Whole Parenting Family

Toddler Night Sleep Trouble

The world of sleep changed for SuperBoy as soon as he could crawl, sit up by himself, and (eeeek) stand up in his crib. So at 9 months we faced teething-related night waking, sitting-up-crying while-asleep, and many sleepless nights. A few thoughts on toddler night sleep problems & potential solutions.

1) Be forgiving.

To yourself, for moments of frustration, and to your baby, for his inability to express what’s preventing sleep. Be realistic that no solution is a one-size fits all. Be realistic that your own child may respond differently to the same night parenting technique. Be realistic that anyone who says their child sleeps perfectly is probably deluding themselves or embarrassed to admit to normalcy.

2) Reasons for awakening.

Try process of elimination:

a) Habit?

b) Hunger?

c) Diaper?

d) Fear/Noise?

e) Poor sleep during the day (bad sleep begets bad sleep)?

f) Stress/Changes at home?

g) Sick/Teething?

3) Habit.

Sleep training works, sleep awakening at night training works too, unintended though it may be. What time is bed time? What are your bed time rituals? If you don’t have consistency in how you get your child to sleep, it doesn’t make sense to expect him to maintain consistent sleep patterns. Bed time for the first few months was arbitrarily throughout the evening. He’d fall asleep from 8 to midnight, nurse, and then sleep from midnight to 3 or 4am, nurse, then sleep til 7 or 8am. I hated getting up multiple times so I’d stay up until midnight so I only had to get up once. Then at 10 weeks he started sleeping from midnight to 7, and skipped night nursing. Around 4 or 5 months we steadily bumped back bedtime until at 6 months it was 8pm. He’d magically sleep until 6 or 7am. (Teething has interrupted this bliss.) He goes to bed at 8pm, and gets up at 6 am regularly. If he awakens, we take turns soothing him back to sleep, either walking him around in his dark room, holding his hand, or rubbing his back if he’s on his side. These are his habits, and ours. Establish to the best of your abilities what you and yours are.

4) Hunger.

Little babies go through lots of growth spurts. If he is uncontrollable and inconsolably crying at night, it is probably hunger. Breastfeeding moms have an easier time with this as we don’t have to go to the kitchen to prepare a bottle. Sometimes offering to nurse doesn’t abate the situation. That eliminates that option. Although tanking up on rice cereal just before bedtime has not proven to help a baby sleep better than one who eats more regularly throughout the day, tanking up during the day does work to help with sleep. Try to time your child’s dinners such that he can still have an appetite for breastmilk before bed (so no dinner at 7pm with an 8pm bedtime).

5) Diaper.

Wet or poopy diapers would wake me up, so it makes sense babies can be roused by these discomforts. Our night diaper solution has worked for us. Try to use the most absorbent diaper possible and hope that poop either doesn’t occur or doesn’t awaken. If you have to change a night diaper, try to do so in low lighting so as to not aggravate the awakening. Also perhaps the fabric of his night clothing is irritating your baby’s skin.

6) Fear/Noise.

Sometimes babies need comfort like any other human being if they are startled awake or awaken and freak out that they’re alone (if you don’t co-sleep). During the winter we had a humidifier going in his room and in spring/summer we have a fan and a little ocean sound machine. White noise is fabulous and also allows for sneaking out of child’s room when they’ve fallen asleep without triggering nuclear war cries because the floor boards creaked.

7) Poor Daytime Sleep.

I’ve noticed that bad sleep begets more bad sleep. It’s as if over-exhaustion takes over and then naps are too short, night time chopped up with awakenings, and everyone is cranky. Work on comforting an unhappily awake child during naps throughout the day and see if that helps going down easier (and staying down) at night. Also, an earlier bedtime is apparently better, even though it may appear the child isn’t sleepy, and instead wants to stay up with the action.

8) Stress/Changes

We’ve noticed that stress is contagious to little SuperBoy. He picks up on so much of the unsaid in the household, which makes sense given that his verbal skills and comprehension are still developing. If stress or major change is occurring in your household, take that into consideration when baby is up unusually at night.

9) Sick/Teething

Teething is such a catch-all category. Why is the baby crying? Oh, she’s teething. Well, does it ever end? Not really, according to some pediatricians, until after the two year molars are in. So does that mean we suffer poor sleep for two years? Maybe yes. See our night teething solutions here. If you’ve felt the little razors that come through on your baby’s gums, you can appreciate how painful it must be to experience those coming through!

Keep that monitor or definitely check on your child with some kind of nightlight in her room so you can actually see her while she’s sleeping. SuperBoy threw up twice a few months ago related to a bad hard boiled egg yolk, and both times he only let out a different sounding whimper that came through on the monitor while I was downstairs in the kitchen. If I hadn’t checked, the little guy would have laid there covered in throw up until he mustered up the energy to really scream. He has never had a virus or infection, but most babies get something or other. Don’t disregard your gut instincts to check on them, and do keep a monitor or yourself on to listen for off sounds.

Ending thoughts: Babies and toddlers sleep habits and patterns generally wreck havoc on their parents’ habits and patterns. Using process of elimination on the reason (if there is one) behind the sleep disruption can be helpful. The strongest reason for toddler sleep disruption is habit, and that is equally the most difficult to know how to deal with–cry-it-out or attachment parenting response? Or something in between?


  1. Kristin on May 23, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Good talking to you about sleep. One further recommendation: Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child is a good book. I will bring it over next time we see you.

    • Novice Natural Mama on May 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

      It was great to talk with you as well! We actually have that one and I’ve found parts of it helpful. All information is good information when it comes to possibilities for night parenting, right?

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