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My 2½ year old son does not want to sleep, regardless how tired he is. He will do anything and everything he can think of, just to avoid falling asleep. It usually takes 1-1½ hours (sometimes even longer) before he gives in to sheer exhaustion.

This has been going on for around two months now and is taking a serious toll on the sanity of his parents. We feel that he is committing psychological terror on us, even though we're just collateral damage and not a deliberate target.

It does not matter at all how well we exhaust him during the day. Since he also acts this way at his noon nap we have skipped it -- he ought to be devastatingly tired in the evening (and he usually is), but even then he musters all his energy at the evening bedtime to stay awake at all costs.

When he eventually does fall asleep, he sleeps just as well as he always has. He does not wake up with nightmares. He never says or otherwise indicates that he does not like the sleep itself. But he fights going to sleep as if he's afraid he would never wake up again -- this sounds like a plausible cause but he has never indicated anything in that direction.

I often joke that he's got a hyperactivity disorder, but I don't actually think he does. ADHD would imply an attention deficit and that isn't the case, but the -HD part seems true enough by itself.

How can I find out why my son does not want to sleep, and how can I help him?

This situation is very nearly literally driving us insane. It is literally preventing us from doing anything at all in the evenings; neither chores nor relaxation.

Update:

  1. We normally put him to bed around 19:00 and he normally wakes at 05:45 regardless how long he slept.
  2. These days he doesn't fall asleep until 21:30 or 22:00 and wakes at 05:00. Combined with the not wanting to nap during the day, it's clear that he has a massive sleep deficit.
  3. He no longer uses a pacifier. We are certain that reintroducing a pacifier for sleeping would cure these problems for now but we don't see that as a solution because it would only postpone these problems until later.
  4. After he's been put to bed, we try to have minimal contact. If he starts fussing or crying, we will wait a while to see if he can handle it himself and if he can't then we will go in and gently soothe him in a way that matches the situation. At the moment, he won't be soothed though; our usual methods are ineffective.

Solution:
Thank you for all your comments. I've upvoted all that had helpful elements, and I'll accept the one that matches best.
In the end, we sort of gave up because we ran out of things to try -- he got the pacifier back and within a day or two, we're back to having a well-balanced toddler who falls asleep reasonably fast. We don't see this as a defeat, or a victory on his account. Rather, we accept that it was too early to withdraw the pacifier, at least for this little boy. He's only getting it to fall asleep and not for anything else, and that seems to work well. He will give up the pacifier when he's grown some more.

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What time did you normally put him to sleep? –  Swati Apr 15 '12 at 23:19
    
Just as a side comment, "defecit" is actually a pretty misleading way to describe the attention level of ADHD kids and adults. It's sometimes a difficulty in focusing the attention, and also sometimes an intense focus on an area of interest. I believe it is too early to say if ADHD could be an issue here, but I just wanted to add that for later. –  Rachel Apr 16 '12 at 1:43
    
@Rachel my understanding is that the first D is for deficit (too little) and the second for disorder (not normal). I may be mistaken. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 16 '12 at 6:47
    
@Torben Our 2 year old has an almost identical pattern, except that he does wake during the night too. So I really feel your pain. Maybe it's just their age? –  Urbycoz Apr 16 '12 at 8:05
    
How do you interact with your son between putting him to bed and falling asleep? How often do you or your partner enter the room? –  Richard Benson Apr 16 '12 at 15:29
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6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

When our son started doing this, we took the following tack:

  1. With very rare exceptions, we make sure he takes a nap. Sleep begets sleep, and a skipped nap in the middle of the day just means he'll be more tired, cranky, and (perversely) wound up at the end of the day. Our escalating scenarios for the nap are a walk around the block in the stroller, followed by a drive on the freeway. The latter is not a preferred method, because then someone has to sit in the car with him for his nap. I should add that we do this only on weekends, when we have time. On weekday, he goes to daycare/preschool, and I think that having a room full of other children also sleeping gives him the peer pressure to sleep.
  2. Have a bedtime routine, and stick to it. That is, dinner -> bathtime (very soothing) -> brushing teeth -> bathroom -> reading in bed -> sleep. It'll take a while to establish, but once he gets the picture, then he knows what to expect. Do not turn on the TV during this process; it's too loud, distracting, and will just get him amped up again.
  3. Consider his bedroom-- is it calming? Is there a lot of stray light getting in there? Can you use a white noise generator? Is the room warm, or is there a draft that could make sleeping difficult?
  4. Are you reading him to sleep? I've found that rhythmic books, like those by Dr. Seuss, work the best. I can slowly make my words longer and deeper, and it has a very soporific effect. My wife has sat in on me reading to our son and has fallen asleep faster than he has listening to me.
  5. At a certain point, shut off the light and tell him it's time to sleep. He'll get up, he'll protest, he'll run out. Each time, pick him up, put him in bed, tell him you love him and that it's time to go to sleep. The first time we moved our son to a toddler bed, he must have gotten up 15 times. The next night, not once. If you sit in there with him, he won't get scared.
  6. There are delaying tactics, like asking for food, water, or going to the bathroom. I would only allow two or three of these requests to work; a hungry or thirsty child isn't going to sleep, and a child who needs to pee isn't going to sleep. But a child who constantly asks for these things needs to have eating enough and peeing before bed made into their routine.

