Toddler Night Waking

Toddler Night WakingMany 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 2 am 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), and 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!

How is your toddler sleeping?

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49 thoughts on “Toddler Night Waking”

  1. My 32 month old daughter has always been a wonderful sleeper, until this last month. I think it stems from fear of sound — she has had moments where a lawn mower, vacuum or thunder has woken her up, and moved on to straight anxiety from being away from us. We used to put her down for naps or bed wide awake and she would sleep zero isssue. Now she refuses to nap in her room (still in crib) and bed time has become an issue. She requires that daddy sleeps with her (laying next to the crib). If he tries and leaves while she’s drowsy, she freaks out, tries to climb out and has thrown up. Then during the night, she will wake up screaming and crying from her crib until one of us (typically Dad) goes in and sleeps on the floor until morning (on one or two occasions she has continued to freak and he had her sleep on the floor). We have a night light, sound machine. I have tried it as well and typical reaction. I know I have to try and be the one to go in more, and dads going away soon so it will force that.

    But what else am I missing or should be doing? She is clearly overtired from not napping and waking so much. We just want our sweet girl back!

    • Hi Lindsay,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m so sorry to hear you’re having trouble with your 3 year-old’s sleep. If it helps, I have a 3.5yo too, and I feel like we’ve just been through this time of nap refusal and bedtime trouble. There’s a common intellectual leap around this age that can cause some disequilibrium for a couple of months – 3 is just hard! It may be worth it to talk to your daughter, if she’s verbal, and see if you can set up some new bedtime routines and expectations together, to help her feel like she has some control, so she’s less anxious. I also do want to let you know that if you continue to have trouble with sleep, our sleep consultants work with sensitive kids all the time around this age, and we have gentle methods that can help (even for kids who vomit when upset! You are not alone in that.). I hope this helps – good luck with everything!

  2. I wish there were some new suggestions out there. My 15 month old is still waking 3x a night on average, rarely less and sometimes more. She’s always had a hard time teething but she only has one more k9 to come through then she has all her teeth until the 2 year molars. I know she’s been having nightmares practically since she was born too but I doubt that’s the reason for every waking. I’m in desperate need of some kind of suggestion that I haven’t heard of. She goes to sleep on her own in the crib at bed time with her blanky. I stopped nursing her when she wakes at night about a month or so ago but it hasn’t done anything except take that comfort away. She wakes up abruptly sometimes from a seemingly deep sleep and she’s already whining or crying before she’s even totally sat up. There’s white noise in the room, it’s dark, I’ve tried a night light I’ve tried leaving her cup of water with her. She needs to be comforted every time she wakes almost as if she’s scared and since night-weaning her she usually ends up in the bed because I’m absolutely exhausted and at least she will go back to sleep in her own there. I even have a pediatriction appointment the end of May but that seems very far away still.

    • @Hayley, thank you for writing to us. I am so sorry to hear you have tried many of the suggestions that are out there with no success. It sounds like you would benefit from working one-on-one with a sleep consultant that can look into your daughter’s full sleep history and provide specific suggestions. It can be difficult as a parent to read through general books and articles, so we hope to take the guesswork out for you and provide you information that will apply to your child’s temperament and your parenting philosophy and goals as well. If you are interested, we would be happy to have you. You can view our services here: or if you have more specific questions about what package would be best or how we work, feel free to email us at [email protected]
      I hope this helps and that we’re able to continue this journey with you! Hang in there.

  3. @Debbye

    Unfortunately it hasn’t stopped yet. Turns out he’s getting 4 molars at once, and on top of that is also getting pretty much the rest of his teeth. He also had a moderate build up of fluid in his ears and had to get tubes put in (that helped a little). On top of that, my sister passed away about a week and a half ago and he’s been waking up howling with what I’m guessing is a mix of nightmares (no, we didn’t take him to the wake or funeral, but oddly enough he woke that night precisely when she passed….) and teething. However, he only wakes once a night, and usually a baba, snuggles, or a combination thereof calms him down. I just hope he doesn’t have this habit once those darn teeth finish coming in…

    • @ Amber- You and your husband will have to come to an agreement about your son’s bear, and I do understand how difficult it can be when parents disagree about decisions for our children. If you decide that the bear is problematic, I would suggest a gentler way of breaking his “bear habit” would be to possibly limit the use to bedtimes only, or daytime only. I think he would handle this better then cold turkey. I can say that many people have children that get attached to a stuffed animal or another comfort association, and most children outgrow them on their own. If the bear is causing sleep problems, you’ll have to decide if the time is right to teach him to sleep through the night without it… If you decide the time is right, keep in mind that with toddlers, it’s all about setting limits and being consistent. That they may protest the change for a few days or a week, but eventually they start to get the message. Here is a link to our article about setting limits with toddlers.

      Good luck!

      @ Matt- So sorry that you are still having problems, it sounds like you have had a lot to deal with of late! I hope those teeth come in and he is sleeping through the night once again! Keep up the hard work, it is a delicate balance when we want to comfort our children in the night as well as not introduce any sleep associations that we do not want to linger!
      Let us know how things go!!!

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