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Waking at Night: 2 and 3 Year Olds

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Sleep > > Waking at Night



2-year-old used to sleep well, wakes at night now

Feb 2004

I have a 2 year old who has always been a good sleeper and is now waking once or twice a night and having a hard time getting back to sleep. I checked the archives and noticed this doesn't seem to be unconmmon. To parents who have 3 and 4 year olds who went through this at 2, does it go away on it's own? Is this a phase that will pass without work or should I do something to help him through it. Currently, my husband or I go in and sleep on the floor but it's tiering for us and I'm wondering if he'll need us in there forever to be comfortable? Are we supporting him through a difficult developmental phase or are we creating a dependancy we will have to ''break'' him from later. Let me know. Thanks! Sleepless


For what it's worth, I am someone who recently posted a desperate e-mail about night- (and early-morning-) waking in my two-year-old, who up until then had been a champion sleeper. Her brother arrived just before she turned two, so I don't know whether it was turning two, or the new addition to the family, but she just became a miserable, miserable sleeper -- unable to fall asleep without having someone stay by her side for ages, waking up with terrible nightmares and unable to fall back asleep without yet more endless help, and then getting up to start the day sometimes as early as 4 a.m. I'm not really sure how we got through this, but yes, it DOES get better. My husband was in favor of indulging whatever requests she came up with -- extra songs, lots of ''watching over her,'' taking her into our bed (a big disaster), etc.; I was more inclined to try to nip things in the bud. In the end, we took a sort of middle road: he, the one willing to put up with everything, started putting her to bed, so at bedtime she got indulged -- but ONLY as long as she was TRYING to fall asleep. If she was just playing around in her crib, or whining, or whatever, he would threaten to leave; if she lay there quietly with her eyes shut (although clearly suffering from some kind of anxious insomnia), he would stay quietly in the room for as long as it took, until she fell asleep. I would go to her for the night wakings, with a similar sort of approach. However, since we had the new little baby, eventually I would just get too exhausted to stay up with her, and amazingly, when I explained that I HAD to leave because I just couldn't stay awake any longer, . . . she simply accepted that and went to sleep herself. Now, at 2-1/2, she often falls asleep without much trouble and when she (rarely) wakes during the night, a quick visit is enough to get her right back to sleep. I do think she benefitted from the extra comforting we gave her -- maybe this helped her eventually to feel a bit more relaxed and confident - - but it was also interesting to see that she really didn't NEED all of the comforting she had been demanding.

Or, . . . maybe she just grew out of it!


2-year-old has started waking up at 2:00 A.M.

May 2002

My two year old who has slept in his own bed since he was born, and has slept through the night since he was 1. about two weeks ago he started waking up at 2:00 A.M. - 4:00 P.M. some times he has nightmares, sometimes he has a bowel movement and sometimes he just walks over to our room or climbs into his brothers bed next to him and goes back to sleep. I do not know why he suddenly started this but it really is exhausting. Has anyone else had this what did you do? Maribel


I don't have a suggestion but I'm commiserating! Our 2 1/2 yr old had been sleeping through the night most nights for about a year and then recently started waking up and insisting that I (my husband can substitute for me) sleep in the room with her. This coincided with potty training- which really was a breeze- but at 1st I assumed her waking was something like 2 steps forward towards seperation and 1 step back and tried to be understanding and just slept in her room in the extra bed. (Plus I'm too exhausted at 2am to do otherwise.) But now it's been 5 weeks- she's using the potty without any problems and still waking me. She isn't having bad dreams- she just seems anxious about being alone. She falls right to sleep if I get in bed but I have noticed her check again between 4 and 5 to see if I'm still there. She goes to bed at night as easily as ever. So, since we're in the same boat- maybe there is something just about being two and all of the development thats disrupting your son as well as my daughter. LSG
our son just started waking up in the middle of the night also...in fact, he used to go to sleep between 8pm - 8:30pm, but now it's been really hard to get him to bed ... sometimes he's up until 11pm. I just attributed it to a combination of his age and the fact that it's staying lighter out later. cheers, steph
Our 21/2 year old did the same thing. He had been sleeping through the night beautifully, then suddenly began waking up in the middle of the night and insisting that either me or my husband go lie down with him. He would also wake up periodically the rest of the night to check that we were still with him. We ended up taking a suggestion from a friend that has worked great. We got him a calendar and some very desirable little train stickers, and told him that every night he slept in his own bed by himself, he would get to put a sticker on the calendar. The first night I heard him wake up and come to our door. He stood there for a few minutes, then remembering the stickers, went back to his own bed, where he remained the rest of the night. This has worked for a few weeks now. The added benefit is that we get to talk about all the pictures and numbers on the calendar every day. Betsy

