Many parents with babies who are troubled sleepers figure the baby will outgrow the issue. Some do, but many simply don’t. If your 4 month old is waking up a lot at night, you might think it’s normal. But, when she is 12 months, 18 months or 2 years old and now a toddler, you’re wondering just when she might outgrow this night waking problem or if she will at all.
There are a number of reasons why toddlers wake up at night. This article will outline a few main reasons:
Night Waking by Sleep Association
The same way your 4, 6, or 8 month old can struggle with sleeping all night, so can toddlers, if they don’t know how to get back to sleep without your “help”. I say “help” because all of our good intentions to help our babies and toddlers to sleep sometimes isn’t help at all and it only continues the night-waking longer than necessary. Of course, I don’t fault anyone (actually I do say it’s your fault, here but you know what I mean). I fell into the same trap. I didn’t know how complicated sleep could be until I had my first son!
The place we fall asleep and how we fall asleep is important. If you fall asleep on your bed and wake up at 2am and you’re on the couch, you would be disoriented and wonder how you got there. If you fell asleep on a pillow and you wake up at midnight without your pillow, you might have trouble going back to sleep without looking for it. Very often we become our baby or toddler’s “pillow”. Therefore, it’s important to have good routines that set the stage for sleep, but when it comes down to that moment when your toddler falls asleep, it needs to be in the same environment he will wake up in periodically throughout the night. This is highly related to his personality and temperament. Some children can be rocked to sleep at bedtime and wake up 12 hours later while others will need to be rocked and re-rocked every hour or two. The key is to break the sleep associations if they are a problem.
Unfortunately, teething night wakings don’t go away for everyone until both the one-year and the two-year molars come in. My first son just had molars one day without too much upheaval, but my second son, wow! His one-year molars took MONTHS to come in. Fortunately, his rough sleep nights were only here and there with his worst being just over a week ago when he was also sick with Roseola. See my article about teething for more information.
Developmental Night Waking
When your baby was less than a year old, you had teething and learning to crawl and all sorts of fun things to keep them awake at night. Well, your toddler may have some night waking due to developmental milestones, too. The biggest one is learning to talk and the language explosion they will have around 18 months old (my sons did not have this until closer to 22 months). Some toddlers could be sensitive to other developmental milestones, but if they don’t have sleep associations, night waking is usually minimal during these.
I wrote a whole series on nightmares and night terrors here, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but nightmares obviously can wake up toddlers. After their imagination starts to really blossom, they become more aware of the world, develop reasoning skills, and start to put together that we are mortal (i.e. we can die), things start to scare them. Also, disruptions or stress at home can cause nightmares too. The main thing to do is try to talk to him during the day about what might be scaring him and also make him feel safe and secure in his room and bed. A nightlight like this one really helped my son feel more comfortable. He didn’t have any nightlight until around 2 or 2 1/2 years old after he transitioned to a toddler bed when we were pregnant with #2. I did have to cover it up 85% with a washcloth because it was too bright. LOL!
All situations are unique and there could be other causes of night wakings, but these are the main reasons. Typically, once they are toddlers, they don’t need any feedings in most cases. If you need help on dealing with your toddler night waking, I encourage you to get our free guide, Toddler Sleep Secrets, or consider purchasing our comprehensive e-Book on toddler sleep, The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. You can also contact me. I’d love to help!