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Why Does My Toddler Wake Up Screaming?

Photograph by Twenty20

Dear Heather,

My toddler used to sleep through the night but lately has been waking up every three hours crying hysterically. I don't know what to do and, since it's the middle of the night, I bring him into bed. It's the only way he'll go back to sleep.


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Dear Victoria,

It sounds to me like there's something in his bedtime routine that's causing him to wake up every few sleep cycles.

Is your son falling asleep with you in the room, or is he very drowsy when he gets into the crib/bed? Does he have a pacifier that falls out, or does he not know how to re-tuck his own blankets? Anything that changes—even slightly—between when he falls asleep at bedtime and when he wakes in the night will make him call out to you to fix or re-do.

Start by assessing the circumstances around bedtime to make sure this isn't the culprit.

It sounds like you don't want him in bed with you, which means, if you're sure he's not sick or in pain (usually teething pain only last a short few days if that's the problem), I'd recommend using the Sleep Wave method in "The Happy Sleeper," my book about the science of sleep for newborns to school-age children.

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The Sleep Wave method is the approach for responding to your child while also establishing a new pattern. In your case, the new pattern is him sleeping independently and not in your bed, if that's your wish. The Sleep Wave will help you turn around a sleep habit like this, which is what it sounds like to me.

Don't forget to assess your bedtime routines first, though!

Sleep happy,


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Sleep expert Heather Turgeon, co-author of "The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night's Sleep—Newborn to School Age," will fix your family's sleep problems in this space as she does in her home consultations. Turgeon's solutions are nonjudgmental, kind and—best of all—based on science.

No situation is too challenging. Leave your sleep problem in the comments. Let's all get a good night's sleep, finally.

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