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Bedtime Rebellion

Nov09

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Hi Amy,

I’ve been a loyal reader and general fan of All Things Amalah for several years now. I started reading right after your oldest was born, and over the years (and through my own struggles with fertility and child bearing) I’ve always counted on your blog to give me a good laugh or cry at the right time! Now I have my own beautiful 2 year old son, and though he is generally a mystery to me on all fronts, I have finally hit That Thing for which I must get advice, because oh, I am so confused. And oh, I am so tired.

My boy has been a decent sleeper his whole life. He started sleeping through the night consistently at about 10 weeks and he has generally been sleeping through ever since. My husband works part time as a church organist, so rehearsals and other activities keep us away from home many evenings. The boy settled easily into a schedule of sleeping at night from 9:30/10pm-7am, and taking a 3 hour nap during the day. Considering our lifestyle, and considering that he is in full time daycare, I was really happy with this schedule as it allowed us so many waking hours together.

Our bedtime routine has been consistent since the beginning – books, songs, and then bed (baths are way! too! exciting! for bedtime). He still sleeps in a crib so when it’s time for bed we give kisses goodnight, cover him with the blanket and leave the room. He has always stayed awake for a little while, talking to toys and singing, but in general he would be asleep within 15 minutes.

All of that changed this summer, leading up to his second birthday. It began with inconsolable sadness when we left the room. We were able to work through that to some degree by making a slower exit and a longer transition, but now the issue is that he just will not stop talking and go to bed.

My son is not particularly verbal (a separate mystery all together) so he alternates between complete babble and loudly singing a few of his favorite songs. All in all, he seems happy in there (and thank goodness he hasn’t tried to climb out of the crib yet) but he isn’t getting very much sleep at all. Whatever time we put him to bed, he will keep himself awake for HOURS and occasionally wake up super early (like, 4:30 am) to start it all again. I’ve asked our daycare provider about his naps and she reports that he is taking a normal 2 hours in the early afternoon. That means that most days a week he is getting maybe 8 or 9 hours of sleep and, while I hate to Google myself into a frenzy, that just doesn’t seem like enough. He would happily sleep the morning away after his late night escapades, but alas, morning comes at the same time every day and at 6:30 I have to pry his sleepy self out of the crib. You would think that would mean a BIG nap is coming, or an early bedtime that evening, but no dice. Every time he senses that he is getting tired or falling asleep, he kicks up a rousing chorus of Old MacDonald and gets himself all riled up again. We don’t go get him when he does this – at night or early morning – because everything I’ve heard/read indicates that wouldn’t be a good idea. I’m ready to throw everything I “know” out the window though, because nothing seems to work.

Though our evenings change quite a bit, bedtime has the same routine every night. I have tried putting him in bed earlier, but he just plays longer. I have tried to wear him out with long walks and games at the playground in the evening. I have tried to calm him down with books and quiet play. I’ve tried watching TV, and banning TV. Evening snacks and no evening snacks. Going in to try and settle him down always has the opposite effect. Playing soft music for him in his room helped at first, but now he just sings over it. It’s terribly cute, but I just can’t help but feel like there will ultimately be consequences to his determination to sleep like a college student.

So, am I crazy? Should I really be this worried? Will he eventually crash and sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a week or two and get back to normal? Is it possible that he just doesn’t need the sleep? Should I just buy a white noise machine for him and crank it to 11? He is really a very happy and bright little boy, but I feel like I am seeing the effects of sleep deprivation on his mood and I am at a loss for how to help him turn off that tiny brain so that both of us can get some sleep.

Thank you for any and all suggestions!!

EE- AYE-EE-AYE-OH, I am so tired.

Okay, take a deep breath and recite the following Mantra Of Toddlerhood: You cannot make a child eat, sleep or poop. In these three areas, alas, your kid is firmly, totally in charge.

Reading your email was like playing a mental game of dominoes — I’d think of a possible solution/suggestion (EARLIER BEDTIME! NO EVENING TV! SOFT MUSIC!) and then realize that yeah, you already tried that, never mind. In fact, I’m pretty sure you have tried everything that gets tossed around when trying to diagnose a toddler’s sleep problem.

