According to researchers from the University of Michigan, these factors could cause your little one to wake up more often during the night, or struggle to go back to sleep if she does wake up:
- Separation anxiety
- Uncomfortable pyjamas or scratchy tags
- A formula or food sensitivity or allergy
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GER)
- Airborne allergens
- Pain from earache, abdominal gas, or teething. If the waking is due to pain, your child may not settle − even if you are there to comfort her.
- Itching from pinworms
- A urinary tract infection
- Feeling uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, thirsty, hungry or having a wet bed)
- Being in a pattern of waking
- Being in a light phase of sleep when something like a noise rouses her into being fully awake
If you rule out and treat any illness or discomfort and you’re positive that your child isn’t too hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, it’s a good idea to teach him how to fall asleep on his own, as this might be a major reason for night waking.
Teach your child to self-soothe
In her book, Toddler Sense, midwife and childcare expert Ann Richardson says it’s important to note that everyone wakes up spontaneously throughout the night, so even if your toddler is “sleeping through”, he’s probably still waking up at least four to five times a night. Most of the time, your child will stir, wake up a little, reach for his comfort toy or dummy and go back to sleep. However, some will wake in the same way, but are unable to self-soothe to go back to sleep without some sort of external intervention from you or your partner, explains Ann. He might want to be held or rocked, given a drink of milk or water, or ask you to sleep next to him because he’s feeling unsure.
Ann believes that children who are unable to self-soothe and put themselves back to sleep without help might continue to wake frequently during the night and need assistance in some way, to go back to sleep. If your little one keeps needing you to interact with him at night, whether it’s to be held, rocked, played with or fed, the first step is to remove the expectation, says Ann. It’s also about the way he falls asleep at bedtime. If you rock your little one to sleep every night, or he only falls asleep with a bottle, you’ll need to change this as he’ll expect it at 2am too, or whenever he wakes again. “It’s important to be consistent in your approach and not confuse him with mixed messages about new sleep rules,” says Ann.
- The best way to teach your child how to self-soothe is to give him a security object such as a soft toy or blanket – or a T-shirt of yours that smells like you.
- A dummy or sucking his thumb is also effective
- Encourage him to stroke his own face or hair to calm down and fall asleep.
- At bedtime, reinforce the idea of his “sleep friend” or comfort object and remind him to use it if he wakes at night.
Help him fall asleep on his own
If your child needs you to sit with him or lie with him to fall asleep, this might take a while as some kids will deliberately stay awake to keep you there, says Ann. Follow her step-by-step guide to help your child fall asleep independently:
- Sit next to his bed or cot and put your hand on him while he snuggles down with his comfort object.
- Don’t move your hand or talk except to say “Ssshhh” quietly. He might protest or want to stand up, but the key here is to be consistent and keep putting him down with his “sleep friend”.
- Stay with him until he falls asleep.
- The next night, sit next to him, but don’t touch him. Keep reinforcing his sleep object. Soothe him with your voice and presence no matter how much he protests. Expect that he might be upset as this is a new routine for him.
- Each night, move further away from the cot, but stay in his room until he falls asleep.
- Within a week or so, you should be able to leave the room with a hug, kiss and a goodnight. (You can always go back into his room to check on him for a few minutes).
A note on co-sleeping
While some families thrive in a co-sleeping environment, it can be disruptive for others. It’s important to consider the needs and desires of your own family. The above routine works well for those who don’t wish to co-sleep. However, some studies suggest parents who are accepting of co-sleeping report less sleep problems compared to those who aren’t.
Night terrors are different to nightmares. Children who are experiencing them wake up screaming and look genuinely terrified. Her heart might also be pounding and she’ll be anxious and inconsolable, explains Ann. Although there’s not much you can do to help your child in that state, other than holding her and reassuring her that he’s safe, research has shown that night terrors are more common in kids who have erratic sleep patterns and bedtime routines.
Ann says if your child is having night terrors, try the following:
- Avoid sleep deprivation and let her have a solid nap in the day.
- Avoid excessive stimulation and sensory overload before bedtime.
- Bring his bedtime earlier.
TOP TIP: If your little one is afraid of the dark, a soft night light with a dim, yellow hue will help because your child will recognise his sleep zone when he wakes and be comforted by it. He’ll also be able to find his “sleep friend” and reach out for it.
Bedtime dos and don’ts
Researchers at the University of Michigan suggest the following tips to help your child sleep better at night:
- Do: Make bedtime and sleep time a fun, positive experience and ensure your bedtime routine can be applied anywhere – on holiday, at a friend’s house or at home.
- Do: Use white noise (fan or soft music) to block out external sounds that could be waking your child at night or in the early hours of the morning.
- Don’t: Give your child food and drinks with caffeine in them, like hot chocolate, tea, cola, chocolate, etc. Even caffeine earlier in the day could disrupt your child’s sleep cycle.
- Don’t: Let your child watch more than one to two hours of TV during the day, and don’t allow her to watch TV at bedtime at all. TV viewing at bedtime has been linked to poor sleep and nightmares.