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My Toddler is Jerking Us Around At Bedtime

My Toddler is Jerking Us Around At Bedtime

By Amalah

Hi Amy –

Here’s my deal – mother of 2 – daughter – 5 1/2, son 2 1/2. Kids have separate rooms and shocking (I know) they are different. I not going to say my daughter is perfect, but when it comes to behavior, rules, and sleep habits, she’s a breeze. She’s terrified to be in trouble and claims that lounging is one her favorite things to do. Since birth, bedtime has never really been an issue and even we switched her to a bed, we gave her the clock that changes color and I doubt it crossed her mind to challenge it.

The boy on the other hand, not so much. He’s always been more difficult to get to sleep, but we pretty much had our routine down (in crib by 7:30 pm-ish) most nights. Then we moved and got rid of the crib. Granted it was a little early to get rid of the crib, but hey we’re super parents, we’ll figure it out. We’re in charge, right!?

Cut to 4 months later…he’s still a major jerk at bedtime. I love him, but still a jerk. No matter what technique we use – (Supernanny stay in bed technique, threats/actually taking his lovey/blankie, and lying down with him), he seems to have endless amount of energy/fight and is usually not asleep until 9pm- which sucks. Short of actually locking him in his room which we’ve basically done a few times (sometimes he falls asleep on the floor and sometimes he just starts playing with his toys), I’m running out of ideas.

He’s in full-time daycare that observes an 1.5-2 hour nap. I know not having the nap would help, but honestly he still needs it and I really don’t have a choice during the work week.

I’m so anti-starting bad habits, and really don’t want to spend forever lying down with him at bedtime or spending an hour every night putting him back in bed. Seriously my husband and I have tv shows to watch and wine to drink! Any chance he’ll just “grow” out of this? Like he’ll wake up at 3 and decide – “Hey, I’m going to stop being a jerk today”? Or do we pick a technique, go hard-core, stay consistent…and hope it works? I’m open to any and all suggestions.

Fellow Amalah

Well, there are probably a few schedule-y things you could re-jigger here, but it depends on your own reading of your kid. To me, it sounds like he’s just a bit of a night owl — he sounds more genuinely NOT TIRED as opposed to OVERTIRED ZOMBIE ON INEXPLICABLE THIRD WIND, so 7:30pm might just be too early of a bedtime for him. If you agree that his energy isn’t some kind of adrenaline-fueled second (or third) wind, what about moving bedtime to 8 or even 8:30? If 9 p.m. seems to be the only consistent bedtime variable, I’d probably roll with that and see if I could at least knock off some of the fightin’ time.

If you disagree with that assessment and suspect he IS actually very, very tired and just trying very, very hard to mask that fact, then move his bedtime earlier. (Then read on for some ideas to minimize the hours o’ battling. )

No matter what, though: You DON’T want to mess with the nap — I don’t think that would help at all. You’d DEFINITELY have the aforementioned overtired zombie on speedballs rather than just a energetic kid who isn’t tired yet. The afternoon nap probably isn’t the root of this particular problem.

I’d suggest you start changing both your expectations and your level of involvement in his bedtime. You’re micromanaging his falling-asleep process and becoming accidental Dictators of Sleep by insisting he get in bed, stay in bed, go completely silent, and be reliably sound asleep by a certain time. And he’s responding to these methods by throwing a nightly coup of the regime. Ergo, it’s become a power struggle.

In my experience, the best way to win a power struggle is to temporarily disengage. This may sound nuts, but once my kids are in their rooms with the lights off, I don’t really care what they do. Some nights everything goes silent and calm five minutes later, other nights I have one kid drawing comic books with a flashlight at 9 p.m. while another is still quietly bashing Ninja Turtle figures together. Sometimes the two roommates chatter and talk for awhile, sometimes one conks out first while the other hangs off the bed upside-down singing TV theme songs until he’s ready for sleep. None of this interferes with our TV and wine time — we might hit the pause button and go upstairs to take the flashlight or Ninja Turtles away once it’s officially “too late, go to sleep,” but I haven’t actually been in the room for the full falling-asleep process in years.

Basically since we did sleep training, a division of responsibility appeared, similar to our approach to mealtimes: I provide everything they need for a good night’s sleep. An age-appropriate bedtime, a regular routine, a quiet room with minimal distractions and a lighting level that they’re comfortable with. After that, though, I can’t MAKE them go to sleep. Neither can you. “You can’t make a kid eat, sleep or poop.” Truer words were never spoken, and this mantra remains true well after the “baby” stage is behind you.

So repeat after me: You can’t MAKE him sleep. Not at 7 p.m., not at 9 p.m., not even if he’s still wide awake and wired during the final commercial break of The Walking Dead.

