Why does my toddler cry in the middle of the night?
It is very common and normal that more than 70% of the babies in some phase of their life wake up in the night. They might seem to have some sort of sleep issues, even though they might have been one of the best sleepers you would have known. And I have seen this myself for my son. When he started crying in the middle of the night. This phase continued for around 2 months and then it went away.
Though he was never a great sleeper for full night, but I never saw him waking up, crying and screaming right in the middle of the night. It had become melodramatic every night for close to 2 months when he was around 2.5years. He would get up in the night shouting and crying to the loudest of his voice. Going closer to pacify him only rendered him being more aggressive, as he started jumping and kicking as well. It lasted for around 10-15minutes at the max and then he was again off to that beautiful sleep, as if nothing had happened. And it was all on his own. Though he never remembered a single moment the next morning, we were getting clouded over by these night terrors or nightmares or I really dunno what to call. Since they were neither truly characterised by Night terrors nor Nightmares. But, more of it these cries in the middle of night were definitely terror for us as we were losing our patience and getting sleep hangovers. Sometimes (though rarely), there were similar 2-3 wakings in the night.
I’m sure, many of us have experienced such behaviours of our babies when they reach toddlerhood, till 5-6years. Much has been spoken about sleep issues in infants and till babies turn one, but very less is spoken of the issues faced by kids from 2-6years.
After doing an exhaustive research, I could understand few reasons, which actually impacted these night wakings and night cries. I formulated my own strategy to deal with these midnight cries of my toddler.
Here are the points, I felt needs to be focussed, if your toddler cries in the middle of sleep :
1. Nursing :
Well, you might say 2.5-3year old and nursing? So nursing isn’t just for babies and complete weaning happens till 3-4years of age, specially the night nursings. And that is juts okay. If you have weaned off your baby of night nursing sessions lately, you could very easily expect such a midnight cry from your toddler. More so if you are bed sharing and your little one needs to nurse in the night. Toddlers are prone to any form of separation anxiety.
2. Scared or nightmares :
Toddlers more commonly have nightmares. Any sudden and extreme exposure may lead to it, like loud noises, darkness[darkness anxiety is very common in this age], thunders, imaginative figures. The reason why nightmares are so common in this age is that they have the cognitive awareness to look at the surroundings and happenings but yet they do not have the knowledge to process all of that exposure correctly. Their brains are processing lot many things and sometimes it leads to all dilemma and then these nightmares occur.
3. Great leap in Brain/cognitive development :
This is the phase when toddlers are expected to move out and join Play schools/Kindergartens and slowly the formal schools come along. There is so much happening in their lives, they are adjusting to new environment, new friends, teachers, they are trying to build up their social lives. The Lego blocks are not just “theirs” now, they ought to share! My goodness, sharing is not always caring for these toddlers. They are way too possessive for their loved toys or clothes or even mama-papa.
This massive growth in their Social, Psychological development does reflects in the form of nightmares or even night terrors. “Sometimes, during his crying phase, my son used to say, this bicycle is mine, he is not giving it to me. Sometimes, there used to be other story. I used to imaginatively say that , Hey XYZ, pls give the bicycle for sometime to your friend and after saying 2-3 times, he used to be satisfied and go back to sleep.[Guess, he would be dream cycling then, lol]”. Sometimes, when there would have been a kids party or an extra fun day for him with ample of his friends, he would be rolling up whole last day’s activities in his night sleep. That sleep used to be his most disturbed and I used to feel tortured arranging kids play or gathering. The reason for all this is sudden and too much exposure than usual routine days, which hamper your kids sleep.
4. Sleeping together :
For many families, attaining toddlerhood/pre-schooler phase is marked by “child’s own bed/room”. This transition is not very smooth for some kids, who long to the cuddles of their mama whole night. Specially for me, though I never tried giving him a separate room, but I used to get up early for my work. And initially, there were lots of cries asking me to come to sleep together. Toddlers may seek to return back to their family bed instead of their own bed. This is one sign of separation anxiety and can lead to midnight cries for your toddler.
5. Hunger / Ill-health:
Babies also wake up due to hunger and to use loo. This is the phase when you are trying to remove them off the diapers. Even if diapers are on, they would want to use washroom rather than doing in diaper. They are even more prone to nightmares when they are sick. But then, they are in their conscious state of mind and pacifying/answering their demands will help them sleep again happily.
Some tips to help you if your toddler cries in the middle of the night :
1. Try observing more closely the time your toddler wakes up and cries in the night. Is it almost the same time every night? If the time is more or less the same, then, wake up your child 10 minutes before the clock ticks his time. Have some soft and cozy talks, give him a sip of water, take him to loo and then after 5-10minutes, pat him back to sleep. This will really help.
2. If he is undergoing a night terror, you will see that your child takes longer to settle back, if you try to intervene or even pacify. Kids also go aggressive and might harm themselves during night terrors. If it is such, sit calmly next to your child, do not try cuddle. Let him settle in next 5-15 minutes on his own. Be assured, he will be put off his night terror and sleep back on his own. Just keep a watch so that, your child doesn’t harms himself.
If its just a nightmare[which is usually in second half, later half of their sleep], then simply cuddling and reassurance will work.
4. Observe their routine and social awareness more closely. Do not provoke scary videos or stories in the young minds. Some toddlers even fear reflections, explain to your child what reflections are.
5. Give some personal time to your child and understand his routine, class happenings. Get to know who his friends are and what did they do today. Try to process all the unprocessed knowledge in their minds.
6. Go slow on night weaning and try to explain the reason why your child needs to wean off nursing while he is awake.
Night terrors or nightmares cannot be classified as disease or psychological problem of a child. They are just growing too fast and their surroundings matter a lot to their minds. If none of these tips works, consult a child sleep specialist.
For me, Nursing, and start of schooling were the reasons, which I zeroed down in a 10-12 days of the onset of this issue. I started working and it went off the way it came suddenly.
Love your toddler as much as you can, cuddle and give them lots of hugs. they are in their most beautiful phase!