Sleep is so important. A toddler that’s well rested is happy and ready to learn. Same goes for babies, older children, and adults- we all need sleep to be at our best. It can be hard for all of us to get a good night sleep at times. I know I have phases that I just can’t sleep well. The same happens with toddlers, except it’s often a mystery as to why since they can’t express themselves well. As parents, it’s up to us to figure out why our toddler is night waking and fix it. And it can be a challenge to fix someone else’s sleep!
Today I want to give you a glimpse into my 2 year old’s night wakings and what we are going to do to solve the problem. There are 4 main things to look for when troubleshooting night wakings, and then there’s a bunch of different solutions depending on what the issue is. I’ll walk you through it all in this post!
I really like to do posts like this because I want readers to know that things aren’t perfect in anyone’s house. Heck, I’ve written a book on baby sleep… and here is my child waking up at night. They key though, is that you take your tools and know what to look for and what to try when it comes to solving these night wakings.
The other reason I really like doing these keep it real type posts, is that it helps me think through the issue at hand. I do my best troubleshooting when I write.
So, let’s fix William’s night wakings together, and you can learn my thought process as we go to help you in fixing your toddler’s night time sleep issues.
This post is for those that have previously sleep trained their toddler. And by sleep training, I mean that you’ve taught them how to go to sleep on their own in some way– whether that involved cry it out or not. But essentially, your toddler knows how to put themselves to sleep, and might be just suddenly having some sleep regression issues or sleep problems, but it isn’t something that’s always been there.
If the sleep issues are due to good sleep habits not being established to begin with, you will want to evaluate your toddler’s schedule throughout the day (see my toddler schedules at the bottom of this page), and get good bedtime routines in place before doing any kind of troubleshooting like we’ll be doing in this post.
If your toddler falls asleep on their own, and can put themselves back to sleep if they’re night waking with minimal help, this post will simply help you figure out why your toddler night waking is suddenly happening and put a stop to it. We basically want to stop it from happening all together, so they don’t have to bother putting themselves back to sleep. Toddler sleep is so important and even the littlest change can throw off their night sleep.
Toddler Night Wakings- The Problem
Everyone’s little one will obviously have slightly different sleep issues that pop up. I’ll walk you through what is happening for William (24 months old), and also some other “typical” issues.
William – A Real Life Example
William is 24 months old. He sleep trained easily with the scheduling and routine tactics that I talk about on this blog often. We didn’t need to do cry it out with him ever. He’s been putting himself to sleep since he was 4 months old and I’ve been so pleased with how well we implemented the sleep tools that we know, and also how he took to them!
Now, he’s our second living child. That means that some things are different for him than they were for our oldest, Caroline… I don’t have the time to dedicate to analyzing or even noticing how perfectly his nap is every day. I don’t record if he woke up early that morning, or woke up early from his nap and then correlate that to his night time sleep or any night wakings that might happen. It’s just not realistic when it comes to the second child.
It also means that his schedule has LARGELY be impacted by his older sister’s schedule. It’s just how it is and it’s been that way since he was born. He couldn’t stay home in his crib for every nap. I had to take her to school and pick her up. He’s always had to be flexible and go with the flow…
So that being said, I’ve let some things go on longer than I would have with our oldest at his age.
I think of William as a child whose sleep is easily impacted, however. He goes through these phases quite often and I’ve almost trained myself to just not bother with fixing it, but it’s time.
Here is what happens to his night sleep:
When William is having sleep issues, he will wake in the middle of the night usually just one time. He calls for us or cries and it’s never at the same time. It’s somewhere between midnight and 5 am. LOL There’s really no consistency to what time his night wakings occur.
He goes to bed at 7:30 pm, and gets up at 7 am. He has one nap from 12:45 pm – 3 pm. He puts himself to sleep easily for bedtime and nap.
For the night wakings, he wakes up, stays in bed (he’s out of his crib and in a toddler bed), calls for us, and we go in. We give him a kiss, tuck him back in and leave. The process is about 5 seconds of time and he goes back to sleep. This is why I haven’t bothered to “fix” anything, because gosh it’s such an easy night waking. Easy as it is though, it’s still disruptive to all of us.
He goes through a couple week stretch like this, then sleeps through the night again. Then it happens again, and we’ve been on repeat like this for awhile.
The funny thing though, is that the “reason” for the night wakings has changed over time. This is the case with all kids. Just when you figure out one thing and work to solve the problem, something else can arise that causes yet another sleep disruption. There have been times that teething has caused him to wake. Right now, however, that is not the issue…
Maybe something similar is happening to your toddler. Or, maybe they are waking multiple times a night, having a hard time getting to sleep, or even waking at the same time each night. There are some clues in the patterns that you see that might help you in figuring out the reasons for your toddlers night wakings, and in choosing the solution that might work best for your little one.
