Why is 2am 'wake-up time' for my toddler?

Published: 08 Aug 2016
Why is 2am 'wake-up time' for my toddler?

Hi Dr Justin,

We’re going crazy.

Our daughter is our second child, just turned 2 last week, and is an overall delight in every way except for these night wakings. She goes to sleep happily every night. No troubles at all. But for many months, maybe even over a year now, she wakes up around 2am EVERY SINGLE NIGHT and she isn’t happy “I slept too much” awake. She’s usually crying and waking the rest of us up. She’ll demand her pacifier, bottles, cuddling, you name it, and it can last a while. No medical conditions, no noise or anything that should wake her up at that time…we are stumped.

I am expecting it to be even worse when we soon have a baby! Tell me you have the magic answer!!

Tired out

Dr Justin responds:

I do not have the magic answer. I am tempted to say that there is no universal magic answer. Some things that work perfectly for one child make things worse for other children. Just when you think you've got the answer, the child hits a new developmental milestone and what once worked now doesn't.

While inconvenient, my preferred approach (in brief) is this:

When your toddler wakes up, go to her. Be available to console her. Help her settle. Accept that your sleep may be interrupted for a little while yet. Offer her what she needs when she needs it.

If possible, don’t pick her up. Instead, sing to her and comfort her and pat her back off to sleep. This may mean you end up lying on the floor for long periods, but it seems to work better than letting her scream, or picking her up and stimulating her too much.

If she is crying too much, pick her up, console her, and then pat her back off to sleep.

Why do I advocate a responsive, gentle approach rather than having her cry until she “self-settles”? Here are some other considerations and ideas:

Perspective Taking

We really do not know why your little girl is waking at 2am. Perhaps she is having a recurrent nightmare? Maybe she feels her nappy is wet and it makes her uncomfortable? (She is right at the age where toilet-training is likely to be quickly successful.) It may be that she is hungry. It is all guess work at this age.

But let's put this into perspective for just a moment. Imagine you woke up in the middle of the night, fearful, disturbed, and unhappy. What kind of a response would you want from the person who loves you most? Would you want them to ignore you, dismiss your complaints, and have them tell you to stop being silly and just go to sleep?

Would you want them to get cranky at you, threaten to stop helping you if you keep this up, and tell you what a pain you are being?

I'm not suggesting that you are doing these things. However, they are common responses from over-tired parents who are tired of the nightly wake-up for what seems to us like no good reason. We turn away from our children in frustration and exhaustion, or we turn against them in anger.

Turning Towards

That may not sound like the advice you wanted. After all, no one wants to be waking up in the middle of the night every night. I believe, however, that in order to raise a child who feels loved and worthy, and who knows that she has parents who will always support her, that the best way to respond to these night wakings is to turn towards your little girl with patience, compassion, gentleness, and love.

If you do, here's what will happen:

  • She will sense your peacefulness (rather than your anxiety or anger) and settle faster
  • You will be calmer within yourself, which will help you to settle faster when you go back to sleep rather than tossing and turning in frustration
  • You will have one more opportunity to bond with your daughter (even if it is 2am and you'd rather not be bonding right then)
  • You will have peaceful, happy chemicals being released in your brain (like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine) rather than stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline)
  • You will feel like a better parent

Get your routine right

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are a few things that you can also do to help make this process less intrusive and painful. Based on your daughter's prior patterns of behaviour, you can expect to wake up each night. That means you want to make your sleep experience as positive as you can. So go to bed a little earlier each night.

Rather than watching tv or playing (or reading) on your device, read a book or spend time with your partner. This will slow your brain down and help you get to sleep faster. Establish good sleep routines for yourselves so the interruptions from your daughter (and your new bub) are less challenging.

Good news/Bad news

The bad news is that things may not change for a little while yet. The good news is that if your baby girl is a typically developing toddler, she will eventually grow out of her wake-up ritual. One morning you will wake up and hardly notice that she let you sleep all night. That will turn into two nights, then a week, a month, and soon you will barely remember those special/crazy/exhausting times when you got to wake up in the middle of the night and hold that precious toddler in your arms and rock her back to sleep. And as improbable as it sounds now, you may even miss it. (Then again, you may not miss it at all!)

What methods do you use to get your toddler back to sleep during the night?

For more ideas, take a look at what Pinky McKay and Jo Ryan have to say about two year-olds and sleeping. They specialise in this area and, while having slightly different approaches, tend to encourage kind and compassionate parenting to help mums who are desperate for some extra sleep.


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