Help! My Toddler Wakes Up Crying At Night

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toddler jumping on the bed

Toddler sleep struggles can impact the entire family. This is particularly true if your toddler wakes up crying at night. The good news is your toddler is very normal! It is a myth that once a  baby starts sleeping through the night they will always sleep through the night. The reality is that it is common for toddlers to start waking up at night, even toddlers who previously slept very well.

Top Reasons Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying At Night

So, why is your toddler waking up at night? What can you do about it?  There are numerous reasons why toddlers wake up at night. To determine how to help your toddler, you need to first determine the root cause of the wakings. 

Here is a quick rundown of the top causes of toddler night waking. In just a minute, we will take a closer look at each and discuss how to troubleshoot each cause.

  • Illness
  • Teething (molars are no fun!)
  • Night terrors (fun fact: they are not actually awake)
  • Overtired (too little sleep)
  • Undertired (too much daytime sleep)
  • Sleep associations
  • Developmental progress
  • Transitions
  • Separation Anxiety 

Getting To The Root Of The Problem 

It is important to recognize that solving your toddler’s sleep struggles and stopping the night wakings should generally be viewed as a long game rather than a quick fix. You will need to put on your detective hat to figure out the root cause of why your toddler is waking up at night. Only once you have that answer and know why your toddler is waking at night, can you move on to stopping the wakings. Often, solving toddler night wakings is a multi-night job. Don’t give up! With patience and persistence, your toddler will start sleeping well once again. 

Toddler night wakings are not one and done. Your toddler will wake for various reasons throughout their toddlerhood. This means that you will need to put that detective hat back on each time you hit a rough patch. Look for the cause of the wakings and then respond accordingly.

Illness and Teething

The cause: One reason toddlers wake at night is illness. If your toddler is not feeling well, offer comfort or medical treatment as needed. Often, your toddler's sleep will go back to normal as soon as he or she feels better. Other times, your toddler will have gotten used to deviating from their usual night time routine and having more parental involvement at night than usual. 

The fix: Being intentional about returning to your usual bedtime routine. If your toddler protests, promise to return to check on him or her in 5 minutes (or even less)....and then keep your promise. You can also promise you will check on them in the night if needed, but keep that interaction short, sweet, and boring if your toddler does call you.

Too Little Sleep...And Too Much Sleep

The cause: If your toddler is waking up screaming at night, night terrors are the likely culprit. These night time disruptors, more accurately called confusional arousals, are essentially a glitch in your toddler moving from one stage of sleep to the next. The result is a crying or screaming toddler who does not respond to your presence when you attempt to comfort them. This is because your child is still asleep, despite appearing awake.

The fix, part one: Intervene as little as possible. Stay in the room to keep your child safe, but don’t attempt to wake your toddler. This typically prolongs the event. When your toddler wakes the next morning, he or she will have no memory of this (though parents most certainly do!). 

The fix, part two: Be intentional about making sure your toddler gets enough sleep. Too little sleep is often a culprit behind night terrors. On average, toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep per 24 hours from age 1-2 and 10-13 hours of sleep from age 3-5. Most children do best with 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep. 

The cause: When toddlers do not get enough sleep, they become overtired. When a child is overtired, it is harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Overtired children also often experience early morning wakings (before 6 AM). 

The fix: Make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep. Often, this looks like moving bedtime earlier to allow for 11-12 hours of night sleep, or being intentional about making sure that nap starts on time. It may take 3-4 days to start seeing significant changes. So, don’t give up if you don’t see any improvement after the first night. 

The cause: Some toddlers wake up at night because they are getting too much daytime sleep. Sounds weird, right? Sometimes, toddlers are simply in bed for too much of the day. Often, parents find a schedule that works when their child first drops to one nap, and then don’t tweak the schedule as their toddler grows. 

The fix: Less daytime sleep. The schedule that works for a child at 18 months will likely need to be tweaked every 3-6 months. If a child naps too long during the day, they will simply wake at some point during the night feeling refreshed and ready to go. After 18 months, if your toddler is napping longer than 2 hours and starts waking at night, try shortening the nap by 15 minutes every 3-4 days until the night time sleep improves.

Sleep Associations

The cause: The way toddlers go to bed is another common culprit for those night wakings. If your toddler falls asleep with any amount of parental assistance, he or she will want and need that assistance to return to sleep. 

However, your child may not yet have the communication skills to clearly communicate that need. So, toddlers may instead ask for water, a snack, a book, a toy, etc. If you helped your child fall asleep at bedtime, chances are that they are actually trying to ask you to help them back to sleep.

The fix: Stop assisting your toddler to sleep at bedtime. How this will look in your home depends on your parenting philosophy, your child’s personality, and your sleep goals for your child.  

Bottom line, to stop this sort of toddler night wakings, you will have to stop assisting your toddler to sleep at bedtime. There are a variety of ways to do this, and patience and consistency are key.

Transitions and Development 

The cause: Another common answer to the question “why is my toddler waking at night” is transitions. Toddlers love order and routine. Transitions such as potty training, moving to a toddler bed, a new school or teacher, a new sibling, or moving to a new house disrupt that familiar consistency and the result is often sleep struggles. 

The fix: Time plus a steady dose of consistency in the form of a bedtime routine and sleep schedule. Try your best not to fall into a pattern of helping your child to sleep, unless you intentionally bed-share and plan to continue. 

The cause: Upcoming developmental leaps are yet another common cause of sudden toddler sleep struggles. There is so much going on in their brains and sleep sometimes just falls down the priority list. Why sleep when you can practice talking or walking? 

The fix: Lots and lots of daytime practice. If you need to go to your toddler at night, keep it dark, quiet, and as boring as you can. Don't jump straight to the maximum level of help: bringing your toddler to your bed. Try a lower level of comfort first. Even if your toddler is wide awake and ready to party, keep the lights off and don't play or turn on the TV.

The cause: Separation anxiety is yet another developmental factor that can play into toddler sleep struggles.

The fix:  Reassurance during the day, projecting calm and confidence at bedtime, and again, being quiet and boring should you need to go to your child at night. A soothing, consistent bedtime routine is a must for toddlers experiencing separation anxiety. If your child wakes, do soothe as needed but don't over help.

Bottom Line

Toddler wakings are challenging. Especially if they come after weeks or months of sleeping through the night.

Take it one night at a time. These wakings won't last forever. The quickest way to solve them is to figure out the cause. Once you know the likely cause of the wakings, you can make your game plan to get your toddler's sleep back on track.

If bedtimes have been a struggle as well, take a look at this post to see how to banish the bedtime battles and restore peace to bedtime

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Are you ready to make sleep a thing at your house, but feel stuck or unsure how? Working with parents 1-1 to take the stress out of baby and toddler sleep is my joy.

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