How Do Toddlers Act When Tired

Toddlers often get very hyper and active when they are tired. Parents assume the child is not tired, when they are actually overly tired.

child jumping on bed

In many ways, babies and children are miniature adults. It is not true, however, in all areas of life, and definitely not true when it comes to showing signs of sleepiness.

Think of yourself when you are tired. You yawn. Your eyelids droop. If you are like my husband you just fall asleep and start the head bob. You feel lethargic and unmotivated.

A great paradox of parenting is that a baby or young child does not do these things. 

In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Dr. Weissbluth states, 

“…when most tired young kids get sleepy, they get grumpy and excitable” page 111. 

He points out that well-rested children might yawn when tired, but chronically tired children will not. 

His son called the state of tiredness “upcited” when he was three–a combination of upset and excited. Perfect right?

Dr. Weissbluth says, “Remember, when your infant or young child appears wired, he may be tired” (page 112).

Studies Explain Lack of Sleep

Dr. Weissbluth then goes on to discuss a couple of studies that shed light on this topic. 

I will relate one to you in my own way. You know those times in life when you have had to run on less sleep than is optimal? Maybe college, maybe with a newborn, maybe when pregnant (if you are like me and don’t sleep well at night). Have you noticed how you eventually get used to running on less sleep? It doesn’t mean you are functioning at 100%, but you learn to function.

I find this true in my life. When I have a newborn and consistently get less sleep than is ideal, my body copes. When I have one bad night of sleep for whatever reason, I am slammed the next day.

The study found that the body responds to lack of sleep with various chemicals. One is adrenaline (the hormone epinephrine). Another is cortisol. “In children, cortisol concentrations remain high when they do not nap” (page113).

This increase in chemicals explains why an overly tired child has a hard time falling and/or staying asleep. The body is flooded with chemicals in order to help the overly tired child stay awake, so it makes it harder to sleep. Just as sleep begets sleep, sleeplessness begets sleeplessness.

What This Means for Toddlers

This means that your toddler, who is acting like he is perfectly awake and not tired, but is very hyper instead, is actually not getting enough sleep.

This explains why toddlers get hyper before bed. A tired toddler or an overtired toddler looks different than you might think.

You might be thinking that your child is not tired enough to go to bed even though it is bedtime because she is bouncing off the walls and seems very much awake. But in reality, this hyperactivity is showing signs of overtiredness. 

Exhaustion in a toddler and exhaustion in an adult look very different. 

How do toddlers act when tired

Signs of Overtired Toddler

What are the tired signs to watch for?

We have discussed how one sign of being overly tired and sleep deprivation is being very hyper and overactive. 

This, of course, is not the only sign. Sometimes kids are just hyper for a variety of reasons not related to how tired they are or are not. 

There are other signs to watch for.

If your child has tantrum after tantrum, he may be overly tired. Unpleasant behaviors are typically a sign your kiddo needs more sleep. 

If your kiddo has a lot of clinginess and fussiness, it is a sign he is too tired. 

How To Help With Overtiredness

There are ways you can help your older child who is overly tired.

The first step is for you to figure how many hours of sleep your child should be getting in a 24-hour period at his age.

There is always a range for every age group. You want to be sure your child is getting the proper amount of sleep at nighttime and the proper amount of daytime sleep, also. 

Get my sleep totals by age freebie by clicking here

Once you know how much sleep to aim for each day, you can focus on your routines.

What does your toddler need to wind down for sleep? How much awake time does your toddler or preschooler need? 

Figure out a good sleep schedule for your child. A toddler needs 1-2 naps a day. A preschooler needs 1 nap a day. Some preschoolers do not need a nap each day, but rather need quiet time. 

>>>Read: How To Do Rest Time Instead of Naps

Most toddlers and preschoolers do not ask for a nap. Most even insist they don’t need one at all. This is definitely a moment when the parent needs to take the lead.

All toddlers need a nap. They might not sleep every day, but the rest is still good. Find out the best length of time to do a nap.

All preschoolers need a rest. Some need naps.

Good sleep habits are important for baby sleep, but are also important for toddler sleep and preschooler sleep. Make sure you have an age-appropriate bedtime.

>>>Read: Preschoolers and Bedtime: Everything You Need to Know

Have consistent sleep routines, including a consistent bedtime routine. Read bedtime stories. Wind down for the night. Sing a lullaby. Use a white noise machine if needed.

Set things up so your child can get a good night’s sleep. You might need some room darkening curtains to help the room be dark at bedtime. Your kiddo might need a special blanket. Do not let your child sleep with a tablet.

>>>Read: One Nap Schedules Perfect for Your Toddler


A tired child does not look like a tired adult. You can’t wait around for your baby to ask you to put him to sleep or to peacefully drift off into a slumber. 

Yes, some of those children are out there, but most need you to put them to bed for naps and for bedtime.

Also, let me give another plug for this book. It is a most excellent companion to On Becoming Babywise. People who try to discredit Babywise like to turn to “Gary Ezzo isn’t a doctor” when all else is failing (despite the fact that Robert Bucknam is a doctor). 

Weissbluth is a doctor and stresses the importance of sleep. There are several books written by doctors that support Ezzos claim that sleep is important and support his ideas on how to get there (do we really need a doctor to convince us that sleep is important? Can’t we tell that from our own lives? Or maybe only well-rested adults can come to that conclusion on their own?).

