Sleep: The Toddler Who Wakes up at Night
Help your child to sleep.
Last year my two-year–old daughter started waking up at night crying several times in the night. She would say she was hungry, or had had a bad dream, or she was missing us, or she just couldn’t sleep. This was disturbing, not only her sleep, but ours as well, and we were getting very tired. We got to the point where it couldn’t carry on, so I asked around my friends and family to see what they did when their toddlers woke up at night.
Reasons for Waking
People told me there are a few different reasons why a toddler wakes up at night, the main one being that it is perfectly normal for toddlers to wake up in the night, just as it is for adults but usually we don’t remember waking up and go straight back to sleep.
It is also quite common for a toddler to wake in the night, about half the people I spoke to with under-fives had times when their toddler wakes up crying at night. Some of them put it down to their child having a developmental phase, which was soon over, and their sleep patterns quickly went back to normal.
Others thought it was because the toddler was over-tired or over-stimulated at bedtime. A toddler wakes up crying at night when they had had a late night or a busy or exciting day. It could also be that the toddler has poor sleep habits, such as if they had been on holiday and their bedtime routine had changed. Even a very small change in routine can cause a child sleep problems.
Toddlers can also suffer from anxiety or stress, which can cause child sleep terrors. Things like potty training, a new baby in the family, a new nursery, or a house move can all cause toddlers waking in the night. Toddlers can also suffer from separation anxiety, if they have recently started going to nursery, they can become very anxious when away from their normal caregiver.
Possible Effects of Toddler Waking up at Night
I was really worried about my daughter’s lack of sleep, as I knew sleep is important for children’s development. Small children need about 11 to 14 hours of sleep a night or it can affect them quite badly.
My daughter was starting to show signs that she was suffering from lack of sleep. She was grumpy and irritable during the day, both at home and at nursery, she seemed to be in a bad mood most of the time and the tantrums increased.
Her behaviour also changed, she didn’t seem to be able to concentrate on anything, becoming distracted easily. She also became overactive and more restless and over-excited. She also started falling asleep in strange places, and at odd times and not being able to fall asleep at bed-time.
How to Handle It When a Toddler Wakes up at Night:
Don’t rush in.
The first advice my mom gave me was not to rush into her bedroom at the slightest sound, wait and see if she settles down by herself. Children are noisy when they sleep and often cry out in their sleep and will go back to sleep very quickly. She said we should only go in if the crying continues.
I was also told that if a toddler wakes up crying at night to reassure them quietly. I shouldn’t pick her up or talk to her much, just whisper things like “It’s all okay,” or “shh,” and pat her gently on the back. If child sleep terrors are the reason she woke up, then just say reassuring things like, “it was just a nightmare, it’s not real, you’re safe.” When your little one has calmed down, quietly leave the room to allow her to fall asleep by herself again.
It was stressed by my friends that we had to be consistent, and both my husband and I had to treat her the same way. If we didn’t keep to the same responses every night our daughter would become confused, so we couldn’t give in one night and bring her into our bed.
How to Avoid a Toddler Waking in the Night:
We started by setting up a bed-time routine, including a drink and a small snack before bed, in case she was hungry. Then we checked to see if her bedroom was a bit warm or a bit cold, and adjusted the temperature and her bedding to suit. I also thought about changing to a stronger nappy so that she wouldn’t be woken up by an uncomfortably wet nappy.
A child needs to learn to fall asleep on their own, so sitting with them until they go to sleep doesn’t help, so our routine now includes a bath, then a cuddle and then one of us reads her a story and leaves her before she goes to sleep. So when a toddler wakes up at night, they can get themselves back to sleep again. As a way to help her learn to self-sooth, we would role play in the daytime. We would practice hugging her teddy and rubbing her blankie on her face, so she would do this herself when she woke up.
I also wondered if she really needed that afternoon nap, and whether just going to bed earlier would help. A toddler wakes in the night if they just aren’t tired!
Too Noisy or Too Tired
One thing that surprised me was something my older daughter told me. She said that when she was smaller, hearing me and her dad talking downstairs as we did the evening chores or whilst watching television (this was before we just collapsed in bed through sheer sleep deprivation!) reassured her and she could fall back to sleep very easily. If it was too quiet then it took her longer to get back to sleep. She also said she couldn’t sleep if it was too noisy outside. As our house is in a very noisy area, we invested in a white noise machine for our little one’s bedroom.
It took a few weeks and a lot of trial and error, but with a little perseverance, we are now a family that sleeps and (mostly) doesn’t wake up to the sound of a toddler waking up in the night crying.