Help for Nighttime Anxiety and Wake-Ups

Wondering what is causing your baby to wake up in the night? Here are some PSP member ideas of what might be up—and what you can do to help.




Member post from a 2007 thread...

"First, thanks to all who responded to my post of two weeks ago about my 9 month old waking up screaming at night.  Here's the rundown of suggested reasons for the waking:

  • night terrors (which some report as starting closer to 1 year of age)
  • nightmares (which seem different than night terrors in that the child can be consoled pretty easily)--this is what my pediatrician diagnoses
  • ear infection or soreness
  • teething (yes, teething)
  • overstimulation before bed or eating too close to bedtime
  • just because (and it WILL pass)

Some suggestions for calming a waking baby, include:

  • water by the bedside
  • rubbing her back
  • having a good sense of humor"


And a related question from a 2020 thread...

"My daughter started falling asleep and sleeping through the night, at 10 months old. A year later, she developed a horrible terror of her crib and of being alone. So much so, that after 5 months of trying to get her to fall asleep in her crib, we moved her to a transition bed right before her second birthday. Even then, we had to lay our head by her pillow and hold her hand for an hour each night. And she still woke up multiple times each night and either called for me, or came into my bed.

Fast forward a year and a half, and not only is my daughter now falling asleep in my bed, she is also spending the entire night with me. Even with this, I still have to lie down with her until she falls asleep, but as long as she can touch me, she will sleep through the night and I often have trouble waking her up in the morning.

Needless to say, this has been challenging, but over the last few weeks she has started to develop anxiety around bedtime. She will stall for as long as she can- saying she is still hungry, that her tummy hurts, that she needs to potty. Lately, she has been complaining that her toothpaste makes her tummy worse so she can't brush her teeth. And after we go through our entire bed routine (read, sing, everything), she will try to talk and gets startled with any noise.

Has anyone gone through this? Any suggestions on how we can get her - if not falling asleep by herself or sleeping alone in her room- to get her calm so we can go through her routine in a gentle, relaxing way?"


Advice from members...

"Hello there, same story with a 3.5-yo boy here, but I would not call it anxiety. His (creative) bedtime stalling falls into his general pattern of wanting more control over his life and arguing/questioning/pushing any rules we set for him. Consider if your daughter may be doing the same, revolting in a less open manner. If that is the case, you will need to keep reinforcing the boundaries for her, it’ll do you both good later in life.

Regarding co-sleeping, I thought my boy will be out of my bed by age 3, but it has not happened yet. So I read up on co-sleeping and it actually has amazing benefits for the kids, their immunity and psychological wellbeing. Also, in case of any changes in their environment, kids will regress into parents’ bed for comfort (and we’ve just moved homes). I may give it till age 5, as the alternative is to have him wake up (and wake me up) with the crack of dawn. When we are in the same bed, he simply reaches to touch me and goes back to sleep."


"My older daughter had (has) this issue. There are still periods after big changes in her life (like starting kindergarten) where she will come into bed in the middle of the night.

When we were struggling to keep her in her bed, a sleep consultant told us to try this: Involve your child in making a sleep schedule poster. Take pictures of her doing all her bedtime routines -- bath, pajamas, brushing teeth, reading books, etc. (we just used our Polaroid) and then work your child to put them up in a poster where she can see the steps leading up to bedtime. It will make your child feel more in control of the bedtime routine, she can also work with you to decide what she does first, make small tweaks, like maybe you guys decide together on the # of books.

We found that it didn't fix the problem overnight but it did make a huge difference and she got excited about the bedtime routines.

It was additional work for us taking polaroids (so much wasted film) and cutting out paper to put it up and label, but she had fun with it. Hope it helps and hope she's able to get more comfortable with sleeping on her own soon!" 

"My son turned 3 in Aug and went from being an actual perfect sleeper, including very easy put-downs in his own room and crib, to a total and complete nightmare at bedtime (and for quite a while, thereafter). We had several changes, which set off the giant mess. My son got revved up at night, seemed so unsettled (not just energized, but truly anxious), and was very tearful.