But how big of a “problem” is this, actually? According to the charts I’ve seen, the “average” number of hours for a two-year-old to sleep is between 10 and 13. So on most days, he’s still coming within an hour or two of that. And let’s not forget that there is a TON of variation in what we consider “average.” Technically we grown-ups are supposed to get at least eight hours, but we ALL know people who need more like nine or 10 (raises hand), or people who manage to completely recharge in three or four (points at husband).

Basically: I don’t think this is quite the crisis you’re worried it might be. Let me pat your hair and tell you I really think everything is gonna be all right. He’ll either snap out of this eventually…or he’ll just be a kid with a long self-soothing process and who needs a good amount of lead time to get himself to sleep. He’s always been a good sleeper who slept the right amount of hours he needed at the time, and while toddlers LOVE to completely change the rules on us, he might still be doing that, and getting the right amount of hours for him, for now.

What’s important is that he DOES get to sleep eventually. And it’s not like he’s wailing in lonely, anxiety-ridden agony or frustration or anything. (If you’ve ever struggled with even the occasional bout of insomnia, you know it’s not happy fun playtime.) He’s singing and babbling to himself and is fine and content and perfectly safe in his bed.

So…let him. Don’t go in and interrupt him with useless pleas and admonitions to go to sleep. If he’s keeping YOU up with his racket, buy some earplugs or put the white noise machine in YOUR room, so you can at least sleep through it. He doesn’t need you (or even seem to particularly want or expect you, from the sound of it), so just let him do his little quirky toddler thing and focus on getting the hours you need.

As I’m writing this I’m remembering that actually, Noah went through a very similar phase that started around two years old…and at the time I blamed the fact that he was in a big kid bed and thus more tempted to stay up and explore and play, but I’m now having hazy memories of it starting before that transition. We’d put him to bed around 8 or 8:30 and continue to hear singing and babbling and general play sounds until 9:30 or 10, or even later. Since he was still taking a nap most days (or at least being ordered to have some “quiet time” in his room), it honestly never really worried me that much. The only toys/distractions he had in his room were books, and I figured there were worse things in the world than a kid who insists on staying awake to look at books for an extra hour or two. The only thing I insisted on was that he stayed in his bed — he could get up to grab a book from the bookshelf, but no dancing or jumping or whirling around.

Whenever he was actually ready to sleep, we’d hear him humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. (He would also rock himself back and forth, which was kind of a sensory/stimming quirk, but one that he eventually outgrew.) Sometimes I’d hear the humming at other points in the right, indicating that he’d woken up and was trying to get back to sleep. And even now, at six years old, there are nights when we put him to bed (still at 8/8:30) and he’s out like a light in five minutes, and other nights when it takes him an extra hour or more to fall asleep. He sings or reads books or tells himself stories in the meantime, and it all seems to balance out in the end. And Ezra, too, is at that weird inbetween stage where he’s allllllmost ready to give up his afternoon nap but not quite yet, so some nights after he’s taken a long nap he’s REALLY not ready to settle down right at the stroke of bedtime, and he makes repeated fake trips to the potty or to get water or talks to himself.

I just kind of shrug and let them work it out, honestly. There’s one wall nightlight that’s bright enough to read a book by (and keeping that off actually seems to agitate them more, I’ve found), so whatever. Read books, stay in bed, and I’ll leave you alone. If you’re tired the next day, it’s your own fault, and if you’re really acting godawful, bedtime will start at 7:30 instead. (I realize this approach probably comes more from the whole HAVING THREE CHILDREN thing rather than being “correct” or “proper.” I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU DO. JUST STAY IN YOUR ROOM AND STOP BUGGING ME, MAMA’S TIRED.)

It can be frustrating to see sleep deprivation affecting your kid’s mood, though at this age it’s really hard to diagnose EXACTLY why your cranky, irritable two-year-old is acting like…well, a cranky, irritable two-year-old. But trust me: You cannot make him fall asleep. I would seriously just let him work through whatever this is, be it something temporary like molars or a pre-vocabulary explosion sleep regression (and oh yes, that is a Thing That Exists)…or something permanent, indicating that your kid is just one of those kids who don’t need as much sleep. Stick with the routine and feel free to stop trying all sorts of pre- and post-bedtime experiments.

