It’s not just babies who wake up in the middle of the night. Toddlers can have trouble getting a solid night’s sleep, too. We’ve got some tried-and-true tips to help your little one sleep tight.
If you teach your toddler basic sleeping skills, it benefits everyone in the household—especially sleep-deprived parents. Toddlers need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, so a solid night’s sleep is of the utmost importance.
Why Toddlers Wake Up at Night
Perhaps your toddler has been sleeping like a rock until recently. Or maybe she’s never learned to sleep through the night, and you’re desperate to lose those bags under your eyes. Whatever the reason, we’re here to help everyone get back on track.
Here are some common reasons your toddler might wake up in the middle of the night:
- Physical ailments: New molars breaking through, a stuffy nose, a painful ear infection, a fever, a stomachache, or something as simple as thirst or hunger could be keeping your toddler awake. Some of these have quick solutions, such as pain medication, clearing blocked sinuses with the Nose Frida, or bringing her a drink of water.
- Life changes: Toddlers learn to rely on a predictable routine. Any change—even if it seems insignificant—can disrupt their sleep cycle. Things like the arrival of a new sibling, potty training, a move to a new home or bedroom, a new preschool, or even meeting a new babysitter can all rock their little world. Be patient as they adjust to any changes.
- Nightmares: Imaginations can run wild at this age, and stored up scenarios of all kinds can play out during sleep. A nightmare can startle your toddler awake. A hug or a gentle back rub can help settle your toddler after a disruptive dream.
- Under- or overtired: If your toddler’s too inactive or naps too long during the day, he might be more likely to wake up at night. Also, being overtired or overstimulated can make toddlers too wired to fall asleep or stay asleep. Pay attention to your toddler’s level of daytime activity, as well as his total number of sleeping hours.
How to Help Them Stay Asleep
Not sure how to approach the middle-of-the-night wake-ups? We’ve got some ideas to get you started. If nothing seems to work, we suggest discussing it with your pediatrician as there might be an underlying issue at play.
Encourage Your Child to Self-Soothe
If your child has never slept through the night, now’s the time to help him self-soothe. You can introduce a comfort object, like a lovey or stuffed animal.
When you hear your child start to cry at night, check the clock. It often feels like ages, but when you time it, you might realize she only cries for a few minutes. Wait before rushing in—many toddlers settle within a few minutes. If she starts waking up regularly, and it’s not for a physical reason (like a fever), extend the time each night before you rush in. Start with five minutes, then wait seven minutes the next night, and so on.
Offer Consistent Reassurance
Whichever method you choose to reassure and comfort your toddler, try to be consistent. Don’t rub his back one night, play YouTube videos the next, and then bring him to your bed another night. This sends mixed messages, and your toddler won’t know what to expect when he wakes up—or he might demand YouTube videos every night.
We suggest keeping your responses low-key, quiet, and simple. A gentle back or forehead rub or a sweet hug might do the trick. Try not to turn on bright lights, offer screen time, or talk too much. Reassuring language, like, “It’s okay, it was only a dream,” is fine. Just remember, to keep it quiet and not too stimulating.
Pay Attention to Total Sleep Hours
Some toddlers take long naps during the day, which is great for a parent’s sanity and productivity. However, this might be why they aren’t tired at night. Most toddlers nap between 1 to 3 hours during the day. Try to avoid letting your toddler nap any longer than that.
If your toddler resists nap time, you can try “quiet time” instead. If it seems like he still needs his nap, try to keep it within 1 to 3 hours.
Also, make sure there’s a 4- or 5-hour gap between the end of nap time and bedtime. This allows your toddler enough time to be active and get tired again. If your child sleeps too late in the afternoon, it can disrupt his nighttime sleep cycle.
If your toddler wakes up too early, we suggest getting an okay to rise alarm clock, that changes colors and chimes softly when it’s time to wake up. This encourages your child to stay in bed a little longer and get those extra minutes (hours) of rest time.
An Active Toddler Is a Tired Toddler
Is your toddler active enough, or is she mostly watching videos? Try to spend plenty of time outside with your tot, so she can climb on playground equipment, walk, jump in the mud, or do anything else that gets her heart rate going.
One hour of screen time per day for toddlers is a good idea. If you’re unsure how much they’re watching, you can use a timer or a logbook. It’s also helpful to set aside all devices, turn off the TV, and start winding down about an hour before bedtime.
The Importance of a Regular Bedtime Routine
Toddlers rely on structure and consistency to guide them to healthy behaviors. Repeating the same steps in the same order every night prepares their little minds to accept the sleep that is to come. Plan on spending about half an hour on the bedtime routine, including bath, stories (specify how many books in advance), brushing teeth, picking out PJs, snuggling, etc.
Make sure their room is dark and cool enough to encourage sleep. Overheating can disrupt the sleep cycle, so around 65 degrees Fahrenheit is usually good. Try to avoid bundling them with too many blankets.
The use of a nightlight can help some toddlers, whereas others are stimulated by it (especially if it’s bright enough that they can still look at books). Try to avoid using cellphones, computers, or tablets as a nightlight as these have LEDs, which can disrupt the circadian rhythm.
A white noise machine could be beneficial—especially if other noises, like footsteps, a TV, the washing machine, and so on, might keep your toddler awake. You can keep it on the basic white noise and avoid the more stimulating sounds, like bird chirps or ocean waves.
Helping your toddler sleep through the night is important, especially if he’s rubbing his eyes during the day (and you’re pounding the coffee). Whether it’s just a phase or a recurring problem, try to remain consistent, calm, and firm. And don’t worry too much about the occasional wake-up; those are common even in adulthood.