Q&A: toddler waking up in the middle of the night

Amy writes:

"Is there such a thing as an insomniac toddler? Twice recently, both on Sunday nights, she woke up a few hours after going to sleep. And would not go back down. Which results in scenarios like a wide-awake two-year-old in bed with us at 3 am (we typically don't co-sleep but occasionally will bring her into bed when she won't sleep, in hopes we can) wrapping her arms around us and declaring "Family HUG!!"  Which means NO ONE is sleeping, because really, how cute is that? We explain to her it is sleep time and not play time and don't engage, hard as it is. Still, she's ready to rock and we're half dead.

She's 26 months old tomorrow, and the only possible consistent thing is that she goes to school on Mondays. She loves school so I don't think it's anxiety; we often see my parents on Sunday so maybe overstimulation? But some days things are totally normal and she still has trouble sleeping. Like today (a Thursday), she was up 2 hours earlier than normal and  took a crappy nap and was up for like an hour and half at midnight.

She does have a permacold this winter--we run the humidifier and give her medicine when it's bad.

We have a pretty consistent bedtime routine and have since she was a newborn. Usually she goes right to sleep. Naps have been bad this whole week, too. It's not unusual for her to nap badly for a week and then be fine, but the night sleep is unusual. How can I get this girl to sleep? We're all exhausted when this happens. Poor babe gets dark circles under her eyes and practically falls over from exhaustion.

Help us, Moxie and pals!"

This question piggybacks onto yesterday's question about the 2-year-old who won't go to sleep on his own. So let's repeat some of the stuff from that post, especially the comments: The most common time for parents to co-sleep with their kids is from ages 2-5, because it's just easier than fighting the wake-up battles all night. And some huge number of kids wakes up at least once in the middle of the night (50%!), even after 2 years old. So your daughter isn't unusual. For what that's worth.

Anyway, as to why this is happening, my guess is that it's a combo of overstimulation from the grandparents, excitement about school the next day (she can wake up because she's looking forward to going, not just out of dread), and developmental stuff. This age is still jam-packed with development, from verbal to cognitive to physical to emotional. It's probably like all the developmental spurts you lived through back in the first year, in that whatever's happening will connect in a week or two, and she'll go back to sleeping. (Remember how easy it was to know what was going on in that first year with The Wonder Weeks? If only Vanderijt and Plooij would release the guide to developmental spurts for the next, oh, 35 years.)

What leads me also to think that it's developmental spurts is the idea that she just can't physically stay asleep. If she's tired and has circles under her eyes, then she needs to sleep but just can't. Also, the fact that she's wide awake ("FAMILY HUG!"?? Hee.) in the middle of the night and not trying to fall back asleep indicates that her body just isn't letting her sleep then.

So. Where does that leave you? Well, knowing that it's not going to last forever, but that nothing's going to definitively fix it right now. So you can decide to do nothing and ride it out, try to enact a plan to get her to sleep through (which will probably not be that successful given the limits of sleep her body's giving her right now), try to manage her not sleeping so it has an impact on the fewest number of people in your household as possible on any given night, or some combo of all of these.

The one thing that seemed to help us during this phase (the first time through--maybe #2 will be different) was to run him around every morning until he almost dropped. It was tough during the winter (which is why we stuck with the really lame soccer class), but if I could tire out his body physically every day, then at least he could get a decent nap before his brain started waking up his body. And sometimes it seemed to help the nighttime sleep, too.

Readers? Stories of commisseration? Or some magic tricks (and remember that use of opiates doesn't count) to get a 2-year-old to sleep through the night.