(Though letting him choose a book or two to take into the crib with him might be an interesting one to try — his brain is up and active anyway so maybe letting him “read” would tire it out a little sooner than his singing/babbling alone does. And even if it doesn’t, maybe knowing that hey, he’s looking at nice, enriching BOOKS will help you stay calmer about his late-night playtime? At least, that’s how I’ve justified my kids’ bouts of bedtime rebellion.)

If letting him sleep in on the weekends is ever an option, do it — if he is actually operating on a sleep deficit, he can make up some of the hours then. But still, don’t worry so much about it. If he was really, genuinely tired, he’d SLEEP. He’d take a four-hour nap one day, or something. And if he was really, genuinely having problems falling asleep, he’d likely be sobbing in frustration in his crib instead of treating his stuffed animals to a rousing concert of classic preschool favorites. Just keep doing what you’re doing (because it all sounds great) and let him do whatever it is he does…down the hall, with the door closed and the monitor OFF, while you get some sleep of your own.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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17 Responses to “Bedtime Rebellion”

  1. Sid Nov 09 at 3:26 pm Reply Reply

    Amy is right on point as per usual. If he’s happy every night I’d be unlikely to mess with it. That said, I know that if
    my kid (26 months) was still napping in the afternoon she’d be up until 12am happy as a clam rather than sleeping from 8pm to 7am consistently. She too does the babble-chat-sing herself to sleep every night but after too many late naps = late nights, we decided to stop letting her nap at all. You feel sort of guilty at first for not letting them sleep but that feeling goes away once you start getting your evenings back.

  2. Olivia Nov 09 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

    Sounds like he just doesn’t need as much sleep as other toddlers. My 2.5 yr old goes to sleep (actually falls asleep) around 9 pm and wakes up 6:30-7am, then takes a 1.5-2 hr nap at daycare. So, pretty average, but there are days when she takes longer to fall asleep. She wants to read more books or just gab, and then takes a 3 hr nap the next day. I figure she’s getting the sleep she needs. She’s happy, healthy and pops out of bed with a smile. And I get not necessarily wanting him to go to be earlier. That time between work and bedtime is precious. 

  3. Ginger Nov 09 at 4:01 pm Reply Reply

    My kiddo went through a phase like this a few months ago (and occasionally still does). One particular night, he was up for three & 1/2 hours after we put him down. But he was babbling, playing, “reading”, so we left him. He’s in a toddler bed, so he would go turn his light on, play, then eventually put himself back in bed (sometimes w/ the light, sometimes w/out.). My main thought: Kids are weird. Eventually, he stopped doing that so much, though like I said, we do still have the occasional night like that.

    I say, if he’s calm, let him be. I’d put a few toys/books in the crib with him and be done. It sounds like he’s fine, and the sleep thing will balance out.

  4. bethany actually Nov 09 at 4:18 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter did this around the same age, and eventually settled back down into an earlier bedtime. And again when she was about 3.5, she was keeping herself up till 11 almost every night and we finally twigged to the fact that MAYBE she didn’t need her nap anymore. So we started cutting out naps gradually, and sure enough, on days she didn’t nap she went right to sleep at 8pm, even though she was only napping for about an hour a day at that point.

    Is it possible your son is ready to give up his afternoon nap part of the time? Maybe on weekends, you could try cutting it out and see what happens?

  5. Caitlin Nov 09 at 7:49 pm Reply Reply

    If you put books in the crib with him (excellent idea, which we did too), just make sure they’re board books as you may find your paper books get turned into confetti as a fun bedtime activity.

  6. Julie Nov 09 at 10:11 pm Reply Reply

    My son went through a similar phase where I would know he was tired, and if he’d just stay still for 5 minutes his body would catch up with that fact and he’d fall asleep. But he’d wiggle, and fuss, and get in and out of bed, etc. (For us it was more of a nap time thing than a bedtime thing, but a bit of both some days). What worked for us was similar to Amalah’s suggestion – I had to give him some sort of toy that was interesting enough that he would lay still and actually focus on it, but that wouldn’t continue to make noise after he started drifting off and keep him up.

