Is your child not sleeping through the night anymore? Try these tips if your 4 year old wakes up every night crying. No more sleep regression!
You’re at your wits end. Your 4 year old has begun waking multiple times a night for various reasons.
She needs to use the potty or had nightmares. She’s thirsty for water, or claims that her leg or finger hurts. Sometimes she’ll even walk into your room just to say goodnight… again. And one time, you even found her at two in the morning with all the lights on, coloring in the dining room.
If she’s not quiet, your child wakes up hysterical, screaming so loud that she even wakes up her siblings. Instead of getting out of bed, she’ll yell until you go into her room. Even then, she won’t calm down and will start crying more if you try to leave.
Giving her a sticker as part of a reward system or taking privileges away don’t seem to work. And sometimes, the reasons stem deeper, like dealing with a new sibling or going to preschool for the first time.
What to do when your 4 year old wakes up every night
Waking up in the middle of the night can feel jarring to the parent who has grown used to eight hours of nighttime sleeping. Suddenly, you’re back to being jolted awake and hoping your child goes back to sleep. Except this time, you’re long past the infant stage and dealing with a 4 year old.
The first step is to reach out to her pediatrician to rule out symptoms of a sleep disorder. From an ear infection to night terrors, your child’s sleep problems should be looked into by a medical professional.
Once all is cleared, you can still do plenty to change her behavior and help her sleep through the night again. Take a look at these tips to see how:
1. Talk about expectations
One of the best ways to stop your 4 year old waking up every night is to talk about your expectations during the day. Long before she even climbs into bed, talk about what should happen at night.
For instance, go over the bedtime routine, from starting with a bath and ending with you turning off the lights and closing the door. Remind her that she’s safe at night, and that you’ll only check in on her at set times.
Come up with a solution to her needs and wants, from using the potty before bed to saying goodnight just once. And let her know that any more requests beyond those won’t be met, especially since you held up your end of the bargain and made sure she was fine before sleep.
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2. Equip your child with strategies
Now that your 4 year old has a sense of what to expect, give her a few strategies to cope when she finds herself awake in the middle of the night.
These strategies will depend on the reasons she tends to wake up. Let’s say she goes to your room because she doesn’t like to sleep alone. One strategy she can try is to hold onto a favorite stuffed animal as her companion for the night. Show her how to talk to and comfort her stuffy so she feels less alone.
Perhaps she wakes up saying she’s thirsty. She can place a cup of water by her bed before going to sleep, to start. Then, she can ask herself if she can wait until the next morning to grab a drink.
By giving her ideas and strategies to try, she feels more empowered to make choices and follow through with them.
3. Encourage sleep-related pretend play
Kids can work through so many fears and anxieties by playing, especially open-ended pretend play. Your child can “act out” scenes that might be too scary for her to think about, helping her cope when she’s actually in her room at night.
To encourage pretend play, use stuffed animals, dolls, figurines, or other toys and invite her to play. Have her put her toys to sleep, starting with the routine you usually do and ending with them lying on a pillow. Let her take the lead, and simply observe what she comes up with.
Play along with her, but allow her to call the shots, no matter how farfetched her ideas might be. They just might keep her calm and collected at night when she remembers how she played earlier in the day.
4. Give your child your full attention
Your child’s antics—from asking for more kisses to getting upset when you leave—can stem from her need to get her “fill” of you. If a typical day finds you saying, “In a minute” or “Can we do that later?” she might be needing more attention. And unfortunately, this can emerge in the middle of the night.
The solution? Give her your full attention throughout the day and around bedtime, especially if she has other siblings. No distractions, tasks, or chores taking up half your attention. Set aside as little as 10 minutes to truly listen and be with her.
You might talk about what she thinks she’ll dream about that night, or what she was grateful for during the day (and why). Ask her what her favorite part of dinner was, or what she looks forward tomorrow. By giving her your full attention, she just might feel less inclined to ask for it in the middle of the night.
5. Change the time your child goes to bed
A simple change in your child’s sleep schedule can make a huge difference in whether he wakes up in the middle of the night.
The best place to start is to see when he’s currently sleeping. If he’s sleeping later in the night, say, at 9:30pm, move bedtime earlier to no later than 8:30pm. He might not have enough night sleep with a late bedtime, leading to cranky whining, unreasonable demands, and fitful rest.
But maybe he’s sleeping too early. Let’s say he needs to be awake by 6am in the morning, so you put him down for the night at 6:30pm. The trouble is, the early bedtime could be causing him to have too much sleep come the middle of the night. This makes it harder for him to fall back to sleep when he stirs.
In this case, push bedtime later to something like 7:30pm. Kids this age can use 10-12 hours of sleep a night, so it’s not unreasonable to sleep as late at 7:30pm or even 8pm with a 6am wake up.
6. Experiment with your child’s room
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Sometimes, the biggest successes can come from the smallest changes, starting with your child’s room. Here are a few changes to consider:
- Night lights. If you don’t already use one, plugging one into a wall can help ease any fears she may have of sleeping in pitch black darkness. But if you already have one, she might be afraid of shadows it’s casting, or even unable to sleep because that particular night light is too dark. Experiment with either adding, removing, or replacing a night light to see if that helps her sleep through the night.
- Close the door. Does she go to your room or roam the rest of the house while you’re asleep? Close the door to prevent her from getting out while you’re asleep.
- Weighted blanket. Some kids sleep better with a weighted blanket, which provides a nice, snug feeling to sleep underneath.
- Limit screen devices. Television, tablets, or phones should be limited for this age group, and especially near bedtime.
7. Check in at set times
The more attention we give our kids, the more we reinforce that behavior, whether positive or negative. Part of helping your 4 year old sleep through the night is to change her expectations of what happens when she lets out a scream.
Yes, check on her when she initially cries. But rather than going in each time she cries, set your timer for 10- or 15-minute intervals and go into her room only then.
Let’s say she woke up at midnight. Go into her room and briefly let her know that it’s time to sleep. Keep your demeanor kind but calm and quiet. This isn’t the time to engage in conversation or stimulate the environment. Don’t wait for her to calm down—instead, leave the room and set your timer for 12:15am.
Then, should she still be awake when the timer goes off, check in on her then, repeating your message about going to sleep. Be compassionate and consistent with your response, and she’ll learn that she last little choice but to fall asleep.
Come the next morning, praise her for a job well done (yup, even if she was yelling more than ever). She’s learning a new way to fall asleep and is more likely to continue these good sleep habits knowing she’s on the right track.
It’s never easy when your 4 year old wakes up every night out of the blue. By taking a few steps, you can curb the behavior and get a good night’s sleep again.
To start, talk about expectations throughout the day so that she’s clear about what will happen and why you’re going to respond the way you will. Equip her with coping strategies to help her deal with her emotions when she wakes up.
Encourage sleep-related pretend play so she can work out her night-time feelings in a safe and healthy way. Give her your full attention at some point in the day so she feels less compelled to whine and nag for it.
Change when bedtime starts, either moving it earlier or later depending on when she currently goes to bed. Experiment with her room, like adding or removing a nightlight. And when she wakes up in the middle of the night, check in at set intervals, not every time she cries for you.
Now you and your child can finally get a full night of sleep—without waking up to find her coloring in the dining room.
Get more tips:
- 16 Examples of a 4 Year Old Schedule
- How to Discipline a 4 Year Old When Nothing Seems to Work
- 7 Parenting Skills That Are Actually Helpful
- Effective Techniques to Help Your Child’s Separation Anxiety at Night
- Stop Giving Your Child Empty Threats
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