Can you help us get our kid to go back to sleep?
September 1, 2011 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Can you help with our toddler's sleeping problems?

Lately, almost every night, our 2.5yo son wakes up in the middle of the night crying and won't go back to sleep. He cries for a long time. after a while it seems he's getting tired, and his crying is winding down, but suddenly he gets a second wind, and really renews his vigor and enthusiasm. My husband as a lower tolerance for it and will usually take him to the guest bed, turn on a movie, and they will both go back to sleep. I think he needs to learn how to go back to sleep without this "crutch" but I don't know how. I worry that it is now REQUIRED that Daddy take him to the guest bed to fall asleep again to a movie, and that it is an unhealthy habbit. I'm certain there is a book I should read, and I will, but can anyone help us now? Currently he's been screaming for about 20 minutes. He just went to the door (which he has trouble opening) for the third time. Each time I heard him go to the door, I went in and put him back to bed, and said "Bedtime" and left him to continue crying. (the first time I gave him a drink which he was crying for) I feel AWFUL! What is the right approach? If I let him up, and let him watch some tv (which will certainly stop the crying, and facilitate going back to sleep), won't I just be reinforcing this problem? Make that 4 times, and the crying is still going strong! Please Help?!
posted by hollyanderbody to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think that what you're doing, putting him back in bed and saying "Bedtime" is exactly right, and that the Dad-movie thing is the opposite of helpful in terms of helping him learn to go back to sleep by himself.
posted by slightlybewildered at 12:41 AM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hmm. I'd be tempted to keep putting him back in bed for tonight, because you don't want to reinforce this, but at the same time I worry that there is a physical or emotional problem underlying this behavior that needs to be addressed.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:45 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. I have a mental checklist: Cold, hungry, thirsty, scared, wet. 95% of the time we need to address one of these concerns. As for the other 5%, we found that shutting the door was quite frightening, and we got our son through an episode like this by sitting next to his bed or in the doorway so we could be there, but he couldn't do anything but go to sleep.
posted by michaelh at 12:45 AM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think your actions are dead on. Make sure he has no timely needs and tell him back to bed. We used to tell our children that they needed to got to bed, but we never said go to sleep. If all his needs are met (water, diaper, etc) then he needs to learn to be in bed and rest even if he does not feel ready to sleep.

If there is an emotional need such as scared of monsters under the bed, you can either do what Lou Brock's dad did and cut off the legs to his bed, or address it in a way that he learns there are no monsters under the bed or that you are reachable and there for him in a moments notice (if you use a monitor). The point is if you do not address the specific issue, then that issue will remain and you will have a 3:00 am video fan.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:54 AM on September 1, 2011

You're doing the right thing. This process may take from a few days to a few weeks of repitition so stick with it. Yes it feels awful doing it but the results are worth it!
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 12:58 AM on September 1, 2011

Our almost-2y.o. has reverted to a similar (although less severe) crying phase. I've had good success with a repeat of the way we sleep-trained her initially - just sitting in there with her with the lights off, being a calming presence. This may be preceded by a little soothing (belly stroking for preference, cuddles if absolutely necessary) to get her calm and not screeching the house down. Once she's asleep, I leave the room and close the door.

The first time or two might take a while for him to settle and go to sleep, but subsequent nights have taken progressively less. An audiobook on an mp3 player might help stop you from being bored to death and leaving before he's really down.
posted by coriolisdave at 12:58 AM on September 1, 2011

For whatever it's worth, I don't think that there's a "right way" to approach this. You need to decide what you're more uncomfortable with: allowing your (fairly young) son to occasionally use his father as a 'crutch" to help him sleep, allowing your son to cry for an indefinite period of time, or using some other crutch.

For me, personally, I didn't feel that there was anything to be gained by allowing my daughter to cry. You never find a ten year old who still wants to sleep with their parents--at some point, the kids are going to learn to sleep on their own just fine, and I, personally, was ok with waiting until that worked for her. (And it did--by the time she was about 3.5, she'd happily sleep in her own room all night and then come climb into bed with me around six. She still--at eight--has the occasional night where she wakes up sobbing and is desperate for me to be in bed with her, but I'm thirty, and there are some nights when I wake up sobbing and will wake up my husband and my dog and demand that they snuggle me until I feel better.

That said, if you decide to go the cry-it-out route, consistency is what's going to get you there. Remember in psychology class, with the mice experiments? Mice who never got reinforced gave up. Mice who were always reinforced would stop being reinforced and give up. Mice who had a variable reinforcement schedule would bang on that bar until their hands fell off, hoping every time that this time, they'd get a treat. People aren't all that different, and very small people are probably even less different.

