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Toddler Bedtime Questions Answered

The YouTube Video Sleep Crutch

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I feel like there is often a very fine line in parenting between doing your best and royally screwing up, and I’m not sure which side I’m falling on in this case. I’m hoping you can help!

My son is 17 months old, and his sleep has always been a challenge in one way or another. I never knew I could spend so much energy thinking about another human’s sleep! He seemed to be doing better lately – he takes one nap in the afternoon, usually for 2-3 hours, and sleeps through the night on most nights. All good! At night, we do a short bedtime routine and read a couple of stories, then we put him down in the crib and stay in the room until he falls asleep, usually rubbing his back while his favorite music plays. We’ve done the Ferber method and it worked for a while, but he got a cold and it went south, and sitting in the room while he fell asleep on his own seemed to be working well, so why mess with it? For a while, he was falling asleep within 20 minutes or so.

But, nothing lasts forever, and as soon as he started getting a new tooth last week everything fell apart. We were spending one to two hours trying to get him to go to sleep after putting him down, with his mood ranging from playful to over-the-top-upset. We give him Tylenol when we know he’s in pain from teething, but he was still struggling to fall asleep. He doesn’t have much “screen time” during the day, but we will show him videos on our phones when he is particularly upset (especially in public when we just need him to calm down quickly). Usually its a YouTube video of the Disneyland Tiki Room, which he absolutely loves. So, in a moment of desperation when I couldn’t calm him down after trying to get him to sleep for way too long, I turned the video on. He immediately calmed down, and eventually laid down and fell asleep.

This became a pattern over the next few nights – if he couldn’t fall asleep because he was upset, or if he woke up crying and I couldn’t calm him down, I turned on the video and he went to sleep. My husband and I agreed that he’s teething and this too shall pass, so its no big deal. But I’m getting worried that he’s becoming dependent on watching the video to fall asleep. His tooth popped through and he seemed to be doing better, but he was fighting going to sleep and clearly wanting and expecting to watch the video (he doesn’t have the words to ask for it, but he reaches for the phone, hands it to me, etc.). Just playing the music (which used to work to calm him down as well) isn’t good enough, either. It has to be the actual video. We are trying to hold firm and take the video away so he can fall asleep on his own, but now he has another tooth coming in and he was so upset last night we gave in to the video again.

I can’t decide how big of an issue this really is. On the one hand, watching the video is an easy way to get him to fall asleep quickly, and without it he’s losing precious sleep hours (as are we all). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure watching screens, especially at night, isn’t good for him, although I do turn the phone on “night” mode to eliminate the blue light that supposedly disrupts sleep. I don’t want him to be so dependent on watching TV to fall asleep that it affects him for the rest of his life. (Although, I myself fall asleep to my favorite TV show every night, and it works well for me.) I also worry that while he’s falling asleep well to it now, it may eventually take longer for him to fall asleep with the video on, and we’ll be back in the same place we started.

So…is this a terrible habit we need to cut out right away? And if so, any advice on getting him back to falling asleep easily?

~Have I totally screwed up?

Let’s Assess this habit in the context of real life

Well, this isn’t exactly a great habit, for all the reasons you outlined already.

But of course, there’s great, and then there’s real life, which is indeed full of colds and growth spurts and vile, evil teeth. So the sky is certainly not falling here because you got desperate for a few nights here and there.

THAT SAID, I popped over to YouTube to find this magical, sleep-inducing video, and was admittedly surprised by the length. While reading your letter I was picturing something short and sweet, maybe in the three to five minute range, but after searching on YouTube I now realize we might be talking about something much longer. (The top video results for Disneyland Tiki Room all range from 16 minutes up to almost 30!)

That changes my personal comfort level with this, since 1) your son is not yet two years old and technically should be getting little to zero screen time, so a 20-minute video every night at bedtime is a big chunk of “little to zero,” 2) this also doesn’t meet the secondary recommendation of high-quality, interactive screen time as the entire point is to encourage him to zone out and clock out, and 3) WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT MUCH ANNOYING NONSENSE AT BEDTIME.

And yeah, he’s TOTALLY gonna change the rules on you at some point — one viewing suddenly won’t be enough, he’ll start demanding it at nap time and all hours of the night and early morning, etc. So yeah, I think you’ll be much better off in the long run if you nip this habit in the bud, just from a practical, future sanity-saving perspective.

How exactly do extinguish this sleep habit?

Obviously, easier said than done, but I think you need to go back to the Ferber drawing board and start working the extinction angle again, and this time do it THOROUGHLY. No sitting in his room waiting for him to either fall asleep or work himself up into a screen-demanding frenzy. You put him down, and you leave. 5 minutes, 10 minute checks, no cajoling or back patting or videos, just a simple “it’s time for sleep, not videos.”

Will he get super upset? Probably! But he’s already getting super upset. You’re spending hours every night hoping to “help” him do something he simply HAS to do on his own.

You can’t make him sleep. (Or eat, or poop! Never forget this great toddler trifecta of Things That Aren’t Your Job!) So the end of the bedtime routine is the end of your responsibility here, much like the dinnertime responsibility ends with your serving of the food and the potty responsibility ends with having a working toilet for him to put his butt on.

I know it’s really, really difficult to stand outside your child’s room and listen to his emotional protests. It’s downright hellish. But picture your current situation where you’re INSIDE your child’s room and…well, you’re still just listening to his emotional protests. It’s not really any “better” when you look at it from that angle, and can even be “worse” because your presence in the room is signaling to him that this video or extra stories/playtime/cuddles/whatever are still an option for him…he just needs to keep up the protests until you cave. And thus continues the vicious cycle of a toddler who is super overly tired and unable to do the ONE THING he needs to do, which is lie down and go the bleep to sleep.

If he were amenable to just the music of the video (which it sounds like he was, until he suddenly wasn’t), I’d be totally down with letting him listen to it on a non-screen device that you can turn on right before you leave the room. Maybe this particular song won’t work since it’s so closely tied to the video aspect for him, but maybe another Disney album might. (My son was all about Vince Guaraldi and the Peanuts soundtracks.) But again, the key here is that you aren’t there in the room while it’s playing.

Final Thoughts

I’m honestly fine with just about all non-parent sleep crutches — loveys and crib soothers and white noise machines and (to a more limited degree) pacifiers and sippy cups, etc. — whatever works! Just as long as it’s not dependent on you, your physical presence, or in this case, you and your phone and your magical ability to hit play on a YouTube video.

More on Tackling Bad Child Sleep Habits:

1. Ceding a Bedtime Battle to Win the Bedtime War
2. The Sleep Survival Zone
3. Mastering the Delicate Art of Drowsy-But-Awake

 

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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Lily
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Lily

Nicely written, Amy! And to LW, good luck, you’re a great mom for paying attention to what’s in your son’s best interests. I hope you can find a great sleep system quickly!

Polopoly
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Polopoly

If you want to do it gradually, what you can do is start playing the video a few minutes in from it’s actual beginning – and gradually going further and further in until it’s not worth it any more. And then accidentally forget the phone. Or oops it’s not charged. Gee darn sweetie. I see you’re upset. I’m upset too. Maybe we’ll be able to figure it out in the morning. I’m going sleepy. You go sleepy too.