You can give him what he needs to sleep. Play around with bedtime and see if he needs something earlier (or later) to even out his energy levels. Keep his routine consistent, INCLUDING your exiting the room and the sleep process once stories are read/songs are sung/whatever. Just like when you’re trying to teach a baby to self-soothe — your constant presence and over-involvement becomes more of a problem than a help, even if you’re just showing up to yell at him, because he’s seeking that negative attention. Make sure the room is lit for sleep and not play (but not so dark it’s scary), and do what you can to minimize his distractions. Move toys to a playroom if possible, leave only/mostly books within his reach, and have the lights arranged in a way that he can’t turn on anything you’ve turned off/unplugged.

The only rule I enforce after I exit my children’s room is that I expect them to stay in their rooms, unless they need to use the bathroom. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you FOR SURE what they do after that. I have absolutely found my toddler asleep on the floor or in his toy box full of stuffed animals and moved him back to bed. I have absolutely found my oldest still wide awake hours later because he just can’t settle down for some reason — I typically offer him a head rub or a suggestion that he read a non-comic, non-illustrated chapter book for awhile, but I recognize that I cannot “make” him fall asleep simply by ordering him to, or by threatening to take away toys/privileges.

(Even though I might be rightly irritated with him, because he’s figured out all my lighting tricks and will turn lights back on and sneak out of bed to play/draw, only to realize hours later that he’s still awake and can’t turn his overstimulated brain off.)

But for the most part, this hands-off approach has served us well. Most nights, everybody is asleep within 15-30 minutes of lights off. My kids are not exhausted sleep-deprived crankpants and bedtime is only slightly chaotic because of the sheer number of children we have, but not because it’s this long, drawn-out battle of wills.

Surprise your son tonight by NOT playing his bedtime game. Pajamas, brush teeth, story, kiss goodnight. Then leave. Let him know that your only expectation is that he will stay in his room. No coming out except for potty (unless he’s still in diapers). If you hear him come out, take a deep, calming breath and then SILENTLY lead him back into his room. Not even all the way back into bed, if you want to shock the heck out of him. Just back in, door closed, done. No lying down with him, no threats/conversations/bargaining. I’m not a fan of locking children in rooms — too many worst-case scenarios that make the practice seem dangerous to me, plus it’s completely impractical for potty-training — but there certainly are ways to childproof doorknobs and such and everybody has to do what they have to do, if only until you’ve solidly broken the habit of the coming-out game.

Worst case, he still stays awake until 9 p.m. But if you remove yourself from the hour and a half time period between bedtime and sleep, it won’t suck so hard. He  enjoys jerking you around, because toddlers LOVE attention and have yet to really distinguish between positive and negative attention. Heap tons of love and praise on him during the initial bedtime routine, then VANISH. Once you remove the attention altogether, you all but neutralize the jerk.

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

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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  • Sarah

    December 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    My 2 year old sleeps on the floor next to her door. Has since the transition from her crib. Just close the door and rearrange your video monitor (if you have one). Not sleeping on the bed is his choice to make.

  • Grace

    December 8, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Yes to all of this! We had the same issues with our son when he was a little over 2. He had been going to sleep at 7, which was glorious, but he started fighting sleep until 9. So finally we did a combo of pushing back the bedtime and just ignoring him when he screwed around in his room.

    After a couple of days of dramatic tantrums when we didn’t come back, he slowly started getting back in his bed at some point. And after a couple of weeks, we slowly moved his bedtime back a bit earlier because mama needs her wine/TV time and he was starting to seem a bit overtired.

    Now he’s tucked in between 8:00 and 8:15 and most nights goes to sleep within 15 minutes. Sometimes I’ll come in once to give him water, but I know it’s a ploy and I don’t give into it more than once. He likes to shout “mamamaaaaa! I need X” from his bed, but I just ignore him.

    And BAM! he’s back to being a good sleeper and bedtime is no longer a nightmare. On days he seems extra cranky, I sometimes move bedtime a bit earlier and try to get him in bed an extra 15 or 20 minutes early, but I’ve noticed that usually just results in him waking up 15 to 20 minutes earlier in the morning and being crankier the following evening.

    (Side note: How do kids sleep the exact same amount of time every single night? He sleeps exactly 10 hours, like clockwork. So weird)

  • Amy

    December 8, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    My son was (is) the same way. He is just a night owl. I’ve tried everything to get him to change his sleeping schedule and now he’s almost 5. 
    He won’t go to sleep any earlier than 9, unless he’s exhausted, and that’s because he’s in a weird stage of still takes a nap some days, and thinks he’s too good for a nap other days. So at 9 p.m., I make him lay down and relax and he usually is out by 9:15 or 9:30 (I assume, I’m asleep at that time sometimes). Regardless, he will still wake up in the 6-7 a.m. and isn’t cranky about it at all and has full energy. So many some kids just need less sleep.

