Fia’s Not Sleeping Through The Night Anymore: Why Do Toddlers Do This?

My fellow blogger Jill Cordes recently shared that her daughter Fia is waking up at night, after nearly 20 months of sound sleeping. And as a parent who dealt with this myself not that long ago, I had a good (sympathetic!) laugh at Jill’s take on Fia’s new sleep tent. Although Jill’s family is in the middle of big transitions (like moving from the East Coast to the West Coast), what caught my eye was Fia’s current age – she’s 23 months. And the reason for that is toddlerhood is a developmental period when the biology of sleep starts to change dramatically, and as a result, sleep methods often need to be revisited. Here’s why. 

When babies fall asleep, they tend to fall into the REM phase – which is the part of the sleep cycle where you can dream, but your body doesn’t move (you are zonked out). As babies turn into toddlers, they start to adapt more adult-like patterns of sleep, in which they cycle between light and deep sleep. The result is that the perfectly sleep-trained toddler (it doesn’t matter how they have been trained) starts to experience the part of the sleep cycle when they wake up out of nowhere – sometimes repeatedly. It can be very disorienting for them, particularly since they don’t have much experience in getting themselves back to sleep when they wake up from light sleep. So they do what any rational toddler would do – they cry for you. (Click here if you want to read more about kids’ sleep issues).

As Jill discussed, there are lots of other things that go on with toddlers that can mess with their sleep. In addition to life transitions, the newly independent toddler may want to rebel against sleep (amongst other things). But it’s good to keep in mind that there is some biology that is driving this, and so even though it’s discouraging when it happens, it’s not unusual. And one more thing – what worked before doesn’t necessarily work as well now. So sometimes those inclined to use Ferber find they need to modify it some as their kid gets older (not all do, of course). And some who used alternate methods sometimes gravitate more to the Ferber end of the spectrum (not all do, of course). I’m no sleep expert, but this is why my mantra is “sleep outcomes – not sleep methods – matter most” – whatever gets kids to get the amount of sleep they need is good for them and good for their parents.

So I hope things go well for Jill and Fia. I look forward to following their story. I’d like to offer some specific tips or advice, but the thing is, when I was dealing with this, we ended up throwing our hands up in the air and headed for the nearest pediatric sleep clinic. It worked wonders.

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  2. by Heather Morgan Shott

    On November 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    My heart just broke a little, Richard. Mason has always gone down beautifully, but it took me about 12 months to get him to sleep through the night (and sometimes that does involve him waking up and self-soothing until he falls back to sleep). Not looking forward to a possible (likely?) wrinkle in what I thought was a done deal!!

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  8. [...] change – sometimes age-related changes in sleep patterns can be disruptive to them. Many toddlers experience shifting sleep patterns in part because they become aware of the different stages of sleep. Put another way, they realize [...]