“My toddler and I are having difficult times now as I’ve totally wean her off my breast 4 days ago. No more milk and no more latching to sleep.

The weaning process is hard for us as we are both very sleep deprived now. However, it has been consistent that for the past 3 days, her 1am night waking – she doesn’t managed to fall back to sleep after crying. After crying, she did try to lie on the bed and close her eyes but she can’t fall back to sleep. So she would ask to go out of the room, to the living hall, to see what other family member is doing, etc. I agreed at the first two days and will carry her downstairs, while she will eventually fall asleep in my arms as I stand at the living room and rock her a bit. (She refused to let me sit). But since two days ago I refused cos I’m too tired. So I’ll just let her stay in the room, eat biscuits or play toys. And she will only fall asleep at 3am or 4am. 🙁

Is it ok to let her do some stuff when she can’t get back to sleep in the middle of the night without latching? When she stops crying and starting to instruct me to go here and there, do this and that, should I follow her “instructions”? I’m exhausted and lost.”

That’s one of the most common questions I get about toddlers waking up to play for hours in the night.

It’s important to understand first how the toddler’s sleep schedule is like. What time he wakes up, what time his naps are, length of naps, what the bedtime routine is like, what time bedtime is and how the child is put to sleep.

Generally, for a toddler on 2 naps a day, their day would typically look like this:
7am Wake up
8am Breakfast
10am Nap #1 for at least an hour
12pm Lunch
2/3pm Nap #2 for another hour
6pm Dinner
7pm Bath and bedtime routine begins
8pm Bedtime

Or toddlers who have transitioned into one nap a day, their schedule generally look like this:
8am Wake up
9am Breakfast
9-11am Activity/Play Time
11am Lunch
12pm Nap for at least 2 hours, max 3 hours
6pm Dinner
7pm Bath and bedtime routine begins
7.30/8pm Bedtime depending on when the nap ends (they usually go from 4 up to 5 hours of awake time from the afternoon nap)

Why this is important is because when you have an overtired child, perhaps due to too short naps or too late bedtime, their circadian rhythm (internal body clock) gets thrown off and they would treat the first few hours of sleep as a nap and then they get recharged to get up to play.

Assuming that your child has a solid schedule and somewhat consistent from day to day, but they’re still waking up at night, then look at how your child goes to sleep. Is there a very rigid and specific way your toddler MUST have in order to go to sleep? Behaviours that are very rigid and controlling show that the child has lots of fears and anxiety, and they are using these external ‘things’ to keep those fears inside in order to go to sleep. It could be vigorous rocking, breastfeeding, thumb sucking, holding on to your face, sleep on your chest etc.

When these fears and anxieties around sleep don’t get resolved at bedtime (or during the day) they bubble up in their sleep over and over again. How to resolve them? By helping your child to cry in your arms or presence as healthy release of these feelings.

In this situation, her toddler has just recently weaned from breastfeeding. Naturally, there will be lots of tears in the beginning. There is a loving limit being set – no more latching to sleep. When we set a loving limit, it needs to be done from a place of calm, loving and compassion. AND we are to accept all the upsets and frustration that comes from the loving limit.

You can’t expect your child to comply without upset. The limit is set by you, in this mum’s case because she’s pregnant with another child and her toddler is already 2.5 years old. Then make space for the feelings that come up. It’s totally unrealistic to expect your toddler to say, “Okay mummy”. What you can do is to say, “Oh sweetie baby, I hear you really want to nurse, but we are not going to do that anymore and I’ll listen to all your upset and disappointment about it.”

For some toddlers, they cry and wake their parents. Then they point to the door or demands that their mum or dad to accompany them to play instead. This is another way young children deal with their fear and anxiety around sleep. They want to be distracted by being entertained until they feel sleepy again. It’s probably because they are distracted many times from crying in the day time with toys, screen time and endless entertainment.

Here are some tips for you to set loving limits with confidence:

  1. Prepare and think ahead. If you see this as a frequent occurring pattern, then you gotta be one step ahead of your child. You know that the request to play is going to happen at 2-3am. Know and prepare to set the limits ahead of time.
  2. Don’t use bribe or make promises when holding a limit. I know it’s very hard to listen to tears and tantrums at that time of the night and you just want your child to stop it and go to sleep. It’s also very tempting to say, “I promise we take you for a walk at the playground first thing in the morning!” It’s really not necessary for all that. Stay focused on the limit but accept the feelings that come with it.
  3. Ensure that your tone is warm, but firm. I also understand it’s so easy to just yell out of frustration but this can be very scary for your toddler who already has lots of fears to deal with. He or she needs your calm and confidence presence in order for him or her to have a healthy release.
  4. Repeat the loving limit if they keep pointing to the door to go outside. You might say, “Oh sweetie I hear how much you want to play outside but it’s sleepytime now so we’re staying here.”
  5. No need to explain the reason for the limit more than once. This is usually for 3 or 4 year olds who like to question “why” to everything that you do. If you find yourself explaining again and again, you will already know how much this irritates you.

If you are so over those late night play times, I suggest you try these tips and see how that works for your toddler. It’s nice that they want to play, but let’s keep those play times during the waking hours shall we? 🙂