6 Common Reasons For A Toddler Waking Up In The Night

Peaceful sleep is paramount for the overall well-being of a toddler. As a parent, you may be concerned about your toddler waking up at night. However, it is a common phenomenon observed by most parents. While most toddlers have uninterrupted sleep, some might wake up frequently or have trouble falling asleep.

Not having sufficient sleep could make your child constantly feel tired and irritable, bringing about exhaustion and difficult situations for you. Whether your toddler has been waking up at night for quite some time or has just begun doing so, being aware of the possible reasons can help handle the situation better.

Possible Causes For A Toddler To Wake Up In The Night

Toddlers usually have a well-regulated sleep-wake cycle when compared to babies. However, the following reasons could make a toddler wake up at night (1) (2).

  1. Feeding: Just like infants, 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.
    Feeding is a reason for toddler waking up at night
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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, especially towards the evening, 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.
  1. Teething: Teething causes swelling and pain in the gums, leaving toddlers irritated and fussy. The discomfort could lead to crying and 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 or giving them a cool teether to chew on.
    Teething is another reason for toddler waking up at night
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 device among children younger than two years (7).
  1. 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.
    Illness can disturb toddler's sleep

Beyond the above reasons, some toddlers may have shorter sleep schedules. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 34.5% prevalence of short sleep duration among children aged four months to two years in the US. 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.

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A mother of twin girls shares her experience about the sleeping habits of her twins when they turned 20 months, “Bedtime is still late, but I’m not sure I care too much, now that I am getting sleep. They wake around 6 for mama milk and then go back to sleep until 7:30-8 a.m. They still wake up sometimes during the night, but unless F has a nightmare, it just takes a few pats, and maybe some water and they go right back to sleep (i).”

How To Manage Night Awakening In Toddlers?

You may try the following steps to manage night awakenings in toddlers effectively.

  1. 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, such as comforting them back to sleep or addressing any discomfort that may be keeping them awake.
  1. 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 to provide comfort and pampering them until they fall back asleep may be appropriate.
  1. 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.
    Help toddler learn self-soothing
  1. 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.
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Tips To Prevent Toddlers From Waking Up In The Night

In most cases, nighttime awakening in toddlers is temporary and preventable. You can try the following tips with your toddler from an early age to ensure sound sleep (1) (8) (9 ).

  1. 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.
  1. Follow a set bedtime routine. Give your toddler a warm bath, brush their teeth, and read stories or sing a lullaby before bedtime. Doing so can help them feel relaxed and fall asleep while developing a healthy sleep routine (10).
    Develop a healthy sleep routine
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. You may consider room-sharing or co-sleeping 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.
  1. 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. Gradually, through sleep-training techniques, your toddler will learn to fall asleep independently.
  1. 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.
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A toddler waking up at night is common and could be caused by many reasons. Rapid body changes, teething, routine changes, development of fears, or daytime naps could be some causes. To put your child’s sleeping schedule back on track, identify the cause and try to resolve it. Set a bedtime routine and check that they follow it stringently. If they have any fears or separation anxiety, communicate with them and assure their safety to alleviate their fears. Early intervention can help the child improve their sleeping pattern and morning performance. If needed, you may also seek the help of a child psychologist.

Key Pointers

  • Daytime naps, excitement from learning new things, change in routine, teething, and many other reasons may contribute to a toddler waking up at night.
  • Try to find out the exact cause and help your toddler slowly adjust to their surroundings.
  • Help your child develop a bedtime routine, keep them engaged in activities till dinner, and ensure the ambient sleeping conditions to prevent them from waking up frequently.

Discover reasons why your toddler spends sleepless nights and a few practical solutions to help deal with it, suggested by a sleep consultant

Article written by Baby Plumbing

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