Last updated on March 4th, 2024

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

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My Toddler is Waking and Screaming at Night! What Should I Do?

A reader named Natalie wrote in with a question. Her toddler is waking and screaming at night. She writes:

Hi there. My 19-month-old goes to bed fine, but he is waking and screaming at night until he comes into my bed. He’s a big boy and it’s killing my back, but I can’t resettle him in his cot.  Any tips?

Too Sleepy At Bedtime

Natalie, thanks for sending this question. Usually when a child wakes up several times during the night but doesn’t have any trouble at bedtime, they are usually being put into bed too sleepy.

Parents say, “No, I promise you, Kim. He looks at me, rolls over, and he talks for a couple of minutes and he goes to sleep.”

Bedtime is the easiest time to put yourself to sleep. If he doesn’t have the skill of putting himself to sleep mastered from a wakeful state, then he won’t be able to apply it in the middle of the night. This is especially true as he becomes less and less tired as the night goes on.

What’s Drowsy But Awake?
Read: Drowsy But Awake — The Cornerstone of Successful Sleep Training

Check Naptime and Bedtime

The other thing to check on is his naptime and bedtime. Make sure that he’s having a solid afternoon nap for his age, and that his bedtime is early enough.

At 19 months he’s probably on one nap. It should be anywhere from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. Depending on the length of the nap, his bedtime might be anywhere from 7 to 8 pm. This time will, of course, depend on his nap.

Need to know how long your child should nap?
Read: Sample Schedules: Sleep and Naps From 6 Months to Preschool

toddler is waking and screaming
You want your toddler to be completely awake when he goes into his cot. He should be dry, fed, warm, loved, and then into his cot.

Put Him Down Completely Awake

As a reminder, you want him to be completely awake when he goes into his cot. He should be dry, fed, warm, loved, and then into his cot.

If you put him in more awake than you have in the past and he starts to cry more than he’s ever done before, then say to yourself, “aha, he was too sleepy before!”

Practice The Shuffle

At this point, if you’ve left the room, it’s okay to go back into the room. Sit next to his cot, offer physical and verbal reassurance until he’s asleep, and then leave. Don’t do anything like hand-holding or rubbing his hands, or singing or humming him to sleep, because it will create a new problem to solve.

If your toddler is waking and screaming, you should sit down next to the crib, and encourage him to lie down. Don’t lay him down. Stay near him until he’s asleep.

Keep At It

If you start The Shuffle, then spend the first three nights next to the cot. Then, you’re going to move to the doorway. Then move to the hall in his view, and then out of view. If it’s a really big room, you can skip the middle position between the cot and the doorway.

Need to review The Shuffle?
Read: The Sleep Lady Shuffle: How to Gently Sleep Train your Baby

Don’t Create A New Sleep Crutch

Make sure that while you’re sleep coaching you don’t start touching, talking, singing, or humming him to sleep. When you go to the crib side initially, don’t pick him up. Encourage him to lie down himself, and then you return to your chair position and verbally reassure him.
The rules for the Sleep Lady Shuffle are all outlined in my book, Good Night, Sleep Tight. You can also work with one of my coaches or enroll in Gentle Sleep Solutions. I hope that helps you, Natalie.

Have no idea where to begin solving your child’s sleep issues?

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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!