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Toddler Sleep Problems

The High-Energy Early Rising Toddler

By Amalah

Hello!

I was hoping that you could maybe help me find a solution to my two-year old son’s behavior.

In general, he really is a good kid (when he sleeps), but my problem is with him being destructive and waking everyone up at 5am religiously. We live in a one bedroom apartment and cram 4 and a half (pregnant with #3!) into one room. My 1 year old goes to bed at 7-7:30 pm and will gladly sleep until 10am, my 2 year old, on the other hand, gets up at 5am. Every. Single. Day. We put him to bed at about 8-8:30 pm. When he gets up, he starts getting into every little thing he can find, in addition to throwing things (makeup, toys, shoes, water bottles, etc) at my youngest to wake her up, then jumps into her bed and starts jumping around, steps on her and generally annoying everyone in the room until we’re all awake at or before 5am. He then refuses to take a nap, even though 11-12 hours have passed after waking up. We have to physically restrain him (hold him until he wears himself out) to get him to sleep.

We’ve tried putting him to bed earlier and later, but the same thing keeps happening. If I had to guess, I’d say he sleeps maybe 11-12 hours per day. Also, he wakes up several times a night. I suppose it doesn’t help that he sleeps in our bed because he broke his (excessive jumping broke the frame and all). Because of our current situation, we can’t just run out and buy him a new bed (or a new house).

I just don’t know what to do. He gets extremely obnoxious (because he’s tired and forcing himself to stay up) and does things like stepping on toys and books, throwing things, hitting/bowling over his sister while running around like a lunatic, beats on my cat, etc. We take them outside to play and burn off energy, but my son seems to have weeks worth of pent up energy that we cannot keep up with. My husband and I are convinced that if we let him stay awake, he would be awake for days before he passed out.

Please, please help. I have no idea if this is normal or not, and being tired and pregnant, I’m too exhausted to follow him around the house to keep him from getting into everything. I’m hoping things improve soon so maybe we can get this boy his own room!

The average two-year old needs approximately 12 hours of sleep a day. So by your estimate, he’s actually hitting that target (albeit with interruptions and on a less-than-ideal schedule). And many toddlers do drop the nap around his age (or at least start fighting it more and more until it morphs more into a “quiet time” situation). So even with all the challenges you mention, if he is indeed getting 11-12 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, that’s pretty good! That suggests some of the behavioral concerns you’re describing might not, actually, be 100% tied to sleeping issues.

Typically, the first line of attack in the Way Too Early Waking Battle is to adjust the bedtime, either earlier (in hopes that sleep begets more sleep/countering overtiredness), or later (in hopes that their set number of sleeping hours remains the same and they’ll just wake up later as well). You’ve tried both with no success. So what’s next?

Some kids, unfortunately, ARE just early risers. My niece woke up at 5 a.m. every morning of her life, despite being on all other accounts, a dream baby/toddler/kid. Eventually, her parents just had to accept that someone else was going to have to wake up with her and start the day super early. (On the plus side, no one was ever late for work or school!) Because…yeah, an unsupervised, stir-crazy two year old is going to behave exactly as you’re describing. He’s awake, he’s bored, he wants someone to play with/talk to/pay attention to him.

Your sleeping arrangements aren’t ideal, and most certainly aren’t helping things, but you know this so I’m not going to harp on them. It is what it is, and you’re making the best of it. Do you have black-out blinds? Is he waking on his own internal clock or is there maybe a lighting/noise issue going on that rouses him so early? Also: co-sleeping with a high-energy toddler (who wasn’t raised as a co-sleeper, from the sound of things), is going to lead to a lot of wakings and less-than-quality sleep for EVERYBODY. There’s got to be a better alternative. I know his bedframe is broken, but is there a reason he can’t just sleep on the old mattress on the floor? A sleeping bag? Can you scour Craigslist or FreeCycle for a free toddler bed? (Believe me, they’re out there by the dozens.) Is there a decent-sized closet you could re-purpose as a tiny little “room” of his own, where he can take some toys and books to bed with him and maaaaaaybe amuse himself in the morning with? (Much like this little guy created for himself?)

Once he’s awake, unfortunately, it sounds like he’s a pretty typical toddler in need of supervision. I know NONE of us are our parenting best that early in the morning, but it sounds like he’s in real danger of hurting himself, his sister, and/or your cat. Once he’s truly wide awake and active, that’s not the time to hope that THIS TIME will magically be THE TIME he falls back asleep. I would probably whisk him out of the room (and away from the sleeping baby) and move directly to the breakfast table. Have ready-to-go foods right in the fridge (yogurt, fruit, overnight oats, etc.). Then I’d probably supervise his meal from the couch or a big chair, if your floor plan allows that, while I rested. If you don’t want him eating that early, well, there’s always a pre-dawn episode of Sesame Street or a pre-planned quiet activity like Play Doh or a sticker book or something.

