Tips for Toddler Night Waking
I am often asked about night waking in toddlers over on Instagram and so I wanted to share my top tips for helping toddlers of 12-24 months to sleep well throughout the night with you here.
What we would consider to be ‘normal’ night waking behaviour for a toddler of 12 months and above
The whole idea of ‘normal’ is very confusing and I, myself, try not to use the word ‘normal’ for sleep – I acknowledge, and always have in my business, that it is ‘normal’ for little children to wake up at night-time. One study suggests that 12 month olds wake on average about 1.8 times per night. That study was done in 2020. A previous study from 2014 looked at children of 18 months and they saw that around 26% of toddlers were still waking in the night. Obviously, the sample for these studies needs to be a good size and all toddlers are different! I would really encourage you to simply focus on your toddler and know that a fair few will wake at night time between 12 and 24 months.
I worry that, along with ‘normal’, then that can cause us to think that you have to accept night waking and cannot change it, but the reality is is that there are lots of toddlers who sleep really well and can sleep well. If some can do it, what’s the difference between those who can and can’t?
For me, it comes down to having the right information. No one gets a sleep support session at birth! I don’t think we give parents good quality information about baby and toddler sleep at birth so I hope to share some points below that will help you to help your toddler’s sleep, if you choose to.
How much sleep your toddler could be having
Toddlers (12 months and up) should have between 11-14 hours sleep during a 24 hour period, which is a huge range! I would advise you to aim for somewhere between 1-3 hours in the daytime for naps (depending on their age) and I’d aim for 11-12 hours at night-time. Not all children will sleep 12 hours at night – some of us are genetically wired to wake earlier. If your child is sleeping for less than 11 hours at night-time, I’d consider if they’re having enough sleep.
What could cause them to wake during the night?
In their second year, there’s a lot going on and often people discuss a lot of sleep regressions at this age. Personally, I don’t believe there are set times for sleep regressions, it normally just means that something is going on and their sleep has slipped slightly. A huge thing at this age that disrupts sleep is teething. There will be some nights when they need a cuddle and pain relief, but with teething you’ll find that it comes in bouts of 3-5 days and then it will go away again. If this is the pattern with your toddler’s night-waking, then it’s probably down to teething.
I do find that teething is more of an issue if sleep habits are inconsistent to begin with.
There’s also a stage of separation anxiety which really comes into play between 1 and 2 years old. One of the big stumbling blocks to sleep is caused by separation anxiety and it can be an unsettling time. You may decide to give them more comfort and roll with it at night-time. My biggest tip is to shower them with love and affection in the daytime because they they’ll be much less likely to push back with it at bedtime and overnight.
Childcare changes can also come into play after a year. For that reason, you’ll often get a little regressions, nap changes, overtiredness or a dip in confidence – all of these things can mean that they need a little bit more support from you at night-time, too. These will be temporary blips in their sleep, however, you can get them back to sleeping well with some consistency. Toddlers will pick up any inconsistency and know how to keep things up if they know what’s going on! My biggest piece of advice is to be consistent, cuddle, settle and put them back down. Whatever you do, do what works best for you and your family.
What can you do for them, if they wake at night?
If you are experiencing night-waking, the first thing I would look at is their daytime naps. From 12-18 months they go through a big transition stage from two naps a day to dropping the morning nap and taking a longer nap after lunch. If you’re experiencing night waking (by which I include early morning waking, so anything up until 6am), I would look at if there needs to be a shift in naps. If sleep pressure is pushed too much, the body creates too much cortisol, which causes them to wake early in the morning. So, if they’re overtired, they’re more likely to wake at 4 and 5am. A slight tweak to a daytime nap can really help night-time sleep be much longer and smoother. Do they need a morning nap? Do you need to drop a nap? I have two routines in my online shop for naps and routines – please click here for all of the details and click here for my Toddler Sleep Course.
How do they fall asleep in the evening?
If they fall asleep on their own and they’re happy with their routine, then that’s great! This should mean you’re less likely to see night-waking (but not always!). I would start with this point, allowing them to learn to fall asleep without you being there.
If they’re used to being fed, rocked, or patted to sleep then this part is really family-specific. I have two main strategies that you could try, one is where you want to leave the room, re-enter to reassure them and then leave – this approach takes around 3-5 days to implement. Or you could stop feeding and stay with them to support them and gradually move away – this can take a couple of weeks. If you want more information and full details on these two techniques, please take a look at my Toddler Sleep Course or book one of 1-1 services.
What’s happening during the night-time to encourage them to wake up regularly?
If they can fall asleep on their own at the beginning of the night it doesn’t always mean that they’ll be able to re-settle themselves in the middle of the night. It is fine to keep getting up to your toddler if you are happy to do so, I think that’s really important to remember. Everyone is different and you must find the best way to work for you and your family. All humans stir in the night and wake up – this isn’t about if they wake up, it’s about how they re-settle themselves.
If they don’t need a feed in the night, then think about a less exciting way to settle them, such as sitting quietly with your hand on their chest. They might not like this for a while, but they’ll get there! Night-time feeding can be controversial, but we know that if they’re on 3 solid meals a day and they have no concerns about weight gain, then they don’t need it. However hunger is not the only reason that toddlers want to feed in the night, it could be for comfort – ask yourself if you’re happy doing them. Or is this the time to stop them?
A huge amount of night waking at this age comes down to what you, as parents, can put up with!
I always say give it a week or two, try a new sleep approach and be consistent with it. Often, if they’ve been sleeping consistently, they’ll often get back into their normal routine.
If, however, it isn’t working, I’d suggest that you sit down with your partner and consider what you believe in and what works for you and your family. How long can you continue to get up in the night? I believe in a holistic approach to a happy family and this is where I would start from.
If you’d like to book one of mine or my team’s 1-1 Sleep Support, please click here for bespoke support.