Toddler Waking More Than the Newborn
Is this your life? Get new baby to sleep. Fight the toddler to bed. Baby wakes up to feed. Toddler wakes up for water. Baby wakes up to feed. Toddler wakes up to tell you about Star Wars. Baby wakes to feed. Toddler wakes and insists she needs to pee. Baby wakes to feed. Toddler wakes and needs a cuddle. Everyone is up for the day! And everyone is seemingly well rested.. well.. except mama!
Honestly. I can remember this time in my life like it was yesterday. It wasn’t yesterday… it was almost a year ago now, but I do recall the sheer sleep deprivation that is having a toddler and a newborn baby.
The birth of a sibling really shakes things up! This is a huge transformative time in a family. Everything you once thought you knew is no more. Everyone is just adjusting to their new roles. And since we know sleep does not exist in and of itself, there are going to be some repercussions to welcoming this beautiful little creature earth side. Your toddler has been sleeping through the night for weeks, months, years, maybe even... and now you are suddenly engaged in a game of "whack a mole" every night bringing them back to their bed.
Just going to take this opportunity to tell you all that after I had Theo I did not sleep for 36 hours. This is the longest I have ever not slept in my life. And I am alive to tell the tale. Haha! But, I will save that for another blog post at another time and stick to the task at hand which is, explaining what is happening when your toddler is sleeping worse than your newborn.
If your toddler was sleeping well before baby was born, I know this is a difficult transition to make. Your go-to strategy may be to draw a hard line in the sand, fire all systems up, and nip this in the bud before it becomes anything worse.
But, you have been following me a while so you probably know this won’t be my recommendation! Hehe.
Our children wake in the night for a number of different reasons.
First of all, they don’t sleep like adults. Their sleep cycles are not comparable to adult sleep cycles, and they spend more of their time in lighter sleep than we do, even at 3 and 4 years old.
Toddlers are also beginning to decipher the difference between real and make believe, which makes some of their nightmare experiences downright terrifying.
And another reason that our toddlers wake is for attention. They used to be the baby. They were the ONLY apple of your eye, and now they have to share you. Wah wah wahhhhhhh… not exactly what they signed up for. The amount of attention they previously received has likely been cut by more than half and so they begin to seek this attention wherever they can get it. Often this means more prolonged requests at bedtime, and various visits in the middle of the night. When you are their captive audience, they absolutely will seek you out. The baby is sleeping mom…. I can have you ALL to myself – and I will!
Now the other struggle you may find yourself in come middle of the night is the “power struggle”. Your toddler has essentially just lost a lot of power with the introduction of the new baby. He used to get what he wanted when he asked. Now he is being told to, “wait until the baby is done nursing,” or, “share your toys with your sister,” or, “don’t hit the baby!”. He used to rule the roost! Wait for a snack he did not. Share his toys he did not. He could play with what he wanted, when he wanted, and all the time he had a captive audience. Now suddenly you may see some powerful requests come middle of the night. “I NEED my Star Wars pajamas!!!” “I NEED my RED water bottle not the BLUE water bottle, and I don’t care if it is 2am! Find the bottle MOM!”.
Yeah.. you get the idea. Have kids they said. It will be fun they said.
And while you’re trying your best to be empathetic, I also know you just can’t deal with the fact that you are up more at night with your toddler than you are with your newborn. The new baby just wants to feed. She’s not making demands about pajamas, night-lights, or the like!
So what can we do to help our toddlers in this transition?
1. Don’t expect them to make big changes before baby arrives.
- If you're one of the smart ones and you are reading this BEFORE the birth of your second baby - here is my advice. If it is less than 6 months before baby’s arrival let them keep their comforting items. Keep them in the crib and order a second one for babe if necessary, let them keep their pacifier, and their bottle of milk before bed. Otherwise you are likely setting yourself up for a power struggle, followed by a sleep regression. And as you probably know – once you’re in a power struggle with a toddler, you’ve already lost. Your dignity. Your sanity. You know the drill.
2. Increase opportunities for attention.
- Really hard to do at first. I know that. But it gets easier, and you will become a pro at this before you know it! Give your oldest child as much focused one-on-one time throughout the day as you can. Play at their level. Let them lead you through play, and engage you how they see fit without the distractions of phone, TV, cleaning, or the like.
- Think about how much time they are spending with you in the middle of the night, and try to match that in the daytime. Ensure they are getting lots of positive attention in helping to do things for baby as well. “Thank you for getting brother’s blanket, you’re such a helpful big bro!” All these little thank you's will add up to a big confidence boost, and a love bucket that is just a little more full.
3. Increase opportunities for power.
- If power struggles at bedtime or middle of the night are part of your equation, increase your toddler’s ability to call the shots.
- In their bedtime routine; do you want the red toothbrush, or the blue one? Purple pajamas or pink? Straw cup or sippy cup?
- You can also give them a few cards to use at bedtime to make requests. A card they trade for one more hug, an extra sip of water, milk, or a cuddle. But once you have fulfilled the request, take the card away and return it the next morning. Show that the boundaries you do set are meant to be respected, but allow your toddler to know where these boundaries lie before insisting that they fulfill an expectation they know nothing about.
4. Ensure your toddler is not waking because of an environmental factor.
- Do they know how to find their soother in the middle of the night? Can they pull their blankets back on when they are cold? Or, should they be in a sleep sack with foot holes like this one made by Halo. Are they falling asleep with a nightlight on, and when they wake in the night it is turned off? Can they turn it back on themselves?
- Look at the things you do for your child at bedtime, and ask yourself if your toddler can be asked to re-create this come middle of the night. If the answer is no.. you may need to make some changes, or teach your toddler the skills to fulfill these requests and guide them in the middle of the night to do these things for themselves. I know it would be easier for you to just switch on the nightlight tonight - but then this becomes the expectation for tomorrow night too. Guide your child to do this in the night, and they will learn this is something they should start to do for themselves as well.
When it comes to making sleep changes everyone is usually playing the “short game”. The game that is going to get you back into bed as fast as possible on any given night. But I assure you, with a quick fix, a problem persists. I would encourage you to look for the root of your child’s behavior, and begin to work around resolving that need in particular. Lead with your heart. Treat your little one like the human being they are, and surely you will be able to troubleshoot this one in a way that works for both of you.
And a couple of last minute suggestions if it's still not working out for you...
Repeat the mantra "this too shall pass", and maybe tattoo it on your forearm so you see it at every turn. ;)
Or consider booking a toddler consultation with me. This is probably my favourite age group to work with and I would love to help you out.
Thank you to this beautiful family, and feature photography by www.stacielynnphotography.ca.