Working with a baby sleep consultant was one of the best things I did as a new mom. And when my baby grew into a toddler, I found myself needing professional advice again. Around the age of 1 1/2, my daughter started waking up in the middle of the night crying again. I was perplexed. The types of things that might cause this in an infant, like needing a feed or a burp, didn't make sense at this age. I reached out to my trusted sleep experts at Sleep Wise Consulting to learn more about why my toddler woke up crying.
Why Does My Toddler Wake Up Crying?
"If you are seeing night wakings that are pretty early in the night or lots of restless sleep, your toddler might need an earlier bed time," Neema Patel, a certified pediatric sleep consultant, told POPSUGAR, noting that being overtired is one of the most common causes of sleep disturbances.
On the other hand, your toddler's night wakings might also mean they're getting too much sleep during the daytime. "Toddlers can be ready to drop a nap between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old," Patel said.
Beyond how much sleep your little one is getting during the day, there are other potential reasons your child might be waking up in the middle of the night. "Another common reason for toddler night wakings is that your toddler is dependent on something external in order to fall asleep at bedtime," Heather Wallace, a certified pediatric sleep consultant, told POPSUGAR, "The most common 'sleep props' for toddlers are rocking, milk, and the parent's presence as the toddler falls asleep."
Is My Toddler Waking Up Because of Nightmares?
Scary dreams could cause your toddler to wake up in the middle of the night, but this is less common than you might think. "Schedule issues are way more common than nightmares," Wallace pointed out, adding that nightmares tend to develop after a child turns 2, depending on how vidid their imagination becomes. Night terrors are different than nightmares, but they are also a less common reason your toddler might be waking up compared to sleep scheduling issues. "Night terrors are much less common and overtiredness or developmental milestones can trigger the night terror," she explained.
How Can I Prevent Night Wakings For My Toddler?
Once you figure out why your toddler is waking, you can work to prevent it. The simple solution for an overtired toddler is an earlier bedtime. "The ideal wake time would be four to six hours before bed for toddlers," Patel advised. So, if your little one gets up from their nap at 2:30 p.m., they should be going to bed somewhere between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
A toddler who is spending too much time in bed might need a shorter nap or to cut out the nap altogether. "If you are starting to see fewer than 10 hours of overnight sleep, they might be ready to drop their nap to preserve 10 to 12 hours of overnight sleep," Patel said.
Wallace added that if your toddler needs help falling asleep at night, it's probably related to what's causing the nighttime wakings. "To fix this problem your goal is to teach your toddler how to fall asleep independently, not dependent on anything external," she explained. "Only then can your toddler seamlessly connect sleep cycles on his own in the middle of the night."
Though nightmares are less likely to be the culprit behind your toddler's night wakings than a scheduling issue, there are ways to help toddlers who might be dealing with nightmares. Wallace said that along with avoiding scary imagery, in movies for example, "reading children's books during the day about how to handle fears and anxieties is a great way to help your child handle the strong emotions they fear during the night." She also noted that night terrors are more related to overtiredness than scary thoughts, so this issue is best handled by taking steps to make sure your child is getting to sleep early enough and without the use of sleep props.
Sleep schedules are a tricky thing for kids and adults alike, so don't be worried if it takes some time to find your groove. Once you and your toddler find a better balance for their day and nighttime sleeping, your child will be more likely to sleep soundly through the night.