It’s great when your little one starts to achieve greater sleep independence and regularity past the age of one, but even as a toddler, you’re likely to encounter many occasions where they struggle to sleep.
You may find your toddler waking in the middle of the night for significant periods of time, even waking up multiple times during the same time — requiring you to lull them back to sleep.
Albeit a frustrating period after the craziness of your child’s early months, night waking is completely normal for all toddlers and occurs for various reasons, including child development and changes in their environment. Here are a few things you can do if your little one keeps waking up at night.
What Does Normal Sleep Look Like for Toddlers?
Toddlers sleep more than infants of 0-12 months and generally for longer stretches at night. They’ll need around 11-14 hours sleep each day, which would roughly be broken down into 10-12 hours at night and 1-2 hours nap time during the day.
Here’s what a normal sleep schedule might look like for your toddler, give and take a few hours (especially for early risers!).
- 7 am - wake up
- 1 pm - nap time
- 3 pm - wake up
- 7.30 pm - bedtime
While this won’t be the same for each child, it can help to give you context about how your child is behaving.
If they are sleeping for longer during their naps or start their naps a bit later due to busy schedules, be careful that this can impact the time they’ll be ready for sleep. And if you try to stick to the same bedtime slot, you could find your child unable to settle properly.
Identify Causes of Your Toddler Waking Up at Night
Toddlers are more independent than infants and can typically settle themselves into a restful sleep once put down to bed, but this doesn’t mean this will happen every night.
At the age of one to three years old, they might have trouble settling for sleep, getting to sleep or sleeping through the night. Below are some of the potential causes of this.
Bad Dreams and Nighttime Fears
The brain of your toddler is rapidly developing and sensitive to all sorts of stimulus and experiences they encounter in the day. You might not realise, but certain anxieties and fears can manifest at night as a result of something they have processed (even without you realising).
It could be the lack of presence of the mother or father as they go back to work or even a scary scene from a film you thought they weren’t paying attention to. It’s not always easy to identify the cause of your child’s fears, and the best thing to do is offer care and support when it’s clear your child is waking up at night because of bad dreams and fears.
Even a lack of sleep itself can cause night terrors in some cases, and promoting regular bedtime routines that offer consistency and reliability for your child can massively improve their relaxation and feeling of security, reducing night terrors.
It’s not always easy to identify the cause of your child’s fears, and the best thing to do is offer care and support.
You might have to adapt the sleeping arrangements of your child significantly when they reach the age of one. They may have to leave your room and sleep alone or join one of their siblings in another room. Both are situations that can disrupt your child’s sleep. Even sleeping in a bigger bed can be hard to get used to.
If your child must share the room with a younger sibling who is also finding it difficult to sleep, you might need to delay your toddler’s bedtime until your newborn or infant is asleep. If their sibling is older, setting firm ground rules early on that bedtime is for sleeping and not playing or talking will help to reduce nighttime disruptions.
Just remember that you’re always following safe sleep guidelines and best practices for all your children. To learn more about this, take a look at our blog: Promoting Safe Sleep for Babies.
Growth and Development Changes
Various developmental changes can have an impact on sleep. You may find sometimes their sleep capacity regresses somewhat with your toddler waking up more in the middle of the night and needing more attention.
Don’t lose heart if this happens. Your child should quickly bounce back once they’re adjusted to the new changes in their body.
Screen Time and Overstimulation
Screen time and technology is a highly underplayed and potentially dangerous cause of sleep disruptions. There has been no time like now when parents hand iPads and smartphones freely to their young children to distract and entertain them. Toddlers also experience much more in front of the TV.
This can be harmful in more ways than one. And when it comes to sleep, screen time can over stimulate your child’s brand so much that they won’t find it easy to sleep at night (especially if you let them watch violent or high energy content).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than an hour of high-quality programming for children over 2. And even more important is they recommend zero (yes, Zero!) screen time for children under 24 months. Video calls with loved ones are one of the only exceptions to this.
You might also find that reducing screen time for yourself can offer huge benefits to your stress levels and sleep. In truth, we’re all victims to our devices in one way or another, and having an infant around can be a good time to curb an addiction to higher than recommended levels of screen time.