  • Stephanie

    December 8, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    This is all great advice. We, too, have two children who couldn’t be more different. The older one (also 5 1/2) is a rule abider, pleasing child. The younger one? Not so much. We used to fight with our younger daughter because she wanted a light on each night. It became one of those things I realized I didn’t want to die by my sword on. So now, we leave the light on after doing the whole bedtime routine, one of us reads to our older daughter, and when we’re done kissing her goodnight, we go to the younger one’s room and tell her it’s time to turn off the light. She no longer protests, and sometimes she’s even sleeping by the time we come back. 

    So yes, decide what it is you want to fight about. In this case, Amy’s advice is solid. Just ignore. If he’s in his room and relatively quiet, let it go. Good luck (I also need my wine/TV time!)

  • Kim CS

    December 8, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I was in the exact same situation and pregnant at the time. The solution we finally found was to allow her to keep a dim light on and read in bed until she is sleepy. We even have a little lantern for visiting relatives so she can read without waking up her brother (who is a terrible sleeper).

  • Nancy

    December 8, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I’m a big ol’ softie and my son wouldn’t play or read in his room – he’d cry and scream and sob. So I would stay with him for a little while until he fell asleep. But it was at about the 2.5 to 3 year old stage that it just became too much of a crutch, so we worked on it from there. 

    If you can’t deal with the crying/screaming/sobbing or it’s already an ingrained crutch, you can try a more gradual approach. Stay with him for 5-10 minutes or so, then say “I need to use the bathroom” or “I need to check the laundry” or some other excuse to exit the room.  “I’ll be right back.” And come back in 10-15 minutes. Maybe he’s asleep. Maybe he’s not and the crutch stays for a little while. Within a couple of weeks, I was able to say “I need to go do XXX” and leave off the part about “I’ll be right back.” And he accepted it and went to sleep. Eventually even needing to stay in the room beyond goodnight kisses went away too. I remember 2.5 being SO hard for sleep, food, and potty! Good luck!

  • Tricia

    December 8, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    My 20 month old has become aware that sometimes he just doesn’t want to go to sleep. I take the lead a horse to water technique that Amy suggests. I give him all the tools he needs to sleep and let him at it. Sometimes he protests loudly but he gets it. I figure he’s old enough to understand that he doesn’t want to go to sleep, so the occasional fits don’t bother me.

  • JenVegas

    December 8, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Yes to all of this. Our son just turned 4, and since we transitioned him out of the crib over a year ago he’s been playing this game. I was fine with it when he would stay in his room and play until he fell asleep. We would only go in if he got really, ridiculously loud. But in the past few months he’s started creeping about halfway down the staircase to ask us really quietly if someone will just come and keep him company for a little while. It’s totally my fault, I indulged it for a while because his dad had just started working nights so I thought it was a security thing. But it never stopped happening. So now, we do bedtime, tuck in, say goodnight, go downstairs. If he comes down we tell him to go back to bed. He huffs and puffs and stomps his feet but it usually only takes one or two tries before he settles down and falls asleep. The more we engage him during these episodes the later he stays awake and the bigger turd he is in the morning. So, while I was feeling super guilty about it at first, I am TOTALLY over it now and always give myself a little high-five when he falls asleep at/before 9pm.

  • Karen

    December 8, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I’m just going to assume the OPs note was heavy on sarcasm and she doesn’t really think her kid is this big of a jerk. But if she does, then her kid is probably reflecting back a lot of negative energy.

    My kid, nearly three, is also in daycare and also hard to put to bed early and eventually we figured out he just needed more time with his toys and with us in the evening. He didn’t want to just come home, eat dinner, and go to bed. Giving him more time to play with his cars and dinos, and more time with us either reading or also in play, has greatly improved his ability to settle. It has come at a cost though, less wine and less tv for us. 

    • Amy

      December 9, 2014 at 12:06 pm

      Hilarious. I’m the OP and yes it was totally sarcasm. I love him to pieces. Amalah loves a little snark – so I thought it would fun. 🙂

  • Jeannie

    December 8, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    If I may offer a little voice of dissent over the naps here, from my experience — my 2 / 2/5 year old son started staying up super late too, totally wide awake until 9 or 9:30. We asked his daycare to cut his naps, and they did, and bam! back to 7pm fall asleep time. He has always needed less sleep than most kids, even as an infant, and this worked for him perfectly. So if your daycare will accommodate, and you also have a kid who doesn’t need much sleep, you might want to try it if none of the other suggestions work.