If you're not comfortable with letting your husband snuggle your child back to sleep, consider other alternatives. Maybe a radio or dvd on repeat would help--some children find familiar noises very soothing, and the noise will help soothe them--a white noise generator or a fan might also work. Maybe you have a dog or cat who could sleep on your son's bed on nights like this--the knowledge that they're not alone in a dark room could help.

I'll also mention that night terrors are most common in children between the ages of two and six, and my daughter had those. She'd wake up, sobbing and inconsolable, and then I'd get her wound down, she'd start to go back to sleep, and then she'd jerk herself awake, freaked out again. It took me years to recognize this for what it was--they started around two for her, and still haven't fully abated. It's only since she was in kindy--so about five or six--that she was able to verbalize what was happening, and I was able to look at her behavior for the last several years and go Oh.

Finally, I'd like to argue that tonight, right now, the important thing is that everyone sleep, even if that means your husband and son are snuggled up in the guest room. Very few major parenting issues are solved in the wee hours of the morning, in my experience, and if this has been going on for a while, I think that you should plan to spend at least that long getting it to stop. There's not going to be any sort of magical resolution in the next half hour, you know? (And I say that kindly--I wholly understand the fervent desire that this<> time, someone on the internet will be able to tell me what I'm doing wrong so I can do it right...but I really don't think that's going to happen.)

Good luck--sweet dreams, when you get there.

posted by MeghanC at 12:58 AM on September 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

Argh, failure to close tag--the hazards of four a.m. postings. My apologies.
posted by MeghanC at 12:59 AM on September 1, 2011

Michaelh's checklist has one item that is especially interesting here: scared. They start dreaming stuff at that age for real, and sometimes they don't like what they get for it, and refuse falling asleep for that reason.

1) try to postpone normal bedtime for an hour, or
2) if he's still having a mid-day nap, perhaps replace it with a mid-day non-sleep cozy hour, and 3) actively work on reducing stimuli during the last two hours or so before bedtime (Replace movie hour with reading non-scary stories, or build a Duplo castle last thing, or whatnot, no idea what your normal routines are.)
4) If he nevertheless persists waking up during the night, the parent's bed and no movie is a better place than the guest bed and a movie. This isn't going to be for long; they do learn to sleep alone.

(also check whether he's too warm/too cold and whether the blanket weighs too much. Sometimes the silliest detail can be the cause of this kind of stuff...)
posted by Namlit at 1:06 AM on September 1, 2011

We've had a similar thing, no movie, with ToddlerTaff. Sticker reward chart for the win!!!!
posted by taff at 1:25 AM on September 1, 2011

Have you tried monster repellent spray (if it is scary dreams)? Fill a spray bottle with water and a bit of lemon or something harmless. hide it in the garage or shed, make a big deal about looking for it, "I know I put it somewhere" etc with your toddler, then before bedtime, spend sometime with him spraying the room and making sure all the monsters are gone. My lad loves it, falls for it every time (at least he lets me think so) and it does help sometimes.

But other than that, I cant think of anything worse than the movie/dad crutch. Much as that appeals to me at 3am sometimes, watching a big bright light doesnt seem to be very clever. Why not remove the TV part, that cant be good.
posted by daveyt at 3:22 AM on September 1, 2011

Seconding MeghanC: no one "right" way and few "wrong" ways. What works for you?

Many people succeed with the "cry it out" method. I know pediatricians who swear by it. One night of pure hell. A few more nights of progressively shorter crying spells and finally quiet nights, as long as you're firm and consistent. That's a must.

But I also know kids who have been allowed lots of attention at night, pretty much on demand, and they grew up into delightful people.

My daughter (2 years) wakes up 1-3 times a night and is generally soothed by a sippy cup of milk. If she's especially scared I'll hold her and rock her for a while, singing her favorite songs. Then sit next to the bed singing. Then turn on the radio (classical station) and leave.

How long do your son and husband have to watch the video before sleep comes? How much of a toll does this practice take on your husband? If the time and the toll are minor, then is there really so much harm in having a crutch till your son gets grows a little and is able to understand more?
posted by wjm at 3:53 AM on September 1, 2011

Two and a half year olds often start getting nightmares around this time. However, I disagree with anything like using monster repellent (see this thread for why).