Many toddlers experience separation anxiety around before the age of two, which may stop them from sleeping well. During this time they may become more clingy and needy than they’ve been since they were newborns.
Don’t be too harsh in these instances. Just remind them they’re safe and square and implement best practices for sleep independence.
Problems with Nap Times
Too much napping can ruin a perfectly good sleep routine. Equally, not enough napping can have the same effect. Getting it just right can be hard, but after learning your child’s preferences and needs for sleep, and introducing some regularity into their days, you should find it possible to create a decent nap schedule that works for everyone.
Illnesses or Temporary Health Issues
Of course, if your child is sick or ill, they’ll find it harder to sleep. You may find your toddler waking up at night for things like earaches, stomach aches, colds, sore throats, toothaches and more. Once you’ve addressed the underlying issue, they should return back to their normal sleep routine in due course.
Too much napping can ruin a perfectly good sleep routine. Equally, not enough napping can have the same effect.
Wake Up Prevention Methods
Prevention is the best solution in many cases. Sometimes this means arming your child with some strong sleeping skills through training, and other times it requires adapting their lifestyle so they are less vulnerable to things that could disturb their sleeping abilities.
Make them comfortable
One of the great things about being a toddler is you can now use a blanket while you sleep. You can also sleep in proper beds. Making sure you choose the right material for their sheets and create a cozy sleeping environment will have a huge impact on whether they’re likely to sleep right through till the morning.
Keep them warm or cool enough
We all find it difficult to sleep when we’re too hot or cold. Adjust the room temperature with fans or heating, and give your toddler the right clothing material to handle the climate.
Dress them in the right clothes
Has your little one recently graduated from the swaddle or baby onesie? While pajamas are great, it can sometimes be hard for children to adapt to life without a more restrictive kind of clothing item. Our Flying Squirrel pajamas are specially designed to offer your toddler greater flexibility and movement while still ensuring complete comfort and coziness.
Bedtime routines & best environments for toddlers
Establishing a soothing bedtime routine is one of the best things you can do to prevent your child from waking up during the night. This can involve a range of different activities, including baths and reading, and should end with you leaving the room before your toddler is actually asleep (so that they strengthen the ability to settle themselves to sleep).
Manage the content they consume
As mentioned, keep screen time to a minimum and avoid scary TV shows and even books if they find them too frightening.
Promote sleep independence
You may actually be the one stopping your child from being able to sleep. When you’re too quick to offer them comfort every time they look displeasure or unhappy when sleeping, it may prevent them from becoming sleep independent.
How to Handle Your Toddler Once They’re Awake
Sometimes it’s just better to know how to get your toddler back to sleep once they’ve woken up than hypothesise about the various things that woke them up in the first place. Below are some steps that can help with this!
Don't Rush In
If you hear your child fussing or whimpering in the night, don’t always rush in immediately to try and soothe them.
They may just need a moment to resettle or could even be making noises during their sleep. If you go in too early and comfort your child, you could be signaling to them that bedtime is over or that their cries and calls for attention will always be immediately met.
This can stop them from settling themselves to sleep on their own. However, if you find your toddler waking in the middle of the night and crying for long stretches, then, of course, it’s wise to check up on them to see what’s the matter.
Don’t Over Comfort
Even when you’ve decided to give some comfort to your toddler to help them get back to sleep, there’s no need to go overboard by picking them up and bringing them to your room for ages. The best thing to do is offer some gentle reassurance and encourage them to get back to sleep themselves.
Making sure both parents are aligned in their approach to toddler sleep will help to offer some consistency to your child’s sleeping routine. You should both set a plan and try to stick to it with regular bedtime routines and bedtimes.
When your toddler is around two and over, they may not enjoy bedtime at all. And this can last for years if you don’t establish good sleeping practices at this stage. It’s normal for kids to dislike being alone and separated from their parents, but if you give in too much, they’ll find it much harder to enjoy the benefits of sleep independence.
When your child reaches preschool years, their naps will trail off but sleep consistency and schedules are still just as important. Even if your toddler doesn’t like to nap, it’s good to set aside some calm and quiet time during each day for them to recharge their batteries and avoid being overtired when it’s time for bed.