We’ve all been there. You’re in a deep sleep and suddenly, you find your child walking into your room and trying to crawl into bed next to you. Though you love them to bits, it can be annoying and it’s also concerning behavior as you want them to get used to sleeping on their own without you.
Of course, you want your child to be able to get a good night’s rest. It’s common for toddlers to wake up in the middle of the night and desire the comfort of their parents. Children experience deep and light sleep throughout the night, and this can cause them to wake up a couple times.
I had the same problem with my son when he was a toddler—he would wake me and my husband up at least twice every night. There’s a few ways you can respond and address this behavior. It does go away as they get older but dealing with it in the moment is the best option for everyone.
You might want to accommodate and accept your child’s nighttime visits and let them grow out of this behavior on their own. If you have a large enough bed, you can just let them settle in and go to sleep. This lets them continue their sleep with minimal disruption. If it’s not annoying to you then, by all means, let them cuddle right next to you.
However, you might find the behavior to be disruptive in the middle of the night and it’s disturbing your sleep pattern. You’re also creating sleep crutches that will be harmful later. Also, if your child moves and fusses around a lot in their sleep, it can be especially difficult to share that bed space. In this situation, you can carry or walk your child back to their bed.
But this isn’t an ideal situation if you have to continue doing this every day. On a psychological level, your child will interpret his or her return to their bed as a rejection by you. This can fuel feelings of anxiety and stress and it will continue the pattern. Next time they wake up, they’ll come right back to you.
The ideal situation here is that the nighttime waking stops completely. Start first by remaining as silent as possible during the night. Try not to wake your child up or attract them to your room with excessive noise.
Try to offer positive reinforcement and praise only when they go back to their room. This positive encouragement works well when used routinely. Allow your child to fall back asleep by themselves without your help.
Be patient. The process requires a lot of time and effort but if you’re consistent, you might just be able to get your child to break out of the nighttime waking up pattern.
The ultimate goal is to have your child be able to go back to sleep alone without needing your help. With toddlers, it’s necessary to demonstrate what they should do when they wake up in the middle of the night. You should practice these strategies first until your little one gets the hang of it. Choose a routine and stick with it.
Take note of the way they go to bed and work on showing them what to do if they wake up in the middle of the night. This can involve cuddling their favorite teddy bear or a similar activity.
It’s important that you avoid having your child feel rejected. So, help them understand that they can come to your room in the morning for a hug or to rest next to you for a while. This helps them understand that it’s okay to cuddle with mommy or daddy, but only in the morning and not at night.
This means that your child needs to understand when morning time is. If they know how to tell time, leave a clock next to their bed and tell them that they can only come to your room after a certain time. But do this gently to avoid your child feeling rejected or hurt.
Understandably, children are scared of the dark. So, it’s good to invest in a small night light in their room or in the hallway. Try to make the room as safe and comfortable as possible. If your child is scared of monsters or ghosts, you can incorporate a quick check under the bed and in the closet for monsters routine before bed every night.
When your child feels comfortable and safe in their room, they’ll sleep better and wake up less. Be open and empathetic—freely discuss their fears of the dark and all those other creatures and try to normalize it. Eventually, they’ll grow out of it.
It might also help to read a soothing bedtime story from one of their favorite books. Even better, make up your own bedtime story involving a child falling asleep and waking up in the middle of the night and describe what that child does to go back to sleep. Have it involve the routine you and your child discussed before. This will work like a charm.
Give all these tactics a try, and soon your child will be sleeping through the night without disturbing you.
Breaking the cycle of late-night visits requires a ton of patience and persistence. The key is to be consistent and gentle. Try not to alienate your child or make them feel rejected. Be gentle with the process and try to be understanding and listen to your child’s concerns and fears.
The best way to address the problem depends on your child. Follow the tactics I outlined above and customize them to best fit you and your child’s special situation. Just be consistent in the strategy you choose to administer.
Cristin is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice, and the loving mother of two wonderful children. In her free time, she can often be found in a yoga studio or catching up on her favorite shows.