Undisturbed sleep is essential for the physical and mental well-being of a toddler. While most toddlers sleep undisturbed through the night, some may wake up frequently, finding it difficult to fall asleep. A toddler waking up in the middle of the night is normal. However, it could make them fussy, clingy, and irritable, leading to a stressful and tiring situation for the parents.
If your toddler has just begun waking up at night or has been doing so for quite some time, knowing about the possible causes can better manage the situation.
This post tells you why a toddler is waking up at night and useful techniques to manage the condition with relative ease.
Possible Causes For A Toddler To Wake Up In The Night
- Feeding: Just like babies, several toddlers tend to wake up in the night for a feed. Although this phenomenon is normal, experts recommend gradual weaning of nighttime feeding by the time the baby turns 12 months. It can prevent it from becoming a habit, which continues into childhood.
- Rapid development: Toddlerhood is a time of rapid physical, mental, and social changes. For instance, a fast-growing toddler can now walk independently, run, and throw objects in a determined direction. These changes can be overwhelming, causing sleep regression. Sleep regression is a temporary condition where a toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly resists sleep, wakes up in the middle of the night, and struggles to fall asleep (3).
- Change in routine: When a toddler experiences a change in their usual routine, their sleep-wake cycle may alter. Potty training, weaning, joining a nursery, a new babysitter, or the arrival of a new family member, are some of the instances that can bring changes in their routine, contributing to night waking.
- Longer daytime naps: Toddlers should sleep 11 to 14 hours a day, including two naps, each two to three hours long (4). If a toddler has longer daytime naps, they may not feel sleepy at night and wake up frequently. Keeping naps within a specific limit and promoting the right amount of physical activity, especially in the evening, ensures the toddler is tired enough to sleep soundly through the night.
- Teething: Teething causes swelling and pain in the gums, leaving toddlers irritated and fussy. The discomfort could disturb a toddler’s sleep during the day and at night. If your toddler is teething, you can ease their pain and uneasiness by massaging their gum with a clean finger.
- Fear: As babies grow into toddlers, they develop greater awareness of their surroundings. Toddlers may develop a fear of the dark, fear of being alone, or fear of strangers. These are normal and mostly don’t cause any problems. However, in some toddlers, these fears can trigger extreme distress and anxiety, causing night waking (5).
- Nightmares and night terrors: Babies and toddlers also dream, and some dreams could be unpleasant, causing disturbed sleep. Night terrors could occur when the baby is partially asleep and are different from nightmares. Nightmares and night terrors could both contribute to nighttime awakening.
- Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety is a normal event and mostly affects children between the ages of six months and three years. It causes the toddler to wake up at night and behave cranky, clingy, and fussy when they don’t see their parents around (6). Most toddlers fall asleep as soon as the parents embrace or hug them.
- Electronic media: Excessive use of electronic devices, such as television and tablets, could interfere with sound sleep at night. Toddlers commonly use electronic devices to listen to rhymes, watch cartoons, or use interactive learning tools. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages the use of any type of electronic devices among children younger than two years (7).
- Illness: Stuffy or runny nose, cold, cough, fever, and digestive disorders, such as colic, may cause disturbed sleep at night. In rare cases, a toddler may have disturbed sleep as a side effect of medications.
If you suspect your toddler isn’t waking up due to any of the above reasons, it is advisable to consult a pediatrician. They will help determine and ascertain the precise cause.
How To Manage Night Awakening In Toddlers?
You may try the following steps to manage night awakenings in toddlers effectively.
- Ascertain the cause and act accordingly. Every toddler will have different reasons for waking up at night. Some may wake up due to pain, and others may do so due to separation anxiety. Assess the situation, determine the exact cause, and work to implement the appropriate solution.
- Give ample time to your toddler to adjust. It means whenever they wake up at night, first let them fall back asleep themselves. It is an essential parenting trick useful to tackle separation anxiety. However, if the toddler is inconsolable, pat their back or rub the back of their hand, but avoid picking up or holding them in the lap. However, if the night waking is due to an illness or nightmare, hugging your toddler and pampering them until they fall back asleep may be appropriate.