You can perhaps try to Ferberize him, which is NOT letting him cry it out, but going into his bedroom after he's cried for ten minutes, picking him up for 2 minutes over the crib and hugging him, putting him back in. Next time stretch it out to 12 minutes, then 15, then 20, and so on. That way he knows that you can hear him when he cries, you will respond with 2 minutes of hugs and kisses, and then he goes right back in the crib after those two minutes are over. This works like a dream for some babies after a few nights, and for some kids it makes them even madder. Try it for 3 nights before you give up.

Kids at this age often find it scary if you leave them to cry at night because they don't know if you can hear them, will respond to them, etc.

FWIW, I think your method is far better than your husband's. Falling asleep to a movie is a bad idea for multiple reasons, especially if he's already having nightmares. Maybe cut down on TV during the day in case something is giving him the creeps.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:01 AM on September 1, 2011

My girl started this at about 2.5 too. I think it's just a developmental stage. The first time she wakes I go into her room and soothe her back to sleep - takes 20 minutes at most. If she wakes again, she usually just comes to our room. I made her a 'nest' next to my side of the bed and she cuddles herself right in. Now, if I could just teach her that she doesn't have to wake me up to let me know she's getting in her nest.....
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:08 AM on September 1, 2011

Being a tiny kid in a big dark room is scary. There is nothing wrong with what your husband is doing, nor is there anything wrong with snuggling him back to sleep. He will outgrow it. You will know the difference between crying because something is wrong (nightmares, scared, etc) and crying because he's being willfull and wants his way. Please comfort him at night if he is scared.
posted by katypickle at 5:11 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like it's your husband that needs training, not your kid. There's not going to be any meaningful harm done by doing what you've been doing (back to bed to cry it out). As long as he gets what he wants by screaming at night, he's gonna keep screaming at night.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:29 AM on September 1, 2011

Yes you will reinforce the problem. Living proof because mine gets up about 3am-ish to whining/crying and when we go in he wants our room (we let him in when he was sick) so now? Every night it's 3am whinefest, go in, he goes "I want mamma's room", and then immediately preps us--gives us his pillow, Grover, his blanket, and Whinnie. And then woomp, he sleeps as soon as he hits our bed.

Bad, bad, bad habit. Now we can't break it. I read "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" by Weissbluth (king of "Cry it Out") but alas, cuteness overwhelmed and I now have a 2.5 year old sleeping with us at 3am.

And before he goes to sleep we sit in there until he falls asleep. But that means an HOUR of sitting in a chair. And it sucks.

So there are two things NOT to do.

But read his book. Good ideas about sticking to your guns.
posted by stormpooper at 6:33 AM on September 1, 2011

You never find a ten year old who still wants to sleep with their parents

This is . . . actually not true. My own cousin did. Not to mention dozens of kids on SuperNanny.

Your husband is reinforcing the crying behavior by rewarding it with special time and TV. Sounds like the kid knows he'll eventually get his way (hence the almost sleeping and then starting up again). Since I mentioned SuperNanny, you might want to watch a few of her videos on bedtime techniques. She advocates a solid bedtime routine, a kind technique in responding to wake-up tantrums the first few times, and then just moving on to returning the child to bed.

I do like the idea of tempering those techniques with a nightlight or small radio that a child can control, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:54 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree wholeheartedly with Meghan's excellent reply, which needs no amendments. I thought I'd just add another data point in support of her observations. And to enjoy complaining about the same thing!

I have a three-year-old who fights about falling asleep in her own bed every night, so bedtime drags out most nights. This has been a disappointing development, to say the least! Bedtime used to be done at 7:30. Now we're getting up and dealing with her every 10-15 minutes until 9:30 most nights. It's exhausting, annoying, maddening.

The "right" thing to do, I think, is to silently and robotically pick her up and put her back in her bed and leave. Repeatedly. The silent part is to make it no fun for her, offer her no interaction.

Many nights, though, we are too tired or bored to do the "right" thing, and we just let her fall asleep next to one of us. Then once she's asleep, we pick her up and move her to her bed.

This approach is no fun, but our understanding is that she'll eventually grow out of it. You're not doing anything wrong by letting her fall asleep to a video, in my opinion. We have used the very soothing Classical Baby HBO series to this effect ourselves.

So far, this has been maybe my least favorite hassle of parenting. You're not alone. I'm glad I'm not either, in a way.
posted by Philemon at 7:12 AM on September 1, 2011

Yes it feels awful doing it but the results are worth it!

Or. My daughter woke for two-odd hours every so often between 1 and 2. At the start I was not so taken with this, and sat stonily in the dark with her. Then I realised we were going to be up no matter what, so...