While our scenarios are not identical, there are a few things that come to mind. He needs the evening routine to be both slow and gentle. We cannot rush through any of the steps bc he doesn’t feel settled (eg, showers actually do need to start 60-70 min before intended lights out). We need ample time for books (2-3). He needs to feel in control rather than hurried/dragged through the process, which extends the bedtime routine by prob 10 min (allowing for his dawdling btwn transitions).

We added a whole layer of gentle to the put down. In stead of plopping in bed and leaving, my husband now sits with him and counts. He might fall asleep by 12, or still be drowsy by 50. Sometimes, by husband will start at a random number (265!). He goes super slow and quiet. This is only effective if the rest of the evening routine was paced and gentle.

We have a super regular routine so everyone knows exactly what’s happening next. No one is confused about an expectation, although both of my toddlers will push back (eg, not in the mood to brush teeth.)

One other element— I checked in with the sleep consultant during the height of our bedtime misery. She emphasized the vital importance of super early bed. We aim for 6:30pm, but it’s usually 6:45-50. We’ve made our peace that we’re not a go-out-to-dinner family (breakfast suits us better). Sleep begets sleep. If a toddler goes to bed too late, they’ll be up overnight snd early the next AM. It’s stunning to see how accurate that is for us. If L. goes to bed after 7pm, he awakens overnight at least once and starts his day at or before 6am. When asleep earlier, verrrrry unlikely for those issues to arise.

In summation, my overall thoughts are around incorporating the slow-paced, gentle, quiet, bonding into the wind down routine, coupled with early bed. Keep co-sleeping. Get everything else quiet, peaceful, and calm. After that is solidified, you can try moving rooms, if you’re interested in that."


Question on nighttime wake-ups in toddlers from a 2021 thread...


"I have a 3 yr old who keeps waking up several times during the night, at least 4-5 times and it is a big problem for me, as I don't get any sleep since half a year.

Things I tried:

- Removing nap time during day

- He is going to bed around 6.30 -7:30 pm and wakes up at 6 am

- putting a lock on his door so he can't open it

- putting his little sister in his room so he is not alone, but then he wakes her up

- putting a night light on

- having a sound machine on

- responding to him crying and nightly wakings, telling him it's bed time and to go back to sleep

- not responding to his nightly wakings, but then he keeps knocking on the door and keeps crying

- leaving his door open, but then he keeps coming to our bed and tosses all over so my husband and I can't sleep

- decorating his room even more

- having a bed time routine: evening bath, good night story

- leaving his potty in his room

- leaving his water bottle in the room

- shifting his bedtime to 8.30 pm but he still wakes up in the night

I don't know what else to do as nothing is working. Please please do you have any solutions to this?"


Advice from members...


"We have a tall baby gate on the 3year olds bedroom. It’s a lifesaver.

3 still wakes up screaming and crying but can’t leave her room. She has frequent night terrors (which if anyone has advice please email me!) but we decide when to let her cry and when to intervene. The 5 month old used to wake up but now is used to all the screaming and stays asleep.

We have gotten more sleep because of the baby gate as she often decides on her own to go back to bed."


"Have you tried a sticker chart? My almost 3 yo started ignoring the hatch light and getting out of bed as early as 4:30. We’re on Day 3 now of our sticker chart. I’m working on the light turning green at 5:30 and pushing it back 5 minutes everyday until we reach 6:15.

This age can be very motivated by sticker charts and the promise of a trip to the toy store."


"We have found that a more well-rested toddler sleeps better, that removing naps absolutely ruined his night sleep, but making sure he had a short (1-2) hour nap in the midday kept him from melting down at night. Seems counterintuitive but might be worth a try?"


"I have not dealt with any of these issues with my LO but just wanted to say at the suggestion of my sister who as an adult has dealt with sleep issues her entire life (I remember her frequently as a child waking me up in the middle of the night because she couldn’t sleep). She has done tons of research since and when R. was young and waking up sometimes in the middle of the night she suggested keeping the room cooler (ideal sleep temp is 65°!! Up to 69° and that seems super chilly, but has in fact meant better sleep since we dropped the temp.