- Be patient and perseverant in your efforts. After all, inculcating healthy sleep habits in toddlers is a continuous process that relies on the concept of learning by doing. Therefore, let your toddler learn self-soothing from early infancy. You can try a mixed approach where you can reassure them one day and the next day quietly watch them self-soothe. As your toddler grows older, reduce the number of times you soothe them, so that they become self-reliant.
- Praise your toddler for their efforts. It will encourage them to understand and practice healthy sleep habits. Explain to them that nighttime awakening eventually resolves with persistent efforts, provided they follow your guidance. In case your toddler still wakes up and struggles to fall back asleep, consult a doctor.
Tips To Prevent Toddlers From Waking Up In The Night
- Be a role model and follow a set sleep and wake routine as a family. Babies and toddlers watch others and imitate. Utilize this instinct to train them with healthy sleep habits.
- Follow a set bedtime routine. Give your toddler a warm bath, brush their teeth, and read stories at the same time before bedtime. Doing so can help them feel relaxed and fall asleep while developing a healthy sleep routine (10).
- Offer ample daytime stimulation. Take your toddler to a nearby park or play with them in your backyard. Except for a nap or two, involve them in playful activities until dinner. Natural light (sunlight) and a lot of stimulation can keep your toddler alert and active during the day and help them sleep peacefully at night.
- Keep your toddler’s bedroom screen-free. Television, smartphones, tablets, and other such electronic gadgets can affect your young one’s sleeping pattern. Watching age-inappropriate content, such as violence and horror, may even cause nightmares and night terrors. Besides, artificial light interferes with melatonin production, causing hampered sleep.
- Discuss positive thoughts and talk about happy things at bedtime. Doing so develops healthy thoughts in your toddler’s mind and could lead to sound sleep. Alternatively, you and your toddler can enjoy some quiet time together, listening to peaceful music before bedtime.
- Follow safe sleep habits. Keep your toddler’s bed free from the clutter that may interfere with their sleep. However, you can allow them to keep their favorite objects, such as a baby lovey. It may help a toddler fall asleep, especially when they wake up at night. However, ensure that the item is free from materials, such as buttons, bows, and small ribbons that are a choking hazard.
- Ensure the bedroom is dimly lit and has a comfortable ambiance. Windows should be covered with curtains to restrict artificial light, and the toddler must wear comfortable clothes. Ensure all of your toddler’s needs, such as diaper change or hunger, are addressed before bedtime.
- You may consider room-sharing in the beginning. Experts recommend placing the baby’s bed in the parents’ room for the first year (11). It could help inculcate good sleep habits initially. Once your toddler grows older, you may shift them to their room.
- Keep the reassurance quiet, and don’t run immediately to your toddler’s room if they wake up in the middle of the night. Instead, wait several seconds, allowing them the chance to fall asleep on their own. When you enter their room, stay at a distance from their bed and offer reassurance that you are there. But, do not turn on the light, stay too long, or sleep with them.
- Be patient and persistent in your efforts. Building healthy and safe sleep practices takes time, especially for babies and toddlers who cannot adequately understand their relevance. During the process, you may feel frustrated or overwhelmed but avoid showing negative emotions to your toddler as it can make things worse.
A toddler waking up in the middle of the night is usually benign. However, depending on the number of times the toddler wakes up, nighttime awakening can be tiring and stressful for the parents and the baby. Early identification of the cause of nocturnal awakening can help the toddler get the right treatment and guidance to stop waking up at night.
2. Childhood Insomnia and Sleep Problems; Help Guide
3. Typical sleep behaviour (4) – toddlers 1 to 2 years; Better Health Channel; Victoria State Government
4. How Much Sleep Do Babies and Kids Need?; Sleep Foundation
5. Bedtime Fears: Helping Overcome Them; Cincinnati Children’s
6. Separation anxiety; NHS
7. Infant Nutrition And Feeding; USDA
8. Toddler Bedtime Trouble: Tips for Parents; AAP
9. Healthy sleep tips for children; NHS
10. Brush, Book, Bed: How to Structure Your Child’s Nighttime Routine; AAP
11. How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained; AAP