Mother and Baby

7 reasons why your toddler may be waking in the night

Section: Sleep
waking at night

The toddler years are often challenging, but even more so when your peaceful, happy-sleeping little one turns into a wakeful toddler in the night. This is called toddler sleep regression and these nightmare nights can suddenly come out of the blue and leave both parents and toddlers exhausted. 

Try to ensure they are settled before bedtime and keep them in their sleep routine as much as possible. They might be waking because they are unwell or teething so try these teething fixes or tips for looking after your little one when they are poorly. 

There are many other less obvious reasons why your super-sleeper has suddenly turned into a night-owl but try not to worry. Whatever reason your toddler is waking, be reassured that this won’t last for too long. With lots of patience and by being consistent in your methods, this little blip in the sleep routine will soon be far behind you. We've compiled a few reasons why they might be waking in the night and what you can do to help them back to the land of nod...

Why is my toddler waking in the night?

Expand Image

1) Over-tiredness

As daft as it sounds, over-tiredness can cause huge disruption to night sleep. Toddlers who suddenly refuse afternoon naps or go to bed too late can really struggle with getting a good night’s sleep simply because they are exhausted!

What to do: Although your toddler is growing older - don’t feel this is a time to cut naps or let them stay up later. Routine is the magic key when it comes to great sleep so ensure your little one has regular naps, regular daily activities and a regular bedtime (ideally no later than 7 pm). If your toddler refuses to nap and spends the time screaming, ensure they have some ‘chill time’ instead, where they watch a movie snuggled up to recharge.
Expand Image

2) Life changes

New baby? House move? Potty training? Starting nursery? There are so many new and exciting things going on during the toddler years that parents often don’t realise they can have an effect on sleep.

What to do: Preparation is key! Talk to your toddler in advance of any new changes. Use books and games to talk through changes and help them understand why things may be different. In time with lots of love and reassurance, things will settle once they are used to the change.
Expand Image

3) Separation anxiety

It’s one of those things that comes and goes with little ones and is easily sorted with a little time, patience and lots of reassurance. This can often come along when there has been a life change or if they have begun to have nightmares or night fears.

What to do: If your toddler cries as you leave the room at nap times or bedtimes, offer lots of reassurance by going back to them every now and again to help them feel settled. Try and keep them in their cot or bed, while you sit next to them holding their hand or stroking their head for a while until they are calm. Each night, begin to move further and further away from their bed, until eventually, you are at the door, then out in the hallway. It’s a gentle way of letting them know you are around while helping them to feel safe and happy again in their bed.
Expand Image

4) Things that go bump in the night

Toddlers who have recently moved to a bed from a cot can often struggle with their new sleeping space and you may find them visiting you in the night. Some toddlers can even fall out of bed because they don’t have the safety of the cot bars keeping them in bed when they move around in their sleep.

What to do: Gently guide your toddler back to bed with very little interaction. Say something like’ it’s sleepy time, back to bed’ and snuggle them back into bed, reassuring them and stroking their head until they are settled, but don’t store them to sleep - this may create a new probable meaning they’ll find it difficult to fall asleep unaided. Repeat each time they make an appearance at the side of your bed, and they’ll soon get the idea.

For toddlers who fall out of bed, invest in a bed guard until they are a little older and less likely to fall.
Expand Image

5) Night fears and nightmares

As your toddler approaches 2 years old, their little imagination is a creation-station of ideas. This makes for wonderful day play, but can cause problems at night! Monster worries, fears of the dark, and spooky shadows all come from clever little imaginations.

What to do: Night fears and nightmares take calm and consistent handling. Invest in a little low-glow night light for your toddler's room. They may have always slept in the pitch black well before, but these new worries need to be comforted, so a low light will allow them to sleep, but also offer comfort if they wake in the night.

Ensure your toddler feels that their room is calm and safe, check under beds with them and don’t snub any monster thoughts by calling them ‘silly.’ To a toddler - monsters and spooky shadows are very real. Try some homemade ‘monster spray’ by adding a few lavender drops to water and spraying around the bedroom to destroy monsters!

For little ones experiencing nightmares, try and keep them in their bed and give lots of cuddles and reassurance that it was just a dream. Don’t leave until they are calm and feel safe. Nightmares are totally normal and nothing to worry about, even though they are often quite an upsetting experience all around.
Expand Image

6) Hungry tummy 

A hungry toddler is a wide-awake toddler and a common cause of sleep regression when hunger pains strike in the night

What to do: Just like babies, when toddlers grow they need to take on more substance! Ensure your toddler is eating a varied and well-balanced diet with regular healthy snacks incorporated into the day too.

A cup of milk with their bedtime story is comforting and helps toddlers to feel settled. If you’ve recently ditched the bedtime feed or bottle, introduce a cup of milk rather than a bottle so you’re moving forward. 
Expand Image

7) Teething

If your toddler is teething that might be one of the reasons they are waking in the night. Other symptoms to look out for are red, tender gums, flushed cheeks, general irritability or drooling.

What to do: If your toddler wakes up with teething troubles, wait initially to see if they will fall back to sleep by themselves. If they don't, give them cuddles to soothe them. If they still struggle settling the NHS recommends cool teething rings, teething gels and paracetamol or ibuprofen (that are specifically designed for children with a smaller dose).

Now read:

5 baby sleep mistakes new parents make (and how to fix them)

The importance of keeping a toddler sleep diary

9 of the best baby sleep aids that will revolutionise bedtime

Night terrors in toddlers: everything you need to know

  • Author: Fi Star-Stone Fi Star-Stone
  • Job Title: Childcare expert

Fi’s qualifications include a Degree in Childhood and Youth studies, an NNEB diploma in Nursery nursing, and a Diploma in Childhood studies. She’s been working with children and families for 25 years.

Fi’s likes kitchen dancing, Moomins and cake. She also, recently joined the fire-service as an on-call firefighter. (True story!) 

Related Content