Toddler Night Wakings- Potential Reasons
If you look up sleep regressions, you’ll find specific ages that sleep issues typically arise. I kind of despise the term, because it implies that children just have issues at these ages for no reason other than their age.
The reality is that some key things happen at certain ages that can cause sleep issues to arise.
A 12 month old might be getting molars. Their sleep needs might suddenly be changing and shifting from 2 naps a day, to 1 nap a day…but maybe they aren’t quite ready for the switch to their daytime schedule. A 12 month old might be starting to walk. Guess what? There’s a 12 month old sleep regression. And that sleep regression is going to be caused by these typical things that happen around that specific age.
So rather than focusing on the age, I think it’s important to focus on the specific developmental reasons that sleep issues are popping up.
This post is focused on toddlers, so let’s talk about the 2 year old.
- There are 2 year old molars that come in. Molars are definitely teeth that can cause issues for your child’s sleep.
- Sleep needs might also be changing at this age. In fact, many parents drop their child’s nap when they are 2 because their child is refusing to nap. (On a side note, do NOT drop your child’s nap without reading this post first).
- 2 year olds are also really exploding with speech and language.
All of these things can cause big sleep disruptions!
Things that Can Cause Night Wakings for Toddlers
If your toddler is waking in the middle of the night, one of these issues is likely the cause. And really, this list goes for babies as well!
- Daytime Sleep Issues : Over or undertired.
- Overtired due to a bedtime that’s too late. If your child is getting put to bed too late, they will likely wake up early in the night, and/or have a very hard time getting to sleep to begin with.
- Overtired due to a nap that’s too short or too early in the day. If your child is overtired because their nap isn’t long enough, this can cause them to wake randomly at night.
- Undertired due to a nap too late in the day. If your child is napping too late in the day, they wouldn’t have enough wake time before bed to be tired enough for night sleep. This can cause them to have a hard time falling asleep, and/or to wake early in the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep.
- Undertired due to a nap that’s too long. This can cause the same issues as napping too late in the day. Most likely, your child will fall asleep ok, but then wake in the middle of the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep.
- Physical activity. Not enough physical activity, can cause your child to be undertired. Too much can cause them to be overtired. In addition to naps, keep in mind their physical activity levels and if they are getting enough of it. Even a child with a perfect nap schedule, that doesn’t get enough physical activity can have sleep issues and be somewhat undertired.
- New Skills Being Learned
- With both of our living children, we’ve found that learning new skills impacts sleep SO much. This is for the big stuff they learn- so for toddlers this is mostly going to be talking skills, but could also be things like potty training, learning the alphabet, shapes, etc. They simply want to practice and are excited about this new skill.
- It could affect going to sleep initially for bedtime, or it could show up as your child waking up and being unable to go back to sleep in the middle of the night.
- Not getting enough mental stimulation can basically cause your child to be “undertired” in a sense. They need to exercise their mind just like they need physical exercise for their body.
- Teething/Not feeling well
- If your child is uncomfortable, they might have night wakings as a result. This could be from something obvious like teething or sickness, but could also be something less obvious like a growth spurt (aches and pains), or even hunger as a result of a growth spurt or sudden pickiness in their eating, etc.
- External Forces
- Sometimes external things like the temperature can wake your child up. Maybe the room isn’t dark enough, or maybe they aren’t staying warm enough or keeping their blankets on.
- For toddlers, though this really is a secondary problem. One of the first three things on the list is likely the cause, and then once they wake or rouse just enough from the initial problem, they get cold, or something else starts bothering them and they then fully wake up. Typically I wouldn’t say this is the main cause.
Real Life Example – The Problem Happening for William
So for our real life example today, let’s look at the issue again with what is happening for William. He’s 24 months old. His schedule is 7 am wake, 12:45-3pm nap, and 7:30 pm bed. He’s waking randomly, one time in the middle of the night, and having no problems going back to sleep.
Let me give some background as well, because we need to really see the problem as a whole and consider all of the things.
His speech recently exploded a couple of months ago, and when that happened, he was having a really hard time going to sleep at night. He was calling us in over and over. It was quite sudden and very correlated to his speech.
It was pretty obvious to me that the issue at hand was that he was learning a new skill. He’d never had issues going to sleep before, and he had so many words all of the sudden. In order to fix this issue, we needed to get him more practice at his new skill. And so, in addition to the talking practice we’d do during the day, right before bed we practiced all sorts of words. He loved it and couldn’t get enough! It also solved the bedtime issue that he was having at the time.
With that out of the way, we had a couple of good weeks, and then were back to one time wakings in the middle of the night, maybe 80% of the time. And I say back to, because poor thing has a lot of phases like this.
