Five reasons your toddler may be waking – and how to help him (and you) sleep.

You have followed your baby’s lead for a whole year (or more!) and there seems no sign that this child will ever sleep ‘all night’. You are wondering, ‘what have we done wrong?’ You are facing pressure from everyone, including your partner, that it’s time to make changes, even if that means tears (for you as well as your child).

This can be a disastrous age to leave babies to cry it out, as separation anxiety is at a peak at about twelve months. And, after all the work you have done teaching your baby to trust you, the light is just around the corner (honestly!), even if you do nothing at all but continue to respond to your baby with love. By offering comfort, whatever the reasons for night waking at this age, you will move through challenges far more quickly as your little one feels secure, than if you create bed-time battles. However, if you are exhausted and fractious, you will feel better to know you can make changes sensitively without leaving your little one to scream.

To do this, it helps to understand what is waking your toddler, so you can solve his (and your own) sleep problems:

Separation anxiety: From your toddler’s perspective, as he falls asleep, he is temporarily ‘leaving you’. As he moves through the developmental stages from crawling to walking to running and developing language, your child’s world is expanding at an incredible rate. This can be overwhelming so it’s natural for him to want to be close to his secure base – you! Also, when you have a baby, you are constantly attending and responding to their needs. As these needs become less intense when your baby becomes a mobile toddler, it’s easy to let him ‘get on with it.’ This is fine but it can mean that without little refills to his emotional tank through the day (cuddles, eye contact and focused attention), he will express a stronger need for connection at bedtime. He may also be experiencing separation such as childcare for the first time, so it is perfectly natural for him to want to catch up on time with you at bedtime.

What helps: Be patient with your clingy toddler – you can encourage independence but pushing your child beyond his limits will usually result in more clingy behaviour. Sit in your toddler’s room and cuddle or hold a hand on him as he falls asleep – this will elicit relaxation hormones that will help him reach a deeper sleep. One lovely ritual is to lead him through a relaxation exercise by quietly saying goodnight to each of his body parts and telling him to feel them becoming heavy and sleepy. Start at the toes, move to the legs, knees, tummy and so on, up to ‘goodnight, sleepy eyes’. If he talks, remind him in a quiet, calm voice that it is sleep time.

Please don’t try to force your toddler to self-settle before he is ready as bedtime should be a calm and welcoming space, not a time of stress. Not only does a stressful bedtime make little ones even more resistant to going to sleep in the first place, it can result in them waking more due to elevated stress hormones that make it difficult to relax and sleep soundly. Try to see the time spent helping your little one fall asleep as an investment in your relationship as well as a healthy way to encourage sound sleep.

Dreams and nightmares: Toddlers have lots of REM sleep so now dreams and possibly even nightmares can influence sleep (and night-waking). Young toddlers will be processing all of their amazing development in light sleep – this is when you find them waking up chatting or pulling themselves up in the cot then waking. They don’t want to wake up but their busy brain is practicing the new skills they are learning. And, as imagination comes on board, your child may wake from a scary dream.

What helps: If your little one is frightened, respect her fears – they are real to her. Hold her and reassure her, ‘I am here, you are safe.’ Stay with her as long as she needs you to help her relax, whether this means waiting until she falls asleep or cuddling her back to sleep in her bed or yours. A nightlight or , for an older toddler, a dream-catcher (to catch scary dreams) may help her feel more confident about going to sleep if she has experienced nightmares. And do consider the role television can play in creating frightening images and scary noises to a small child: try to finish boisterous games early in the evening, turn off the television and create a calm, quiet time before bed.

Teething: Although you are sure to be told ‘teething begets teeth’ (and that is all, so it’s no reason for disturbed sleep), some toddlers seem to have an awful time, especially as they cut molars – the first set will usually appear between 12 and 18 months and the ‘two year old’ molars can erupt around two but for some children this may be a bit sooner or as late as almost three years.

