- Jessica Berk
Help! My 3-Year-Old Wakes Up at Night
If you're like so many families, you'll be all-too familiar with this confusing situation.
Your kid is sound asleep in their cozy room. Snuggled up with their blankets and all their favorite loveys. They have a nightlight, white noise, everything they should need for a peaceful sleep.
So why the heck do they keep waking up in the middle of the night?
This is one of the most frustrating sleep problems because you’re dead asleep, too, and all you want is for this to not be happening.
But since it is, let’s look at exactly why it’s happening. After studying toddler sleep for 7 years, I’ve found that there are typically 3 main causes – and the very last one is probably the culprit at your house. So let’s get to it!
>>Watch this blog on my Awesome Little Sleepers YouTube channel! 👇
Why night waking happens in the first place
Around the age of 3, kids’ imaginations really start to go wild. This can cause some potentially scary dreams based on something they’ve seen or heard.
With a nightmare, kids can usually go back to sleep fairly easily after a hug and some gentle reassurance.
Nightmares can happen occasionally, but it’s very unlikely that they would wake your child every single night. They certainly wouldn’t wake your child up multiple times a night. So if you’re seeing frequent wake ups, nightmares are probably not your answer.
2. Night terrors
Most people assume that night terrors are when your child is hysterically upset, almost inconsolable in the middle of the night.
But a true night terror has some very defined characteristics.
1) They typically happen within the first few hours of sleep, before midnight.
2) Your child may wake suddenly screaming, crying, or talking. They may say things like “No” or “Stop”. It can be very scary to watch. They may be thrashing around their bed or even walking around and acting erratic.
3) But with a true night terror, your child may appear awake but is fast asleep. They will not recognize you if you come into the room. They will not say your name. They will not be comforted if you come closer to them.
4) The night terror will end as fast as it started without any help from you.
Because they are totally asleep.
This is noticeably different from a child who has a middle-of-the-night temper tantrum and is asking for things, but once you try to appease them they don’t want it anymore. That’s more along the lines of the classic exchange -
“I want milk!"
“Okay, here you go.”
When there’s a dialogue going on, your child isn’t having a night terror.
With a night terror, your child falls back to sleep after it's over and will have no memory of it in the morning.
So, if it’s not a nightmare or a night terror that is waking your child up every night, then what is it?
The most likely cause of your child's overnight wake ups is....
3. Your toddler is too reliant on a parent at bedtime.
Here’s the secret:
When kids can fall asleep alone at bedtime, they can stay asleep alone through the night.
Here’s what I mean…
Kids get used to what they have around them when they fall asleep - what they have in their bed, what lights are on, what noises they hear, maybe you sitting with them. All of these things set up the sleep conditions they need in order to fall asleep.
Once asleep, they (like all of us) go through changes in their sleep cycles throughout the night. Deep sleep to light sleep and back and forth multiple times. When they move into a lighter stage of sleep, if all the conditions in the room are the same, they just roll over and stay asleep. This is the phase of sleep where we roll around and pull up the covers.
BUT, if something is missing or something is different… when we move into light sleep, our body will notice and we will wake up because something is weird or missing or different.
And that difference - like you, the parent, not being in the room anymore - is what causes your child to wake up.
For example, if you fall asleep in your bed and no one wakes you up, you’ll probably sleep pretty well.
But, if you fall asleep and, at some point in the night, your pillow falls on the floor, the next time you move into a lighter stage of sleep, you'll certainly wake up because your pillow is gone. Your pillow is a key piece of your sleep environment. And it's missing! So you have to wake up, realize what’s wrong, find your pillow, pick it up, and then try to fall back to sleep.
Now imagine this for your toddler.
If your child is used to you staying in their room while they fall asleep, you’re like their pillow! Whether you’re laying in their bed, scratching their back, sitting in a chair, snuggling them, etc. that’s what they’re used to.
You've made yourself an integral part of their sleep environment. Like a pillow!
Even though they’re 100% capable of sleeping without you, you've become a necessity to them.
So, when you sneak out of their room once they’re asleep, they’ll wake up hours later, once they're in a lighter stage of sleep, to come find you.
You think, "Darn, she was sound asleep! Why does she keep waking up?!?"
Now you know.
It's because she moved into a lighter stage of sleep and you were gone. This crucial piece of her sleep environment is missing - you. And now she has to go find it.
Cue the screaming 3-year-old at 2 a.m. or the cranky 4-year-old jolting you out of a deep sleep with a tap to the forehead.
So, here is the KEY to getting your child to finally sleep through the night without waking up...
You have to help them become an independent sleeper at bedtime.
I have been helping parents get their kids comfortable falling asleep alone so that they sleep through the night for over 7 years now. My proven REST Method teaches you the exact steps needed to get your child happily sleeping 10-12 hours through the night with no wake ups.
Start with my next free Toddler Sleep Masterclass where I teach you all about the REST Method to get your child comfortable falling asleep alone - so they can sleep through the night. You can fix your family’s sleep problems for good!
And even if you are still not 100% sure what is disrupting your child’s sleep, this free class can only help you get more clarity. >>Click Here<<