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Why is my toddler waking up in the night? A pediatric sleep expert weighs in

Toddlers need 11 – 14 hours of sleep per day, and while it would be nice if they could go down for the night (somewhere around 7 pm without a fuss) and mercifully sleep until morning, that isn’t always the case. 

More often than not, despite your best efforts and even after your child has been sleeping through the night for weeks or even months, they might hit a phase where they wake up repeatedly throughout the night. 

While this can be frustrating, rest assured that night wakings are very normal (adults do it too), and like many phases in your child’s development, it won’t last forever. 

Ahead we’ll take a look at night wakings in toddlers, what causes them, and what you can do to get over the hump. 

Fears and nightmares

Toddlers have a pretty healthy imagination, but as Liz Harden, MPH, pediatric and family sleep educator, and founder of Little Dipper Wellness LLC, notes, “they also lack the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.” For that reason, fears and nightmares can also be factors in your child’s night wakings. 

For parents dealing with frequent night wakings as a result of fears and nightmares, Harden offers the following, “If your child expresses a particular fear, explore it with them. Remember, the feeling is very real to your child. Be sure to validate the feeling of fear, but also help them see and understand what’s really there (or not there!). Grab a flashlight and hold hands or hold your child in your arms and investigate the closet, underneath the bed, or the scary shadow or sound together. 

“They might be scared at first, or even over a matter of days or weeks,” says Harden, “but if you hold them close as you confront their fears together, they will become more self-confident in the face of challenges. And eventually, the fear will diminish, and they will go back to their confidence and sound-sleeping little selves.“  

Transitions and changes within the family 

Much like adults, kids are equally affected by life events and change. New siblings, a change in caregivers, or starting school all tend to stir up a swirl of uncertainty and, in turn, night wakings in toddlers. 

Additionally, while weaning, potty training, or transitioning from a crib to a toddler bed may be wonderful milestones for your child and cause for celebration, remember that these things are a big change for him/her, and they can also trigger a spell of night wakings. 

Harden shares, “Most of these transitions come with a solid dose of excitement, but there’s often some anxiety in the mix as well. Be mindful of how these transitions impact your little one, making sure that you’re boosting their feelings of security with lots of snuggles and one-on-one attention. Also, continue to provide comfort through consistent routines. Make sure that the daytime and sleep routines stay strong throughout these transition periods. The regularity of your family’s routines will help them stay anchored as they weather the transition.” 

Teething or illness

Teething can be uncomfortable, to say the least. When your little one is dealing with sore, itchy gums, sleep may not come easily, and night waking may become more frequent. Just the same, stuffy noses, sore throats, and ear infections can make it incredibly difficult for your child to sleep through the night. 

When teething hampers your little ones’ sleep, again, be sure to maintain their bedtime routine; veering off that course may only compound the problem. Additionally, you can offer your child a cold teething ring to ease the discomfort or try rubbing her gums as she dozes off. 

Growing independence with a side of separation anxiety 

As your child’s thinking and motor skills develop, so does their sense of independence. During the day, your little one will likely explore their surroundings to their little heart’s content. But when the party’s over, and it’s time to wrap it up, your little one will no doubt seek out an extra dose of comfort as they process the day. Very often, the separation anxiety kicks in somewhere around bedtime. 

Harden notes, “Toddlerhood is a tricky time developmentally. Our kiddos simultaneously become aware of their independence and separateness from their parents but also seek more reassurance to feel safe and secure in this world that feels so much bigger. This means that you may find your child needs more reassurance around sleep and separation at night, at a time when they are seeking more independence during the day.”

An irregular napping schedule

As you might suspect, changes in your child’s naptime schedule could cue a string of night wakings. Naps that run longer than normal, naps that shift into the late afternoon, or missed naps tend to wreak a little havoc on your child’s sleep schedule. If your child got a little too much shut-eye during the day, it stands to reason that they will have trouble sleeping through the night. 

Conversely, sheer exhaustion could be to blame. Harden adds, “when the nap is skipped, or boycotted for any length of time, [parents should] move the bedtime earlier to avoid overtiredness! Because overtiredness is another pesky cause of night wakings in toddlers.” 

Growth spurts

Growth spurts are notorious for rattling a sleep schedule or two. Very often, growth spurts are accompanied by growing pains, an increase in your toddler’s appetite, and maybe even a little extra clinginess. There’s a lot going on, so it’s easy to see why night wakings are usually par for the course.  

If troublesome growth spurts are prompting night wakings with your little one, you can help him relax and unwind by sticking to an established bedtime routine. Remember, too, that Moshi has a comprehensive library of soothing music and bedtime stories to help your little one decompress and nod off in no time. 

Are night wakings a cause for concern? 

Night wakings in toddlers are a common occurrence and not a cause for concern. Rest assured that this is just a normal part of your child’s development. And while it may last for a few days or a few weeks, your child’s sleep schedule will return to normal. 

While they can be frustrating, do your best to remain calm, stick to established routines, and don’t forget to offer lots and lots of snuggles. 

“Our kiddos absorb our emotions like a sponge soaks up spilled milk.” says Harden. “The best thing you can do is stay calm, confident, and loving so that you put your best foot, even if it’s an exhausted foot, forward.” 


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Sharon Brandwein is a writer specializing in all things parenting. Her work has also appeared on ABCNews, Motherly, and, Scary Mommy, and Parents. When she’s not busy curating a wardrobe for her puppy, you can find her writing about motherhood, among other things, on SharonBrandwein.com, and of course right here on Moshi.
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