What helps: Lying flat means more circulation to the head and jaw area and this can create more pressure and pain for teething infants. There is also more saliva during teething to gag on and cause waking. So a simple solution is to elevate your toddler’s head – either with a folded towel under the mattress or, if you have an older toddler (over 18 months) and feel comfortable about his safety, you can give him a small pillow (try this during the daytime to see how he manages).

Food intolerance: Food additives are present in ever-increasing numbers in almost all processed foods and these can dramatically affect sleep patterns. Some children can also become restless after eating foods containing salicylates. These are naturally occurring chemicals which are found in otherwise healthy foods such as berries, grapes, apples, citrus and tomatoes, as well as in some processed foods.

What helps: If you suspect food allergies or intolerance, seek professional help from a dietician and try eliminating suspect foods. Lots of parents find that cutting out foods high in salicylates can make a difference within a few days. To find out more about this and helpful professionals, check out the Food Intolerance Network.

Bladder awareness: As connections between brain and bladder develop, your little one can be woken by the sensation of a full bladder. In other words your little one may be waking to wee. Or he may be passing large amounts of urine so could be waking from the discomfort of a cold wet nappy.

What helps: If your child is now going to the potty during the day, a simple thing to do is a ‘dream wee’. Just before you go to bed, lift your sleepy tot and carry him to the toilet. Sit him there and in a quiet voice say, “do a wee.” Keep the lights dim, snuggle your child and tuck him back into bed. With luck, he will arouse without waking fully, wee in the toilet and go back to sleep – until a reasonable hour.


Pinky McKay is an internationally certified lactation consultant and best selling baby care author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Toddler Tactics.  Check out Pinky’s Toddler Tactics and Baby Sleep Seminars HERE and see Pinky’s Books (also available as Audio) 




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  • Kate

    This is great practical advice. And from the heart . I look forward to a future where our most vulnerable and impressionable members of society are treated with dignity and respect. And then they learn to do the same for their own future generations. Thank you Pinky.

  • livv

    Great advice and really helpful as a reminder for me as i have a 3 week old and a 22 month old toddler who started to wake for hours at night just before number two came along.
    I do have a question for anyone who may have experienced a similar period. My toddler also won’t eat dinner at night and in general has gone from a good eater to barely eating at any meal. Could this be contributing to his change in sleep pattern? Does anyone have any suggestions for encouraging eating?

    • Tiffany

      Hi Livv, I was having the same problem as you. I’m offering my child his dinner at lunch then a few light snacks and for “dinner” he gets a light meal. No stress or tears anymore and he eats more food than ever before

    • Dani

      Hi! I’m going through this exact thing with my 22 mo! It’s so tiring, I’m completely drained. In writing this at 5 am when he’s been up for over an hour wanting to be rocked. Not easy to wake every few hours and start rocking (only standing up!) a 13 kg toddler. He’s also a REALLY bad eater. No advice here, came here looking for it actually but thought I’d reply out of solidarity. This too shall pass.. Right? I hope so!

  • Jessica

    If this can help anybody, one of the things that causes troubles in my daughter it was drinking too much water with food, specially at dinner time, it seems like it watches our acids away leaving us with a full stomach that ferments at night causing reflux, she couldn’t say it, but she could feel it and she slept pretty bad. Once we stop drinking with food, and drink hour after meals again , she got much better. Before she started sleeping well, I had to address Celiac and anxiety caused by going into programs by herself…now she goes into her programs, but she comes out when she doesn’t feel comfortable anymore (I am always in the building doing my own work in case she needs me) after all of this she is sleeping in between 9 to 12 hours per night without waking up (she sleeps with me though)

    • Nelly

      Ladies, it’s normal for toddlers of this age to become fussy eaters. Both of mine are and it’s frustrating some days as they never want to eat what I cook for dinner. I just let mine eat whatever they want (healthy options of course) as I don’t want to create issues over eating. My 21 month old daughter for example only wanted to eat baked beans all day long for a while and she’s now decided she doesn’t like them anymore. Time to find something else she likes….It’s just a phase and it won’t last forever.

  • makayla

    Has anyone else’s 14mo woken every two hours since birth? I feel like he’s never going to grow out of it.. He’s breastfed to sleep as he can’t fall asleep on his own.. Any help would be fantastic!