When it happened before, it was obvious to me that he needed to switch to one nap a day. We weren’t able to make that work because of Caroline’s school pick up timing. And so we waited and waited, until he forced our hand with it and we needed to make a change. I switched his napping schedule from 2 naps to 1 nap, and again we were able to solve the issue.
That’s the cool thing… when you problem solve correctly, it fixes things and you can see it happen! It’s amazing!
But, it crept back up and we’ve been cycling through these phases ever since with good weeks and bad weeks. We made it to the end of Caroline’s school year with 1 nap that I knew that while it had helped the issue, it was too short of a nap. He was having to go down for his nap a little after 1 pm, and wake before 3 pm to go pick up Caroline at school. It had helped to switch it, but his schedule still wasn’t perfect.
Over the summer, we were able to make his nap longer and his sleep issues got much better. Then kindergarten started for Caroline. Originally, of course, we weren’t planning on virtual school during a pandemic, so I’d envisioned him still getting a nice long nap as we’d drop off Caroline in the mornings, and not pick her up until afternoon. Well, here we are doing virtual school during a pandemic, and Caroline is home instead.
Now, clearly since we are home we have full flexibility on his nap schedule, but I like to have us eat lunch together. Working around Caroline’s lunch schedule, we eat lunch at 12 pm and I get him to nap as soon after as I can (12:45/1pm). We’ve learned that we really need to cap his nap at 3 in order for him to have the best success getting to sleep at night. And so, his nap is from 12:45- 3 pm.
If you look at the length of his nap (basically 2 hours), and the fact that he’s always still sleeping when I go in at 3 pm to wake him, it’s also obvious that he’s needing more daytime sleep.
And if you look through the possible reasons for nighttime sleep to be impacted in the list above, his random middle of the night waking, and the fact that he goes back to sleep very easily, it clearly points to his nap being too short.
Honestly, I have no idea why I have in my mind that we all need to eat lunch together and perfectly timed with Caroline’s school lunch break. It’s fabulous that she’s home right now and we’re getting extra time with her, but William’s sleep is also a priority.
I’ve known for quite some time now that he needed a longer nap, but I don’t think I wanted to really see it because I just really value our lunch times together. And when it takes me all of two seconds to go in and kiss him and tuck him in, and then we all go back to sleep, well I wasn’t feeling motivated to make a change.
Sounds VERY unlike me when I type it all out, but we had kind of just settled in and he and I have always just had to make it work and go with the flow working around an imposed schedule, basically. But enough is enough and sleep is more important than a lunch break with both kids at the table!
Now that I’ve been honest with myself about priorities around here, I decided to make a change to his nap schedule, and his nights have already gotten better!
Toddler Night Wakings- Solutions
Ok so let’s talk solutions. The solutions are simple as you might guess, that is, once you figure out the issue at hand.
First let’s talk cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone in your body. It basically works opposite of melatonin, which helps you sleep. If your body is stressed, your cortisol levels rise and you have a hard time getting to sleep.
In children this can look like they have a ton of energy in the evenings and are almost hyperactive and bouncing off the walls. The opposite is actually true, however. If children don’t get enough rest during the day, their body produces more cortisol to help them stay awake.
This extra cortisol makes it near impossible to get to sleep if it’s too high, and causes them to wake early or in the middle of the night as well. This is why children that are put to bed too late, will actually wake up earlier the next day.
It’s all science. And, the great part is that knowing this, we can help our children to get enough sleep and set them up for nighttime sleep success.
So with that in mind, we can now look at solutions to solving toddler night wakings.
- Daytime Sleep Issues : Over or undertired.
- Overtired due to a bedtime that’s too late. Keep your toddler’s bedtime before 8 pm. Ideally, it should be 7 or 7:30 pm. If it needs to be later due to your family’s personal schedule, aim for your child to have 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep. And if you can, keep the bedtime to before 8 pm.
- Overtired due to a nap that’s too short or too early in the day. Toddlers need daytime sleep. Ideally, the nap is placed to have about 4 hours of awake time in the evening. Plan backwards from there when scheduling the nap. Lengthen a nap by starting the nap earlier to solve this issue, or move the nap to get the right amount of awake time after the nap.
- If your toddler is not sleeping for their nap, do not remove the nap. It is likely just a phase and they will go back to sleeping soon enough. In fact, most nap issues like this are related to new skills being learned. Keep a nap/rest time slot in your child’s schedule until they start kindergarten! For help with toddler naps click here.
- Undertired due to a nap too late in the day. We’ve always found that our kids need about 4 hours after they wake from their nap, before they can go down for bed. Anything less than this and our kids have a hard time putting themselves to sleep. The sleep issue manifests at bedtime first and foremost and is usually easy to identify. Try capping the nap so that there is 4-4.5 hours between waking from nap and bedtime.
