Why is my toddler waking at night? How to get your toddler to sleep through the night

Updated Jun 05, 2024
Why is my toddler waking at night? How to get your toddler to sleep through the night | Huckleberry

As a parent of a toddler, you’ve likely had your fair share of sleepless nights and bedtime battles. It is developmentally normal for a toddler to have night wakings, but when these episodes occur frequently, and when night wakings seem to last for hours, this can negatively impact the whole family’s sleep and emotional health. 

Understanding the potential reasons behind night wakings is key. Once you determine the “why”, you can start implementing strategies to help your toddler learn to self-soothe, put themselves back to sleep independently, and stay in bed until morning. With time and consistency, the frequent night wake-ups will resolve. 


Reasons for toddler waking at night

4 tips for helping toddlers sleep through the night


Toddler waking at night FAQ 

Everyone wakes during the night (even us adults!), but we're talking about situations where your toddler is not just rolling over and getting in a comfortable position, and falling back to sleep like adults do. Keep in mind that this is, instead, your toddler calling out for help in returning to sleep.

Many things can cause disrupted sleep at this age. Some might be physical causes, while others may be related to their cognitive development. Let’s take a look: 

  • If a child develops an association between a specific behavior and their ability to drift off to sleep, it may result in disturbed sleep patterns.  Common sleep associations for toddlers are: using a pacifier, and having parents rock them to sleep. Parental presence is the most common sleep–onset association for toddlers [1] that can impact the ability to fall asleep or return to sleep following a naturally occurring night waking.

  • Physical causes like hunger, teething pain, or illnesses like colds, allergies, or ear infections. Unfortunately, children can start to get sick frequently when they become toddlers, especially if they are around other kiddos daily. Additionally, the appearance of molars can also cause a lot of discomfort for young toddlers.

  • Between bedtime resistance, and dropping and resisting their nap, toddlers are very prone to overtiredness, which in turn can cause more prolonged night waking and early rising.

  • Their imagination is beginning to peak, as is their awareness about the world around them, so fears about separation or nightmares and fear of the dark and other things are common reasons for a toddler to wake up at night. 

While you can’t always control the reasons your toddler wakes, implementing these proactive sleep strategies can help minimize night disruptions:

Aim for a calm and consistent bedtime routine that allows for plenty of connection time with your toddler. If possible, avoid screen time 1 - 2 hours before bedtime, as evening screentime does have an effect on night sleep [2] and can cause sleep disturbances. At this age, toddlers need around 30 - 45 minutes to wind down. Try to incorporate the routine steps in the room your toddler sleeps in rather than multiple scene changes to avoid them getting distracted. Quiet, calm activities prime their body for sleep. Include things like baths, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, reading stories, and singing songs.  

Toddlers & preschoolers understand concepts, transitions, and routines more easily when they are presented through visuals. Introduce a visual bedtime routine, a storybook, or cue cards with pictures that outline your sleep routine, For example, you might have a “stay in bed” card or a “close your eyes” card to show those expectations around bedtime. Using visuals not only helps your child understand what is coming but also gives them the feeling of control they seek. 

Most toddlers and preschoolers need around 11 - 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, depending on their age. Having a consistent bedtime and healthy sleep habits will allow them to naturally wake in the morning when they are ready to do so. Most toddlers between the ages of 18 months to 3 years will take a consistent mid-day nap starting between 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM, although the timing can vary depending on wake-up. Sleep regularity is one of the best strategies to promote more sleep. 

The way a child falls asleep at night can impact the quality of sleep at night. If your child needs a lot of assistance to fall asleep, this can lead to frequent night wakings at night. Developing sleep associations with white noise or a transitional object like a stuffed animal while you work on their independence when falling asleep may help them with self-soothing habits. 

When waking at night, briefly reassure them without overstimulating. Your calm, confident presence is reassuring while still allowing them to settle independently.  It is very important to remain consistent, as toddlers are very aware of the rules and boundaries. 

It is never too late to sleep train and there are a lot of different strategies to sleep train a toddler that can align with your specific situation and parenting style. Consider submitting for a sleep plan through Huckleberry Premium if you’d like guidance tailored specifically for you and your little one.

Night wakings are developmentally normal for toddlers, but frequent episodes can impact the entire family's sleep and emotional well-being.

Common reasons for night wakings are:

  • Sleep associations such as pacifiers and parental presence can affect a toddler's ability to self-soothe.

  • Physical causes like hunger, teething, illnesses, and overtiredness can contribute to disrupted sleep.

  • Growing imagination and awareness lead to fears and nightmares.

Proactive sleep strategies to consider implementing:

  • A calm, consistent routine, avoiding screen time before bed, and incorporating calming activities like baths and stories can help.

  • Implementing visual cues, picture-book tales, or bedtime cards can provide a sense of control and understanding for toddlers.

  • Ensuring sufficient sleep in a 24-hour period, with a consistent bedtime and mid-day nap, promotes natural waking in the morning.

Implementing these proactive habits takes some effort upfront, but resolving problematic sleep behaviors now leads to restful nights for your whole family down the road. Sweet dreams!

Toddler waking at night FAQ

Q: What are the common reasons for toddlers waking up at night?


Some common reasons toddlers wake up frequently at night include: needing help to fall back asleep because of sleep associations like pacifiers or rocking to sleep. Physical discomfort from teething pain or illnesses are also common reasons for interrupted sleep for toddlers. Overtiredness from inconsistent sleep schedules, fighting naps, and fears about separation or nightmares as their imagination develops are also very normal at this age and can cause disrupted sleep.

Q: How can I help my toddler sleep through the night?


You can help your toddler sleep through the night by establishing a calm, consistent bedtime routine with quiet activities to wind them down. Ensuring they get enough total sleep with age-appropriate schedules is important, as well as encouraging independence at bedtime when falling asleep. Sleep training your child can also improve their nighttime sleep by helping your child learn the skills they need to settle back to sleep on their own. There are different strategies to do so, the most important being consistency and patience.

Q: What should I do if my toddler experiences night terrors or nightmares?


If your toddler experiences a nightmare, reassure them without turning on bright lights or stimulating play. Stay with them, speak softly, and rub their back until they’re calm and ready for sleep. Keeping sleep schedules regular can prevent overtiredness that makes nightmares more likely. If your child experiences a night terror, sit close to them and make sure they are safe until the episode ends. Avoid waking them up, as this can cause your child to get confused and upset and take longer to calm down and go back to sleep.

Q: How can I take care of myself as a parent while dealing with my toddler's night wakings?


As a parent dealing with night wakings, prioritizing your mental health and your rest is very important. If your child is waking up frequently, make it a priority to go to bed early to get as much sleep as possible. Taking turns with your partner, if possible, to handle night wakings is also a good way to get in more sleep. If possible, ask family or friends to help during the day so that you can get some “me time” - taking care of yourself will allow you to be more patient during this time.

Q: Can I use the same strategies for sleep training with toddlers of different ages?


Yes! You can use similar sleep training strategies with toddlers of different ages. Bedtime routines, visual aids, and sleep training methods work with children of various ages. Adjust the sleep schedule to your child’s age and sleep needs, and keep in mind that consistency is key to establishing bedtime routines and habits that work for your child’s sleep and your family’s overall well-being.

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.

2 Sources


  1. Meltzer, L. J., Williamson, A. A., & Mindell, J. A. (2021). Pediatric sleep health: It matters, and so does how we define it. Sleep Medicine Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9067252/

  2. Garrison, M. M., Liekweg, K., & Christakis, D. A. (2011). Media Use and Child Sleep: The Impact of Content, Timing, and Environment. Pediatrics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124101/