    For us it alternated between doodle boards, books, or other similar toys. It couldn’t be something that inspired too much movement, so toys cars, etc were out. It would be by the light of the nightlight or hall light with the door cracked open. Many nights I went in after bedtime to find him asleep with the book laying across his face. I can’t really blame him – I usually have to read for at least 5 or 10 minutes before bed to shut off the hamster wheel in my head too. :)

  7. Alissa Nov 09 at 11:09 pm Reply Reply

    I take a little more of a hard-ass approach, because dammit when it’s nap time I need to nap, too, sometimes, and your babbling is keeping me awake…  So we have a My Tot Clock and spent a month or so teaching the little man that when his clock is blue it’s sleep time, and he needs to close his eyes, no talking (and this expanded to no whispering and no kicking, because MY LORD that child can make a racket kicking his crib).  He doesn’t sleep during nap time every day, but it’s 2 hours of quiet time.  And it’s quiet.  And he, if he does nap, takes about an hour to fall asleep at bed time.  Meh.  I don’t care.  It’s fine.  He’s quiet and not bugging me.  I can’t make him sleep.  I have to tell myself this often, when he skips his nap three days in a row and I’m about ready to throw him out a window because he is NOT READY to give up his nap.  I can’t make him sleep.  I can’t make him sleep. OH MY GOD GO TO SLEEP ALREADY!!!  :-)

  8. obabe Nov 10 at 9:52 am Reply Reply

    get rid of the nap. seriously. my kids all dropped their naps by age 2 and they would go to bed for the night between 630-7. its hard at daycare because probably the entire room has rest/quiet/nap time, but its the naps that are messing with him.

  9. Kim Nov 10 at 11:17 am Reply Reply

    It was about this age when, every once in a while, I would pull out the big sleep gun: a little trick I call “Boring the Kid to Sleep.” Mine was (is) not content to play by herself,; company is always preferable to being by herself. If she’s still wide awake at my bedtime, she’ll come into sleep with me. No giggling, no wiggling, one kiss, and then I roll over and go to sleep. Most times she;s asleep before me, but if she isn’t, I know she’s a. safe, and b. won’t wake me up (because, seriously, MAMA SMASH at that point.) My husband moves her later. But there’s some great advice in here, including the part about, eh, let it go.

  10. Jeannie Nov 10 at 2:33 pm Reply Reply

    Yep, yep, yep. I had the same happy-awake toddler. And as long as he was happy, we didn’t bother to change things up too much. If he was wailing and crabby from sleep deprivation, we were more firm, but the happy late night toddler we didn’t do much with EXCEPT remove naps eventually, so we could have some evening down time. If it bothers you, try removing the nap. If not … meh. He’s safe, he’s happy, and when he’s tired, he WILL sleep.

  11. Kay Nov 10 at 4:47 pm Reply Reply

    If you’re seeing changes in your toddler’s mood that’s a good indication that he’s not getting enough sleep. Yes, when your toddler is tired he’ll eventually fall asleep, but likely not for as long as he really needs.

    Before you give up the nap or give up on the situation entirely, I’d recommend buying a book on sleep. (or get one from your local library) I personally really like “Sleeping through the Night” by Jodi Mindell. You’ve tried putting him to bed earlier, but have you tried putting him down at the exact same time every night? Kids really do best if they have the exact same routine day in and day out. (i.e. have him nap at the same time as he does in daycare and put him to bed at the exact same time every night) And, if he’s napping in the early afternoon (and, say, waking up at 3 or 3:30), I wonder if 6-7 hours is too long for him to wait until bedtime. It would be one thing if you had flexibility for him to sleep in the AM, but you don’t.

    Based on what I have read, putting him to bed early is likely your best bet in getting him to sleep longer. Sleep begets sleep. I know when I’m overtired it takes a long time for me to fall asleep. It sounds like your toddler has this problem, but on a chronic level. How long did you try the earlier bedtime? Whatever you try is going to take a while before it works since this is more of a chronic problem. (i.e. if you try an earlier bedtime, it will likely take weeks before you see any changes)

    Good luck!!