A friend of ours said some nights his older kid would have night terrors too. And when I mentioned the temperature thing he said it made sense because the thermostats was in the kids rooms so when the door was shut it would be cold (everywhere in the house) but they’d sleep better, but when the door was open the heat would stay on longer and the child would always wake up, but they never tied the two together."


"Our older son (almost 6) has always had night wakings, versus younger brother (almost 3) sleeps like a dream. So I think some of it is just your kids sleep tendencies and unfortunately there may not be a total cure. Our older son still tries to come in our bed a couple times a week - sometimes we let him b/c we're exhausted (not helpful I know) and sometimes we do the repeated put back to bed attempts. If we are consistent with the put back to bed approach he tends to sleep better for a stretch. I will note that his crying/resisting this has improved A LOT over the years as he has matured. His night terrors have also decreased - but they are more likely if he is overtired, and I agree with the other poster that a cooler bedroom also helps. I just have faith that someday, some year, he will no longer want to crawl into bed with parents...and then I will miss it haha :-)"


"I know it may be an unpopular suggestion but when my 3 y/o couldn't sleep well when he was younger, we brought him into our bed. I know it isn't for everyone but it saved my sanity because it meant fewer wakeups and since we were so close I could settle him more easily. In the end I got the rest I needed and a very sweet snuggle partner. He still sleeps in our bed but now sleeps 12 hours through without any wakeups and I know that when he is ready he will sleep in his room and bed. The other thing I wonder about is what he is saying is the reason he can't stay awake and if he can come up with any solutions himself. Also, are you guys talking about this in the day to try to problem solve with him too, that may help a little if you haven't tried it. I guess I would want to get to the root of the problem if you haven't already and then work from there."


"What’s worked really well for us is coming up with a solid plan and reviewing it together, as well as daytime practicing. And following through on the plan which is key. Explaining to our daughter that sleep is no important and it’s our job to take care of her and keep her healthy and happy, so that involves making sure she gets really good sleep at night. Also an ‘okay to wake’ clock may be something he finds autonomy with. I think involving your son in the plan would help him feel autonomous as well. I think our toddlers are in constant need of a fine balance between their autonomy and our loving unwavering leadership.

I would HIGHLY recommend giving the below podcast a listen. In general I find this podcast an invaluable tool, but specifically this episode addresses night wakings and solutions that may help.

‘Raising Good Humans’ with Dr. Eliza Pressman"


"My husband and I had gotten into the habit of staying in our daughter’s room until she feel asleep (post solid and long standing bedtime routine of bath, books, songs etc) and we did not want to be doing that. We decided we would stop the habit - we made a sticker chart, talked to her about the new routine during the day and made it clear we would not stay in her room but would check on her every 5 minutes. We are on night 4 and it’s gotten better each night - tonight she went seemingly happily right to sleep before we could check on her (unheard of for quite sometime- though she was a great sleeper when she was younger). We are excited for her to get longer, quality sleep and for us to have more adult time back post bedtime routine. Fingers crossed we can stick to it drama free and it lasts!"


"I’m not sure if our experience is relatable, but just in case… we had a less severe period of night terrors and, more commonly, wake-up nightmares with our 3.5 yr old son over the summer when his baby sister was ~6 months. He was scared, some potty accidents, and lots of 'no no no's.

We worked on dinner, bath, and bed time routines which helped a bit with bed time/over-tiredness. However, now that they’re mostly behind us, we realized a couple other contributing factors. Specifically, he was watching a lot of movies/tv shows for the first time on bus to/from a camp he also didn’t love.

Despite claiming to love all the new TV, we think it was scarring him and contributing. For now, the occasional show is limited just to Sesame Street. And the only incident we had recently was a nightmare after a neighborhood walk one evening to check out Halloween decorations that were a bit too scary."


NOTE: If you think your little one may be experiencing night terrors (as almost 40 percent of kids do), also check out this information from the Mayo Clinic.