Last updated on April 4th, 2024

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Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

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My Two-Year-Old Wakes Up Screaming At Night! What Can I Do?

A reader named Beth wrote in and asked me to help her with her. Beth’s toddler wakes up screaming at night, and she is running out of ideas.

    • Night Terrors
    • Big Beds
    • Changes at the home
    • Using The Shuffle

Beth’s Toddler Wakes Up Screaming

My 2-year-old has been having severe sleep issues for the past few months. She was always great about going to sleep since she was an infant. I would put her down awake and never needed a sleep crutch. She was usually able to put herself back to sleep — only occasionally needing one of us to go to her, reassure her and then leave. Now, she wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. It takes hours sometimes to soothe her.

She’s starting to climb out of her crib, too. So, now my husband sleeps in her room as a preventative measure. We know it’s not the best idea but we have no idea what else to do.
We had a baby recently. By the way, the middle of the night stuff started before he was born. But I still think it’s part of the reason (or partly related).

We’re also moving soon. So, I’m guessing she’s picking up on that change as well.

First, what do we do? Big bed transition? Any other thoughts?

Even more of an issue now is the nap. She has no problem going down. She’s a little resistant at first, but we keep the same routine and she finally gets it. She only sleeps for 20 to 30 minutes and is a wreck the rest of the afternoon. How do I get her to sleep longer at naptime? She usually falls asleep at 8, 8:30 after our routine that starts at 7:30 and wakes up for good anywhere between 6:30 and 7:30. Please help.

Big Changes – Big Adjustments

Okay, Beth, so you have a lot going on. No, a new sibling doesn’t help things. And you’re absolutely right— I’m sure she is picking up on that, and, not to mention, a move!
You have a lot to address at once. Try to address the sleep coaching while being supportive of all the changes, and making sure she’s well rested. I would recommend you offer her more reassurance and to stay with her in the beginning of the sleep coaching process.

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When She Wakes Up Screaming, Night Terrors Could Be the Culprit

When she wakes up screaming, I don’t know when she’s waking in the middle of the night. Is it within two hours of when she goes to sleep? Because then it might be a night terror. Night terrors are often caused by big changes that are stressful in your family, which you’re having a lot. The primary cause is sleep deprivation in general. Sleep apnea and fevers can also cause night terrors.
Consider logging when your child wakes up screaming to see if you can see any pattern. Then, start to put her to bed earlier, even if it’s by only 20 minutes.  At the same time work on her nap by coaching her back to sleep when she wakes too early. A longer nap and earlier bedtime will help her sleep in general and possibly help her night terrors go away — if that is what she is having.

wakes up screaming
It’s ok to give reassurance when your child wakes up screaming. Be careful not to help them too much, though, or they’ll expect that for every night waking.

Stay Near and Give Assurance

Finally, I agree with your plan of having your husband temporarily sleeping in her room to prevent her from climbing out of the crib. He could lie on the floor and when she wakes up he could sit in the chair next to her so that it doesn’t get her more riled up and wanting to get out of the crib to go find one of you. This is also why I think you or your husband should do The Shuffle at bedtime and during the night.

Your husband can sit in the chair next to the crib or lie on the floor and verbally reassure her from there. Then, if she makes any movements to climb out he can say, “No climbing.”

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Want to know more tips about getting that toddler to stay in bed?
Read: Getting Your Toddler to Stay in Bed at Bedtime and All Night Long

Don’t Stay In the Room Too Long

Make sure that your husband doesn’t get stuck sleeping in there forever because that absolutely happens, particularly with 2-year-olds. You want your husband to slowly move out of the room. His second position after by the crib should be by the door. Then he starts sitting or lying down in the hall in view.

Need tips on using The Shuffle?
Read: The Sleep Lady Shuffle: How to Gently Sleep Train your Baby

Don’t Do Too Much to Help Her Go to Sleep

Review what you are doing during the hour before bedtime. You said the bedtime is 7:30 to 8:30. What’s happening in that hour? I don’t know if you’re sitting in the room or if you’re going in and checking on her. Make sure you’re not doing a lot of reassuring or putting her to sleep by laying her down, patting her, shushing, or whatever it is, because then she might be looking for that during the night. Once you start sleep coaching you want to be consistent and follow through at every night waking.

Good luck with all your transitions.

Author: Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

My name is Kim West, and I’m the mother of two beautiful girls, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 21 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. My sleep journey began when I started experimenting with gently shaping my daughter’s sleep by not following the conventional wisdom at the time. After having success (and then more success with my second daughter!), I began helping family and friends and my step-by-step method spread like wildfire, exactly like an excellent night of sleep for a tired parent should!