My toddler has always been a good sleeper, but all of a sudden he’s waking up and hysterical several times a night. What’s going on?
Deborah Lin-Dyken, pediatric sleep disorders expert
It’s very common for even the best of sleepers to suddenly start having sleep problems, whether that means having a hard time falling asleep at bedtime or abruptly waking up during the night. Your toddler may be having night terrors, which are similar to sleepwalking but are more dramatic. Night terrors are often related to being sleep-deprived.
When your child “wakes up” with a night terror, go in and check on him but don’t speak to him or try to soothe him. Your child will resist being comforted and will appear confused and disoriented. Trying to soothe your child will only extend and intensify the sleep terror — even saying his name can make him more upset. Likewise, don’t try to vigorously awaken him. He may think you are attacking him. Instead, just let the night terror run its course, and stand nearby to make sure your toddler doesn’t hurt himself.
Your little one may also be having bad dreams. Your child’s imagination is developing, and that can’t help but carry over into his sleeping world. When he wakes up after a nightmare, go in and reassure him. A few moments spent soothing him should do the trick. Stay with him until he falls back to sleep if he asks you to. Don’t worry if he doesn’t want to talk about the dream. Sometimes nightmares aren’t about anything definitive, just a scary feeling.
Other common causes of night-waking in previously good sleepers include illness, separation anxiety or a looming developmental leap. In those cases, there are a couple of things to try, aside from treating the fever or throat or ear pain that’s making a sick toddler uncomfortable. First, make sure that your child is getting enough sleep in general. It may seem counterintuitive, but the less sleep your child gets, the more likely he is to have trouble settling down at bedtime and staying asleep through the night. So be consistent about putting him to bed for naps during the day and getting him to bed at a reasonable time in the evening.
When your toddler wakes up during the night, be soothing and calming, but boring. Let him know that everything is okay, but that it’s time to sleep. Keep the conversation to a minimum and the lights dim. It may take a few nights or even a few weeks to get back on track, but the closer you stick to his regular sleep routine, the sooner the problem will be resolved.