My 2 year old child continues to wake up during the night crying, what can I do?
MOLLY: This question came from a reader in Boston.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): First, of course, this mom would want to check on the obvious things in her child’s environment. Is the child overheating at night from too much heat in the room? Or, is it too cold in the room?
MOLLY: If she’s still using a night diaper, I’d think she’d want to check to see if the child was wet, too.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, yes: is the diaper wet or dirty? Is there a noisy appliance disturbing the quiet? Is the child hungry when she wakes, or thirsty? Is she having acid reflux?
These things are all fixable and I wouldn’t be surprised if the parents have already gone through this checklist, though acid reflux or GERD in a toddler is harder to distinguish and treat. So, now we have to look at the psychological aspects and wonder why she is waking.
If the child is waking because she is frightened about being alone in the dark, a small night light can do wonders, along with saying something like, “Mommy (or Daddy) is in the other room, everybody’s here, there’s no problem, but you’re going to wake everyone else up with your crying. Go to sleep now and in the morning we’ll get together and have a big hug.” This gives the child something to look forward to in the morning.
If a kid is really shrieking every night and can’t be calmed quickly it can be a miserable time for both the parents and for the child. It’s obviously quite disruptive to an entire household. She might want to sit on the edge of the child’s bed and just sit with her for a few moments while she goes to sleep. This routine might take a few minutes to carry out but it might be worth it in the end.
MOLLY: It’s hard to know because you have to determine if it is a physical problem or is it an emotional issue. One thing that really helped me that you told me when I went through this with when my little guy was 18 months old was to straight up tell him, “You really need to sleep through the night and Mommy will be here for you in the morning.” You told me to talk to him as if he were an adult and tell him my expectation.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Absolutely. Children understand way more than parents give them credit for. I would say those things in a very soothing voice when he goes down for the night. Both the tone of voice and the words used are important.
MOLLY: I’m wondering if you think the mom should back up and do some formal sleep training?
DR. RUTHERFORD: She may have to do that. If it becomes a pattern then that might be a good solution.
MOLLY: We used a book called, The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5. I found really helpful to for sleep training. The book lays out a very precise schedule of the age of the child and how much sleep they need and when they should nap and when they should go down for the night. It also helps with a step-by-step strategy of how to do the actual training. I wasn’t comfortable with the hard core tactic of letting my kids cry for a long time but I also wanted to teach them how to soothe themselves back to sleep. I used it with both my kids and it only took 3 nights for each. I never let them cry for more than 5 or 6 minutes, but even that short amount of time felt like an eternity!
DR. RUTHERFORD: She may want to try some other behavior modification tools in addition to or instead of a rigid sleep training protocol. She could make a sticker chart and each morning after the child has slept through the night she could get to place a sticker on the chart. For a two-year old, an instant reward, like a sticker or a cookie, can be a good motivator.
Another idea is to get a special stuffed animal for sleeping with and imbue it with powers to keep the bad dreams away.
Chronic interrupted sleep leads to sleep deprivation and can negatively affect growth, mental development, and emotional well-being in children. This mom wants to set her child up for a lifetime of beneficial sleep patterns, and that can start now.
Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with sleep issues with your toddler using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.