As an exhausted parent of an infant, you may have dreamed of the day that you would finally get a full night’s sleep again—only to find that your toddler is still waking up in the middle of the night! Parenting is about learning along the way and adjusting expectations for your particular child and their developmental stage.
You’re not alone. One in three children under the age of 5 has sleep and bedtime challenges, including waking up in the middle of the night.
While there are a number of factors that can cause night wakings, there are also a number of things you can do to help your toddler gently fall—and stay—in a deep slumber.
What’s going on with your toddler?
While most sleep patterns are established in infancy, even the best sleepers can go through sleep challenges during toddlerhood. Here are some common reasons:
- Changes to sleep schedules: According to kidshealth.org, between the ages 1 and 2, most toddlers need about 11-14 hours of sleep per day, including naps. Somewhere between the ages of 1 and 2, your child will transition from 2 naps to 1 nap and this can have an affect on their sleep at night. Some parents find having them nap earlier in the day can help them be more ready for bed at night.
- Teething: Toddlers might wake in the night because of teething pain. Molars start coming in anytime between 13 and 19 months of age. Molars are large and have double edges—ouch! Other signs that indicate your toddler’s wakefulness is from teething are excess drool, chewing, biting, and crankiness.
- Bad Dreams: At this age, dreams and nightmares start popping up and it’s hard for toddlers to tell the difference between reality and a bad dream. You can talk about dreams being “pictures in your mind” and provide needed comfort. Anxiety can come from multiple sources, and gets worked through in dreams, so you might think about what is going on for them to try to mitigate and help them work through the emotions while awake.
- Separation anxiety: Your child wants to be with you and if they fall asleep with you by their side, they will want you there to help them fall back asleep. While they are developmentally working on their independence, they still have a need for your comfort, and to know you are there for them when they are having a hard time. You might try playing “hide and seek” during the day with them, so they can experience you always being there, even though they don’t see you for a while.
- New milestones: During the toddler years, your child is meeting many new milestones. A disruption in sleep might indicate that your toddler is on the verge of mastering a new skill, such as jumping, throwing a ball, speaking in sentences. Sleep is essential to complete their learning of these new skills, and they may wake themselves up when they move around in their dreams.
Ways you can help
- Keep your house quiet at night. Some toddlers are sensitive to TV noise or loud talking, and it can be distracting to their sleep. Although some toddlers respond to soft music or white noise, just like when they were infants, keep noise to a minimum and of the droning variety. Avoid giving your toddler a screen or tablet or putting a tv in their room.
- Limit sugary food or drinks after dinner.
- For nightmares: Limit screen time before bed and monitor what your child watches. If your child does see a disturbing image, talk it through with them and validate their feelings. Assure them you will keep them safe.
- For separation anxiety: Snuggle on the couch with your pet if you have one, and if not, with a favorite stuffie. Investing in this close connection time will help build their tolerance for being alone in their bed.
- Avoid pushing back bedtime: While it can be tempting to put them to sleep later, the more overtired your toddler is, the harder time they will have falling and staying asleep. We have all experienced “overtired” toddlers and that’s hard on everyone!
- To make bedtime more appealing, let your toddler pick out their jammies, a stuffy to take to bed, 3 books to read with you either before or after they are in their bed.
Get into a routine
Toddlers thrive on routine and knowing what to expect next. Set an established bedtime that will fit into your family’s schedule. Create a bedtime routine for your toddler to follow. Consistency is key. Do the same things in the same order every evening. For example:
- Use the toilet
- Brush teeth
- Say goodnight to the family (pets, too!)
- Read books
- Go to bed at a set time
- Stay in bed until morning
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).
Triple P Online is an online course for parents of children ages 2-12, comprised of 12 modules to learn different skills to help your family thrive. Information is delivered in video format with activities to customize the program to your family. If you or your child are on Oregon Health Plan (OHP) you can get Triple P Online for free.