So instead I fixed myself a little glass of liqueur, and even on very cold nights I would bundle us in blankets and head out to look at the stars. Then back in to read board books, watch the odd cars heading down the road down the hill (red? blue? v. exciting). Of course she grew out of waking like that, and of course I miss it, and those are some uniquely nice memories, those quiet hours with just the two of us in the world.

Whatever you do, remember that this period flies by and you can't go back and re-visit it later when you're older and less stressed and less busy and so on. There's just the one shot at making the memories, and that's it.

I would caution against Weissbluth; his book is very manipulative, slightly misogynistic (husbands, hold your wives away from the baby), and not very research-backed, with some odd claims (breastfeeding not relevant to SIDS rates) and lies about his detractors.
posted by kmennie at 7:20 AM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a 2 yo too. Sometimes she needs some snuggling back to sleep or some company in the middle of the night. It's gone in phases - some weeks it's almost every night, some weeks not at all.

That said, I think the TV is a bad, bad idea.
posted by gnutron at 7:29 AM on September 1, 2011

So instead I fixed myself a little glass of liqueur, and even on very cold nights I would bundle us in blankets and head out to look at the stars. Then back in to read board books, watch the odd cars heading down the road down the hill (red? blue? v. exciting). Of course she grew out of waking like that, and of course I miss it, and those are some uniquely nice memories, those quiet hours with just the two of us in the world.

Yeah, except that's not going to work if you have to do stuff like wake up early to go to work in the morning, and drive a car without decent sleep etc. (if indeed you work outside the home. I mention it because I tried to stay up with my kid in the way kmennie describes back in the day and all it resulted in was the whole family being miserable and me being in a grey haze at work all day.)

So let me agree with the people saying "go with whatever maximizes sleep for the whole family. If you think you can commit a week or so to unwavering on no reinforcement for the wake up then do it. But if you do waver, you'll make it worse. Our kid is in a wakey up phase at the moment, and I just bring her into bed because we all get sleep then. I do think the tv watching is a mistake though. Bad sleep hygiene.
posted by gaspode at 7:59 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know someone who has to have a tv to fall asleep and it causes real problems for him. Snuggling ok. Tv less ok.
posted by bq at 9:10 AM on September 1, 2011

Where are you in the potty-training process? A full bladder can be very disruptive to sleep, and a two and a half year old may not have the vocabulary to explain that, but in my experience encouraging the little one to pee (either in the potty or the diaper) can work wonders for going back to sleep. Even if you are not potty training, he may be holding it in and being bothered by it.

I agree that the TV is not so great. I have no objections to snuggling. Whatever you do, you and your husband have to get on the same page. If your husband can't stand the crying, would it help if he went to go sleep in the guest room and left to you deal with it for a week or so? I'm not suggesting permanent exile, but at least then one of you is getting a good night's sleep.
posted by ambrosia at 9:18 AM on September 1, 2011

Just wanted to say hang in there. Lots of good advice up there.

Do you know what is waking him up? Dreams? Some noise? A bright light? Our daughter cries a lot when she's woken unexpectedly/before she is ready, so I wonder if something is startlinging him awake (HVAC? A clock somewhere?). Just maybe check around and see if you can eliminate that.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:19 AM on September 1, 2011

My youngest (just turned 3) goes through phases where she's up at 2:30. I don't know WHY, and she doesn't cry like your little man, but she gets me up. Or wants to get into bed with me, which I sometimes allow if I can't haul myself out of bed to get her back into her own.

I think it's developmental - teething? Learning new skills? I don't know... when it was really bad about a year ago, I resorted to playing this new agey baby music CD at bedtime, then setting the alarm to go off about 2am in CD mode and play it again. Quietly. It did seem to help get her though that 3am wakeup period, and after a week or two of that she was sleeping at night again.
posted by hms71 at 9:38 AM on September 1, 2011

In addition to the advice other posters have given - have you checked for physical issues? Could your child have developed reflux, a food intolerance, or something that wakes him up at night with actual pain? Does he complain of an "owie" or "tummy" or anything when he wakes up?

Could his tonsils be giving him issues with sleep apnea? He'll be inconsolable and hate sleeping if he feels like he's smothering in his sleep. Is he expressing "When I sleep I choke and wake up, sleeping feels awful, help me!"? Take him to the doctor and have him examined just to make sure it's not a physical issue causing him (and you) nighttime misery.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:36 AM on September 1, 2011

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