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Toddler Sleep Problems

Night Wakings and Early Wakings

By Amalah

Hi, Amalah- I have a 19-month-old daughter who has never been a good sleeper. But now we’re in a place that is untenable and we need help to save us from exhaustion.

She goes to bed around 7:30 pm. Leading up to that is a book and then I breastfeed her. She is still awake when I put her down in her crib, but she consistently puts herself to sleep at bedtime, no problem.

She wakes up around 12:30 am and I feed her, put her back, she falls asleep. Sometimes she wakes up around 3:30 am and I feed her, put her back, she falls asleep. Sometimes she skips that wake-up.

But then, going on a few weeks now, she wakes up around 4:30 am or 5 am, and she will not fall back asleep. It doesn’t matter if I feed her or not, if someone goes in and comforts her— no matter what, she will not go back to sleep. She just lies in bed and wails, which she’ll do for hours. I’m typing this now at 5:30am and she’s been crying for an hour straight and will probably continue until someone gets up with her.

What should we do? I can handle getting up in the middle of the night but cannot handle this. She is exhausted as well, grumpy all morning, and I know she needs more sleep.

Please help, we’re all so tired.

Your toddler needs to learn how to get herself back to sleep

Get rid of the night feeding(s). Her body doesn’t need them anymore, and they’ve just become her sleep crutch for night wakings. Putting herself to sleep at bedtime is great, but it’s actually only half of the sleep battle. Now she needs to learn to put herself back to sleep at 12:30 am and 3:30 am or whatever time she wakes up, without help from you.

Once she does this, those night wakings will stop being such “full” wakings that actively mess with her sleep cycles, which is why (I suspect) she’s waking up so early and so grumpy and so clearly in need of those last few hours of sleep.

(Plus, after 19 months, YOU need to be sleeping through the night as well!)

Right now, by getting her up and out of bed to nurse when she wakes, you’re likely resetting her sleep cycle back to the beginning (light sleep and REM) and so she’s not consistently hitting the “deep sleep” portion of the cycle. Most of us drift in and out of different stages of sleep and may even wake up once or twice, but we often don’t remember that we did, or are able to get back to sleep quickly enough that we can still wake up feeling fully rested. (Barring insomnia or other adult sleep disturbances, that is.)

Sleep deprivation begets sleep problems

For babies and toddlers, simply being overtired in the first place can be a HUGE sleep disturbance. The more tired she is, the less capable she’ll be of settling down and getting the full amount of sleep she needs. Thus, the super early, super grumpy wake-up time. At 19 months, her physical need for a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep definitely trumps any need for breast milk in the middle of the night. And while it always seems easier to just nurse and pop her back down to sleep at 12:30 a.m., it’s likely what’s brought you to this now untenable position with miserable, early mornings.

Think about introducing a transitional object

Instead, when/if she wakes at midnight or 2 a.m. or whenever, she needs to put herself right back to sleep without you in the room. In a perfect world, she’ll need nothing but her own desire to sleep, but hahahaha toddlers amirite. For some toddlers, it can be as simple as rolling over in bed, while others might seek out a special bedtime lovey or blanket or their thumb/pacifier. (My toddlers preferred those crib aquarium/soother things that they could activate with a kick of their foot. The music and water noises would turn on and they would immediately be OUT.) But whatever she settles on, it’s definitely going to require some sleep training on your part to let her know that the boobs are out of commission between the hours of bedtime and breakfast.

If she’s pretty verbal, go ahead and tell her that (whatever she calls nursing) won’t be happening at night time anymore. Milks are going night night, milk is going to sleep from now on, etc. And then stick. With. It.

We like the Gradual Extinction Sleep Training Method

I don’t know if you’ve tried any of the sleep training methods — if so I assume they didn’t go well the first time around since you mentioned she’s never really been a good sleeper — or if there’s one you’re more comfortable with vs. another. I’m typically a proponent of the gradual extinction methods (Ferber, etc.), where you would at first still go into her room when she wakes up at night, vs. the hardcore CIO. Go in, tell her it’s still time for sleep, pat her back a couple of times or offer whatever sleep cue you use when you put her in her crib at bedtime. Then LEAVE.

If she protests, you can decide how long you want to wait before going back in. (I’d say five minutes if she amps up to full crying/screaming, 10 if its a more sleepy/confused sort of protest.) The second time you go in, try not to touch her or physically tuck her back in. Just repeat whatever you told her before — it’s time for sleep, good night, milk is asleep too, etc. Wait for her to lie back down (or not) and then leave again. Repeat this as needed, with longer stretches of time in between each check.

Stay consistent

Is it possible that her 5 a.m. screamfest will simply move up to midnight the first night? Will you feel even more exhausted than you are right now? Absolutely. And possibly for several nights after that. Sleep training can work wonders, but it’s definitely not fun while you’re in the thick of it. But if you stay consistent and DON’T GIVE IN, she’ll eventually figure out that night nursing really isn’t coming back and she needs to go back to sleep.

And once the night nursing sleep crutch really is gone, I’m 99.99999% confident that she’ll start sleeping better AND longer AND later. And so will youuuuuuuu!

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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