2.5 year old waking several times a night

March 2004

Hi all,

I know there are always a ton of questions about sleep, but I haven't been able to find any answers to this one in the archives. Any help would be much appreciated. Here's the story, along with some background:

Our daughter is 2 1/2, and we co-slept with her until the beginning of this year. When we were co-sleeping, she fell asleep at night with me (dad) lying in bed next to her till she fell asleep, with some lullaby music playing. We very slowly and methodically got her into her own bed in her own room, falling asleep without me in bed with her. Now, after our bed-time routine (stories, etc.), I turn on the lullaby CD, sit with her for a couple of songs, turn off the CD, sing her a song, and then turn on the CD and leave. She's always awake then, and falls asleep with no trouble. We've been doing it this way for several weeks now. So far, so good.

The problem comes several hours later. She rarely goes through the whole night without waking, and when she wakes, she has difficulty settling herself. Sometimes she can, but often one of us has to go into her room, fix the blankets, kiss her, sing to her, etc. If it happens once a night, that's OK, but lately it's been happening 3-4 times a night. When we first here her stir, we don't go in right away, waiting to see if she can settle herself. When it seems like she can't, we go in. If we wait too long, she gets too upset, and then it takes a long time for her to settle. Sometimes she wants to come into our bed (which we discourage) and sometimes I crawl into her bed and sleep there (which was one of the intermediate stages between full co-sleeping and where we are now).

So the question is, does anyone have any suggestions on how to help her settle herself? We've never been into the idea of letting her cry it out, but would that be a better approach in the middle of the night? We're expecting baby number 2 in mid-April, and we'd love to get at least a week of good sleep before the next one comes. Thanks in advance! Michael


We made the same changes with our almost 2 1/2 year old about a month prior to the birth of our two month old child. He's still waking up a couple of times a night but is slowly improving (last night he didn't wake up all night!). My husband goes to him when he wakes in the night. He's usually calling to have his covers straightened although he knows how to pull them up himself. My husband goes in and encourages him to pull them up on his own. My son resists and cries but eventually does it when he realizes that my husband won't do it for him. Sometimes my husband doesn't go to him when he cries for him and he falls asleep on his own pretty quickly. By the way, we never did the cry it out method. Best of luck to you and congrats on your second child! Amanda
We too recently moved our daughter to her own room (now almost 3 yrs old). She would get up in the middle of the night and come into our room. My husband and I took turns escorting her back to her own room & bed. Finally, we put a nightlight in her room - one that comes on automatically with darkness because we didn't want her to playing with an electrical switch. It did the trick for the most part. She still comes in maybe once a week but that's a vast improvement over one or more times every night. Lois
Try letting her come to your room and sleep on the floor next to you. We told our almost 3 year old that she could no longer sleep in bed with Mommy and Daddy because she is too big and there is not enough room for her and the new baby. We keep a folded up quilt on the floor and if she wakes at night she is allowed to come sleep on it. This seemed to satisfy her (I was suprised that she did not complain about the new rule or the baby in the bed...she simply accepted this new solution). I have a friend who told her 3 year old that she could do this only if she didn't wake mommy and daddy and came quietly into their room at night when she woke. I don't do this...my daughter calls me to come get her and that is okay for me. As she gets older, she does this less and less frequently. Sometimes, when she is sleeping on the floor, she wakes crying but I simply tell her that she is in Mommy's room and she goes back to sleep. Anon