    • Di

      YES Makayla! I was doing frequent wake ups well past the age of 12mos!

      My daughter is now 26 mos and I’ve realised that although there seem to be far better sleepers out there she HAS, slowly but surely, been consistently sleeping for longer periods of time and the wake ups have reduced considerably, it will get better but you just don’t get any guarantees as to WHEN it will get bettter for you and your child, and that’s the tough part, you have to be OK with this sleep stuff BEFORE you see any improvements!

      As they grow, some little ones don’t require as much sleep. So for example, when my daughter was 14 mos she was sleeping at around 7-8p and went for about 12 hours resettling 3-4 times perhaps more. Now she is 26 mos but she’s doing about 9 hours and we resettle at least once, sometimes more if she’s going through stuff and recently, as of a few nights, no resettling required at all! Weeee!

      Although I’m excited about these recent developments, now I’m dealing with later and later bedtimes. As she grew she started doing 9pm, then 10pm, sometimes 11pm and now its not unusual for her to go down at midnight (this is due to her afternoon nap, although I have a friend whose 32mos old has a 2hr nap and asleep by 8:30pm no problem every night like clockwork)!

      So you see, now its not so much the wake ups, which I’ve gotten used to thanks to time…. But its trying to control her bedtime!

      I’ve tried not to let her sleep in if she goes to bed late, tried to control her nap times (earlier rather than later), controling nap time length is next… Etc, etc. But she’s human and she just doesn’t produce the consistent results I’d like! For example, yesterday I got her up early for daycare (after a late bedtime), so she was tired enough to sleep at 10:30pm and for a second I thought I was controling things… Until 4:45am that is… when she woke up happy. She was up for a couple of hours and now she’s asleep in my arms at 7am to get the rest of her hours in. Of course this means she won’t be up till 9am or later, which will push her nap back, which will push her bedtime back and so on and so forth!

      The moral of the story for ME, has been: You really can’t make anyone ‘go to sleep’ and you really can’t control someone’s sleep patterns!

      And for a mum, that lack of power just sucks!

      My advice to myself is that I have two options: I can go on focusing on sleep, which really is focusing on the lack of sleep… talking about it, counting hours, wake ups, pretty much using considerable brain power on something that if I’m honest with myself I have no control over… OR I can let it all go, ride the wave of toddler sleep wherever it takes me and not let it dictate my emotional response.

      At the end of the day my daughter is just being her sweet and unpredictable toddler self and I’m being her sweet predictable mummy, and one day, amongst all that sweetness she’s just going to sleep like the rest of society, and that will be a sweet day indeed!

      PS: I’m not saying this advice will suit you, but it is certainly one of your many options 🙂 Good luck!!!

      • Nadia

        Hi Di, have you considered that your daughter may not need a nap if you are struggling to get her to bed at a reasonable hour? I’m sorry but a bedtime of 10pm or later is just no good for such a young child, they do need some sort of routine so they know what to expect. Every child is different and my son at 3 has just started to outgrow the need for a nap although he still has one once or twice a week if he’s had a busy morning. My 21month old daughter still naps but I wake her by 3pm otherwise she won’t go to bed on time. I know that some kids stop napping well before age 3 and to me it sounds like your daughter is one of them. Try letting her go without a nap (or a very short nap 1hr max) and see how she goes. It will take her a week or two before she transitions properly but at least then you can get her to bed early and she will hopefully sleep longer for you and you will have a more predictable routine.

        • Carla

          Nadia your comment is a little harsh and judgemental! My child has a later bedtime, and in fact many are like this. I think telling someone that they need to change their childs sleep habits can be a bit condescending as the poster actually says that she has tried and all it does is cause an earlier wakeup!

          This is a helpful article, my son has multiple food intolerances so I am 100% sure it is affecting him but I think it’s also some of the other issues too.

      • Yanelvi

        Hi! Did your baby grew out of it? Im going through the same thing. My son is almost 18 months and he wakes up even every hour at night. I have to nurse him so he can go back to sleep. Also, he used to take almost 2 hours naps around 11am and now hes even waking up in the middle of the naps. Im exhausted and frustrated, ive tried many things and nothing works so far.