If you or your husband can keep him semi-entertained for an hour or two while not really committing to starting your own day (COUCH) AND while letting the rest of the family sleep, you’ll probably all be happier than trying to keep him corralled in the bedroom until his boredom escalates to throwing/climbing/stepping on people. Alternate mornings and take turns on wake-up duty (and adjust your own bedtimes accordingly). I know this probably sounds like you’ll be rewarding or validating the early wakings, but given your living situation, I think the temporary priorities need to be 1) keeping everybody safe, and 2) minimizing the collateral damage on everybody else’s sleep.

Two year olds have an AWFUL lot of energy, and without seeing your son in action I can’t say for certain his energy is excessive or at hyperactivity levels or anything like that. I don’t like the mental image of physically restraining a thrashing toddler until they pass out, so I would like you to call his pediatrician and mention his activity and energy levels and ask for some alternative getting-to-sleep and general calming-down advice. Perhaps he might benefit from a weighted blanket or Soothie Suit (speak to your son’s pediatrician specifically about this), a “calm-down” space like a tent (or the aforementioned closet mini room), aromatherapy in his bath, etc. Check his diet for food coloring, particularly Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue Lake. Cut those out completely. When his behavior does escalate to purposeful destruction or danger to sibling/pet levels, does he go in time-out? A two-minute time-out (the rule of thumb is one minute per year of age) will both send the signal that his behavior is unacceptable, while also giving him time/space to calm himself down if he’s gotten overly-amped up.

All that said, it is entirely possible that a lot of this is tied to simple, run-of-the-mill nap transition. He’s almost ready to give up the nap, but not quite. Things tend to go a little haywire during this process. He’s not getting enough sleep at night to fully cut the nap out so obnoxious behaviors follow. A better sleeping situation, whatever small improvement you can manage, might minimize his night wakings and thus improve the quality of sleep he IS getting, which will help a lot. And keeping him stimulated in the morning and NOT letting his attention-seeking behaviors escalate to off-the-wall hyperpants levels might also have a positive effect on his sleep schedule and behavior. He might remain an early riser/morning person, he might not really ever require as much sleep as you’d think…or he’ll grow more or less out of this once his body is really ready to consistently say no to the nap, and thus make up for it in those painful pre-dawn hours.

Good luck! You’re about to have three very high-need ages in one very small space, so I do hope whatever circumstances you’re going through improve ASAP.

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

  • Chalkdust

    How predictable is his wake-up time? Our baby went through a stage this summer where he would wake up very early, sometime between 5:20 and 7, and rarely the same time two days in a row. We eventually wound up with a system where Dad would get up with the baby, stay up until 6:30, and then go back to bed and sleep in, and I would get up at 6:30 and just be up from then on. I’m a morning person (Dad isn’t), so I’m okay with going to bed early and getting up at 6:30, but I wasn’t really able to handle getting up at five if I hadn’t gone to sleep early enough the night before.

  • Mary Ann

    I had good luck getting my up at 5 every day of her life then two year old to “sleep” until six. We used an okay to wake clock. And for an entire month, we enforced “in bed until the clock turns green” by just gutting it out – I climbed in her bed and kept her there with me until “morning”. And we got up at six whether she had fallen back to sleep or not. (Now if she sleeps past six, we assume she’s ill.)

    If you’re awake at my house at 5:55 am, you can hear a three year old lecturing her stuffed toys about waiting for the clock. And at 6:01, she thanks the clock for helping her and comes running to let us know it’s finally morning.

  • Jeannie Shirley

    My ten year old is an early riser, and always has been. He’s up at 6 for the day, and it doesn’t matter when he goes to sleep. Believe me, we have tried everything. He was an active two year old too — and seemed to survive on much less sleep than other kids. He gave up napping just over two.

    And now at 10, he goes to sleep between 9 and 9:30, and is up between 6 and 6:30. It’s just the way it is.

    All this to say: maybe there’s nothing wrong. It’s just who he is and how old he is.

    How did we survive? The couch, as Amy says. One of us would get up with him every morning until he was around 3; then we taught him to grab a bite to eat and read a book until 7.

    Not going to lie: having a kid that didn’t sleep wasn’t easy. There’s a reason there’s four years before we had his sister. But we made it!

  • Trish Schreiber

    I have an early riser. It’s tough, but we were unable to budge his wake time. Now he is 7, he gets screen time in the AM.