2.5 year old has never slept through the night

Aug 2004

Help! We are at our wits end, our 2.5 year old daughter has been a horrible sleeper since birth. She has rarely slept through the night to date. She also won't go to sleep on her own for night time sleep, although she does for her nap. We've tried everything (short of Ferberizing). Recently we had some success w/letting her fall asleep alone in our bed (w/her newborn sister in the basinett in the same room), but now we are trying to transition everyone to one room. My husband is starting a new job and both of us would just like some sleep. It's pretty sad, our 3.5 month old sleeps better than the older one. Part of the problems w/her wake ups recently has been nightmares, she comes screaming out of her room and heads for our room, at which point my husband usually stays w/her until she falls back asleep. We try and keep ''scary'' things to a minimum, but at that age it's pretty hard as anything could potentially be scary. We have a pretty strict bedtime ritual as well. Is there anyone else out there going through this, if so, does it get any easier? Do you have any advice on getting a toddler to sleep throught the night and on her own? Family bed is not really something that works for us, we've tried that. Thanks! - H


Hi, our daughter has had some very similar issues, (she's 4 1/2, and still not a great sleeper), but, here are some of the things that have worked for us --- Starting bed time very early, at around 5:30 or 6:00, we give her warm milk - stick to the regular bedtime routine, we have a special cd of only waves (not extra instrumentation), to block out any extra noise, and to offer the ''white'' noise effect, that we play on a loop all night.

We also started to go ''into'' more scary things with her, ie; Monsters inc; books like, the monster at the end of this book, by grover, so she would have a better understanding, and be less fearful of the unknown.

We have even gone as far as giving her a small dose of benadryl to make her a little sleepy, (it works great on trips), but it seems to really re-set her clock if given for 2 - 3 nights in a row, and then we all get much better sleep, she wakes up happy and refreshed, and so do we. I've mostly just had to be okay with giving her a little something - it ends up being better for the whole family, if we can all sleep, and it eliminates any ''ferberizing'', so it seems a really gentle solution. (as long as you don't do it too often)!!

Good luck catching some zzzzzzz's jen


You said that a family bed doesn't work for you, but would you be willing to try a family room? Especially with the baby in your room, I imagine the older one might be feeling left out. You could try a sleeping bag (maybe a special one) on the floor (with a mat, if that's more comfortable). It could be either her full-time sleeping place for a while, or just where she comes if she feels the need in the middle of the night. When we felt the need to end our family bed with our son, that worked well for us. He was a bit older, so it might be different for you. Good luck! R.K.
Our daughter Mollie (now 4) had terrible nightmares around 1 1/2 - 2 years old. She would be screaming and not really awake and would try to run away from us until we could wake her up and let her know she was safe. Our midwife recomended Bach Rescue Remedy and Walnut essence. The Walnut essence is good for nightmares. We dilute about 10-15 drops of each in a bottle and fill it with water. We would give her about 3-4 droppers of the mixture before bed. Hope this helps. Margaret
You say you haven't gone so far as to resort to ''Ferberizing'', but as a parent initially committed exclusively to attachment parenting, I advise you to at least read his book if you haven't already. I read it in desperation when our child's sleeping issues were literally making me sick, and was surprised to find that Ferber doesn't advocate leaving your child alone to sob himself to sleep (which was my previous assumption). We found his approach much more gentle and logical than we'd been led to expect: no more cruel than implementing a ''pretty strict bed time ritual'', and very effective. We were all sleeping better and feeling happier (both during the day and at bedtime) within a week. Good luck
Hi, I have a 26 month old son who is also a terrible sleeper. By the time he was 9 months old, he'd slept through the night once (meaning a 5 hour stretch of sleep). A friend of mine, who is a pediatrician and whose older son is a poor sleeper (her younger one is like your newborn, a much better sleeper), suggested that we have him checked out by a sleep specialist. We took him to the Stanford Sleep Clinic and found out that he has a mild sleep-related breathing disorder. Something I would never have guessed and something his regular pediatrician was surprised to hear because he doesn't snore.

