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My Toddler Isn't Sleeping Through the Night

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My Toddler Isn't Sleeping Through the Night

Apr 23, 2019
A newborn waking up in the middle of the night is a normal thing. But one in five infants who have trouble sleeping may continue to have challenges during their toddler years as well. If your toddler is having problems with nighttime awakenings, there are a few possible causes. Pediatrician Dr. Cindy Gellner talks about how to distinguish if your child's sleep pattern is normal, or if it’s something more serious.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Gellner: It's 3 a.m. and you hear that cry from your infant or toddler's room that you dread every night. Why do they do that and what can you do? I've got tips on little ones sleep issues for you today on The Scope.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering "The Healthy Kids Zone" with Dr. Gellner on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: I'd like to start by calling this Scope piece the "Don't do what I did with my own kids." podcast. I was that mom who felt so bad that I wasn't home for my kids because I had to work that I used any excuse I could to have extra snuggle time. Boy, was that a mistake. I try to let my patients' parents know about my experiences so they can hopefully get more sleep than I did during those years.

Recent data shows that one in five infants who have trouble sleeping may continue to have challenges during the toddler years. And, yes, some of this can be blamed on the behavior of parents. You hear your little one crying. You wait to see if they go back to sleep, and then if they don't, you go rush in there to pick them up or give them a bottle.

Well, guess what? Your child is training you very well to do what they want. It's not on purpose really. Babies learn to be comforted when they wake up from newborn on. Then as they get older they should start sleeping through the night. But some babies become trained night criers or trained night feeders. These are called sleep associations. They really don't know how to go back to sleep on their own unless they're rocked or cuddled or fed.

Parents often will tell me that they will go into their baby's room and the baby only feeds for a few minutes and then is sound asleep again. That's because they aren't waking up for nutrition. They're waking up to go back to sleep in the manner that they were put to bed in the first place.

This is learned hunger. This occurs in children who are drinking a bottle or two of milk or nursing for prolonged periods at night. They have learned to expect food at night to go to sleep. So when they wake up, they're looking for it.

If your child is over seven months, healthy, and feeding multiple times a night, then this is your problem. Most babies are able to sleep through the night by six months old. Now, of course, kids are going to wake up more if they're sick or something is off with their routine. But, in general, they should be able to get back into good sleep patterns easily if you are consistent. If kids are waking up several times a night, both you the parents and the child are going to be cranky the next day.

So how do you fix this? First thing is to get your child to go to sleep on their own by putting them to bed when they're still sleepy but awake, no bottle, no pacifier, no cuddling. Have a good bedtime routine and do the same thing every night. For our kids, it was PJs, brush teeth, story time, usually the same three books every single night to the point I didn't even need to look at the book anymore and then say the good nights.

Sometimes you have to move bedtime 15 to 30 minutes later to make sure they're really ready to conk out. Yes, they may fuss for a few nights, but they should learn, if you are consistent with this, that when it's time for bed, it's time for bed, not an extra drink of water, not just one more story, or being rocked for 15 more minutes.

Bedtime routine done, then lights out. Dark, quiet, maybe a night light if needed, or soothing music. We have an ocean sound CD that our kids have listened to since birth, and they're double digits now.

Trust me, I know how hard this sleep training thing is. My older son decided that 11 p.m. was a good bedtime. I would hold him as he fell asleep, again, mom guilt, and then when he woke up, he'd need me to hold him until he fell back asleep again.

Funny thing is that if his dad put him to bed and he woke up, he'd be like, "Oh, it's just you, dad," and go back to sleep, because my husband made my son self-sooth from early on, and so our son learned that Dad wasn't going to pick him up or cuddle him.

Now if I put him to bed and he woke up, you'd think that me closing the door was because I was putting him in a torture chamber and he'd scream and cry until I went back and held him or stayed by him and then he went back to sleep. Our younger son was just a sleep nightmare for a variety of reasons, including night terrors, but that's a whole different subject.

Bottom line is this is a very common issue and one that most pediatricians have experience with either as parents or having worked with other parents facing the same problem. If you're having a hard time with getting your little one to fall asleep and stay asleep without waking to eat or be comforted and your child is over six months old, talk to your child's pediatrician, we can help.

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