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Toddler Sleep Problems

Sleep Regressions and Cry It Out

By Amalah

Hi,

I read your 18 month sleep regression article. Great information, thank you for sharing it. My 17 month old son falls into the screaming his face off category. It’s been two weeks, I let him cry it out but he is resilient – after an hour of screaming sleeps for maybe 20 minutes before he’s back to screaming. Just wanted to see if you had any additional advice on that category.

Thanks and trying very hard to hold onto my sanity,
M

Well for starters, I’d probably (and by “probably” I mean “100% absolutely”) drop the cry-it-out (CIO) approach. It’s not the right sleep-training fit for him.

CIO can work for babies who are “tension releasers” — aka babies who just need to fuss and bleat a little bit while they get comfy and settle down to sleep. If you rush to intervene during this (short) period of time, you end up “resetting” their natural sleep process back.

But emphasis on it being a SHORT window of crying or fussing. Not a full solid hour. Especially if all that solid hour of screaming gets you is “maybe 20 minutes” of sleep before the screaming starts up again. And double-especially if this pattern has been going on for two solid weeks. AAAAHHHHHHH WELCOME TO HELL.

I know the line of thinking behind the “classic” CIO approach is that yeah, let ’em cry and eventually they’ll tire themselves out and realize the screaming isn’t getting them any attention. And while it’s not for everybody, I’m sure it does work for some babies! Or people seem to mis-remember it working for their babies, when they actually were intervening a lot more often than that. (cough cough so many MILs cough cough.) But either way, it’s important to realize when it’s NOT working for your baby, because CIO has a lot of potential to make things a lot worse. Screaming all night, every night is stressful. For you AND for him, emotionally and mentally and physically.

I usually suggest that new parents resist the urge to rush in at the first sound of crying and fussing and hang back. If the crying escalates, go in at the five-minute mark, and try the minimal level of intervention you can think of. Turn on some music or sing a soft lullaby. Replace a lost pacifier or give a few butt pats. But try to soothe the fussing without picking them up. An 18-month-old is old enough to understand a simple verbal cues as well. “Time to lie back down now, goodnight.” Exit the room, and then repeat the process in ever-lengthening time intervals (five, 10, 15 minutes, etc.).

It’s also important to remember that the 18-month sleep regression can be deeply rooted in separation anxiety due to a cognitive growth spurt around this age. (i.e. “I am old enough now to comprehend that my parents are separate beings from me and yet I depend on them for literally all of my needs and it’s very scary when they leave what if they don’t come back oh noooo!”) So that’s another reason I’d recommend you try a low-intervention/gradual extinction method (like Ferber) — you can reinforce that yes, Mama goes away and Mama comes back, but also that nighttime isn’t playtime or cuddle time. Nighttime is sleeping time.

There also could be other issues (besides sheer toddler stubbornness) at play here — teething, growing pains, viruses/ear infections, nap schedule problems, a need for a change in his sleeping environment, etc. I don’t have enough info here to delve too deeply into specific troubleshooting ideas (is he napping enough, napping too much, what’s his bedtime/routine, would he still scream if there were some board books or a crib aquarium to occupy him? etc.) but there ARE other things you can tinker with beyond just “welp, it’s a sleep regression; let him scream until he outgrows it.”

He WILL outgrow it, though. I can promise you that! The important thing about sleep regressions is to resist the urge to fall into “bad” sleep habits during them out of sheer desperation. (Regressing back to co-sleeping or spending all night in the rocking chair, for example.) And to figure out how to get through them without creating unneeded stress on you OR your child. And yeah, two weeks of scream-for-an-hour-20-blessed-minutes-of-sleep-scream-for-an-hour sounds like an absolute nightmare for everybody involved. I hope you both get some happy peaceful sleep SOON!

More on Sleep Training from Alpha Mom:

1. Low-Cry Sleep Training for Tension Increasers
2. When CIO Is Not An Option: The Tension Increaser
3. Night Wakings and Early Wakings

 

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 [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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Emily
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Emily

Random other piece of troubleshooting advice that I only thought of because it was an issue for us this week – now that it’s getting chilly did you change his PJs? Absolutely silly, but my 2yr old now suddenly hates footed pjs. He hasn’t worn them since early Spring, and when I threw a pair on him this week for the first time he lost his mind. A few nights later my mom got him to wear them around the house, but he totally freaked at bedtime as soon as the covers hit them. After trying to figure out what… Read more »