  • Maree

    December 8, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Maybe he just wants to spend some time with his parents before bed?  My 3 year old lays on a little mat in the lounge to go to sleep and then we move her when we go to bed, my other kids did this too when they were little, now 6 & 9 they have to be in their beds and can read but no toys.  They are both asleep by 8 at the latest each night.  No fights and no hassles but I didn’t insist on it before they were ready.

    I assume op is being ‘funny’ but the letter as written made me sad.  I think a total rethink of priorities and language is needed asap.

    • June

      December 9, 2014 at 12:18 pm

      That’s amazing that letting your 3 year old fall asleep on a mat in the living room worked but I can guarantee that it would’ve never ever worked for my two, even the “easy” one. They would’ve been up and going bonkers. I find her letter to be amusing and honest and I fully respect the fact that she needs time to unwind in the evenings. Saying she needs to rethink her priorities is pretty judgmental when she’s clearly joking. I think we need to realize that moms need time to recharge and relax and shaming someone for wanting to help her kid get to bed and find a little time for herself is cruel. Too many moms run themselves into the ground, becoming miserable and exhausted because they’re afraid people will judge them for taking time to themselves. Sorry for the rant.

  • IrishCream

    December 8, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    We used a toddler doorknob lock just for a couple of weeks when my older daughter developed a habit of coming out of her room multiple times. (She was still in diapers at that point, so the potty was not an issue.) It was very helpful. I share Amy’s strategy…once everyone’s been rocked and kissed and tucked in, my kids are free to chat, get out of bed, whatever. We don’t keep toys in their room, and it’s too dark for them to look at books very well (well, in the winter months, anyway) so they have limited options, and it’s a rare night when I hear talking or thumping for more than ten minutes.

    Also, I think it’s funny when loving parents jokingly refer to their kids as jerks, because come on. By adult standards, toddlers are huge jerks. Getting a little TV and wine time to unwind only makes you a better parent, so go on with your bad self.

  • Kim too

    December 8, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Oh, lay off with the language thing.  Toddlers can be complete selfish little jerks, that’s part of their schtick.  It’s why they’re so dang cute and snuggly – to balance things out so we don’t leave them in the woods some dark night. We don’t need to feel sorry for the kid, he’s fine, he’s just not going to sleep.  

    I think Amalah’s approach is right on, but I’d take a hard look at the nap thing myself.  My oldest was well over naps by 2 1/2, some kids are.

    • Myriam

      December 9, 2014 at 10:14 am

      No need to make the OP feel guilty about this! I’m pretty sure she’s not going around yelling to her son to stop being a jerk! I agree with Kim too on this one! All the advice is pretty good though! 

      • Amy

        December 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm

        OP here. Thanks for all the support!

        Actually only a couple days after I wrote this to Amalah, we basically did what she suggested and disengaged. We toddler doorknob locked the door and within a couple nights – the whining/crying was down to 5 minutes and he’s usually asleep within 15-30 – sometimes on the floor, but sometimes in bed. Wine/tv time is back! Thank the Lord.

        I do find all these comments about my language hilarious. As if “jerk” is as bad as I (or Amalah) gets. 🙂

        • Myriam

          December 9, 2014 at 4:12 pm

          Glad to know you have enough self-esteem to not get comments like that get you down! And glad to know your son is finally behaving at bedtime!

          • Maree

            December 11, 2014 at 7:17 am

            Hi, I am mare above.  I want to apologise for offending the op.  I did not mean to insult.  I am not American and obviously I have misunderstood the letter and the language used – I can only think there is a cultural difference, I also meant my reply to be gentle but again obviously I have got that wrong too.  I am unable to edit so I will have to simply bow out.  Apologies.

    • Michelle B

      December 9, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Yes, all toddlers are jerks sometimes! That’s why we parents exist, to teach them to not be jerks. OP is clearly a great Mom, concerned enough about her son to seek advise on how he can get the rest he needs, and there’s no reason to shame her for honestly expressing herself in a safe place outside the earshot of her son.

  • Kim too

    December 10, 2014 at 12:03 am

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can be the nicest, most positive-deicipline-approved mom for the entire day, right through the goodnight kiss.  But woe betide the child who bugs me after that, because I will snarl like a rabid dog.  All my nice mommy is gone, kiddo, get thee in bed before you need therapy.

  • Amy

    December 10, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Toddlers are worse than jerks. I love them, but MAN are they terrible sometimes.