It’s so hard when your child wakes up in the middle of the night screaming- for so many reasons. Knowing that your little one is so upset is heartbreaking, and the sleep disruption can be disorienting and exhausting. Feeling like you have to stay beside them all night long can be disparaging to your own sleep schedule and sanity. I’m here to help! Night waking is completely normal for toddlers- even when they have the best sleep habits. Illness, nightmares, separation anxiety- there are so many possible reasons your toddler wakes up screaming. Today, I’m sharing different experiences that could be at the root of the problem and how you can help your child.
Reasons Why Toddler Wakes Up Screaming
Teething isn’t just for babies- it typically continues into your toddler’s second and third years. It’s extremely uncomfortable and they could be woken up in the middle of the night from the pain. Red and swollen gums or putting objects into their mouth are signs that your little one could still be teething. I have a whole blog post on teething for ideas on how to soothe your child through painful nights.
Having a sick kid is the worst! Sometimes it can feel like your kids are never not sick during the first few years of their life as they’re building immunity. A dry throat, ear infection, fever, body aches, stuffy nose, or vomiting are likely to cause your little one to wake up crying or screaming in the middle of the night. Sickness can feel like it’s throwing a wrench in all of the hard work you’ve put into their sleep training, but there are many ways to get back on track once they’re feeling better. If you’ve ever had a sick child, you know that they’ll always turn to you to soothe them. Sometimes comforting them until they’re feeling better is all you can do. Once they’re feeling healthy again, you can get back to sleep training.
Your toddler may be having nightmares or night terrors. Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are defined by the Mayo Clinic as episodes of screaming, intense fear, and flailing while still asleep. They usually happen during the first few hours that your child is in a deep sleep stage. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to 45 minutes. Bad dreams are more common than night terrors, but I have a whole post dedicated to night terrors and nightmares in toddlers. Usually neither is cause for concern, but if night terrors are continually affecting your child’s sleep or posing a safety risk, they could potentially be sleep-disordered. If you’re feeling unsure, talk to a pediatrician or sleep specialist.
This isn’t exclusive to babies- sleep regressions in toddlers are common between 18 months and 2 years. Their social and emotional development can cause anxiety, ultimately leading to a disruption in their sleeping habits. Screaming at night isn’t the only sign of a sleep regression. They could be resisting naps and bedtime, having a hard time falling asleep (or staying asleep), or showing signs of separation anxiety.
This comes with the territory of their development- they’re learning new language, physical skills, social skills, and absorbing so much new information about the world around them. There are many different sleep training methods for babies and toddlers to beat these tough sleep periods. Even during a sleep regression, you can continue to create healthy habits that will support them as they learn the skill of sleep. The word “regression” may have a negative connotation, but it’s a sign that your child is learning, growing, and progressing.
Separation anxiety is normal for toddlers to go through. Oftentimes it happens when they’re babies, and then again around 18 months of age. Your toddler may wake up in the middle of the night, realize that they’re all alone, and start screaming and crying. As they continue to grow and develop, they will eventually feel more secure in their attachment to you and grow out of their separation anxiety. As exhausting and heartbreaking as it may feel in the moment, it’s very common and typically not cause for concern.
Changes at home
New sibling? Big move? These could be reasons why your toddler wakes up screaming. Your little one picks up on life adjustments and can tell when big changes are happening around them. This can cause mixed emotions for them resulting in anxiety or them being less receptive to rules and boundaries.
How To Get Toddler To Stop Screaming
In the case of an illness, anxiety, or nightmares, soothing your child to sleep can help them feel comfortable enough to calm down. You can use fear spray (water and glitter) to spray their room at nighttime to make them feel safe. You can also include a book that addresses their fears into their bedtime routine. Turning on the lights can also provide peace to your toddler if they’re feeling scared. Working through emotions with your little one will provide feelings of safety and calmness that they may not find on their own. Building trust and a feeling of security will show your toddler that they are safe while they sleep. I have a blog post dedicated to sleeping products for toddlers that can help create a relaxing environment for bedtime.
Make sleep a priority
Believe it or not, the less sleep your toddler gets, the harder it will be for them to sleep through the night. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule is important for them to be able to get into the rhythm of going to bed and staying asleep. Setting a bedtime, having a consistent routine, eliminating screentime before they sleep, 30 minutes of quiet time before bed, and a consistent wake-up time are all factors that can help your toddler sleep through the night.
Create a bedtime routine
Having a healthy bedtime routine can help to set your toddler (and you) up for a successful night of sleep. Turning off screens, giving them a bedtime snack, bathtime, brushing their teeth, and other habits like that can help them to wind down and prepare for a good night’s rest. A routine can become something that they find comfort and security in. It may also be helpful if you’re experiencing bedtime resistance.
Eliminate external factors that could cause anxiety
Are they watching a show that could be causing nightmares or anxiety? Is there a big life change that may be worrying them or disrupting their routine? These could be some reasons why your toddler wakes up screaming. Keep a close eye on external factors happening while they’re fully awake that could be causing them distress and ultimately leading to low-quality sleep. Scary shows and conversations often leave the door wide open for your toddler’s imagination to run wild. Eliminating anything potentially scary too close to bedtime can also help them keep those thoughts out of their mind.
I hope that these tips have been helpful! If after trying these options you’re still struggling to get your child on a solid sleep schedule, please reach out! I’m here to help you get your little ones back on track with their sleep.