Every parent expects their infants to wake up multiple times a night – it’s just a simple fact of life. And those parents who can get their wee ones sleeping through the night by 12 months are looked upon with great envy. Many parents watch month after exhausting month go by with no reprieve and wonder “why does my toddler keep waking up at night?” Today we have some ideas from three trusted experts. Hopefully, one of them fits the bill in your situation and you can move on to finding solutions to get a full night’s sleep!
Tracy Cassels, PhD from Evolutionary Parenting has some surprising and very interesting reasons:
- They are hungry. Even if your toddler isn’t nursing, they are growing at an astounding rate. Parents often forget that although toddlers are not growing at the rate babies do, it is still far greater than we remember. In addition, the brain activity at this time is actually greater than that of adults: Toddlers’ brains utilize up to two times the glucose that an adult brain uses, depending on age. How do they get glucose? Why food of course. [If you have a toddler who is waking regularly and is complaining of hunger, I would recommend making sure he or she has a high-fat nighttime snack. Avocado, peanut butter, and high-fat yogurt are all options that may help your child sleep a bit longer before waking.]
- They are experiencing a cognitive leap. In line with the increased brain development mentioned in terms of food, there’s also the issue of, well, increased brain development (as there is in infancy as well). This development leads to what have been termed “cognitive leaps” where we see children experience massive growth in their psychological, cognitive, or social development. Sleep regressions are common during these leaps so parents may experience greater night wakings, nightmares, or separation anxiety.
- They are following our age-old sleeping pattern of two sleeps. Although we currently live in a society of one, long sleep period, it didn’t used to be like this. Humans used to regularly have two sleeps, the first 4-5 hours followed by an awake period of 1-2 hours (or longer) then another sleep period or 4-5 hours. I will be the first to accept that this does not work well with our modern day society and structure, but keeping your child in the dark and hoping they go back to sleep isn’t helpful either for a couple reasons. One, it probably won’t work. Two, children who spend too long in the dark playing around make associations between bed and play instead of bed and sleep, which we know from work with adults is a problem. If you can roll with it, often these stages pass as our children adjust to our artificial light and longer daytime awake periods, but it can take patience. You can read one mom’s story about this here.
Click through to read 6 more reasons Dr. Cassel has for toddlers waking up at night.
When Seattle Mama Doc asked Dr. Craig Canapari, he shared the following culprits:
- “Inappropriate” sleep onset associations. This is the classic sleep disorder of childhood described popularized by Dr. Ferber. Your child falls asleep under conditions that aren’t present later in the night (that’s what “inappropriate” means here). For example, you are rubbing his back or holding her; she is nursing; he has a pacifier in his mouth. During the night your child cycles through deeper sleep, lighter sleep, and then may wake up for a minute or two every few hours. If the conditions aren’t present (e.g. she’s not in your lap) she will cry out until you go back in and pick her up. You fix this problem by teaching your child to fall asleep on your their own by having them go to bed drowsy but awake. Sometimes, moving their bedtime later by 30 minutes may help with this process. They may fuss for a night or two but the awakenings should go away in a week.
- Medical disorders. Many common medical problems are overlooked as a cause of sleep disruption. If your child coughs frequently at night they may have asthma which needs to be treated. Acid reflux can be associated with belly pain and vomiting at night. Obstructive sleep apnea is a very common problem associated with snoring which can disrupt sleep. I would definitely recommend seeing your pediatrician about any of these concerns.
Click through to read two more reasons Dr. Canapari has for toddler’s waking up at night.
Kim West, The Sleep Lady, explains another reason your toddler is waking up at night: regression.
If you’ve survived this long without experiencing the four month or pre-toddler sleep regression, you’re lucky. If you have dealt with a sleep regression before (and believe me, you are in the majority here), maybe you remember the signs:
- Resistance to Sleep
- Waking at night
- Reduced naps (or “disaster naps”)
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in behavior
Sound familiar? Maybe you didn’t notice the signs this time, or you breezed through that last growth spurt. But this? This is something different altogether.
Why Another Sleep Regression?
If you recall, a sleep regression is a period when your baby, who wassleeping through the night (for an eighteen month old, this means 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night), and suddenly they stop. It is a temporary change, normally lasting anywhere from two to six weeks. Most of the time, your baby will begin to sleep through the night again once the cause of the sleep regression has stabilized.
What Causes a Sleep Regression at 18 Months?
Your toddler is learning all kinds of new skills. Whether it’s drinking from a cup, using a spoon, helping choose activities, her world is expanding at a rapid rate. This can lead to increased anxiety and a need to be close to mom or dad. Additionally, your baby may be ready to drop to one nap, and is probably teething (some children will be getting both molars and canines…those pointy ones…at the same time. Ouch!). All of this is enough to disrupt even the best sleep habits.
When you look at all of the possibilities, on top of increased independence, you are no longer dealing with a simple sleep regression, you’re dealing with a little person who can choose to refuse to sleep. That’s right. Some children will consciously refuse sleep. It’s a control issue. Thankfully, this is temporary.
What do you think? Do any of these sound like potential reasons for why your toddler wakes up every night?