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Your 2, 3, or 4-Year-Old Wakes Up in the Middle of the Night: Why and How to Help

Your 2, 3, Or 4-Year-Old Wakes Up In The Middle Of The Night: Why And How To Help

Parenthood has never been synonymous with rest and relaxation.

In fact, you probably knew that your sleep schedule would suffer when you learned your family was going to grow. But as your newborn became an infant and transitioned into a toddler, you probably expected to receive a little more shut-eye than you might receive.

You may have experienced a rude awakening when your two, three, or four-year-old began waking up in the middle of the night, calling out “Mommy! Daddy!” from the darkness of their room, only to then wander over to your bedroom, and crawl into your bed. If you’ve experienced this midnight phenomenon, you probably lost a bit of sleep and wondered why this happens and how can you help your child find more restful consistent sleep.

If you dream of your child staying in bed through the night, check out our explanation that covers why your son or daughter is waking up and how you can encourage better sleep.

Waking Up In the Middle of the Night Affects the Whole Family

We’re at our best when we’ve enjoyed plenty of sleep. Sleep helps us stay alert, focused, and positive in our daily lives. Lack of sleep, and possibly sleep deprivation, can prevent us from living our lives to the fullest and makes our kids cranky.

When you have multiple kids, one’s restlessness in the night creates a snowball effect and causes your other child or children to also wake up. This creates crankiness all around when breakfast time rolls around.

You’ve probably experienced the effects of interrupted sleep, but your child’s brain and reaction differ dramatically.

How a Lack of Sleep Affects Your Toddler:

Sleep is a major component in your preschooler’s brain health and development. As your child sleeps, their body and brain undergo several simultaneous processes that result in healthy growth, cognitive development, and memory.  Essentially, sleep is when short term memories convert to long-term memories, and your child’s body grows.

When your son or daughter lacks sleep, it can make it more difficult for him or her to moderate their emotions. This is why little ones tend to cry and fuss more when they’re sleepy.

Adequate, quality sleep helps children pay attention and learn. As your child approaches school-age, it becomes more and more imperative that they rest enough to focus and learn. Kids without enough sleep frequently express their exhaustion through misbehavior and outbursts.

The truth is your child needs sleep to develop and function normally. And you need to sleep to be able to engage your child in play and fully exercise your patience.

Reasons Your Child May Be Waking Up in the Middle of the Night:

Getting to the root of the problem is half the battle when it comes to helping your child work through the issue of waking up in the middle of the night. Once you identify the cause of their irregular sleep, it’s easy to find effective solutions.

If your little one regularly wakes up mid-sleep, they may be experiences one or a combination of the following:

1) Your Child May Be Overtired

Have you noticed your son or daughter seems to have mood swings? One minute she’s curled up looking through pictures of puppies, and the next she’s red in the face and bawling over a dropped Cheeto. If so, there’s a good chance your child is overtired. When your child doesn’t get enough sleep, it can lead to crankiness and overtiredness, and put your daughter or son into sleep debt.

2) Bedtime May Be Too Late

If you have one of those wonderful 3-year olds that falls asleep on the sofa at 6 PM, good for you! That kid is a sleep rock star. But if you’re like most parents, your kid is bouncing off the walls until you’re the one asleep on the sofa. If this sounds familiar, this could be a sign that your child’s bedtime is too late. And if your child is struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, a lack of bedtime or a late bedtime may be the culprit.

The problem arises when your child can’t fall asleep early enough to keep up with their natural sleep cycle or their natural circadian rhythm. While every family and every child is slightly different, you may want to consider scheduling bedtime a bit earlier. Keeping a sleep log on your kid’s sleep patterns can help you figure out if there are irregularities in their bedtime and sleep patterns.

3) Loose Boundaries Can Result in Restless Sleep

As with most aspects of parenting, stability and boundaries are key to healthy sleeping. Part of your child developing an understanding of boundaries begins when with bedtime and sleeping in their own bed. Take some time to consider if your kid calls the shots when it comes to sleep time.

  • Do you give in when it comes to bedtime battles?
  • Does your child bargain for a later bedtime or one more show?
  • Do you let your child play in their room instead of staying tucked under the blankets?
  • Does one bedtime story turn into two or three?
  • Are there exceptions to bedtime rules on the weekends?
  • Do you end up delivering two glasses of milk and one sippy cup of water before they’ll try to sleep?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these, you may need to evaluate if establishing boundaries can help your little one rest through the night.

4) Over-Stimulation Can Make it Difficult to Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep

While I’d encourage you to have some pre-sleep activities incorporated into your child’s bedtime routine, you don’t want to encourage over-stimulation before bedtime. While we may be able to turn off our brains after a great movie or engaging conversation, children struggle to do this. Preschoolers are still learning about the world they live in, and over-excitement can make their more brains active rather than slipping into a restful state.

Over-stimulation can occur more around special occasions like holidays or birthdays. It’s similar to how it’s tough to fall asleep before a big interview. This can keep the brain spinning longer into the night without reprieve which allows for calm and restful slumber.

5) A Small Issue Develops into a Bigger Problem

Does your youngster insist you lie beside them as they doze off? Has this become a nightly ritual or do they pop up as soon as you get up, even if they’ve been asleep for half an hour? This is an example of a small problem that can grow into an issue that causes you both to suffer from fragmented sleep.

