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Toddler Sleep Problems

Big Kid Bed Escape Antics

By Amalah


I love your blog and column and am hoping you can spout off some wise words to get us through my current parenting predicament. I’ve searched the archives and seen a few similar topics come up, but nothing quite like my situation, so here goes….

I have a 2.5 year old son who was, for a while, a champion sleeper. Once we night-weaned him at 18 months, he settled himself down to sleep at both nap and nighttime and slept though the night without issue. That lasted for about a year, until he started demonstrating his ability to climb out of his crib and we moved him to a big boy bed. That was in January. For a month or so, everything was fine, but then he started to explore his newfound freedom and ability to get in and out of bed.

Now he is up and down like a yo-yo. His bedtime/naptime antics are severely cutting into his sleep time and also starting to threaten my sanity. Baby #2 is due in about two months and I really, really want to sort out my toddler’s sleep issues before I start dealing with newborn night wakings again.

Our routine goes like this: approximately 6:40 p.m. his dad gives him a bath and helps him brush his teeth, after bath dad says goodnight and I take over bedtime. We read two stories, turn out the lights and then snuggle in the dark for a few minutes. Sometimes I sing to him, sometimes he just likes to hold my hand for a few minutes. After he has stopped wriggling around and starts to settle down, I whisper “goodnight” and leave the room.

Most of the time he is out of bed and turning on the light within minutes. Generally speaking, he stays in his room and sometimes we wouldn’t even know he was out of bed if we didn’t have a baby monitor. Sometimes he just lays in bed looking at picture books, which we tend to ignore. He will eventually fall asleep and my husband or I will slip in and turn off the light. Other times the “reading” goes on for far too long (8:30, sometimes later) and we have to go back and tell him it’s time to go to sleep, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Other times he just plays quietly in his room. I usually go back in and tell him he has to get into bed. Wash, rinse, repeat, over and over and over again for up to two hours until he eventually tuckers out. I really, really, try not to engage with him when I do this, just calmly and quietly put him back to bed without fanfare. But this doesn’t always work. Sometimes he has pooped and needs a diaper change. Sometimes he has stripped off all of this clothes and says he needs to sit on the potty (He is nowhere close to potty-trained and this is very clearly a stalling tactic, but I don’t feel good about every discouraging him from sitting on the potty so I play along and try to keep it boring.). Sometimes he has had a big sneeze and needs a tissue, and so on. For one reason or another it just isn’t always possible to return him to bed quickly and without any conversation, eye contact, etc.

In the old days, he was typically asleep by 7:30 pm, if not sooner. These days, it is often as late as 9 p.m.

Nap time proceeds in much the same vein. I start the process sometime between 12:30 and 1 p.m. and the routine is the same as at bedtime, minus the bath. At least half the time, I spent two hours going back and forth trying to settle him down and eventually give up and call it a loss. But I don’t believe he is outgrowing his nap because on the days when he does go to sleep he will sleep for easily 2-3 hours (I don’t let him sleep past 4 p.m. because I think he needs a few waking hours in between nap and bedtime.). He usually, but not always, sleeps well on the three days each week that he is at daycare. If he doesn’t nap he makes it through the afternoon just fine and in good spirits, but sometimes starts falling asleep in his chair during dinner. We have a family dinner at 5:30pm and I really don’t think it’s plausible to move that up any earlier. Also, I work from home and desperately need to utilize his nap time to get my own work done. Not being able to count on a decent nap is driving me nuts.

At both nap and bedtime, he will usually go to sleep within minutes if I lay in bed with him and stroke his head. I don’t really mind doing this and it’s a whole lot easier than dealing with two hours of him getting in and out of bed every couple of minutes, but it feels like a huge step backwards when I did have a kid who routinely put himself to sleep without issue. I mostly only do it if he is sick or if I have some work deadline and just absolutely can’t handle the nap-time antics that day.

Aside from a general plea for help of any kind, I guess I am wondering if I should even be going back and forth to his bedroom at all when I wouldn’t even know he was up were I not watching him on the video monitor? Should I just leave him to it and hope that he wears himself out eventually? What if he’s up playing for hours? At what point is enough enough?

I’m willing to try practically anything at this point. I just really want to get his sleep sorted out before this next baby arrives.

Thanks in advance,
Tired mom

(Random aside…the advice question queue is overflowing almost exclusively with baby/toddler sleep questions. And while I certainly don’t mind getting the chance to troubleshoot Kids That Aren’t Mine, I should remind everybody that my youngest is turning FIVE shortly, and my memories of this period are growing grey and faded. On the other hand, I have solidly entered the stage of motherhood where I Am Completely Outnumbered And Officially Take No Crap From Any Of Them, Because I’m Your Mother And I Said So, Just Go Do The Thing I’m Asking You To Do. So perhaps this attitude comes in handy for bossing other people’s toddlers around as well.)

So it’s VERY important to remember — no matter what age/stage your child is at — that sleep is NOT A LINEAR PROCESS. There are hundreds of zigs, zags, steps forward and even more steps back. And not just for baby and toddler sleep. Every age and stage comes with a million factors that can impact your child’s sleep patterns and bedtime routine. Just because they slept through the night at three weeks has no bearing on whether they’ll still be doing it at 12 weeks, or six months, or 2.5 years.

And sometimes, you gotta roll with the punches and recognize that “this is what my child RIGHT NOW,” and just go with it and try not to fret too much about it. I usually give this advice to parents of newborns who are prematurely worried because their brand-new six-week-old baby only sleeps while nursing, or being held, or co-sleeping, and omg we’re doing everything wrong and sleep crutches we’re dooooomed how to we get her to sleep through the night in her crib already??

(Short answer: You can’t.)

(Longer answer: You can’t, but don’t worry about it yet. Just do what you gotta do to survive and get SOME SLEEP.)

So I admit I had a bit of a record-scratch moment when I was reading your letter (and so vividly recalling the early days of the big kid bed and the terrible, sleep-stalling freedom that comes with it) and came to this sentence: At both nap and bedtime, he will usually go to sleep within minutes if I lay in bed with him and stroke his head.

So…that. Do that. Do that and stop the madness.

Believe me, that is not an unreasonable demand or  a “huge step back.” Honestly, it’s not any different than a lullaby or an extra bedtime story or musical toy or white noise machine or any of the million and one things we do (or buy) in pursuit of the Almighty Sleep.

It also doesn’t mean he’ll need you to do that forever…it’s just what he needs RIGHT NOW to help shut off his brain and resist the temptation to get up and play for hours. It’d be one thing if the head rubbing was like, an hour-long thing that wasn’t all that effective (like the recent letter from a fellow bedtime-staller who was demanding an hour or more of cuddling each night and STILL not falling asleep), but if I had to choose between rubbing my toddler’s head for a few minutes in exchange for a guaranteed nap AND avoiding all those maddening bedtime antics and resulting overtiredness? That is a damn fine exchange, and I think you should absolutely take that deal.

If in a few months, the head rubbing loses its mojo, then you stop and reassess “what does my child need NOW?” It might be rubbing his head for three minutes and then leaving while he’s sleepy-but-awake. It might mean leaving the light on for 10 minutes after that for quiet reading to ease the transition. It might mean he’s ready to stop napping, or to push his bedtime back. Or that you need to turn off the baby monitor and stop caring if he’s up past bedtime, so long as he takes a solid nap occasionally and generally doesn’t seem like he’s miserably overtired by the next night’s bedtime.

But for now? Just do that. That thing you do! The thing that WORKS!


If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 [email protected].

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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