Before we have a baby, we are warned about the lack of sleep thing. We are told (countless times) that babies don’t sleep through the night and thus, neither will we.
But isn’t the whole “I need to feed every three hours” thing supposed to end when baby becomes a toddler?
For many parents, nope. In fact, for many of us, getting a toddler to sleep through the night is an even bigger struggle than getting a baby to sleep through the night.
If your toddler wakes up at night, know that you’re not alone. This is a very common issue and one that most parents experience. But what’s causing your little one to wake up?
“Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that each child will eventually reach, just like all the other ones,” Parenting coach and Blissed Out Mums owner Heather Lindsay tells Mum Central. “By being responsive and being a parental detective and working out the ‘why’ behind their waking, we can then take steps to prevent things from waking them.”
Does your toddler wake at night? Here’s why:
Hunger: Toddlers go go go all day. They often don’t stop to eat. For some toddlers, they need to play catch up at nighttime by waking up and requesting a snack (several times).
Heat: On hot summer nights or in winter if the heater’s set too high, toddlers can get thirsty. Having a sippy cup of water handy is helpful, but they may need a parent to come in and give it to them if they can’t find it.
Fear: Bedtime can be scary. It’s dark, there are shapes and shadows on the wall, there can be strange noises. The child’s brain may be processing something unfamiliar or scary and they have a bad dream. All of this can cause a child to wake. They may need reassurance that their parents are still there.
Lack of comfort: Many toddlers require a comfort object to help them sleep, such as a dummy or teddy (or even you). When these specific sleep cues are out of reach, toddlers can wake up in search of them.
Tips for when your toddler wakes at night
1. Ensure their needs are met
Start by playing detective to determine if the frequent night wakings are related to any of the above problems.
- To determine if your child may be going to bed hungry, see our visual guide on how much your toddler should be eating.
- Add a sippy cup or water bottle to his bedside table and teach him where it is.
- Play around with the temperature to see if he could be too hot or cold. You can also look into sleep suits which offer different T.O.G. ratings depending on the season.
- Check out this mum’s clever dummy trick to help her daughter from frequently waking up at night searching for a dummy. Or, you can look into creating a bedtime tent which can also bring comfort and security to children of all ages, including toddlers.
2. Track their sleep
Another option for parents is to start a night time log book.
“I recommend doing a day sleep / wake log,” Heather suggests. “Note the time and length of any day naps, what is happening in the two hours before bedtime, what the bedtime routine was, what time they woke up in the morning and what type of mood they were in.”
Include details like whether lights were bright or dim, was it noisy or calm, was it hot or cold, how the child fell asleep, the time of each wake-up and what was required to put the child back to sleep.
“If parents do this for a minimum of three days (ideally five), they will be able to start to see patterns of behaviour and then be able to address specific parts of the routine to overcome these challenges,” Heather adds.
To get started on a toddler bedtime routine, have a look at these easy bedtime routines to follow.
3. Try the bedtime pass method
Another option that may work if your toddler wakes up at night is the bedtime pass – a piece of paper that acts as a get-out-of-bed-pass. Your toddler can hand over his bedtime pass once a night in exchange for a snack, a drink, an extra cuddle, etcetera. Add a reward in the morning and you could have a winning combination.
4. Compromise with a mattress
Sometimes toddlers simply need you. If you’re not into sharing a bed with a kicking tot, consider sharing a room. Add a mattress on the floor, next to you and explain to your toddler that if he does get scared, he can come in and sleep on the mattress. He will still be close enough to hear you without flopping on top of you.
5. Consider your toddler’s point of view
Of course, not all toddlers are going to understand that if they are scared, they can come to your room. Often, they will be too confused or scared to come to you.
Instead, they may sit there and cry or call out to you.
Yes, it’s frustrating. But try to remember how your little one is feeling.
“All behaviour (even night time wakings!) is communication,” Heather reminds us. “It is our child expressing a need. Our toddler’s brain is not fully developed and the neurological wiring just isn’t there for them to be able to express their needs.”
Night waking is just another way for your toddler to tell you, ‘I’m not quite ready to be without you right now’.
6. Take care of yourself … and your toddler
Toddlers wake up at night. It’s something many of us need to accept. However, it’s hard to deal with a toddler waking at night after you’ve just spent all day taking care of them. We need a bit of a break too.
“As parents we cannot give from an empty cup. If we don’t look after ourselves then when it comes to dealing with the toddler that wakes up all the time, we won’t have the patience to respond gently and deal with the stress of it all.”
So what can you do? Put yourself first. Go to bed early. Get a good dinner. Co-sleep if you want. Ask your partner to take the reins one night a week. You can’t expect to run 24/7. Eventually it will catch up to you. And you won’t have the patience or tolerance to handle your waking toddler.
For more advice on getting your toddler to sleep through the night, check out these 15 reasons toddlers wake up at night (and how to stop them).