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This post originally appeared on this blog in October 2011

16 thoughts on “How Do Toddlers Act When Tired”

  1. LOVE the little snarky comment at the end 🙂 Also, I'm so glad you're into HSHHC. It is probably the best sleep book ever writting, imo. I feel like all parents, regardless of whether they are AP or PDF parents need to read it because it convinces everyone of the need for children to sleep. How you choose to go about that is up to you, but at least this book makes people realize that children NEED to sleep! On another note, there was an article on toddler sleep on Babycenter – of all places – that had this one line that read, "Children need a lot of sleep, probably more than most parents realize," or something to that effect. I was like, 'THANK YOU!"

  2. I'm kind of surprised you know me so well! You know I have such tremendously little (none) patience for people like…that.

  3. Short anecdote from last night:Lyra (16 months) took an extremely long time to fall asleep for her second nap, and she ended up sleeping less than an hour. I decided an early bedtime would be in order. However, I didn't make it early enough. At the start of our bedtime routine, she was running all around the living room, shrieking and laughing and chasing the cat. Then when she got in the bath, she was splashing and kicking and "swimming" like an Olympic champion! After bath, when she was supposed to be getting lotioned and jammied, she was wiggling all over, so much that my husband asked me to hold her down so he could finish.And the final straw: Lyra was so "upcited" that when we did not read the book she wanted to read, she threw a tantrum that included screaming, giant tears, and- the grand finale- throwing up all over me. Repeatedly. Moral of the story: "Upcited" children are not the most pleasant children in the world!

  4. Also, I think people, both with kids and without, think that children in the "upcited" state are the norm, probably because so many kids are like that all the time. But we know, just because something is the majority doesn't mean it's normal. I always want to tell me married friends without kids that your kids don't have to be that way, that they can (mostly) be lovely and well behaved. And you can have your life back after you have kids because they sleep so much of the time!

  5. Holy cow, do I need an intervention? Am I that snarky?? I don't want to be and I feel a little bad now. I just try to be to the point on things that I perceive as obvious…

  6. Don't feel bad! You're not snarky. You are, like you said, to the point! It's rare to find someone comfortable with candor. I can imagine we'd be great friends in real life.

  7. This is SO true! I had dropped my 6 mo at a friends for her to watch him, and I specifically told her to put him down at 9:30am. I come back around noon, and she says:"He wasn't tired! He wasn't even yawning or rubbing his eyes! So I didn't put him down." AT ALL. It was a terrible terrible day. Great post that every mom and Daycare worker should read!

  8. Oh Natalie don't change! I seriously love that you are so blunt and comfortable enough to just put it out there. You are intelligent and able to put the facts out there. I love it.

  9. Like, my favorite General Authorities are the ones who just bluntly state things (think Ballard and Holland of late). I don't think you rude or out of line. You just are blunt. And I love it.

  10. I have a question about my 10 month old. He is a great night sleeper (7:15-6:30) but he won't take long naps. He is still taking 3 naps a day (9, 12, and 3:30)because he wakes early, usually after 30-45 minutes. Sometimes we will get a longer nap (45 min-1 hr) but that is not the norm. He wakes fussy and cranky most of the time when the naps are so short which is a sign I know he's not sleeping long enough. I've tried only doing 2 naps but that hasn't helped- he still only sleeps for a short time then is fussy at the later part of the day. I'd like to figure out how to lenghten his naps so we can adjust his schedule to reflect his age. Also, we're ready to not be so tied down at our house constantly b/c of his nap schedule. He has never napped long naps, even as a young infant. Any suggestions?

  11. Makes me wonder if my daughter's sleep problems might be the result of not enough sleep.She is 2 years, 4 months old. 7 months ago we started having sleep issues – mainly, early waking and she stopped staying in bed and going to sleep on her own. She'd be in bed at 7pm, and wouldn't go to sleep until 8:30 at least. She used to wake at 7 and now wakes around 5:30-6.We have tried everything everyone suggests to fix this: she doesn't stay in bed. I've cut her single nap/day down to 1 hour, and often she just skips it completely. Average hours of sleep per 24 hours is only like 9.5-11.This started when she moved to a big girl bed, then we had a second baby, so there's been big changes in her life. But I am completely lost. At my utter end. She was an angel baby, and always needed more sleep than other kids her age. Now every day, combined with a 5 month old who's never gotten past the 45 minute intruder, basically my entire life surrounds sleep issues and I'm not even enjoying being a parent anymore.I moved her nap from 1:00 down to 11:30, but she doesn't fall asleep until 12:30, but I have to wake her at 1:30 because she just won't go to bed at 7:15 if she sleeps longer. Even at 7:15 she doesn't go down. It's usually around 8pm now. Maybe all of this is because she's not getting enough sleep, but how on earth do I give her more sleep while maintaining a consistent bedtime?

  12. L&L Craft, I would say cut back to only two hours of waketime. So he is up at 6:30, put him down at 8:30.Do you have a routine before nap? It doesn't have to be long, just something predictable so he knows it is nap time. Even at 2.5, I can feel McKenna's whole body relax when I start her nap routine–and it lasts about 2 minutes. Does he know how to self-soothe? Does he have a pacifier?Be sure to read my Naps: Troubleshooting post. It goes through all of the common reasons for naps not going well.

  13. Stanselmdoc,It is TOTALLY common for a two year old to not fall right asleep at bedtime. I even have a post on it (Two year old sleep issues–I believe). What I do for the two year old is put them to bed at regular time and then just ignore what time they actually fall asleep. It is a phase and they will grow out of it. I would go back to longer naps–2-3 hours. If she gets out of bed, have a back-up plan. Do you have a pack and play? If so, when she gets out, say, "oh, too bad. Looks like you don't want to sleep in your big girl bed today." And then put her in her pack and play for her nap. Have it be an immediate consequence for getting out of bed.


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