Although your child is now old enough to keep himself awake on purpose he still cannot (and never will be able to) wake himself on purpose. Waking up in the night is not a "habit." You cannot teach your child not to do it, either by ignoring him when he wakes or by scolding him for it. In fact, night waking has nothing to do with discipline, and parents who tell you, smugly, that their children know better are fooling themselves. Don't let them fool you.
All children surface several times each night and usually turn over. If nothing interests or disturbs them, they drop straight down into sleep again without anyone ever knowing that they have woken. If your child insists that you know all about his awakenings in the night, even though he can put himself to sleep without your help at nap times and bedtimes, check some of the following:
This is the more usual kind of night waking. Nearly half of every group of toddlers studied by research workers suffers from it. The waking is due to some form of nightmare, but of course we don't know what the child dreams, thinks, or sees while asleep.
Some children wake up terrified several times each night for a while and then not at all for months. Others wake three or four times a week for months on end.
Either way, if you arrive quickly, the drama is usually over in 30 seconds. One glimpse of your familiar face, one soothing pat and the child is asleep again. He remembers nothing about it in the morning. If you don't arrive quickly, though, things tend to go from bad to worse. The toddler becomes more and more afraid as he listens to his frightened voice crying in the night-quiet. When you do come to him he is shaky, tense, and sobbing. Instead of being reassured by a glimpse and a pat, he may need 15 or even 30 minutes' cuddling and talk before he can settle into sleep again.
Coping with nightmares is simple: you just get to the child as fast as you can the moment you hear him crying. But preventing them is much more difficult, and it is prevention you will long for when you have had to haul yourself out of bed in the small hours eight nights in a row.
Beware of suggestions such as tiring the child out during the day or giving him more to eat at suppertime. An overtired child, or one who has been encouraged to eat more than he actually wanted, is more, rather than less, likely to have a bad dreams. Sometimes a more general approach to the child-as-a-whole does seem effective, though. We do not know exactly what causes nightmares either in toddlers or in older people, but we do know that they are often associated with anxiety and stress. If your toddler is finding some aspect of his life particularly stressful and you can relieve that stress a little, the nightmare may become less frequent. And even if they don't, he'll still be better off.
Is there a new baby present or imminent? Have your work and child care arrangements recently changed? Is his father away from home a great deal at present? Has his special teacher at day care just left? Any radical change in a toddler's small world is liable to have made him anxious whether he shows it during the day or not. You may not be able to remove the cause of his distress but you can probably help him to cope with it by being extra loving and tolerant and, perhaps, by talking to him about what is happening. Even a child who does not yet use many words often understands enough of that complex mix of words and voice tones we call language to be reassured by a simple acknowledgement from his parents that they know he is upset and understand why.
Have your toddler's desire for independence and autonomy, and your determination to socialize him, landed you in the thick of battles about food or potties or "disobedience"? However hard he fights you when he is awake, a baby-bit of any child in this age-group is liable to be worried by battles with parents or people who stand in for parents. The more displeasure he evokes, the more he feels he's risking. If you can possibly relax the peak demands you are making on him for a while, and assure him that he can cope and is coping with everything you want of him, he may feel safer.
Have you just returned from a vacation? Has he been in the hospital or ill for a long time at home? Happenings which temporarily take him away from the home or break up his accustomed routine can have a disturbing effect. Sticking carefully to a more than usually rigid day care-type routine for a few weeks may give him back a feeling of structured security.
All these suggestions really add up to the same idea: that a toddler who is having a lot of nightmares may benefit from being treated, for a while, as if her were younger than he really is. Something is making him feel worried and unable to cope with the demands made by his life. Baby him a little so that he can meet all demands with ease, and the nightmare will probably diminish.
Excerpts from Penelope Leach's Your Baby & Child, available in bookstores nationwide, are reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf.Copyright © 2002
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.