- Undertired due to a nap that’s too long. The middle of the day toddler nap should be capped with the 4-4.5 hour wake time in the evening in mind. The nap should start at the same time every day, and should be 2-3 hours depending on your child’s age and sleep needs. Play with the nap length and capping it at different times to get the length that is perfect for your child.
- New Skills Being Learned
- Practice, practice, practice! If your child is learning a new skill, practice this skill right before bedtime. You are basically giving them mental exercise and exhausting it out of their system so they don’t want to “practice” at night. Plan this time into the bedtime routine, or right before.
- And in addition to this, make sure you carve out some time for age appropriate learning activities to keep the mental exercise going even through times they aren’t obviously learning new skills.
- Teething/Not feeling well
- While teething seems to happen pretty much all the time… some teeth hurt more. If you suspect this might be the issue, check to see if your child is getting molars. These teeth in particular can really impact sleep, even if sleep hasn’t been impacted by teething before. If you feel comfortable giving ibuprofen, try doing that before bed and see if it helps. If not, use a frozen teether, or something else to help your toddler’s mouth to feel better.
- If not feeling well, or if teething is causing pain, your child might be extra tired and need to get to bed earlier for a short period of time.
- Growth spurts can cause your child to be extra hungry, and extra tired. If you suspect a growth spurt, try temporarily offering a snack closer to bedtime, or a glass of milk. Try moving bedtime earlier during this phase. And remember these changes are only temporary. As soon as you can, get things back to normal and switched back.
- External Forces
- Do a quick assessment of your child’s sleeping environment. Again, this is usually never the actual cause of the night wakings, but it can exacerbate the issue.
- Make sure their room is warm enough, dark enough, and that their sleep space is comforting and inviting. Make sure they are wearing warm enough clothes in case they kick off their blanket during the night. Keep a sound machine on so noises in the house and outside don’t disturb them unnecessarily.
Real Life Example – The Solution for William’s Night Waking
After determining that William’s nap is too short, we decided to make a change and prioritize nighttime sleep over a picture perfect family lunch. LOL
William’s new schedule that I’m aiming for is 7 am wake, 12-3/3:30pm nap (start time moved from 12:45 to 12), and 7 :30 pm bed.
We made a small change to get William napping earlier to extend the length of his nap. This means that he’ll have lunch and be going down for nap, when Caroline is starting her lunch break. It means they won’t eat lunch together. I hate that a little bit, but we have breakfast and dinner together, and William’s sleep really needs to be a priority. So, this is how it’s going to be.
After 1 week of making the change, things are already better! I haven’t consistently gotten him down as early as 12 pm for his nap, and on the days I haven’t, he’s woken at night. We are still having to wake him after his nap, but he seems to be in a much lighter sleep, so I think we are on track here.
As with anything we ran into some issues and roadblocks that just prevented us from perfecting this change this week. That always happens right!? Christmas, a couple of loud wind storms waking him at night, and he seems to have had his first nightmare. In addition to that we started potty training. So, this was far from a “normal” week. Even with all of that we saw a marked improvement. Looking forward to the normalcy of the days ahead to really give this a try, though, since we’ve already seen his nighttime sleep get better!
Troubleshooting nighttime sleep issues with a toddler can feel daunting, but remember to just take it one step at a time. Go down the list of potential reasons and be honest with yourself about your thoughts and observations. Take a few days and think through it, write things down, and really notice what’s happening. Then, make ONE change at a time. See if it helps. If not, keep going through the list and trying new things until you find the solution that works.
Other posts of interest:
- Click here to read “When Do Toddlers Stop Napping?” and find out if your child is ready.
- Click here to read “Toddler Won’t Nap? How to Make the Transition to Rest Time”
- Click here to read “Toddler Refuses to Nap? Implement Rest Time Rules Instead“
Frequently Asked Toddler Sleep Questions
Toddlers have the ability to sleep all night and should not be waking in the middle of the night. If they are waking, look through the 4 potential issues that might be causing this: daytime sleep issues, teething/not feeling well, learning new skills, and external forces such as temperature, etc.
If your toddler is waking at night, it is likely due to 1 of these 4 common reasons: daytime sleep issues, teething/not feeling well, learning new skills, and external forces such as temperature, etc.
First identify the reason your child is night waking. Once you do this, the solutions are pretty straight forward. These are the most common reasons for night wakings: daytime sleep issues, teething/not feeling well, learning new skills, and external forces such as temperature, etc.
There are 4 main reasons a toddler is night waking: daytime sleep issues, teething/not feeling well, learning new skills, and external forces such as temperature, etc.