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Toddler Sleep Problems

The High-Energy Early Rising Toddler

By Amalah


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.

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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