The pediatric sleep specialist told us that we can expect things to get worse until he's old enough to have his large tonsils and adnoids removed (about age 5 or 6), but he gave us a lot of suggestions to help with the behavioral aspects of poor sleep that we created by doing almost anything to get him back to sleep. None of the suggestions included letting him cry it out because we all knew that wasn't going to work. One thing that has worked very well for us is to stay with our son while he's in his bed and speak quietly to him telling him that it's time to go to sleep and that all his toys and books and everything in his world has gone to sleep. Speaking quietly was key because if he wanted to hear what we were saying he had to stop crying and he usually did within a matter of minutes. We would just repeat saying these things over and over. Eventually he would calm down and lay down. Somenights this would take 10 minutes, other nights it would take 2 hours. But we stayed consistent and we didn't take him out of the bed but we let him hold our hand or touch us if he needed to., which was most of the time. Consistency is very hard when you are exhausted and I don't know how many times I wanted to just pick him up and put him in bed with us, but I knew from experience that that didn't work either.

We started out sitting or lying next to his bed, and we've now moved to a chair across the room. Eventually our goal is to be able to take the chair into the hallway and talk from there until he no longer needs us to go to sleep or back to sleep. It's been a long process and progress is very slow. We still have bad nights, but we have a lot more good ones now. We are all feeling more rested and most days my son wakes up in a good mood instead of cranky because he was tired.

Please email me if you have questions or if you want to know which doctor we saw. Good luck and I wish you many nights of uniterrupted sleep. rhd


My son has been a pretty bad sleeper since birth as well. Although he actually fell asleep on his own at the beginning of the night from the time he was two months old, he didn't sleep through the night until he was 2 YEARS old or so, and none of the ''tried-and-true'' methods for teaching kids to sleep ever worked with him; nor were any of the common theories about sleeping true (e.g. ''Just teach him to fall asleep on his own and he'll be able to put himself back to sleep when he wakes up''). He's now 3, and does sort of sleep through the night -- but he often wakes up at 4:00 to come to Mommy's bed, and if he's the slightest bit stressed about anything he gets terrible insomnia -- awake for hours. I hate to be a complete pessimist, but I read in the Chess & Thomas book on child development (which I very much liked), that each child has a weakness, and for some kids it's sleep. I think that's true for my son. I sometimes wonder if it's related to the fact that all his biological systems are pretty irregular and always have been (when he was an infant, I never had a clue when he would eat, sleep, or poop). I actually found that the thing that was most helpful in teaching him to sleep in his own room was, when he woke, I would go down with a pillow and blanket and lie on the floor by his bed. He would then calm down and be able to fall asleep. Karen
Have you tried a crib with the crib tent? Along with going into her room rather than her comming into yours; comforting her and leaving her in her room? mommy of 2 1/2
Our 2-year old son has never been an easy sleeper, either. We have worked twice with a sleep coach, and both times have yielded good results. At this point, he is now usually sleeping through the night (from 8pm) until 4:30 or so. At which point he'll maybe sleep with us in the bed for another hour, or...he's just up. He's exhausted during the day due to lack of sleep. He napped well from age 1.5 until a month ago, when he suddenly will not sleep in his crib. Now he naps in the park in the stroller! I say all this to let you know that I'm GRATEFUL for how much he's sleeping at this point. What worked for us may not work for you, but I'll gladly pass on the name of our sleep coach - She may be able to help you out. Her name is Sarah Swayles, she's at 652-0774. Gunnar
I have the same issue with my 2 yr old boy. He does, however, co-sleep with us. I recently read Dr. Harvey Karp's, The Happiest Toddler on the Block and am trying some of his suggestions. Unlike most sleep books which address infant issues, he has great suggestions for toddlers......of course, I am too tired to retain most of it and I just loaned it out....

one thing I tried so far is acting as if you forgot something when you bring the child to bed. Each time you do this, be gone for longer, but ALWAYS come back. At one point, you are to come back and the child will have magically fallen asleep w/o waiting for you!

