10 Reasons Your Toddler Is Waking Up at Night and What to Do

Picture of Robyn Rosenblum, MD, FAAP

toddler getting out of bed

Everyone knows that life with a newborn means constant sleep deprivation. But now your little one is well beyond that phase, yet you’re still not getting enough sleep. Why is your toddler waking up at night? And more importantly, is there anything you can do about it?

To help you answer those questions, we’ve compiled a list of the most common sleep disruptors in the toddler years. We also share simple strategies for handling each so you and your child can get the sleep you need.

Table of contents

10 Possible reasons your toddler’s waking up at night

toddler waking up at night

Knowing what’s causing your toddler’s sleep disruptions can help you address the problem. Here are some of the most likely culprits.

1) They need to go potty.

When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. And that’s undoubtedly true for toddlers who are still learning how to control their bladder and bowels.

What to do

In the middle of the night, there’s not much you can do except help your child get to the bathroom or change their diaper if they’re not yet potty trained.

But if your child frequently wakes up because of nature’s call, try cutting off drinks an hour before bed. That way, they’re likely to empty their bladder when you have them go potty (or give them a clean diaper) right before bed.

2) They’re hungry.

A rumbly tummy can keep anyone up at night, especially a growing toddler. If your little one didn’t eat well or they’re going through a growth spurt and burning more calories, hunger could be waking them up.

What to do

Consider adding a bedtime snack to your evening routine, at least for a while. A few extra calories right before bed can help satisfy your child’s tummy until morning.

However, you don’t want to fill them with sugar or empty calories. Instead, choose nutritious food with some protein to keep them full longer.

Good choices include:

  • A cheese stick and crackers
  • Yogurt
  • Half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • A hardboiled egg

Remember to keep portions small so your child doesn’t get too full to sleep comfortably.

3) They had a bad dream or night terror.

bad dream that's making toddler waking up at night

If your child is screaming or thrashing in their bed, a bad dream or a night terror could be behind it.

What to do

Determine if it’s a nightmare or a night terror waking them up. It was likely a bad dream if your child is fully awake and remembers what happened. In that case, let them know you’re there for them and offer comforting words and touch until they fall asleep again.

If your child doesn’t seem to be awake or doesn’t remember anything unusual happening, you could be dealing with a night terror. These occur most often in the early morning, though they can strike anytime.

Here’s what to do if your child has night terrors:

  • Leave the lights low and speak in soft voices so you don’t startle them awake
  • Stay calm and rub their back gently
  • Ensure they’re not getting too tired or too hot
  • Stay close by until the terror has passed

If your toddler has frequent episodes of these events, mention it to their pediatrician. They can provide individualized support for your child’s sleep.

4) They’re overtired.

It seems counterintuitive, but being too tired can cause your child to wake up at night. When they’re exhausted, their bodies produce more cortisol, a stress hormone. This can make it harder for them to fall asleep and stay that way.

What to do

To combat this problem, make sure your toddler is getting enough sleep. They need 11-14 hours every 24 hours, including naps.

If your little one doesn’t get that much sleep, you may need to adjust their bedtime or reintroduce a nap during the day.

5) They’ve slept too much.

toddler sleeping in crib

On the flip side, sleeping too much during the day can also disrupt your toddler’s sleep patterns. Taking a long nap or sleeping in longer than usual can throw off their internal sleep clock.

What to do

The key here is finding the right balance between napping and nighttime sleep. While every child is different, most toddlers need only one nap. Limit that to two hours, and schedule it in the early afternoon so they still have plenty of time to burn off their energy before bedtime.

6) They’re uncomfortable.

It’s hard to stay asleep when you’re uncomfortable. Here are some things that could be bothering your toddler:

  • Quality of their mattress
  • Room temperature
  • Type of pajamas
  • Room too loud or quiet

What to do

Examine your child’s sleep environment, and make sure it’s cozy. Invest in a high-quality, supportive mattress (like our Crib Mattress). It’s made with breathable, washable material to allow your little one to sleep comfortably without overheating.

You can also:

  • Give them a pillow (it’s safe once they’re a year old)
  • Check the room's temperature
  • Use a white-noise machine
  • Leave on a nightlight
  • Remove any toys (or books) your child finds scary

Each of these things can make their room a little more comfortable.

7) They have a tooth coming in.

When a tooth is working its way through the gum, it hurts. And while your toddler might be distracted enough during the day that it doesn’t bother them, the quiet of night can make it feel much worse.

What to do

If you suspect teething is causing your toddler to wake up at night, talk to their doctor about giving them pain medication before bed. You can also use a cold teething ring to help them find relief.

8) They can’t breathe through their nose.

Minor colds and allergies can clog up your toddler’s nose, making it nearly impossible for them to breathe through it. This can lead to frequent wake-ups throughout the night as they struggle to get oxygen.

What to do

Before bed, clear your child’s nose with a bulb syringe. Run a humidifier in their bedroom, and use a pillow to prop up their head and keep their airway clear.

If the congestion persists, talk to your child’s doctor. They may recommend allergy testing or a specific nasal spray to help with the symptoms.

9) They’re overexcited.

Sometimes, toddlers just have too much energy to settle down at bedtime. They may have had a fun-filled day that left them wired.

What to do

Create a consistent bedtime routine to help your child wind down and relax before bed. This could include a warm bath, reading a bedtime book, or listening to calming music. Avoid exciting activities or screen time close to bedtime.

10) There’s a medical problem.

While night wakings usually aren’t serious, they could be a symptom of a medical issue such as sleep apnea, enlarged tonsils, or acid reflux.

What to do

Let the doctor know your toddler is waking up at night. They may recommend a sleep study or other tests to determine the underlying cause of their sleep troubles.

If there is a medical issue, work with the doctor to develop a treatment plan.

General tips to keep your toddler from waking up at night

Toddler standing on bed

Regardless of what is causing your toddler’s night wakings, here are some general tips to help them sleep more soundly:

  • Invest in a comfortable mattress.
  • Develop a simple bedtime routine you can use consistently.
  • Consider using a nightlight if your toddler is scared of the dark.
  • Limit screen time before bed.
  • Put them to sleep when drowsy so they learn to fall asleep on their own.
  • Have a regular wake-up time.
  • Avoid treats before bed so there’s no sugar crash later on.
  • Encourage your toddler to move during the day.
  • Get fresh air and sunshine whenever possible.
  • Try getting a lovey or special blanket to help with sleep.
  • Use a portable bed that you can use on trips so your child always has a familiar place to rest.
  • If your child is ready, make the transition to a toddler bed.

Of course, you know your child best. Instead of trying to implement all these strategies at once, pick and choose the ones you think would be most helpful.

Also, don’t be afraid to experiment. Better sleep sometimes takes trial and error.

Help your toddler sleep soundly with Newton

toddler snuggling with teddy bear

If your toddler is waking up at night, we unfortunately don’t have a magic wand to make them sleep better. However, we do have a mattress that can help!

Our Crib Mattress is designed with your child’s safety and comfort in mind. It can be an important piece of the puzzle in creating an environment that promotes healthy sleep patterns.

With a cozy mattress, the above tips, and lots of love and patience, you can help your toddler sleep soundly through the night. Then you’ll be able to say goodbye to those frequent wake-ups and hello to a well-rested child (and you!)

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