    I really recommend the mattress or mattress and box spring on the floor. Maybe a memory foam mattress would get him out of the habit of jumping as they arent fun and bouncy.

    We did mattress and box spring on the floor with my first until he learned not to roll off. Our second is still on the floor at almost 5. Mostly because we haven’t decided whether our elder kid is ready for a bunk.

  • Anna

    What does his daily routine look like? You say that he sleeps 8pm-5am, that he “refuses to take a nap, even though 11-12 hours have passed after waking up” and that he sleeps for 11-12 hours a day. Given that he only sleeps 8 or 9 hours at night, this seems to indicate that he will have a 2 or 3 hour nap 11 or 12 hours going to sleep, which would put his naptime at 4-5pm. If I’m reading this right then he’s essentially on a normal-ish bedtime schedule that happens to start at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and ends at 5 in the morning and gets briefly interrupted by his bedtime routine… If this is the case then you’ll have to start by changing his daytime routine to get results: his nap should happen MUCH earlier, at maybe 12 or 1pm, before he gets completely overtired, but it should also be kept shorter – anything over 2 hours is going to mess with nighttime sleep at this age, but perhaps it’s even worth restricting him to 1.5 hours while you’re trying to sort things out. In parallel his bedtime could also try moving his bedtime earlier again, perhaps to match his sisters – he might just be a naturally early riser and never sleep past 5 am no matter what you try, but a lot of his behaviour seems to indicate he’s chronically overtired (needing to be physically restrained in order to slump into sleep, for example). You need to give him more opportunities to cram some quality sleep into his day – if you manage to fix his overtiredness, then fixing the early wake-up time might become a secondary issue.

    • Joanna Lee

      I was wondering the same about the naps. If we son sleeps past 4 he will be up til 10, have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. I’d shoot for a nap right after lunch. And if he refuses to nap, then try to keep him up until 5 and just put him to bed for the night. Hopefully he’ll get his 12 hours in one stretch 5-5. My son is taking a long time to transition away from naps and for a while the only way he would sleep 12 hours at night is if he had at least a 20 minute cat nap (usually in the car). If we kept him up all day he would sleep terribly at night, even if put to bed early. Just something to consider – trying to shorten the day time nap and see what happens.
      I’m a morning person and I’m up at 5 anyway – the tough days for me is if my child is awake past 10 pm because I’m useless after 9pm. If you can get yourself to bed at 9 you can survive a 5am schedule – but if you’re like my husband and can’t get to sleep before midnight then oof it’s going to be rough for a while.

  • bookworm81

    Amy didn’t come right out and say it but I’m going to; it sounds to me like he might have some sensory issues. The hyperactivity and the needing to be held still to fall asleep sound exactly like my son and it’s easy to write it off as normal toddler behavior at that age. Definitely go dye free since that’s a huge culprit in that type of hyperactivity. If you have access to a swing try swinging him for 10-15 minutes at least once a day, especially before bed. The calming and regulating benefits of that type of movement last for up to 8 hours. If nothing else is working you could discuss using melatonin with his doctor (start with a tiny dose, at 7 my son still takes only 1/2 mg but if we forget to give it to him he won’t fall asleep for hours).

    http://asensorylife.com/index.html

  • Renee MacQuarrie

    Oh my goodness this doesn’t sound like a fun experience. I totally understand this – this one was me : http://alphamom.com/parenting/sleep-schedules-early-bird-babies/ .

    And she slowly….slowly got better. But not immediately, like maybe 10m a month. Moving to a new house helped (we were in an apartment in a similar situation as you), consistency helped.

    But ultimately, we just needed to get up. Netflix became a savior. Dad and I alternated mornings, still do. Then flipped on the TV and snoozed on the couch. Once she was old enough to trust, and to have figured out the remote – she gets walked downstairs and we go back to bed.

    Granted we didn’t have the acting out – our younger one does that and we find ignoring her or distracting her works the best to stop the behavior.

    For everyone’s sake I really hope your sleeping arrangements can be resolved relatively quickly.

  • Bridget C

    I’m also going to suggest an earlier nap and melatonin at bed time. My daughter has been a terrible sleeper always and especially this summer when it was light so late and so early. She would be awake until 9-9:30 and up at 5-5:30. We got the ok to wake clock and it did not fix everything. I got a gate to keep her in her room, which I know you can’t do, and also got darkening shades. The problem is not fixed but it is better. But having to be held down to calm down enough to go to sleep is the reason I give my daughter melatonin. Or she will just fight it for hours. At 2 yrs old you could give him 1 mg. of course talk to your ped. But melatonin saves my sanity