    • Tess

      Yes my 14 month the same!

  • Jess

    Honestly who cares what there bed time is, it’s he amount of sleep they get that matters. A baby or toddler doesn’t know if it’s )pm or midnight. The idea that going to bed after 10 is bad for the baby is more for the parent than the child

  • Amanda

    My 15 month old sleeps from 10pm till 9am every night, and naps for 1-2.5 hours everyday from around 1pm – it works for us! I think it just depends on your family rhythms.

  • Blake

    My 5 year old son was a 12 hour sleeper at two years of age (all of a sudden stopped waking mid night) and best napped of sometimes over 3 hours, but my twin 3 year old girls have yet to consistently sleep thru the night. They still nurse to sleep but wake up one to two times each night – crying and sometimes wanting to nurse. Their naps are one hour if we are all lucky. What a contrast to my son. I just hope, like him, they all of a sudden become ready to sleep thru the night.

  • Caroline

    My eldest woke consistently until about 18 months, when he only woke once at about 1am. After he turned two, he stopped waking at all. Bedtime was always about 9pm and I still have to cuddle him to sleep. Now he’s four, he generally doesn’t nap, fall asleep quickly by 7:30. He does wake up in the night sometimes and comes into my bed, but I believe if he spent the whole night with me, he’d probably sleep all night. My 15 month old sleeps with me and wakes up four times a night. I’m hoping this will improve as she gets older like it did with her brother . She does usually get up for the day anytime between 4:30-5:30 am, which is a killer. Hopefully daylight savings will help this in a few months.

  • Alexis

    My 17 month old is rocked and nursed to sleep. She still wakes up about every hour and I nurse her back to sleep-all night long. The same is true for nap time. it like she wakes during transitions in sleep cycle. I’m wondering if there is any advice on helping her to move through her sleep cycles without waking. It’s been nearly two years since I’ve slept for more than an hour at a time!

    • Kim

      Hi Alexis, no advice unfortunately but just wanted to let you know my 17 month old son is exactly the same. I only realised recently that just about all the fruit I give him is high in salicylate so I’m trying some different ones and more veggies instead, no improvement yet but it’s only been a few days. Hugs to you, hope we all get some sleep soon xx

  • Maria

    Hi. I have an 17month old son. He was a really good sleeper. He would go to sleep on his own. But 4 days ago everything changed. He would not sleep unless im in his room. Once he is asleep i leave. But about 30 minutes to an hour he wakes up screaming. Once i enter his room he falls back to sleep. I even resorted to sleeping in his room but not with him. I dont want him to get used to sleeping with me. I just dont understanding how his dleesleep pattern can change so much..

    • nat

      My 18 month old has started sleeping terribly the past 4 nights. He used to wake me up once a week or so which was ok, but now its multiple times a night.
      He doesnt like me laying him in his cot and will get very upset and sit up with his hands held up for me to pick him up. He will sleep for a maximum of 2 hours then wake up screaming.
      Unfortunately he wont go back to sleep unless i pick him up and cuddle him then he stresses when I lay him down again so he spends half the night in my bed so I can get a few hours sleep. I hope its just a stage as he went through a similar stage when he turned one which lasted 2 weeks.

  • Lucie

    Hi my 2 & 3/4 year old has been doing the not eating then refusing the go to sleep without me cuddling her in her bed and then waking at 1am and 4/5 am thing and sometimes in the middle… to get some rest ( as my husband and i both work) i end up going in her bed to settle her… tried stopping the bedtime bottle due to possible wet nappy reasons and this was disastrous !! I too am getting desperate and dont know what to try !

  • Ryan

    Thank you so much for this amazing article. I currently hold my daughter’s hand (when she asks for it) and sit on the floor next to her as she falls asleep and then I walk out of the room. It is so refreshing to see someone say it is ok to do this. I have come across so many articles saying how this is bad for them (I never believed it) so this is a wonderfully refreshing read 🙂