Toddler Bedtime Stalling Tactics
I’ve been reading your advice (and other columns!) since I was pregnant, and I now have a 2-year-old! We celebrated her birthday last week, and I have no idea what’s happened to her bedtime since then. I swear, I’ve read your columns, but I have no idea what to do other than say ‘this, too, shall pass’. (BUT WHEN??!)
Usual bedtime routine: dinner around 6pm, quiet play with one of us for a bit, into the bath by 6:45, on the chair in her room for a bottle and a book (or 3), and generally in her crib around 7:30pm. Up until last week, we’d have a quiet cuddle, I’d put her down in her crib, she’d lie down, I’d rub her back for a bit, and leave the room, and she’d sing to herself a bit and fall asleep. This hasn’t changed for a year, and has always worked very well.
The exact night she turned 2: WHAM. She’s not any less or more tired than she was. She’ll settle for the books, the bottle, we turn off the lights, and then… IT STARTS.
First, she wants a cuddle. More cuddles. A BIG cuddle. Cuddles IN HER CHAIR, not standing up next to the bed. (She expresses all this with words, mind, which is very clear but somewhat challenging. Also, telling your toddler that there is a limit to the cuddles you will give SUCKS, but we also can’t cuddle for an hour… and when she’s tired, she headbutts and kicks while cuddling, which is not the most pleasant.)
Then, I count down. (‘You had a big cuddle, and a little cuddle, and a standing up cuddle. I will give you a cuddle until we count to 3, and then I will put you down in your bed and give you a back rub’.) And then I put her down. CRISIS. Howling. Tears. Refusing to lie down.
I wind up leaving her standing in the corner of her crib, in tears, clutching her lovey.
And then, 10 minutes later, she sings. Guaranteed sign that she poo-ed. (Is it possible for a kid to hold it in until bedtime and then crap as a stalling tactic? Because, for the past week, she has ONLY poo-ed in her crib while stalling naptime and bedtime. Up to 3 times in the same stalling period). So we can’t leave her sitting in her poo, which means she comes out of the crib to get her diaper changed, which means that the howling-crying-tears fit happens AGAIN when she goes back into her crib.
I’m at a loss. I can’t make her sleep. We can’t MAKE her poo before bedtime (we’ve tried potty, diapers, reading books about poo, you name it). Pooing is an effective stalling tactic. I hate leaving a crying child in her room. She won’t sleep if we STAY in her room.
Yep, yep. Your little stinker has discovered a diabolically effective stalling tactic. It is absolutely possible for a kid to hold it in until bedtime and then go “on purpose.” My two-year-olds all did this, either at naptime or bedtime or both. And not to be the bearer of bad news (while totally being the bearer of bad news), it more or less continued until potty training.
If there IS a silver lining, it’s that her ability to hold it and chose when to poop is an early sign of potential potty training readiness. I predict you’ll be able to embark on Real & Serious potty training within the next six months or so.
Does that mean you’re completely doomed to these bedtime shenanigans until then? Well. Depending on how determined she is, there really isn’t anything you can do to stop her from pooping after you finally say goodnight. I would continue to make “sitting on the potty” a regular part of the bedtime routine, even if nothing is happening. Maybe add it as the very last thing, after her books, to interrupt/distract from the escalating Cuddle Demands.
When she does go, make sure that the diaper change interaction is completely silent and as boring for her as possible. No talking or extra hugs, kisses, anything like that. Diaper off, diaper on, her back in the crib, you back out of the room, like ripping off a Band-Aid.
Toddler stalling tactics require a balancing act of reasonable indulgence and firm boundaries, topped off with a little creative outsmarting and a TREMENDOUS amount of patience.
It really does SUCK when you end up having to just give up and leave them crying, but you’re right: She won’t sleep if you stay. She stalls and stalls because she’s smart enough to figure out how to stall, but eventually you HAVE to just say “Enough, goodnight” and remove yourself from her game.
Since she magically decided to mess up bedtime after turning two, I wonder if it’s time to consider moving her to more of a Big Kid routine (especially with an eye on the potty training horizon). Move her to a toddler bed so she’s not “trapped” in the crib, and you can remove the ritual of “putting her down” in the crib, which is when everything currently goes to hell. Books and cuddle time can happen right in her bed, so there’s no bargaining on moving from bed back to chair to standing up, etc. You can also start reminding her that poo goes in the potty and she’s free to get up and go when she needs to. I’m usually the “keep ’em in the crib for as long as possible” sort, but a smart, verbal kid who is showing signs of bathroom control might benefit from a little nighttime freedom. A bed might cut down on the Final Hysterics of being “stuck.”
(And I know I know, people get so mad at me whenever I bring this up but SORRY, a two year old shouldn’t still be drinking from a bottle. Especially milk, right before bed. You didn’t mention the bottle contents or if her teeth are brushed pre- or post-bottle, but either way, the bottle clearly isn’t serving any real soothing/sleep purpose ANYWAY at this point. So start phasing it out if she isn’t specifically demanding it. She can have a drink of milk pre-bath from a cup downstairs, then brush her teeth and move right into storytime.)
(It’s also possible that the bottle is prompting her digestive system to suddenly get active with a late-night poop?)
But whether she’s in the crib or a bed, keep trying to find a balance between her reasonable requests and protracted stalling. Accept that she’ll probably never be happy when you leave, but NOBODY is happy when not enough sleep is being had. Maybe get her a visual timer or light-up clock so she knows EXACTLY how long cuddle time will be each night and that she can’t talk her way into more. (Basically any tool that might come in handy for toddler separation anxiety or issues with transitions.) Let her sleep with some books and a nightlight or turn on some music as you leave and see if that distracts her from your exit at all.
And good luck. Toddler stalling tactics require a balancing act of reasonable indulgence and firm boundaries, topped off with a little creative outsmarting and a TREMENDOUS amount of patience.
Published May 20, 2016. Last updated July 16, 2017.