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toddler sleep problems during travel

Serving Up a Toddler Co-Sleeping Eviction Notice

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

Thanks for being the voice of reason in all matters. I’ve been reading your column since before I had kids – back when it was lots of really useful advice about beauty products! I am always impressed with your ability to take a complex situation and boil it down to the bare essentials.

We are knee deep in a toddler sleep issue that is entirely our fault. We have a now 20-month old who we sleep trained in the past. When I stopped breastfeeding he finally slept through the night. It was glorious glorious three weeks. Then we moved to a new house that was under renovation, lived with my in-laws for 6 weeks with him in a pack-n-play that he doesn’t sleep well in, went on summer vacation, visited my parents, and we now have a toddler who is in our bed every night at 2:30 a.m. We are slowly losing our minds.

Here’s our current routine: play, bath, storytime (in our bed, I know! I know! This is the first misstep), then we lie down with him and he falls asleep around 8:30 or 8:45. We transfer him to his crib really easily. He sleeps there until about 2:30am. He wakes up crying. We go into his room. We’ve tried everything to get him to go back to sleep in his crib at that point — rubbing his back in his crib, rocking him in a rocker in his room, letting him cry for about ten minutes. Nothing works. He just stands there and screams and points to our room. We are tired (and I am 14 weeks pregnant) so we give in, put him in our bed and he falls asleep instantly. He usually sleeps until 7:00 or 7:30am.

We do not want this routine to continue, especially with a new baby on the way. He sleeps much better in his own crib, and we sleep better without a sweaty thrashing toddler between us. We keep saying we are going to stop doing bringing him into our room, but every night he’s back in our bed. In part, I think, because we don’t really know where to start.

Any ideas?

I would start by removing your bed and your room from his bedtime routine. And get him to START the night in his crib, without the stealthy transfer once he’s already asleep. By making your bed and your presence the cozy, familiar place for stories and sleep, it’s understandable that when he wakes up somewhere else (alone) that he’s going to feel disoriented and annoyed.

Bedtime Routine

Move storytime to his room. He doesn’t have to be in his crib — you mention there’s a rocker, so you can either use that or swap it out for something bigger like an oversized beanbag chair that all three of you can hang out on. (Although with another baby coming, I’d probably caution against making Both Parents an essential part of bedtime — the reality is you’re probably going to have to start splitting up or trading off at some point. But feel free to cross that bridge when you come to it; the top priority now is to get this kid starting and ending the night in his own space.) Make it cozy and loving and fun. And after storytime, he goes right to his crib. You might need to add an additional step here, like playing music or a crib soother or a special lovey.

Sleep Re-Training

And you might need to do a little sleep re-training so he remembers how to get to sleep without both of you lying there with him. That re-training can take several different paths — you can go straight back to whatever method you used the first time, or modify it to move a bit more slowly (i.e. you stay in the room in the rocker for a few nights, offering verbal soothing cues or timed back pats vs. leaving the room entirely from the get-go). But the top goal is that he will start the night in his crib, and eventually he will put himself to sleep there and not in your arms or your bed. Hopefully with just a little trial-and-error, based on your previously training experience and the fact that he does consistently fall asleep around the same time each night.

Will this be a miracle overnight end to the 2:30 a.m. waking? Probably not. It’s a habit, and is going to take some time to break it. HOPEFULLY by moving storytime and taking your bed out of the nightly routine, he’ll stop jolting himself awake and being like, “HEY WAIT A SECOND” and getting himself immediately super worked up because you pulled a sneaky move on him.

Break YOUR Bad Habits, Parents

And unfortunately, in all my experiences, the only way to stop bringing a kid into your bed at night is to…stop bringing the kid into your bed at night. I know, I KNOW! It’s the middle of the night and you’re exhausted and your resolve buckles and you just want to sleep. I’ve been there, done that. But every night you do it, you simply reinforce that habit as the routine. And toddlers love their routines, and the logic of “but you sleep so much better in your own crib!!” doesn’t really fly in toddler world. If you do end up offering an additional step in the storytime-to-crib transition, that might help you again in the middle of the night — turn on the crib soother/music, offer a sippy cup of water or lovey. Do NOT take him out of the crib, repeat whatever sleep-training trick you did at bedtime. (Sit in the rocker and verbally soothe, or leave and go outside for Ferber-style check-ins, etc.) And make sure you do the SAME thing, night after night, rather than just trying something new or different each time in hopes of a miracle. Take turns with your spouse so you both are getting somewhat decent sleep every other night.

And yeah, breaking the 2:30 a.m. transfer habit is going to suck. Imma guess that it’ll take about 2-4 weeks at this point, given his age and the amount of routine upheaval he’s been through. No one wants to be dealing with consistency and sleep-training/redirection nonsense in the middle of the night, or listen to a ticked-off toddler protest for an hour or more. But it will be worth in the long term, for all of you. Every night you cave you’re reinforcing that yes, this is the routine. And while I’m not strictly opposed to co-sleeping when it actually results in better, longer sleep for EVERYBODY in the bed, that’s not what’s happening here.

You Can Do This!

Toddler sleep is darkest before dawn, and once you get it sorted out and everybody sleeping where you want them to sleep, the sunrise is truly a glorious thing.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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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Comments

  • Joanna Lee

    Just want to chime in because we’ve been there around the same age! We gave up on the crib and just put a double mattress in his room. That’s where we read books and it was easy to lay with him during middle of the night wake ups. You may want to aim higher since he’s shown you he’s capable of sleeping in his crib all night. But if you don’t think you can be strong in the middle of the night, you can just move the operation to a big bed in his room and he’ll be comfy and cozy there instead of your room. Also you can divide and conquer – one parent handles wake ups and the other stays blissfully alone in your room. I have no will power at 2:30 am so it worked for us and he usually sleeps 12 hours in his bed now.

  • Lindsey

    I went through this with my daughter when she was almost exactly the same age. I was pregnant at the time, too.

    For her, it was related to separation anxiety. It took me a while to figure that out. Once I did, I assured her over and over that we were right next door and were not going anywhere. Then, when she’d protest going to bed or wake up in the night, I’d tell her I was leaving the room, but was right next door. Then when she cried, I’d open her door and tell her that I was still there. Over and over, in the middle of the night, yes. I lost a lot of sleep over it for a solid couple weeks. But one day, she woke up and said, you and daddy sleep in your crib. Right next door. And I sleep in my crib with my bunny!

    That night she went right to sleep with no problems and slept straight through the night, and basically has ever since. She just had to work it out for herself that we were still there, still in the house, and there if she needed us. And if you need the motivation…it WAS well worth it, because now that she has a little brother, I could not possibly deal with having two of them in our bed/keeping us awake at night. Seriously. Rip the band-aid and do it now, before the baby comes.

  • Molly

    We had a similar situation with my daughter, also while pregnant and in our case coinciding with weaning – she’d always nursed to sleep, rarely slept through the night, and never went down in her own crib.

    We ended up converting to a toddler bed as part of the big transition. Hyped up the big girl bed, let her select bedding, etc. Also had one of us stay close by in a chair in her room until she fell asleep (eventually transitioned to “close by, next room”). She pretty much immediately started sleeping through the night consistently and well. It was such a nice feeling for that to finally happen! Good luck!