Why Your Toddler Wakes at Night (And How To Help Them Sleep) - Raised Good

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Why Your Toddler Wakes at Night (And How To Help Them Sleep)

Hi there!
I'm Tracy 
I'm the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world.

It felt easy to be gentle and responsive with a baby, she said. To welcome her baby into her bed. To respond to his cries. To feed him on demand. 

But then her baby became a toddler. And things started to feel different. 

Society’s white noise started to resonate a little louder and she felt the pressure to promote independence. To push a little. To introduce some separation…that’s how we “teach” independence, right? 

But, years later, as she looked back, she could see that when her little boy was a toddler he was still a baby. You see, from a neurological perspective infancy lasts three years. Human brain development unfolds ever so slowly and so while our toddlers find their feet and keep us on our toes, they’re still babies. 

They still need us just as much as they did as a newborn…if only, in a different way. Our children learn to regulate their emotions by being coregulated by us, their caregivers, thousands of times, day and night. 

We often overestimate the emotional abilities of our little kids while underestimating their physical abilities. 

Our culture encourages us to hover, place limits and keep our toddlers physically safe, while simultaneously pushing them into deeper, unfamiliar waters where emotionally they feel anything but safe. 

Nowhere is that truer than of nighttime parenting. We’re told to…get him into his own bed. It’s assumed that….surely he’s sleeping through the night. You’re told that if he’s not, it must be your fault, so...wean him and put a clock in his room that lights up and dings when he’s allowed to leave his room in the morning…not a moment before. 

And so as natural, gentle, respectful parents, we’re blindsided by the reality of what is biologically, psychologically, evolutionary NORMAL toddler sleep. 

Because, just like babies, many toddlers don’t sleep through the night and that’s perfectly normal. Toddlers crave connection and touch to help them feel safe and secure. Many toddlers breastfeed to sleep…and back to sleep. And all of this is completely normal. 

So, let’s normalise toddler sleep and answer some of the common questions about toddler sleep. 

In this post you’ll learn about:

Why do toddlers continue to wake through the night? 

As we come out of one sleep cycle and before drifting into the next, we come into a partial arousal. It’s typically during a partial arousal that our toddlers will wake up in the night. Partial arousals can turn into full arousals when something feels off. Maybe your toddler feels hungry, or needs the bathroom or needs comfort in order to fall back to sleep. 

Infant sleep cycles last on average 90 minutes compared to 3 hours in adults. Children start to transition to longer sleep cycles around 3 years of age. 

Remember that sleep is anything but linear. Just when we think our child is finally sleeping for longer stretches through the night, they start to wake frequently again. As in babyhood, toddlers may wake more at night as developmental milestones are reached, challenges are faced and they’re processing the day. 

We need to respect our children’s needs and bridge that with connection. It’s okay for there to be back and forth. A non-linear path is normal; it’s not something that needs to be fixed.

How important are naps in toddlerhood? 

Protect your toddler’s nap for as long as possible, even if that may mean less nighttime sleep. For your child, their nap is a chance to recharge, a time to restore and rejuvenate.

However, don’t force your child to nap if they’ve clearly outgrown it. The goal is to respond to the child in front of us – not the child in the book or your friend’s child. It’s okay for there to be back and forth – the transition from one to zero naps sometimes takes months. Offering a random nap on the third or fourth day can also help reset your child’s rhythm.

Do I need to night wean my toddler? 

First of all, if night nursing is working for you and your toddler, there is no need to stop. It is perfectly normal for toddlers to nurse to sleep (and no, breastmilk does not cause cavities). And it’s normal for our children to breastfeed well beyond babyhoodday and night.

Breastmilk doesn’t have an expiry date. The composition of breastmilk does change over time but it does so in order to match the evolving needs of a child. The notion that breastmilk has no nutritional value or protective function beyond a certain age is false. A study published in the journal Pediatrics, reported that the fat and energy contents in milk from moms who have been nursing for more than one year were “significantly increased” compared to milk from moms breastfeeding younger babies. Some immune factors also increase in concentration during the second year of breastfeeding.

According to KellyMom.com, 448mL of breastmilk provides toddlers with 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements, 36% of calcium requirements and 94% of vitamin B12 requirements.

If you’re thinking about night weaning though and if it feels like the right choice for you, remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can choose to wean for some of the night wakes and nurse at other times. You can nurse your toddler to sleep but not nurse every single wake that happens after that. 

You can nurse your toddler more during times of transition or distress to comfort and soothe them so that they feel safe enough to sleep. Remember that nursing is not the only way to comfort your child. 

The process of night weaning reminds us that motherhood is about learning to be okay with the ambiguity of it all, leaning into the unknown and embarking on the journey alongside your child promoting connection and comfort in new ways.

How does sleep look for highly sensitive toddlers? 

Did you know that over 20% of children are highly sensitive (or orchid) children? Do you have a highly sensitive child? If so, sleep may look a little different. Highly sensitive children: 

  • See and feel things deeply.
  • Take a longer time to process things, and to adjust to change.
  • Are in states of dysregulation more often than dandelion children and can take longer to regulate. 
  • Transitions impact sleep more for highly sensitive children compared to dandelion children.

In order to surrender to sleep, we need to be in a parasympathetic nervous state feeling balanced and calm, which is difficult for highly sensitive kids. If your toddler is highly sensitive try to understand what things are calming for your child and incorporate those things before bed.

Highly sensitive children are likely to take longer to progress through the bedtime rhythm so start your rhythm earlier to avoid rushing your child which only makes things harder. It may also be reassuring to know that many highly sensitive children seem to need less sleep than their peers of the same age.

