Babies (and Toddlers) Wake Frequently at Night (Part 2)

Photography:Fran Jorgensen Photography

By Mary Francell

As babies grow older and become toddlers, Western parents often start expecting them to sleep longer and more independently. This is especially true for first children, particularly if that child has a younger sibling. When a second baby is born, suddenly the toddler seems like a giant!

Yet, that 15 or 18 or even 24-month-old is really still a baby. The move towards more adult like sleep happens on a child’s own individual schedule – some young toddlers adapt easily to sleeping longer stretches in another bed or room, while others aren’t ready until closer to three or four years old. In many cultures, no one really pays attention to the child’s age – the child decides when they are ready to move to another sleeping space (if there is one).

Night time is scary 

I distinctly remember not being allowed in my parent’s bed or room after a certain age. The dark, quiet house was so scary, even in elementary school. When I woke in the middle of the night, I sometimes spent hours reading comic books, trying to distract and calm myself enough to be able to go back to sleep.

I didn’t really sleep well consistently until I met my husband and had someone to sleep with at night.

Many parents today are questioning why Western society considers it normal for adults to sleep together and for babies to sleep alone. Yet we sometimes forget that as babies turn into toddlers and then become older children, they often still need the comfort of another person at night. If room is an issue, a single mattress that can be pulled out from under a bigger bed or even a sleeping bag on the floor may be helpful for those times an older child needs to be close.

Sometimes, adjusting expectations is all that’s needed to adapt to frequent toddler wake ups. Parents can play “musical beds” and siblings older than 18 months or so are often happy to share a bed in another room, at least for part of the night. My three were in and out of our bed for between three and twelve years. The one who slept with us the longest hiked 2600+ miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and travelled around the world!

However, if you need more than just a change in attitude, other “nudging” ideas from Sweet Sleep can help. Often it’s easiest just to breastfeed a toddler back to sleep, but certain things may reduce the number of times a toddler wakes at night to nurse (if your toddler has weaned, a snack or a cup of water next to the bed can come in handy).

Nudging a toddler 

You can start by patting and reassuring the toddler for a bit before nursing – eventually your child may accept that instead. Getting up to use the toilet first, assuring bubs that you will be right back, may buy you some time in which your child could fall back to sleep on their own. Try “spooning” your toddler after nursing or when they first start to rouse – it may be that a cuddle is all they need. 

Sometimes, a little distance from the breast can be useful. If possible, have your child sleep on the other side of your partner, or even just turn over yourself and sleep with your back to the toddler after nursing.

Mumbling and turning over slowly towards them may eventually be all that’s needed when they stir – a simple reassurance of your presence.

Twiddling, scratching and other unwanted behaviours can make night nursing difficult. Holding the toddler’s hand and demonstrating how to stroke gently or giving them something else to pinch (a stuffed animal or doll) can be useful. It can also help to place your arm across your other breast or take a short break from nursing. Talking gently and empathetically while setting firm limits (“you really want to scratch, but it hurts mummy, pinch this instead; you feel frustrated, etc.”) helps your child learn appropriate breastfeeding manners.

Shortening breastfeeding times can also make night wakings tolerable. It’s best to work on this during the day at first, when your toddler is likely to be more amenable. Some parents sing the ABC song or count to ten slowly – talking about it for a few days before starting helps the child get used to the idea.

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