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Ask Dr. Sears: End Night Waking

Q. My 22-month-old daughter wakes up every night for two hours. I'm at my wit's end and exhausted - what can I do?

A.
Twenty-two months is prime time for night waking, mainly because separation anxiety is at its peak now. From 18 months to 2 years of age seems to be a very sensitive period for toddlers - day and night. That said, there are often additional reasons for night waking, such as recent changes in a toddler's life, including a move, a change in daycare, a stressful family situation, new foods in her diet (suspect food allergies if your child awakens in pain), or a stuffy nose due to allergies to dust (remove fuzzy dust-collecting toys from her sleeping environment). Also, nighttime is often a frightening time now, since nightmares can begin at this age. Scary television shows, including cartoons, may reappear as nightmares.

While sleep is not a state into which you can force a child, you can create conditions that will allow it to come more easily - and help toddlers stay asleep during this sensitive stage. Here's how:

  • Juggle various sleeping arrangements. There is no right or wrong place for toddlers - or anyone in a family for that matter - to sleep. If your daughter sleeps alone in her room in a crib and wakes up because she's anxious about being away from you, you can try placing a small mattress or futon at the foot of your bed. It's normal for a toddler to need a few weeks of parental closeness at night while they work through separation anxiety.

  • Create a restful daytime environment. The more restful your child's day is, the more likely she is to get a good night's sleep. That means sticking to consistent naptimes. Try giving a late-afternoon massage as a calming way to end a busy day.

  • Create a restful nighttime environment. Keep consistent bedtimes and bedtime rituals, such as a warm bath, a soothing story, or a lullaby at the same time each night, followed by a cuddle or a massage. A continuous-play tape of lullabies; soft, 100-percent cotton sleepwear; opaque shades on windows; and a well-oiled (no squeaks) crib can also help your child stay asleep through the night.

  • Lessen teething pain. Erupting two-year molars could be awakening your child. If this is the case, give her a dropperful of acetaminophen at bedtime.

You can always turn a problem into an opportunity. While night waking is exhausting for you - and probably for your toddler too - by working to find out why your daughter is waking up at night and adopting creative ways to soothe her, you are strengthening the trusting relationship between you. Once your child outgrows this stage and rewards you with a full night's sleep, she will also carry with her the lifelong memories that when she needed help, her parents were there for her - even at night.

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