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Parents #AskAlyson: Sudden Night Waking

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This letter was sent in from Karen:


Hello Alyson,


We heard you speak last fall at New Hamburg’s Holy Family School for a Parent’s Night. We appreciated your wisdom and candor! I have your book “Ain’t Misbehaving” but it doesn’t address a sudden change in sleep patterns. Our daughter will be 4 in 3 weeks.


She was a wonderful sleeper since day one. Night waking rarely occurred and she self-soothed very well when it did, until this fall.  I think the time change (making bedtime skies darker) and Halloween images in the stores and around the neighborhood caused a  disruption in her sleep and we have hardly had a full nights’ sleep since!  We have used the Twinkle Lady Bug since she was tiny for soft light during night feeds and changes, and some quiet classical piano music as white noise (small house + 2 teenaged siblings + pets = made sense for falling asleep). She rarely needed it back on after that. It runs 45 minutes long.


Until this fall; when the time change made bedtime skies darker and Halloween images were in the stores and our neighborhood, (or so I chalked it up to)! We have hardly had a full nights’ sleep since!


She was also sick mid-October and congested; perhaps that contributed to her nights being broken up with coughing and breathing issues, but it’s gotten even worse since Christmas.  She rarely naps anymore. Bedtime is between 7:30 and 8:30pm. Bedtime routine IS fairly calm and consistent – always have stories last before tucking in. She’s arguing more now about teeth brushing and potty,but it’s always the same with plenty of warnings.


Don’t know what to do now….she wakes every 2-3 hours screaming sometimes for her lights and music – other times scared of “something” (she can’t say what) and other nights she says “I can’t sleep – my body won’t let me”.We’ve left her to cry it out, crack her door open, baby gate across, small lamp on all night, ignore altogether, homeopathic chamomile tablets, the list goes on.


We are exhausted and stress is getting higher – any suggestions?!


Thank you so much,

Karen & Andrew


Hi Karen and Andrew,


Congratulations on the wonderful sleep training that you did in the early years. This tells me that your daughter has the skills and capacity to fall asleep on her own and get herself back to sleep. But now she is 4 years old and things have changed. Around this age there are developmental changes. Children’s imaginations really seem to come alive at this time and they are able to create scary thoughts. The fact that the first incidences of sleep disturbance happened around Halloween, with the appearance of ghosts and goblin decorations, makes sense to me.   She has much material to think about to get herself spooked by her own imaginings.


She was also sick at this time and she could have been waking due to congestion or coughing.  At those times you may have come to her in the middle of the night either to soothe her from nightmares or to settle her back to sleep while she was ill.


Whether the waking habit started from Halloween or being ill, your daughter learned that if you wake in the night there is an opportunity to socialize with mom and dad. As she started feeling better, her reasons now seem less valid and you  likely got more frustrated with her.  Now she needed to resort to some new creative way of keeping you busy and ensuring you will come to make your nightly visit; so she devises screaming and being agitated. She does not know this is her reason for behaving this way.   These choices are made at a pre-conscious level.


So, how are we going to help her get re-established into a good sleep pattern? First lets understand sleep: We all cycle through various sleep states through out the night. Moving from light sleep down to deep sleep.  During the light sleep phase, many of us actually wake momentarily, however, we don’t even realize that this happens. We simply roll over and go back to sleep, with no memory of having woken.  When your daughter comes to that light sleep peak in her cycle, she wakes for a second and instead of rolling over she realizes “Oh, I’m awake, it’s the middle of the night, I think I will call/shriek for my parents”. The usefulness of this waking is the middle of the night parental visit.


We want her to wake in the night, but instead of choosing to scream, we want her to make the same choice as the rest of us: simply roll over and go back to sleep the way she has already been trained to successfully do so in the past.  sHow do we get her to do this? By making night wakings no longer serve their usefulness of being social / disturbing others in the night. That means you need to explain that you will not be responding to her in the middle of the night anymore. Help to train her how to handle herself if she gets spooked in the middle of the night.


I think it is great that you have all these safeguards in place like the baby gate and the light so that you know she is safe and comfortable.  Next is to start working with her to find creative ways for her to soothe herself back to sleep (without your involvement).


  1. Have her identify what position she likes to fall asleep in
  2. Remind her when she thinks of ghosts and goblins she ends up feeling scared. When she thinks about rainbows and puppy dogs and birthday cake she feels happy. Explain it is up to her to CHOOSE to think about happy thoughts to get herself back to sleep. She drives her thoughts, and there thoughts create her emotions.
  3. Let her know that while you love her, you trust that she is safe and that she has the skills to fall back to sleep on her own and that you look forward to seeing her in the morning.
  4. Follow Through!


Once she realizes that no amount of screaming will get her a nightly visit with her parents, she will learn that the activity (screaming, in this case), no longer serves its purpose.


I hope this is helpful!

Sweet Dreams & Happy Parenting


About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

One Response to “Parents #AskAlyson: Sudden Night Waking”

  1. T

    My youngest daughter experienced something similar around the same age which we understood to be “night terrors”. She was transitioning out of her afternoon nap and was overtired when she went to bed at night. I searched online and found the answer. Counterintuitively, when we brought back her nap (just for a few weeks), her nighttime sleep became undisturbed. Then everyone slept better. Hope this helps.


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