How To Get Your Potty Training Toddler Back to Sleep
Long time reader and user off all your advice but now I find myself in a situation I haven’t read before. My newly 3 year old, once a perfect and long sleeper, is now a terrible and short sleeper. We’ve made it through lots of transitions in the last 6 months – started full day nursery school, potty trained, moved into a big kid bed – and although each of those changes had bumps in the road, we are in a good spot except going back to sleep at night. We night potty-trained him pretty much at the same time as general potty training (shortly before turning 3), since he would hold all this pee and poop until the blessed nap or bedtime diaper appeared. After a week or so of lots of bedding changes, he figured out how to stay dry at night, which for him usually includes one middle of the night or early morning trip to the potty. Knowing he needs this, we’ve left his little potty in his room.
Here’s where the problem lies – he doesn’t/won’t go back to sleep after using his potty. If he wakes up at 5 am to pee, he is just up for the day (although he’s very happy to stay in his bed and play with his soft toys until his Gro Clock says its time to get up). If he wakes up at 1 am to pee … he is up for the day, and a complete monster by 9 am. He has always been on the upper end of the sleep charts and really needs a solid 12-13 hours at night, especially when he’s been at school all day with no nap. We’ve tried cutting down on liquids, hoping to negate that middle of the night trip, but he seems to be a night pooper. How do you teach a toddler to go back to sleep?
Yeah, getting a toddler back to sleep (vs. a baby) after night wakings is a whole ‘nother ballgame.
Think about what happens if you wake up and need to pee in the middle of the night. For me, falling back asleep isn’t always a given — my brain clicks on and decides to regale me with a list of things I need to do the next day (and will now be entirely too tired to tackle), or maybe just it’ll just start singing Let It Go, Let It Goooooooo approximately four million times while I plead with it to Let Me Sleeeeeeeeeep instead.
Your toddler’s brain certainly isn’t as neurotic as mine, but it probably is just as active. He’s up and awake and thinking and talking and sees no real reason why he should do anything else, since he’s definitely NOT thinking about how he’s going to be an overtired tantrum monster by 9 a.m. At some point, we humans do come to treasure our sleep and understand how important it is. But three years old is…not typically that point.
And potty training DOES and WILL affect his sleep for awhile. It’s really, really normal, although I know that’s cold comfort when you’re both exhausted. He’s still learning, he’s still growing, he’s still not 100% capable of going all night without a potty trip, and that’s just how it goes for a bit. So no need to panic that you’ve broken your child by potty training too early or anything, or fear that it will be just like this forever. It won’t, I promise. He’ll figure this out (the nighttime poop will likely shift itself forwards or back a few hours) and then find some other completely different sleep shenanigans to throw at you in no time.
1. No liquids OR food too close to bedtime.
At least 1.5 to two hours. This can be tough for families that eat on the later side (or have toddlers with super early bedtimes), but it does help. If you need to shift his bedtime back a bit (even temporarily) to make this happen, give it a try. (There’s a sleep theory out there that says the more genuinely tired a toddler/older child is at bedtime, but more likely it is that they’ll sleep more soundly all night. Kind of a reverse of the “don’t let your infant get overtired they’ll never sleeeeeep” warnings of the early months.)
2. Wake him up on purpose.
What time do you go to bed? Stop by his room, wake him up and have him at least try the potty one last time. You might not catch the night poop, but it’s worth a try, and it was always a lot easier for me to get my kids back to sleep in the 10:30/11 p.m. range than at 1/2 a.m. At the very least, you’ll ensure an empty bladder and can work on the self-soothing/back-to-sleep cues when you’re still awake.
3. Resist adding sleep crutches, but realize you may just need to get involved.
Potty training affects sleep. Accept that this is true for now. And while waking up at 5 a.m. and playing quietly in bed is one thing, staying up to party all night after 1 a.m. is another. You’re going to have to go in there and do at least some coaxing him back to sleep. Repeat any part of the bedtime routine that doesn’t involve you (i.e. no books or songs or lying down with him) that can signal to him that no, he is NOT “up for the day” just yet. It is still night time. Time to close your eyes and sleep. Here’s your lovey, let me tuck you back in/turn on a music box/sleep soother/etc. I love you, good night, whatever you tell him the first time he goes to sleep. Then exit and close the door. If he gets out of bed or is still awake 15 minutes later, go back in and repeat as needed, but don’t get pulled into talking to him or trying to out-toddler-logic him. It’s still night time. Time to close your eyes and sleep. It’s like sleep training again, unfortunately.
4. Recognize that he’s still potty training.
There’s no doubt he’s doing GREAT and very near the final stretch, but he’s by no means mastered this. And that’s okay! It can help to reframe these wakings as a temporary thing, but entirely necessary because potty training is the priority. He’ll get there. So will you.
One last specific bit of advice: I’d get the potty seat out of his room. I know it feels super convenient to have him able to handle the night time trips the potty all by himself, but I think it’s working against point #3: He just might need more involvement/coaching on getting back to sleep. You just might need to view getting up when you hear him in the bathroom as part of the parenting job for a little while longer (see point #4), at least until he really understands that no, it’s still night time. Time to close your eyes and sleep. (There’s also a possibility that the smell of the potty seat is making his room an unpleasant place to be, particularly after he poops.)
Good luck! And let us know what helped, what worked, or if it was just a matter of some time/maturing bathroom habits.