good luck. I know the feeling of years of sleep deprivation. Sometimes I feel drugged, I am so tired!! LogicalMama


my husband and i are in the same boat. our daughter who is almost 2.5 as well has been a funky sleeper from day one. so i know how frustrating it can be. with our daughter, she fights sleep to the bitter end. always has and i'm guessing she probably always will. she won't fall asleep on her own. we've tried pretty much everything. anyway, i'm not sure what the solution for a child with sleep issues is. for us it's having her fall asleep with us whether it be on the couch or in bed with us and then transfering her to her bed. lately getting a new big girl bed has helped. we made it a big deal by letting her pick out the sheets. it's only been a few days but so far she's managed to stay in her bed for most of the night. last night she was in it all night. i'm hoping the bed did the trick. i know it can't last forever but i do know how difficult and sleep depriving it can be. i hope you and your husband are able to get some rest soon. angela
I can respond to the ''anyone else out there'' part. My eldest started sleeping through the night at age five, and going to sleep on her own at age seven (this past week). Luckily, I am pretty good with the family bed, so it has not been a problem for me. On the other hand, my DH now has his own bedroom because he couldn't tolerate the shenanigans of getting the sleep going, nor the wake-ups. I consider the arrangement an old-fashioned one. I know many families work it out this way, with the person who needs sleep the most finding a quiet place, while the other parent is on call in a more disturbable location.

One book that looked really good to me is called the ''No-cry Sleep Solution.'' It doesn't propose a quick cure, more like a couple of months, but sets forth a program of behavior shaping that gradually gets to the goal. I tried some of it, but it all fell apart when number two came along and my big girl became entirely unwilling to miss out on snuggles that the baby was enjoying all night.

I also firmly believe that many people overstate the rate at which their little ones sleep on their own and through the night. In all, it definitely does get easier with the sleep, but how soon, I couldn't predict. Good luck, and you're not alone. meg


I would try to let her cry it out a la Ferber (Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber). We did this with our daughter when she was 5 months old and she cried for three nights (30 minutes the first night; 15 the next, and 10 the next) and has sleep through the night ever since. She is now over 2.5 and we had to do some of this recently when she transitioned to a big bed from the crib, but she only cried for about 10 minutes a few times and now she happily jumps in bed by herself for bed time and naps. I know it is hard to do, but it really works and you and your daughter will be happier for it. I think she needs to have you set limits instead of giving in. anon
All you say sounds very familiar. There are, of course, children who sleep the way you would like your daughter to do. However, many children don't. Our daughter is a similar age as yours, and, as you observed with your newborn, slept better when she was newborn than later. She'd wake up several times each night until recently, when she switched to waking up once or twice, and in some lucky nights sleeps through. I also read in various sources, that it is developmentally normal for many toddlers to wake up during the night and seek parents' comfort. On the other hand, there's your exhaustion...

From talking to many parents friends I got the impression that happens with children in family beds as well as with children in separate rooms. The reasons to wake up are manifold, and not all of them can be eliminated (nightmares, need to pee, thursty, feeling too warm or cold etc., and nightmares caused by these physical discomforts). You just want to find a way for all of you to quickly go back to sleep when it happens.

Whatever you do, not switching on the light, and keeping everything in a slow and quiet pace is certainly helpful, and so are familiar surroundings such as personal blankets, favorit dolls etc. A sippy cup or a bottle with water should be there to self-service. However, many toddlers - and even some older children - very much long for the savety of their parents, their room, their bed.

I'll describe what a mother of three did. When I grew up, there was not so much public talk about this, and my mother did the following: First child slept alone in her room, but would come to the parents bedroom when she had nightmares. That was me, and I still remember hesitating to leave my bed for the fear of monsters, ghosts etc. who may wait in the hallway, then running as fast as I could. By the time I reached my parents' bedroom I was fully awake and wanted to talk and play with my parents rather than sleep Second child slept in the same room as my parents, not in a family bed, but in her own bed, first in reach then further away from my parents bed. Apparently that worked better, since they decided to do the same with the third one. Then we moved into a new house where they first slept on matresses in the bedroom where my sister and brother slept. When my parents bedroom was ready (after a year or so), they moved out, and my siblings continued sharing one bedroom for a number of years. When I moved out, one of them first just used my room during the day, then finally slept there, too. Good nights... Julia