Another problem may be that you let your child sleep on the sofa once, and now they won’t budge. And when you want to unwind and watch a bit of television before you hit the hay, you can’t.

6) At Least She’s No Longer Wetting the Bed?

How thankful are you that your 2 or 3-year-old no longer has nightly accidents? While this is one of the best gifts a parent could ask for, many preschoolers still can’t hold it through the night. This means that our little ones are either waking up and sprinting to the toilet or they wake up and scream as loud as they can, “Mom I have to PEE!” And of course, we come running or get woken up by the bathroom light. And if your child is like most, they can’t fall back to sleep or they suddenly have an appetite to play with their dolls or trucks.

What Can You Do To Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night?

1) Make Sure Your Child is Receiving Enough Sleep for His or Her Age

As your baby blossoms into a toddler and a child, the amount of sleep they need to keep them out of sleep debt changes. As you know, your child needs sleep to grow, but as their growth rate slows, how much sleep should they get every night?

You may have memorized how much sleep and a 5-month may need, but the problem gets more complicated when you have twins or multiple children at different ages. In fact, many parents choose to hold off on having more kids or opt to freeze their eggs for when their preschooler has outgrown this erratic sleep pattern.

When it comes down to it, a 2-year-old may not need 15 hours of sleep, but they will still require between 12 to 12.5 hours of sleep per night. And a 3 to 5-year-old will want to aim for 11 to 12.5 hours of sleep per night. If this has made your head spin, we’re here for you.

2) Come Up with a Healthy Sleep Plan

You may have recognized what issue is causing your child to wake up in the middle of the night, but now you need a plan to solve the problem.

Monitor your child’s sleep pattern and keep a sleep diary to make sure you’re aware of how much rest your child is getting every day.

If your child is overtired, you should establish a strategy to allow them to get more sleep. This could be an earlier bedtime or a nap. Most parents choose the earlier bedtime since preschoolers can be so resistant to napping, but if your child doesn’t fuss when it comes to some daytime shuteye, then a nap is an excellent choice. Base your plan on how much sleep your kid currently receives and how much sleep he or she needs.

Set clear boundaries for where and when your child sleeps. Having a routine is healthy for children and provides them with a sense of stability. This will also make your life feel more orderly and controlled.

Don’t let small problems escalate. If you notice a pattern of giving in more and more or you are making exceptions more frequently, be aware of the problem and plan to address it. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night because you’re getting up to go to bed, solve this by not staying in the room while your kid falls asleep.

Limit Before Bed Liquids. Unless your child is recovering from the flu or diarrhea, your little doesn’t need to drink more than a small glass of water. Monitor how much your child is drinking before bed so they don’t wake up needing to use the bathroom at 3 AM.

Limiting liquids isn’t the right answer for every child…if you’d like to my unsolicited advice on night training, I’ll be happy to give it.  I’d suggest waiting until your child has been dry for 3 weeks (each and every night).  Night training isn’t easy and there is no reason to mess sleep up.  So follow my advice – sleep, always trumps potty training.  If you’re on the fence, keep your child in diapers for a bit longer.  

 

3) Establish Rewards and Consequences and Stop Empty Threats That Don’t Work

You’re going to get your favorite response (“why?”) when you explain your plan to your kid that sleep is important. Make sure you’re ready with an honest and straightforward explanation. Many 4-year-olds find it acceptable if you explain that they need consistent sleep to stay asleep through the night, so they’re prepared for school in the next year. This logic doesn’t always get through to younger kids, though. So be patient. And be prepared with a reward system.

I’m fine by trying a tangible reward for sleep habits – but keep in mind, not all children are motivated by a toy or sticker.  Or, many children are for a couple of days but the shiny objects lose their allure.

If your plan is to limit your child to one bedtime story per night, reward them with chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast the first time they don’t ask for a second. Kids also love stickers–use this to your advantage and let them partake in updating their sleep log by earning a sticker every night they go to bed on time.

When clients work with me through a support sleep consultation, we typically forgo the rewards and rather work on positive responses such as praise or a long term reward such as a sleepover or mini vacation.

Once you have a plan in place, make sure you have clear consequences if your restless sleep renegade doesn’t want to cooperate. One of the best ways to react to an unruly, sleepy child is to ignore their rebellious behaviors like screaming and running through the living room.

4) You’re Almost There–Stick With It!

One of the most difficult things to do is to be consistent until your child’s sleep pattern becomes normal. Many parents try to adhere to their plan for about five days before second-guessing their choice. Don’t do this! Communicate with your spouse and support one another. Once your child is sleeping normally, you’ll be thankful you did.

Final Thoughts

Sleep is precious. If your child is waking up in the middle of the night, you’ll want to get to the source of the issue so you and your family can truly benefit from a well-rested disposition. Your little one needs sleep to grow, create memories, and focus on school when the time comes. Keep fragmented sleep from becoming a long-term issue in your home with boundaries, consequences, and a clear plan.

So, let your little one dream about dragons or unicorns while you sleep soundly in the next room over.

Susie Parker

Susie Parker is founder of Sleep Baby Love and a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant through the Family Sleep Institute. When Susie's not ridding the world of sleepless families, she loves spending time with her two girls that have given her a ton of real world sleep experience head on.

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