Parents expect their small babies to wake at night frequently. Night feeds are accepted as the norm for at least the first three months (and beyond) by most sources. Something changes after six months though, we expect babies to start 'sleeping through the night'. For each month past six months of age, that a baby still wakes, they are slowly considered more and more problematic. It's rare that the wisdom of this is challenged, despite science showing that over half of nine and twelve month olds wake regularly at night.
Post 12 months, toddlers who wake at night are almost certainly considered to have a 'sleep problem' by most experts. The common assumption is at this age they should no longer have milk in the night, should be sleeping in their own bed (or cot/crib) in their own room and should make it through from 7pm to 7am without disturbing their parents. This is so short sighted and misinformed it's almost funny. I say 'almost' because if you're the parent of a toddler who wakes regularly at night it's not funny. Especially when everybody is telling you that you and your child have a problem. I'm here to categorically tell you that you don't.
I'm not saying it's not bloody hard when you're on to year two of next to no sleep, it is, however it's highly likely that there is nothing at all wrong with your toddler. The problem is firmly in the hands of the misinformed expectations held by society. Realistically, night waking remains a completely normal part of life right through to the child's second birthday and beyond. In fact I would say one of the trickiest ages for sleep is around eighteen months - something people commonly refer to as "the 18 month sleep regression". Why? Read on...
Why Do Toddlers Wake So Often At Night?
I should add a caveat here, a lot of people think I "know all of the answers", I don't. If I'm honest, I have no idea why your toddler is waking lots at night. Toddler sleep is much more complex than baby sleep in my opinion, because there is so much more going on in their worlds. The following are what I consider the top reasons for toddler night waking, but by no means is this list exhaustive.
Struggling with a sense of control and autonomy. Toddlers need a certain level of control over their lives to feel happy and secure, in many cases the amount of autonomy they need does not match that which they actually get. There are very few things they have full control over 1. when and what they eat, 2. when and how they go to the toilet and 3. when and how they sleep. This issue is compounded by using cots and cribs which effectively contain the toddler in a space where they may not want to be, for this reasons floor beds can often make a really positive impact. See more HERE. Sleep issues may indicate a toddler who needs to be afforded more control in their life. In many aspects, not just sleep.
Feeling insecure after the arrival/the imminent arrival of a new sibling. This is such a huge one. It is so completely and totally normal for a toddler (even if they previously slept through the night) to start waking regularly once a new sibling arrives on the scene. Think about it from their perspective, their whole world has been turned upside down. You know you don't love them any less, but they don't see that. They see a new baby taking hugs that would normally have been theirs and their insecurity manifests in tricky behaviour in the day and waking more at night.
The upheaval of starting preschool/nursery. Their little world has changed. Gone is the safety and predictability of home and known people, replaced with a loud, bright and busy environment that they have no control over full of people they don't know. No matter how much they enjoy preschool or nursery and love their time there, it can still be very unsettling and cause sleep regressions as a result.
A changing diet. Picky eating is normal in the toddler years. Picky eating however can commonly result in a lack of nutrients essential for sleep and quite simply, hunger at night. A bedtime snack may help here. Toddler diets also tend to be quite carbohydrate heavy, but a good mix of carbs and protein are necessary for sleep. In addition a lot of the foods and drinks given to toddlers can contain E-Numbers, artificial colourings in particular, which are known to make children hyperactive, in fact these are also commonly found in popular toddler medicine, such as Calpol.
Mother returning to work. Often mothers will return to work towards the end of the first year. No matter how wonderful the daycare is, the toddler will still have what I call an 'attachment deficit'. Simply, they need to reconnect with the mother at night when she returns home from work. They need at least two hours of this before bedtime begins, something that often doesn't happen. If their attachment deficit isn't resolve in the evening when they are awake they will try to resolve it at night, waking regularly for reassurance and in the case of a breastfed toddler - reverse cycling (lots of night breastfeeding).
Toilet training. Even potty training that goes well in the day can impact sleep negatively at night. If the toddler is still in nappies they may wake and become distressed when they go to the toilet at night, as they are now used to using the potty in the day. If they are nappyless at night, it's common they will have bedwetting accidents for several years to come (this is normal right up to seven years of age).
Too much sleep. For many families this idea seems absurd. Their toddler is waking regularly at night, how on earth could they be getting too much sleep? The main culprit here is usually naps. It's fairly common for an eighteen month old to drop daytime naps completely, at this age needing more than one nap per day is very rare. Encouraging more (or any) naps in the day than the toddler needs may be one of the biggest reasons for frequent night waking. During the toddler years total sleep need in a 24 hour period ranges from nine to sixteen hours, this means that for some toddlers who have a two hour nap in the daytime, total sleep need at night is only seven hours!
Bedtime too early. Most parents consider a normal toddler bedtime to be around 7pm, however this is likely to be too early. If a toddler goes to bed before their body is chemically ready they may find it harder to get to sleep and associate bedtime with arousal, or they may wake frequently, especially in the earlier part of the night. Research has found that the onset of the melatonin (the sleep hormone) rise in toddlers averages at 7:40pm, meaning that bedtime should occur at roughly 8pm to 8:30pm.
Light pollution. Many toddlers have bedrooms full of night lights, light up sleep training clocks, glowing cuddly toys and light shows. Every single one of these has the potential to inhibit sleep and should be removed from the toddler's room, unless the light is red. More on this HERE.
Screens and TV too close to bed. This causes problems for two reasons, increasing brain activity and too much blue light emitted near to bedtime which inhibits sleep. Toddlers should have no exposure to screens (TV, laptops, tablets etc..) for at least a two hour period before bedtime, that means no more CBeebies bedtime hour!
Anxiety and fear. The toddler years can see the development of many different fears and anxieties, often related to what is happening in the child's daytime. New siblings, starting nursery, mothers returning to work, things they have seen on television can all make toddlers anxious. Similarly this is the age that fear of the dark usually appears. Removing or reassuring these anxieties as much as possible is key. The best way to do this? Allow the toddler to sleep in close proximity to you.
Nightmares and night terrors. This is the age of the appearance of nightmares and night terrors. Both can play a significant role in disturbed sleep over the next few years at least. See HERE for more on the differences and how to help.
Too cold in the night. This is commonly the age that parents will change their toddler's bedding to a quilt or duvet. Some toddlers do well with this, but most don't. Duvets are hard to manoeuvre when you're little and can often leave the toddler too hot, or perhaps more importantly, too cold. Either will make them wake in the night, but particularly cold. Sleeping bags can cause problems at this age too, toddlers often don't like the restriction in movement and most importantly the covered feet means that they cannot control their body temperature properly (bare feet are important at night for temperature regulation, I'm sure you know somebody who sleeps covered up with their feet sticking out!). For this reason, the best bedding for toddlers is a 2.5 tog sleeping bag with fitted legs and exposed feet.
As I mentioned previously this list is by no means exhaustive, there are many more elements that impact toddler sleep (health, environment, bedtime routine and parental discipline for starters), but I hope it helps parents to understand what may be happening to their toddler's sleep.
It is NORMAL for toddlers to wake regularly at night, perhaps the hardest months are months eighteen to twenty four, but it will pass, it will get better. Just knowing that your child is not 'problematic' can be quite powerful.
If you'd like to learn more about toddler sleep and how to improve it, without stressful and harsh sleep training, see my 'Gentle Sleep Book'. Or, if you'd like more personalised advice see my 'Gentle Sleep Training' services for bespoke email, telephone, skype and in person support.