Setting up an "OK" time for 3-y-o to come into our bed

June 2004

When my 3-year-old son wakes in the middle of the night, he wants to come and sleep in our bed. I actually like his company -- but during certain parts of the night he is a VERY restless sleeper. So my husband and I want to tell him that if it is after 4:00 am, he can come to our bed, but earlier, he must stay in his own. When he was 2, I could just say ''It's too early'' and he'd go back to sleep just fine, but now that he's older, he gets upset and wants to have an argument with me. I'd like to be able to teach him the ''4 am rule'' (he's very good with rules) -- but without it depending on a seemingly arbitrary decision by Mommy. If I can't figure out a way to work this out, we'll have to tell him that he can't come until it's light outside, or some other empirical indicator -- but for a lot of the year, that will be late enough in the morning that we will get up before then, and so he won't ever be able to come. As a last resort, we'll just have to tell him that he can't come at all any more -- but that would make both him and me sad.

Ideally, I'd like to have an alarm clock that, rather than making noise, turned on a very small light (one that won't light the room and wake him up) at a set time -- but since most alarm clocks are designed to actually wake a person up, I doubt that such a thing exists! Any suggestions? Karen


I don't thinnk you can have a ''rule'' that says ''sometimes you can come to bed with us and sometimes you cannot.'' It is a rare child at this age that understands time, and though I think they can understand ''when it is light outside'' you would still end up confusing him. I suggest you weight the pros and cons of having come to sleep with you at all. Yes you may be sad if he doesn't, but you will be tired if he does. Since the effects of being tired can last longer and have more negative consequences, (most likely causing some sadness then, too?) than being sad at not sleeping together, maybe you should consider some ''cuddle time'' during the day? I used to do this with my sister...we called it ''sisters together time.'' Maybe you could have ''family together time'' or something of the like...I think if you allow him to come to your bed at all, you are asking for trouble and a lot less sleep. Read Penelope Leach's ''Your Baby and Child'' section on Night Wandering.....Good luck. fan of kid's in their own bed
Have you tried telling him that he can come to mommy's room and sleep on the floor next to the bed? Just before our new baby, I told my 2, almost 3 year old that she was too big to sleep in mommy's bed now. But if she wants to, she can come to sleep in mommy's room on the floor when she wakes at night. We put a big quilt (folded 2 times) on the floor next to the bed for her to sleep on. She brings her pillow with her and we keep some small blankets in our room for her to use. She seemed very reasonable about the change and comes to our room maybe 2 or 3 times a week. Sometimes she dreams and cries out but since I am in the room, I just tell her ''mommy's here'' and she goes back to sleep. Anon
Karen, For an alarm clock that lights a light, get a plug-in timer switch and plug a night light into it. Cheers, Fred
We tell our daughter that she cannot come into our bed ''until it is bright and sunny out.'' Of course, this changes with the seasons, but it has always provided a good gauge for her that is not dependent on her needing to tell time (which she can't do yet). Good luck, and happy sleeping! Lauren
You could put a small lamp/light on a timer. You can buy timers at Home Depot (and I'm sure other places). You just plug the lamp into the timer, and the timer plugs into the outlet. Set the timer for 4 a.m., and the lamp will come on at 4 a.m. Good luck. Tracy
We have the same problem with our then 2 year old except he wanted to get up and play! So, we put a digital clock in his room and taught him how to tell if it is six o'clock in the morning, earlier or later, and instructed him not to come out beforehand, excepting certain situations. It took a period of some learning and testing on his part, but in all, it has worked really well (although he still has to use the potty, gets nightmares,etc!) so that now when he goes to bed one of the last things he says to us is 'see you at six zero zero in the morning!'. Laura
you could try using one of those timers that automatically turns the lights on and off (we found ours at longs i think), with a special nightlight. your son can learn that he can go into your bed when the special ''star'' turns on, or something similiar. jolie
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