  12. danielle Nov 12 at 9:37 am Reply Reply

    My 3 yr old son does this too. He has since 2 1/2. He goes to bed with a large stack of books at 8 doesn’t sleep until 9. No worries! Just be happy he’s happy!

  13. MR Nov 14 at 1:24 pm Reply Reply

    So totally NORMAL. And not just normal, but freaking fantastic! Your child not only self soothes and puts himself to sleep when he is ready, but ALSO entertains himself!! That is awesome! My 3 year old still does this. Every single night she sings quietly to herself and plays in her room before climbing into bed to sleep. What we did when this started was pick the time that WE needed her to be in bed so that we had at least a little downtime in the evening before bed and told her she didn’t have to go to sleep, but she did have to play quietly in her room if she wasn’t ready for bed. Some days she goes right to sleep, but most days she plays quietly or sings quietly for about an hour. This works for nap time too when they decide they no longer need nap – “ok, but you need to play quietly in your room until I come get you”. If she doesn’t go to sleep, I will let her out of “nap” after 30 minutes or an hour depending on if I need a nap/to eat, etc.

  14. Emily Nov 14 at 11:45 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter has done this since she was only a couple months old. I tried to stop her until I realized ‘why?’. She just used to lay there and talk and play and giggle. Now she’s big enough to play with things in her crib. And at 13months (now), I have woken up in the middle of the night to hear her playing again (there’s a 13month sleep regression!), but as long as she’s happy and playing, I let it go. I only have to get involved if she’s upset.

  15. Candace Nov 15 at 12:51 am Reply Reply

    Kay nailed it. Earlier bedtimes over a longer period. A four year old shouldn’t be going to be at 9:30 let alone a 2 year old. Schedules are tough, but this is such a short but important time for brain growth and development. He needs to be in bed much much much earlier.  Good Luck! Sleep truly begets sleep, it’s worked for me every time :) 

  16. Olivia Nov 15 at 1:57 pm Reply Reply

    I’m going to speak up in defense of a later bed time for toddlers. As long as the kid is getting the recommended average of sleep in a 24 hr period, I don’t see a need to send him/her to bed at 7 pm (or whatever). As I said in my earlier comment mine starts the bedtime routine at 8:30 and is usually asleep by 9 pm. She’s up by 7 am, and takes a 1.5 – 2 hr nap each day, giving her 11.5-12 hrs sleep. Right on target. When she was a baby, before she went to daycare, she went to bed even later because she could sleep in in the mornings.

    Every family’s schedule is different, and for us, getting home around 5:30, dinner at 6:30-7pm, plus baths and chores like vacuuming; sending her to bed at 7pm would seriously cut short our family time together. In our case, I know she is getting enough sleep. There are no signs that’s she’s overtired at all. There is no rule that a toddler has to be in bed at a certain time, provided he/she still takes naps.

    I think the OP’s boy is doing just fine, and if she wants him to fall asleep a little earlier she can try shortening his nap a little.

  17. Molly Oct 04 at 4:35 pm Reply Reply

    Reading this because my son is going through the same thing! He has always been a fantastic sleeper, and has always needed a little more sleep than the average. He hasn’t been sleeping well at all lately, he’s happy to go down for a nap, happy to be in there, but never falls asleep, just talks to himself. And sometimes at night he’ll stay awake for a couple hours after I put him to bed, doing the same thing. I can tell he’s not getting enough sleep, his eyes are red, he is super cranky and has a meltdown over everything, but I’m glad to hear I shouldn’t stress over it too much! Hopefully things will get back to normal sometime. It always stresses me out to hear him not sleeping, because I know he’s going to be irritable and unhappy the whole day. I have noticed I have a little better luck if I get him to bed early. If he doesn’t nap at all, I’ll sometimes put him to bed by 5:30 or 6, and he’ll sleep all night and usually nap well the next day. I know that seems ridiculously early for a 2 year old to go to bed, but the only thing I know in this situation is that he needs the sleep, he’s a completely different kid without it.

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