Toddlers thrive on routine. It helps them feel secure and gives them a sense of mastery over their lives.
Ironically, your toddler also loves to be unpredictable, which can throw well-placed routines out of whack, such as skipping their main meal of the day due to sleep. But is this normal?
Is it okay for a toddler to fall asleep without dinner? Yes. As toddlers begin to transition away from daytime naps, they may begin to fall asleep earlier in the day, often skipping dinner in the process. If they’re generally well-fed, it is okay for sleep to take priority over food as they can always easily make up for any missed meals.
If you’re concerned that this is yet another disruption to your little munchkin’s routine, don’t fret — this is what toddlers do as they develop!
To help you both ease through this transition with as few tears and screams as possible, we’ve answered some of your common questions on the issue plus how to rearrange their schedule, typical toddler bedtimes, and more.
Toddler Falling Asleep Before Dinner
Despite your best efforts, your toddler won’t always be able to stick to a solid dinner-then-bed structure, but that’s okay!
Let’s look at how to work around this routine disruption, the pros and cons of letting them sleep, and recommended meal schedules.
Is It Okay for a Toddler To Miss a Meal?
Absolutely. Based on pediatric dietician Jill Castle’s expertise:
“This is a result of the variable appetite that goes with toddlerhood, and they’ll always be able to eat again at other meals and snacks.”
Remember that your little one wouldn’t have fallen asleep if he/she were really hungry, so missing a meal every now and again won’t harm them.
Should You Wake a Toddler for Dinner?
There’s a school of thought among many mom and parenting message boards that you should let sleeping toddlers lie and simply be ready with a cup of milk or a very light snack if they wake hungry in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.
If your toddler sleeps past their usual mealtime, some also advise serving their breakfast a little earlier after they wake the next morning to make up for it.
Pros of Letting Them Sleep
- They could be coming down with a cold and have little appetite, preferring to rest.
- Sleeping a little longer during the night could prevent daytime sleepiness the next day and fussiness, and it can even improve their memory and learning abilities, according to Sleep Doctor Dr. Michael Breus.
- Toddlers need around 11-14 hours of sleep a day, so on occasion, a longer sleep may plug this gap if your child isn’t getting enough.
Drawbacks of Letting Them Sleep
- They may wake too early the next day or struggle to sleep throughout the night.
- If sleeping through dinner becomes routine, dinner time may need to be pushed back earlier.
- Other meal times may be disrupted.
- Frequent snacking may become a habit if dinner is routinely missed.
How Long Before Bed Should a Toddler Eat Dinner?
To ensure digestion won’t impact sleep quality, toddlers should ideally have their last meal/snack around 1 ½ to 2 hours before bedtime.
Meal Schedule for Toddlers
The best toddler feeding schedule, according to What To Expect, is three meals and two to three snacks, “with eating opportunities spaced about 2-3 hours apart.” Something like this:
- 7:00 a.m. – Wake up
- 7:30 a.m. – Breakfast
- 10:00 a.m. – Morning snack
- 12:30 p.m. – Lunch
- 1:30 p.m. – Nap
- 3:30 p.m. – Afternoon snack
- 5:30 p.m. – Dinner
- 7:00 p.m. – Bed
As they start to reduce their daytime naps, you can start to rearrange their dinner and bedtime slightly earlier.
Should they need a bedtime snack around this transition, a very light protein-filled bite or two should be okay — opt for a piece of cheese or a slice of apple.
What Time Should a Toddler Go To Bed?
A good time bracket is between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. as toddlers “tend to sleep deepest between 8 p.m. and midnight” according to the Raising Children network.
Rearranging Toddler Schedule
Try not to feel discouraged about making changes to your toddler’s schedule when it’s needed.
If your child has started to consistently wake up earlier than normal or no longer appears tired at her usual nap/bedtime, then it’s okay to begin putting her to bed a little later.
Pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp notes that:
“The key to thinking about routine isn’t protecting it, but altering it respectfully and in a way that makes your child feel they’ve been part of the process.”
Karp also recommends starting a conversation with your toddler about the change to give them agency and to give them “recognition that they’ve done really well in the transition.”
What To Do if Toddler Falls Asleep Before Bedtime
If it’s more than 2 hours before their usual bedtime, you could leave them for 15-20 minutes to help them feel refreshed before waking them and settling them into quiet time.
If they fall asleep well under an hour before bedtime, leave them, and see how they sleep throughout the night — this could be a transition to an earlier bedtime.
Is My Toddler Sleeping Too Much?
11-14 hours of sleep is healthy in a 24-hour period, and some children simply need a little longer than others throughout the day.
If your little one is sleeping significantly more than usual, pediatric neurologist Dr. Stephanie Jackson notes “certain medications or an iron or other vitamin deficiency could be the cause,” so speak to your local pediatrician if you have concerns.
Toddler Sleep Patterns by Age
Your toddler’s sleeping patterns are changing all the time as they develop, and factors such as teething, illness, and big routine changes can all contribute to sleep regression, so their patterns aren’t always easy to predict.
Below is what the average sleeping pattern looks like as they grow.
Age 1-2 Years
12- to 24-month-olds typically sleep for 11-14 hours (including naps) and may start to take fewer naps as they begin to walk and talk.
Age 2-3 Years
At this age, 10-13 hours of sleep (including one or two naps) is fairly typical. Naps gradually begin to cut down altogether as they approach preschool age and the majority of sleep is focused on nighttime.
Do Toddlers Need a Bedtime Snack?
No, toddlers don’t need a snack right before bed, and it generally isn’t recommended due to the detrimental effect it can have on their sleep.
Snacking close to bedtime, especially on sugary foods, can cause lighter sleep and prevent them from entering deep sleep as the stomach gears up for digestion.
How Long Should a Toddler Nap?
Nap length will depend on their sleeping patterns. According to Sleep Expert Dr. Michael Breus, studies show that most 18-month-olds tend to nap for under 2 hours a day, and this shortens to 1-hour naps by age 2.
Longer or shorter naps may be needed depending on their sleep quality during the night.
To sum up, it isn’t a worry if your toddler misses a meal due to falling asleep as they can always make up for it with snacks and meals the following day.
If your child is consistently falling asleep before their dinner or usual bedtime, this could mean their normal dinner and bedtime routine needs to be pushed back earlier in the day.
Stay vigilant about how much more they are sleeping as increased sleep can sometimes point to vitamin deficiencies, so be sure to speak to your pediatrician about any drastic shift in their sleeping habits.
Mom of three (including identical twin boys), wife, and owner of Parents Wonder. This is my place to share my journey as a mother and the helpful insights I learn along the way.