When my son was a little baby it was way easier to lull him back to sleep in the middle of the night.
And then he got a little bit older, and he wasn’t so tired anymore.
When he woke during the night, he was just that…awake. Many of the sleep disruptions that an older baby might experience are sleep disruptions that a toddler may also experience.
Night waking seems to go in fluxes around here. Teething, overtired, illness, my child afraid to sleep alone, travel—you name it, we’ve done it. Well, at least most of it. I’m sure many parents can easily relate to that.
An awake toddler in the middle of the night is sometimes a tricky situation to navigate.
How in the world do you get a toddler back to sleep without creating bad habits?
I’m not entirely sure the answer, but I will share exactly what I do in our home with our son.
1. Don’t rush in.
In the most popular post on this blog—my top 10 newborn baby sleep tips—I talk about using this technique. Well, this same tip can apply to a toddler. Basically, I wait a few minutes and listen to my son’s cry. Is he crying in his sleep? Is he fussing or is he truly crying?
The majority of the time he wakes up, it is a legitimate issue, and I go to him shortly after he wakes. Sometimes though, he is just fussing in his sleep. Allowing him to go back to sleep on his own is worth trying.
2. Always go to your child.
Okay. This probably sounds like the opposite of what I just said.
And it is.
While I wouldn’t rush in, I almost always go in after I’m sure he is really awake, and he really needs me. If your toddler typically sleeps through the night, and now he is suddenly waking, it is likely a legitimate issue. Using my motherly instincts, there has yet to be a time when I regretting going into check on my son.
3. Discover and treat the cause.
First, I always think about what the cause could be. Too hot or too cold, a dirty diaper, pain, a bad dream, etc.
Teething is a killer. The molars seem to drag on and off for weeks and weeks.
Diarrhea is another one. Sometimes my son eats something that upsets his stomach, and it causes problems during the night. This has happened on more than one occasion for him.
Being cold is another one. When we moved and were in temporary lodging, we couldn’t regulate the temperature. The lodging was freezing and so was my sleeping child. There were several nights when I had to snuggle him and warm him up after adding an extra layer of clothing.
Whatever you think the cause could be, use your instincts to discover and treat it.
4. Here’s the real deal.
I do have a method to my madness in dealing with toddler night waking. After not rushing in and then actually going into my son’s room and then hypothesizing what the cause could be I start a nighttime routine.
–Offer comfort. After picking my son up, I cuddle him in my arms and let him know I’m there. An obvious, but legitimate step.
– Change the diaper. I always change the diaper no matter what. Even if it’s not that dirty, I always still change it. Better to go back to bed dry than even a little wet. In my mind, I think it would be easier to fall asleep that way. I am able to change the diaper in the dark, using only a nightlight from the bathroom across the hall. If you need to turn on a bunch of lights, I would skip the diaper change unless it is absolutely necessary.
–Offer a small snack if night waking is infrequent. My son wakes up maybe about twice a month during the night. There are times, as an adult, that I wake up hungry and cannot fall back asleep. Because of this, I try to eliminate hunger with a small snack. This could be a little bit of milk and a cracker. Usually I stick to just milk, but if I think it’s a crazy growth spurt, I may offer a small amount of food.
-If your child is waking up nightly, avoid food altogether- I know this sounds like the exact opposite of what I recommended, but night waking a few times per month versus waking daily is completely different. If your child wakes nightly, and you offer food, it will encourage them to continue waking for food. If your child is experiencing normal, healthy development, then a night feed is typically no longer medically necessary beyond the age of 1 year, usually sooner.
–On rare occasion Tylenol. I don’t want to push medicine, but I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to pain. A small dose of Tylenol is an intervention I am okay with implementing from time to time.
–Cuddle. On rare occasion, my son’s been very emotional during travels and after moving and I took him to bed with me. I was trying to do a good thing for him, but after a while, I could see it wasn’t what he wanted.
We currently have a twin bed in his room. This is wonderful. We can still snuggle in bed together without actually being in my bed. We cuddle for as long as he seems to need it, but usually after 15 minutes or so I will attempt to put him back to bed. When he seems tired and sleepy, I go through my 5 minute bedtime ritual. I say his sleepy words, offer his blanket, and put him back in his crib.
–Wait. I try to give it at least 15 minutes to allow my son to settle himself. Sometimes he will cry or protest, which is very common among toddlers. He is testing the waters sometimes. If he isn’t quiet after a reasonable amount of time, I go back and offer comfort and cuddle with him again. Then once again, I offer him the opportunity to settle himself for a bit. Many times he does really well with this. Other times, he is crying from the get-go, and I know he needs more time with me. I’m okay with that, but I at least want to try.
–Start again. I continue through the cuddle then wait process until my son is willing to go back to sleep. Basically, I go back in and offer a few minutes worth of cuddles, and then I lay him back down and allow him the opportunity to resettle himself. On a good night, this whole routine–start to finish–will take about 30 minutes. When we were traveling internationally and had a whole mess of disruptions, this did take about 2 hours on rare occasion.
I have a no-nonsense philosophy when it comes to toddler night waking. (Baby night waking is a totally different story) I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; however, this is what works well for our family, and my son is happy, thriving, and typically sleeps 11-12 hours thought the night. When he has a night waking, I stick to to this routine and instead of creating a bad habit, he starts sleeping through again. If this isn’t for you, I completely understand. Sleep is a very personal choice.
We like to sleep in our home, and we are all so much happier, patient and focused after a good nights rest. I do think being really consistent and offering your child the opportunity to work it out while still providing love and reassurance sends a clear message: night time is for sleep.
I should note that this is all about toddler night waking when your child is still in a crib. My son cannot climb out of bed and that will make a difference here. (We do use a HALO SleepSack Wearable Blanket to prevent him from climbing out.) I’m sure we will experience a whole new set of challenges once our son moves to a real bed. Eek.
Want more on toddlers?
- Toddler Anxiety: 3 Strategies That Really Work
- Teaching Toddlers to Love Healthy Eating
- 9 Phrases That Change Life with a Toddler (Better Listening Included!)
- How to Parent a Toddler and Newborn at the Same Time
How to you deal with toddler night waking? Let’s chat in the comments!
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