Why Your 2- to 4-Year-Old Fights Sleep and What to Do About it

Wide awake boy twisting around on bed while mother sits close by

As new parents, you probably expected your baby to fight sleep. Everyone knows that newborns and sleepless nights go hand in hand. Good thing babies are so cute, right?

However, you may be surprised to find that, after crushing the sleep department for a couple years, your little one suddenly doesn’t want to sleep. Don’t be alarmed. Although we tend not to talk about it as much as we do in a baby's first 12 months, sleep regressions continue  periodically as children grow and develop.

It’s actually quite typical for a child to hit a big sleep regression sometime in their second year. Common challenges in the 2- to 4-year-old age group include:

  • Taking forever to fall asleep at bedtime
  • Holding a parent captive at bedtime
  • Refusing naps
  • Climbing out of the crib or bed during sleep times 

Sleep regressions can be frustrating and exhausting for both parents and kids. However, if you understand why toddlers and preschoolers fight sleep and have some tools in your toolbox, sweet dreams may be closer than they seem.  

4 Reasons Your 2-to 4-Year-Old Fights Sleep

The truth is your child wants to sleep – even if they don’t realize it. Kids need plenty of sleep, and if they aren’t getting it at night, there is a reason. Here are some I see frequently. 

Small boy drinking a bottle and holding a doll Small boy drinking a bottle and holding a doll

1. Lack of Boundaries

It is very age appropriate for your 2- to-4-year old to test boundaries now and again.  This includes testing how long they can keep you engaged at bedtime or testing if they can refuse naps so that they can remain in your company. Your child is exerting their authority on the world to see what comes back. 

This is visible in the daytime with preferences such as what cup to use or which shoes to wear. With respect to sleep, this testing often manifests as nap refusal, trying to climb out of the crib or not staying in bed. Boundaries can include physical boundaries such as suddenly lacking a physical barrier to keep them in place when they transition to a big kid bed. But, it can also be a lack of boundaries from parents.  

Trying to appease and respond to every stalling attempt can make things take even longer. It is normal for a toddler to stall at bedtime – asking for yet one more cup of water, a tissue, a final trip to the potty… all to delay bedtime and the feeling that they are missing out on the world. If you don’t have any boundaries or aren’t able to calmly communicate those boundaries, your toddler will continue to ask and bedtime will take a very long time.

2. Nap Interference

The average age to drop the nap is around 3 to 3.5 years of age. You might be surprised by the signs of nap drop readiness. For instance, your child may continue to fall asleep at naptime easily but then take forever to fall asleep at bedtime, not settling until after 9 p.m.

This late bedtime is a sign that the nap is interfering with your child’s sleep drive and cutting into valuable night time sleep. Most parents assume naps aren’t the issue if their little one falls asleep easily at nap time – common mistake. The first step is to start limiting the nap to one hour and notice how that impacts your child’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime. 

Young girl cuddling a soft toy and cryingYoung girl cuddling a soft toy and crying

 3. Second Year Molars

Anytime you hear sleep regression, I want you to think: growth and distraction. Sleep regressions happen because your child is growing physically or neurologically, which can distract them from sleep. Teething is a primary example of this.

Incoming second year molars can cause inflammation and thus pain in the night, making it harder for your child to resume sleep when waking up in the night. This is especially true for early morning wake ups around 5 a.m. That time of day, your little one’s body is releasing cortisol to prepare them to wake up for the day. 

There is also no deep sleep this time of day, only faster, lighter sleep cycles. Your little one surfaces from a sleep cycle and then is distracted by the discomfort in their gums from soon to be erupting molars, which makes it hard to fall back asleep. 

Inflammation accumulates over night, which is why the molars are felt more in the morning time. They can still be felt at bedtime, however, and this can manifest as fingers in the mouth and taking more time than usual to settle into sleep.

 4. Fear of Missing Out 

Preschool teacher sitting on the floor with a group of kids during naptime Preschool teacher sitting on the floor with a group of kids during naptime

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is completely legitimate at this age. Your toddler loves the world and is discovering new things every day. They don’t want to miss a thing. This can often manifest as nap refusal.   

Many parents report that their little ones might sleep fine at preschool but refuse to nap at home on the weekend. This is due to the fact that preschool has very clear and consistent boundaries (refer to reason #1).

In addition, your child doesn’t want to spend time with their preschool teacher the same way they want to spend time with you. 

Fear of missing out on time spent with you or being in the action can cause nap resistance, but don’t be fooled. Most kids aren’t ready to drop the nap altogether until approximately 3 years of age, but there is often a big nap resistance around 2.5 years. 

What Can A Parent Do About Sleep Regressions?  

Whatever the reason your child is experiencing a sleep regression, it’s important that you help them get back into a good sleep routine. Here are some tried and true suggestions. 

1. Consider Limiting the Nap

If your little one really isn’t settling until 9 p.m. at night, you might consider limiting the nap to 45 minutes and noting if this improves the time to fall asleep at bedtime. You could even skip the nap and go for a much earlier bedtime such as 6:30 p.m. with goal to be asleep by 7 p.m.  When you drop the nap, you’re aiming for 12 hours of overnight sleep. 

 2. Fill Up the Power Bucket in the Bedtime Routine

Give your child ample wind down time in their room and controlled choices to help fill up the power bucket and need for control. Examples include:  

  • Which of these 4 books do you want to read?  
  • Do you want to wear pajama A or pajama B? 
  • Would you like to turn the lights down? 

 3. Engage Less

Once in bed, engage less. In general, the more you engage and respond, the longer bedtime will take. Predict stalls and have your answers (and boundaries) ready. Have that last potty trip, that last sip of water and kleenex all addressed before bed. Then pick a phrase that you are prepared to repeat in response to stalling requests. 

Small girl snuggled under her blankets but still awake Small girl snuggled under her blankets but still awake

Summary 

It is not uncommon for toddlers and preschoolers to experience a sleep regression due to testing boundaries, exerting opinions, teething pain or just plain FOMO. The need to drop a nap can also be a cause. Communicating expectations as well as giving your little one little wins in the bedtime routine before you stop engaging can be helpful to reduce the time to fall asleep. 

Dr. Sarah Mitchell is a chiropractor by training but found her passion empowering parents to teach their little ones to sleep and parent confidently day and night. Author of the Amazon best selling book The Helping Babies Sleep Method; The Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep and a proud member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, she’s a thought leader in the baby sleep space and a sought after sleep consultant in Silicon Valley. Since 2013 Sarah has helped thousands of parents be loving, attached and well-rested. A Canadian girl at heart, Sarah currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a mother of two.