The Inevitable: Waking up in the Middle of the Night

This is the first week in a 3-week series on parenting observations. Week one is based on gentle parenting, week two is about parenting with compassion, and week three is about parenting with a disability.

These posts are based on my personal experiences as a parent and are not meant in any way to judge other parenting styles or decisions. I am offering my personal research and conclusions as possible suggestions for others out there, therefore these posts will be as objective as possible. When it comes to parenting: provided the method isn’t abusive, there really isn’t a wrong way to parent your child. Be secure and do what works best for you and your family and ignore outside judgement.


It’s one in the morning and your little one wakes up.

It seemed like everything was going well: they were sleeping through the night and now they are walking up almost nightly, for seemingly no reason.

There are plenty of posts out there on how to cope with the wake up. Tips and tricks on trying to get them back into bed and to sleep. That’s not what this post is about.

This post is for you, the caretaker, and how you manage your feelings when you’ve only had 3 hours of sleep and facing multiple hours of wakefulness while waiting for your little one to go back to sleep. How do you keep it together without getting frustrated? How do you show empathy when all you want is sleep and they won’t stop crying?

What is Gentle Parenting & Bedtime Routines?

This post is related to my week about gentle parenting. If you are just dropping in, check out my previous posts about gentle parenting and bedtime routines for more information.

Why Little Ones Wake Up

There are a variety of reasons why your little one wakes up: overtired, hungry, nightmare, or learning a new developmental skill. It’s important to identify the reason why they are waking up before going any further. Understanding what is waking a child up makes it easier to figure out how to handle the situation in your sleep-deprived stupor.

Below are some of the top reasons why a child wakes up in the middle of the night:

  • Hungry
  • Diaper
  • Changed Sleeping Conditions
  • Overtired
  • Sudden Illness
  • Nightmare
  • Growth Spurt
  • New Skill
  • Personality
  • No Reason

As you can see, I grouped them together by types of reasons: stuff you can control, stuff you can’t control, and the ominous “no reason.”

With the factors you can control, changing the conditions that caused the wake up is as simple as can be. Change that diaper, put them back into the crib and you should be on your way. But with the stuff you can’t control or no identifiable reason, it’s going to take a little more work and that can get really frustrating by hour two of no sleep.

Calming Down before you Calm Them Down

Being woken from a sound sleep can easily be one of the most frustrating things of your night. Therefore, it is important to identify the reason why your child might not be sleeping through the night and come up with a plan. If you know to expect the wake up, you can be prepared with how to handle the situation.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t rush into their room at the first sign of waking up. They may be making noise out of frustration and will settle themselves back to sleep in no time. Know the difference between “frustration” and “need-you-now-caretaker!” noises.
  2. When it is time to go into their room, identify why your child is waking up and see if you can meet the needs you can control.
    • If you are feeling particularly frustrated over the matter, take a few minutes to breathe. Ask yourself: why am I frustrated? Then say to yourself: It is okay that I am frustrated, but this is temporary and will eventually pass even if it doesn’t feel like it. My little one needs my strength and comfort and I can give both to them.
  3. If the waking up is something you cannot control, figure out what you can do to help soothe them.
    • For some children being in the room is enough to get them to fall back to sleep. Others might need their backs rubbed or cuddled. Still others might need you to sing to them.
    • Remember, sleeping is new to them (even if they are older). You’ve had years to work through what helps get you to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s a learning process for them like walking.
  4. Figure out what your boundaries are and stick with them. There are things you are willing and unwilling to do to help cope with the situation.
    • You may not want to bring them to bed with you at any point, though that may be what they are looking for from you.  Come up with a compromise in the meantime: sleep in a chair next to their bed, sit by their bed on the floor until they fall asleep.
  5. Do not blame your partner if they handle the situation differently than you. As tempting as it might be, if your partner took control over the situation and did so in a less than ideal manner, remember that they are just as sleep-deprived as you.
    • They are doing the best that they can just like you. Remember to be grateful for their efforts and save any conversation on the matter until the morning when you both are clear-headed and less emotional.
  6. Remember this is another opportunity as a parent to practice patience. There is very little you can do to stop the wake ups from happening, so it is best to accept them for what they are and wait it out.
  7. Plan for the rest of the night and for future wake ups. Reflect on how you would like to handle the situation in the future and what needs to happen to make that a reality.

The most important thing is to be compassionate with yourself. If you can’t be kind with yourself and allow yourself to feel that frustration (but without taking it out on your little one), then you will struggle with taking the necessary steps to get your little one to sleep.

Children can pick up on your frustration and it isn’t their fault that they are waking up in the middle of the night. Chances are they are just as frustrated with the situation as you. But unfortunately, that is manifested in tears, shouts, and refusals.

Remember that you are the adult even when that’s the last thing you want to be in that moment. Your child looks up to your strength, but do not be upset if you struggle. We are all human and imperfect. The goal is to try differently next time if you struggled.

 

 

The Takeaway

There are a lot of suggestions out there for why, how, and what to do when your little one wakes up. There is very little information on how the parent should take care of themselves during these periods.

Self-care is extremely important and taking a moment to put yourself in your child’s shoes helps. Why are they waking up and how would I feel if everything was new and foreign to me? By granting yourself a few moments to understand your child’s perspective will help you gather yourself to handle the situation with care and understanding.

It may not get them to fall back to sleep any sooner, but it can help minimize the stress of the situation can be out of your control.

 

What are some things you like to do to help keep you calm during a random wake up? Post your experiences and tips below in the comments.

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