Do I need to sleep train my toddler?

If you’ve been around Raised Good for a while you’ll know the short answer: a resounding NO!

No baby, no toddler, no child, needs non-responsive sleep training.

It is an absolute myth and lie that we need to “teach” our children how to sleep. Just as we don’t need to “teach” our children how to breathe or walk or talk, we don’t need to teach them how to sleep.

Our role as parents is to provide the conditions for our children to surrender to sleep. What are those conditions?

A feeling of connection, safety and attachment.

For us adults, sleep can represent a break. A time to check out and get some much needed time for ourselves and our marriage. But for our children, it can represent disconnection and separation.

We never treat a fear of separation with more separation – we treat it with more connection. Create rituals before bed that make your toddler feel connected and safe. Cosleeping naturally helps to maintain that physical and emotional connection throughout the night but rituals are still helpful to get them into a calm and relaxed state.

You may be surprised to know that roughhousing and playing silly games can really help before bedtime – laughing releases melatonin which is a hormone that promotes sleep, so laugh and have fun. Don’t take sleep too seriously! Here are 5 Natural Parenting Secrets to Help Your Toddler Sleep (No Sleep Training Required!)

There are also many ways to promote connection even when apart – focus on the next connection which is a process called bridging – say something like, “I can’t wait to see you in the morning and we’re going to have banana pancakes for breakfast” rather than “It’s time to go to sleep”. We don’t want to push our children’s faces into the separation, we want to remind them of the reconnection.

Here are some more ideas:

  • Stay with your toddler until they fall asleep.
  • Let them know that you’ll come back to check on them every five minutes and leave a love heart or note on their bedside table when you do. Make it extra special by leaving 50 love hearts on their floor and say you checked on them all night long.
  • If your bedrooms are close enough, connect your beds by a ribbon or string.
  • Give your child an item of your clothing to sleep with that smells like you and brings them comfort.

I’ve written extensively about why babies and children don’t need non responsive sleep training. You can check out the sleep blog posts here and also download super popular my FREE guide: 5 Myths Surrounding Infant Sleep You Can Safely Ignore (As a New or Not So New Parent). It’s relevant for toddlers too and it’s free!

How do you stay calm when your toddler pushes your buttons?

Toddlers are brilliant, aren’t they? They live in the present moment. They’re capable and innocent.

And perhaps my favourite trait – they’re authentic. They’re unfiltered. They’re among the most honest humans on the planet. They’re unapologetically themselves.

But, perhaps they’re also the most misunderstood humans on the planet.

They have the ability to feel only one emotion at a time and boy do they feel that emotion strongly. They haven’t yet “learned” to suppress their emotions – the way our society expects polite adults to do…and as natural parents, it’s a lesson we’re committed to not teaching our kids. 

But when we’re exhausted and have been ON from dawn till dusk and we just need a break and our toddler won’t sleep, it can feel impossible not to snap when we’re pushed by our kids. So, here are some tips to help regulate yourself at nighttime so that you can keep your child calm for sleep: 

  • Get comfortable with emotions so that your child’s big emotions don’t scare you. Calmly and confidently hold space for upsets.
  • QTIP: Quit taking it personally. This isn’t about you, the enormity of your child’s emotions are not a reflection on your parenting. 
  • Pause and channel curiosity: Ask yourself,  “What’s going on for me when my child __________?” can go a long way in helping us pause and choose to respond consciously instead of reacting.
  • Take time to examine your own thoughts and the stories you’re telling yourself. Are you responding to the present moment or reacting to the past? 
  • Do a body scan and relax whatever feels tense.
  • Do a five-senses check-in.
  • When the body feels better, we can more easily get out of the fight-or-flight response.
  • Make the out-breath longer than the in-breath.

I learned many of these techniques for finding my own calm from Kaitlin Klimmer – a guest at this year’s Raised Good Online Summit. Join me for free as Kaitlin and I dive into Toddler Sleep and Peaceful Parenting. Learn more here and register for free to watch all 27 interviews going live September 23rd – September 27th, 2021.

Cosleeping throughout childhood promotes independence and positive outcomes

Children sleeping alone is a relatively new idea and is unique to western societies. Japanese culture values cosleeping and their actions reflect this; children usually sleep adjacent to their mothers in early childhood and generally continue to sleep with a parent or extended family member until the age of fifteen.

Western culture claims that solitary infant sleep is necessary to promote independence, but multiple studies show that the opposite is true:

  • A cross-sectional study of middle-class English children showed that, among children who never slept in their parents’ bed, there was a trend towards being harder to control, less happy, exhibiting a greater number of tantrums, and being more fearful than children who always slept in their parents’ bed, all night.
  • Another study showed that children who never bedshared were less innovative and less able to be alone.
  • Men who had coslept with their parents between birth and five years of age had significantly higher self-esteem and experienced less guilt and anxiety. Boys who co-slept between six and eleven years of age also had higher self-esteem. For women, co-sleeping during childhood was associated with less discomfort about physical contact and affection as adults as well as higher self-esteem.

When your toddler’s sleep feels challenging remember that sleep is a vulnerable state to succumb to. From an evolutionary perspective, as a social mammal sleeping alone could be one of the most dangerous things you could do; it is normal that our toddlers want to be close to us at nighttime. 

So, silence the white noise of society and do what feels right for you and your family.  

Hi there!

I'm Tracy

Hi there! I’m Tracy - the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world. Based in Vancouver and originally launched in 2016, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response and the global community that’s developed. 

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