two hours. During their 12-hour sleep at night, toddlers rise from sleep about five times. Usually the child is not awake enough to remember this happening.
A toddler awakening naturally throughout the night may mumble, sit up or roll over. When he or she sees familiar objects in the room, he or she feels comforted and able to fall back asleep quickly, without remembering that they were awake. This explains why toddlers often don’t sleep as well on vacation or at someone else’s house — when they awaken during the night, there aren’t familiar objects nearby and he or she awakens fully, looking to you for comfort.
There are two important stages of sleep for both children and adults — REM and non-REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. This is when you are closest to wakefulness, like when you are just falling asleep and often twitch. It is a light sleep where dreaming occurs. Recordings of electrical activity along the scalps of people show that REM sleep is very similar to wakefulness — there is the same level of brain activity.
Toddlers have much more REM sleep than adults, which explains why a toddler’s dreams and nightmares are often so much more vivid than those of adults. In REM sleep, the eyes are closed, but it looks as if the child is looking back and forth. REM sleep uses up much more energy and oxygen than non-REM sleep. There is much jerking and twitching and the sleeper’s breathing and heart rate are irregular.
Non-REM sleep is a much deeper sleep, where your muscles relax. This deeper sleep is harder to awaken from. The sleeper has a lower heart rate and slower, steadier breaths. He or she lies very still and there is very little dreaming. As children grow older, they will spend more time in non-REM sleep. This means that the child will stay asleep longer, not waking as frequently throughout the night.
Toddlers should be sleeping at least 12 hours a night with their 90-minute to two-hour nap in the afternoon. The naptime should be consistent and early enough in the afternoon that it does not affect nighttime sleep. A consistent bedtime routine helps the child wind down from a busy day and settle into bed.
If a child is having a hard time sleeping through the night, it may affect brain development and growth. If you are worried about the amount and quality of sleep your child is getting, make an appointment with a physician to have the child evaluated.