Nocturnal awakening is the most frequent insomnia complaint in the general population, and perhaps an even greater complaint for parents whose children seem incapable of sleeping through the night. The exact prevalence of frequent night-time awakenings in children is not known, but studies suggest anywhere between 9.8% (10.0% for boys vs. 8.9% for girls) for 5-12 year olds to 46% in 12-month olds and 9.4%-23.8% in adolescents.
Having a disturbed night-time sleeping pattern is normal in children up to age of around 2 years, where night-time awakenings can occur frequently. While the good news is that as infants and toddlers grow, they also tend to grow out of their night-time awakenings. However, if frequent awakenings (several times/week) persist after 2 years of age, this can be indicative of a sleep problem, and is something you should consult your paediatrician about.
Night-time wakings tend to disrupt the sleep of the entire family. A lack of sleep is known to impair daytime functioning in both children and adults. So, what are our best tips for handling night-time awakenings when they occur?
Firstly, try to avoid getting up. Keep the lights off or use a nightlight, and minimise sounds. Encourage your child to snuggle down with a toy or blanket as a sleep partner. You can try putting on white noise or a sleep story, to help them calm down and fall back asleep.
If they have woken up because of a nightmare, providing comfort and reassurance is often enough to help them fall back asleep. If it is a particularly bad dream, let your child tell you about it, and offer comfort and reassurance that it was just a dream, and that dreams are not real.
Preventative measures can involve making sure your child has sound sleeping habits, and that their bedtime routine follows good sleep hygiene practices. This includes going to bed on time, and minimising screen time before bed. Sleep-deprived children are more likely to have bad dreams, so making sure you have a good bedtime routine in place that allows your child time to calm down as well as get enough sleep can help prevent night-time wakings.