You heave a sigh of relief when your baby turns 1 — you’ve read the books and they tell you your little one should finally sleep through the night now.
But, at 1 year old, he’s waking up crying for you in the middle of the night.
At 2 years old, he’s stumbling to your bed at 3 am with tears pouring down his face, and at almost 3 years old, he’s still waking up way past midnight, calling out for you.
You may think, “why is my toddler still doing this?” and start to worry that sleepless nights for both you and your child will never end.
But here’s the deal: toddlers wake up at night (and sometimes cry) for several, completely normal reasons which we present below.
They want to nurse.
If you’re still breastfeeding your toddler, it’s highly likely he will still want to nurse at odd hours of the night, just like he did when he was a wee baby.
Night feeds usually become less as your child grows older. However, if you are following child-led weaning, experts suggest a natural weaning age of between 3-5 years old.
What else do experts say?
Nighttime nursing is not too much of a problem for mums who co-sleep — in this case, your toddler can easily roll over and ‘dream feed’ without too much of a disruption to his or your sleep!
They are hungry.
Even if your child is not nursing, they are growing at an astonishing rate, both physically and mentally. A toddler’s brain activity is actually greater than that of an adult.
According to experts, toddlers’ brains use twice the amount of glucose than an adult brain does.
Needless to say, we get glucose from food — so it’s not surprising that your toddler is waking up, asking for midnight snacks.
Try this: If your toddler still wakes at night because she’s hungry, offer her a high-fat pre-bedtime snack such as avocado, full-fat yoghurt or peanut butter. (Do remember to brush your child’s teeth after the snack!)
They could have worms!
Yes, you read that right! Threadworms, also known as pinworms, are tiny parasitic worms that hatch eggs in — and infect — the large intestine of humans.
According to medical experts, they are particularly common in young kids under the age of 10. These white, thread-like worms are notorious for causing nighttime waking in toddlers.
If your toddler still wakes at night, scratching away at his bottom, then it may be reason to suspect he has worms.
What can you do?
Threadworm infections are very common. If you suspect your child has them (you may notice them in his poo or around his bottom), consult with a medical professional who will be able to give your child worm treatment.
They could be teething.
You may think that all your baby’s teething woes would have ended by his first birthday. But that’s not completely true.
Just after your child turns 1, you may notice teething symptoms emerge again, such as red, swollen and tender gums, and — surprise, surprise — interrupted sleep!
The culprits are likely to be the molars — the large, flat teeth at the back of the mouth — which can cause a fair amount of discomfort when they emerge.
Try applying a sugar-free teething gel on your child’s gums before he goes to sleep. Lots of cuddles should help too!
If the pain is really bad, accompanied with fever, experts say it’s ok to give your child the recommended dose of Baby Panadol or a similar, appropriate pain relief medication.
They could be having nightmares.
Older toddlers often have very active imaginations which are more often than not in overdrive.
So if he’s been exposed to ‘scary’ movies/cartoons, or talk of monsters and ghosts, his overactive imagination may be telling him they’re real, which, in turn, might give him nightmares.
Toddlers aged 2 and above are old enough to ‘see’ something scary in their sleep but too young to reassure themselves that it isn’t real.
The result? Crying, anxious and scared toddlers in your bed at 3am!
What’s the solution?
While you can’t stop your toddler’s nightmares, you can help reduce the likelihood of them happening by having a calm bedtime routine (no talk of ‘monsters’ or ghost stories!).
If he does wake up after a nightmare, comfort him and tell him it wasn’t real (“It’s just a dream”) and that he’s safe.
If he’s sleeping in his own room, try having a nightlight on, giving him a favourite stuffed-toy ‘protector’, or ‘monster spray’ (plain water in a spray bottle!).
They could be having night terrors.
A night terror is different from a nightmare in that your toddler may scream in fear and show all signs of being terrified, yet he is still asleep.
He may even talk or walk and his eyes might be open, but if you try to hold him, he may push you away.
Experts say night terrors are often characterised by a bloodcurdling scream, crying, elevated heart rate, and no memory of the event the next day.
What can you do about it?
During a night terror, the only thing you can do is wait it out (it can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes).
Stay near your toddler to ensure he doesn’t walk out of his room, but experts suggest not trying to wake or calm him. He’ll soon be back to sleep.
Night terrors are often caused when kids are overstimulated during the day. So you can help prevent them by ensuring his days are not too full and sticking to an early and consistent bedtime.
Experts also say that if your toddler has frequent night terrors, you could try to wake him up before he experiences it.
The trick is to alter his sleep cycle to stop a terror from happening (night terrors often happen early on, about 1 to 4 hours after going to sleep).
If you have a helper, don’t forget to advise her on how to handle a night terror, should she be alone with your child for the nights when you are out.
They could be anxious about something.
Is your toddler under some kind of stress, such as having changed daycare, or maybe you have a new maid? Or are you going through a stressful period yourself, perhaps related to your relationship or job?
All these things can affect your sensitive toddler and may cause him to wake up at night, anxious and looking for you.
What can you do?
Give him loads of reassurance — both during the day and night if he wakes — that you are always there for him and that you love him.
Some extra attention in the form of plenty of hugs and kisses can also go a long way in reassuring your little one and easing his anxiety.
Parents, it may seem like you will never get any sleep — but rest assured (pun intended!) that, as with many child-related issues, your toddler’s night wakings are most probably just a phase, and will pass eventually.
In the meantime, take deep breaths, try any of the tips mentioned in this article, and enjoy these trying yet precious days with your little ones while you can!