A toddler with night wakings can be a tricky situation to navigate. You hear them fussing from the crib, and either you wait, fingers crossed, to see if they go back to sleep and they don’t, and the night for the both of you is over. Night waking that also interrupts your sleep can be one of the most difficult parts of parenthood. You feel like you’ve tried everything, so, why is your toddler is waking up at night?!
There are many reasons why your super-sleeper might be suddenly be waking up at night, but try not to worry, because you’re not alone. It is normal, and with lots of patience and being consistent with sleep training methods, your night waking terrors will soon be far behind you.
I’m here to tell you four common reasons that your child is waking up at night, and what to do to help you get from drama to dozing, through the use of proper sleep training methods.
Ready to get some ZZZzzzzs? Here we go!
It may sound counter-intuitive, but over-tiredness can be a huge disruption to night sleep. Toddlers who suddenly refuse afternoon naps or go to bed too late can really struggle with getting a good night’s sleep simply because they are so exhausted! Sounds crazy, right?
I want you to think about sleep as a cup. The lower the amount of sleep in the cup, the harder it is to get to sleep. The higher amount of sleep, the easier it is to sleep. The old saying by Dr. Weissbluth “sleep begets sleep” is so true!
Did you know that you could limit a toddler to 4 hours of sleep at night and they would still say that they don’t feel tired?!? What, the what? Yes, so thinking that your toddler will “eventually get sleepy” and go to bed if you keep them up late, may not be the wisest strategy.
The best strategy for an overtired toddler, is an earlier bedtime. Fill up the sleep cup with more sleep by going to bed earlier. Generally speaking, from 12 months – 5 years old, they will go to bed between 6-8 pm.
You should also have your toddler go to bed around the same time and wake up around the same time. This goes for naps too! Consistency is key; Harness the energy of your body clock (circadian system/rhythm). If you can keep the same schedule on the weekend and weekdays, you train your toddler’s body “when to be sleepy”. Then the body craves sleep at the same time each day. You prevent that jet-lagged feeling of changing up sleep. Keep a consistent schedule day-to-day and you will then have a predictable schedule and a well-rested toddler.
Here’s a visual sleep training strategy by toddler’s age.
Start all of the kiddos waking up between 6-7am. After being awake the set number of hours, they will then nap for the duration based on their age range. Then, bedtime will be between 6-8pm based on when they wake up from the nap and their evening mood.
Once you transition to a toddler bed the world seems very big. The crib felt safe and cozy. Now, suddenly, the separation anxiety presents itself. You toddler is clinging to your leg like it’s the last time they may ever see you, or you may wake up to find that they have even crawled into bed with you!
Separation anxiety is a normal and healthy part of development. They are expanding their world and their knowledge, and with that unfortunately comes a wave of anxiety. It begins around 8 months of age and will fluctuate all throughout toddlerhood. They use our bodies to regulate their emotions until 5 years of age. If you seem upset or frustrated when your toddler has once again woken up in the middle of the night, they will feed off of that and your anxiety becomes “proof” that the environment isn’t safe. Instead, reassure them with a positive demeanor. When we are calm and confident, they are relaxed and self-regulated. It is our job to be responsive, calm, confident, and consistent so we can make them feel safe and loved, and reduce the anxiety of separation.
No one prepares you for the fact that sleep will continue to change as they advance and develop. They may request a nightlight or the door to be open to maintain a connection to the house. Be sure to use a red light — it is the only color that doesn’t alert the body and cause wakefulness. My favorite product is the hatch baby.
FOMO – ever heard of it? The acronym coined by our social media age means, “the fear of missing out”. And guess what, toddlers suffer from FOMO too! Your kiddo just might be adverse to bedtime like that one friend who feels they need to constantly refresh their social media feed, for fear of missing out on any action! Afterall, sleeptime is boring and Mom and Dad are much more entertaining. Why would you want to go to bed when your parents are out there having fun “watching TV collapsing on the couch”, “hanging out with older siblings”, or “making lunches for tomorrow”?
Similar to the sleep cup; we have a connection cup that needs regular refilling. The connection cup is important to fill too when your toddler has a case of the FOMO.
A great way to fill their connection cup, during transition times, is to just get on the floor and play. When you wake up, even before starting breakfast or chores, spend as little as 3 -7 minutes playing. Then before dropping them off at preschool. Again, when you get home from picking them up. And, finally the bedtime routine.
Don’t get distracted. Put your phones away, and don’t multitask while doing chores or cooking meals. Just play! It can be as short as 3-7 minutes per connection touchpoint, or as long as 15 minutes. The more full the connection cup is, the less your toddler will be hopping out of the toddler bed to seek you out at night, and you can all get some rest knowing your toddler had a fulfilling day.
Have you ever started a new habit and not successfully adopted it (flossing, daily exercise, journaling, riding bikes with your kiddo once per week)? Yeah, we’ve all been there. Well, when you are teaching sleep — you as the grown-up and the child are both practicing a new habit. It will take time on both sides to develop. Generally speaking, toddlers’ sleep can improve in 1 – 3 weeks time; your sleep may take 6 weeks to improve, after sleep training. Adults just take more time to learn. If you embark on a new sleep plan or new sleep routine — give it time and practice.
It is her job to discover how the world works. She will attempt to engage you with “her creativity“ to see if you will respond differently than what you explained to her. Or your partner. Or grandma. Or the babysitter. She wants to understand, “What happens when I do this? Will you still do that? Or something else?” Your child will feel safe when you “say, do, and follow through.” Once she has confidence that you are not inconsistent, she gets bored and realizes what you say and do — mean it.
It is normal for our toddlers to look for our boundaries. “What does mom do when I do this? How about that? Does dad react differently?” They want to experiment and learn where the edge is of our boundaries. “Does no mean no? Or Does no more books mean, yes, if we read them faster and get your head on the pillow and lights out?” They are amazing negotiators — they are experimenting and learning about how your family functions. It is their job to figure out the difference between what you say and do.
Consistency is key in sleep training, just like for any habit or goal that we as adults want to achieve. Reinforcing good sleep habits takes time and a faithful follow-through. Your toddler won’t learn healthy sleep habits on their own if she’s confused about how you’ll respond to her nightly disturbances. Hang in there and soon your toddler won’t be waking up at night.
There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to night wakings, and the strategies will vary depending on your child and their age. Night wakings disrupt everyone’s sleep – yours and your toddler’s. These steps in sleep training are so important to helping them learn how to sleep on their own, so you can all go back to a night of ZZZZZZzzzzzzs!
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