Hope that helps. Sometimes, it takes upwards of an hour for us to get him down, but at least he's not a cranky mess about it.

And here's a tip we just learned: When he goes to sleep, he has a much better chance of sleeping through the night if he does not fall asleep in physical contact with us. If he falls asleep next to us, holding our hands, etc, then he wakes up at ~3am wondering where we are and roaming through the house, crying. If he falls asleep with no physical contact with us, but with an inanimate object like a toy, then the toy doesn't leave; when that 3am period rolls around, the toy is still with him, so he sleeps better.

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Set a routine and stick to it, and their body clock should adjust. Make sure the get ready for bed routine is in the same order each night too. For example, bath, put pjs on, wash face, then brush teeth.

Try the Gro clock which works great in my experience. This is the Gro clock here: http://www.babymonitorsonline.co.uk/baby-nursery-accessories/gro-clock-sleep-trainer.html you can set it to two different wake up times which is handy for weekend and weekday wake up times.

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My daughter is fast approaching 2 years and although for now (knock on wood) has no trouble falling asleep, when we take her away from something she really likes she sometimes throw herself into full scale panic attack that can last for very long time. While in this state she cries nonstop and refuse anything we offer her.

I believe your son wants to continue his day activities and when this is prevented from him by parents putting him to bed he enter that "panic mode" I described before.

As for what can be done: maybe he is old enough to realize a punishment? I'm not expert so best to consult one, but one thing that comes to mind is to explain to him why sleep is important and tell him that if he will refuse to sleep, you will prevent him things he like in the day after for example no TV or no computer. Same way, when he does agree to sleep normally, award him in the following day explaining it's because he was a good boy.

Maybe the above way of award and punishment is still too early in your case, but that's just something I have in mind and believe is a good way to educate the children when they can't or won't listen to plain words.

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A couple of suggestions:

For starters, perhaps you're putting him to bed too early? We start our son's (19 months) bed time routine around 20:00, and he generally falls asleep around 20:30-21:00. He also wakes at around 5:45-6:00. While he does take one nap a day (usually 1-2 hours), he is a year younger than your son, so I think it is possible that that should be plenty of sleep for your son even without the nap.

I know you are familiar with our "do's and don'ts for an effective bedtime ritual", but it is worth reviewing.

Perhaps a strategy of gradually making the evening less and less interesting might help. Establish rules that increasingly restrict sources of entertainment as you near his bed time.
For example:

  • 2 hours before designated bed time, he has to stay in his room (except for bathroom breaks). You can stay in the room with him to play with him and keep him entertained, but he should not be allowed to play in other rooms. It may be helpful to coincide this with changing to pajamas, to help reinforce that "now we are getting ready for bedtime".
  • 1 hour before designated bed time, no toys are allowed. Only books, which you read with him.
  • 15 minutes before designated bed time (or however long is required) is reserved for hygiene (last minute bathroom trips, tooth brushing, etc.). Remind him that this is his last chance for a drink before bed time.
  • Once you hit bed time, stop all interactions with your son aside from reinforcing that it is sleep time. Stay in the room with him until he falls asleep, both to enforce the rules, and to show that he's not really missing anything fun.

The idea is that you are gradually making being awake less and less attractive, rather than getting into a conflict of wills by trying to force him to sleep when he doesn't want to. There are plenty of situations where you can (and should) say "you have to do what I say". Unfortunately, sleeping is not something you can enforce (you can't make him fall asleep), and your son likely has figured this out. You need to stick with rules that you can enforce. By removing everything that might make staying awake attractive, you may help remove his resistance to sleep without engaging in a power struggle.

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Our 2 year old does (and has always) go to bed around 7 and wakes up around 7, so it's nowhere near too early. All kids are different and need different amounts of sleep, so you can't say one time is too early or too late, you need to discover the timings together. –  Richard Benson Apr 16 '12 at 15:31
    
@RichardBenson I think your second sentence contradicts your first. Torben's son has a bedtime of 7, but doesn't fall asleep until about 3 hours later. I'm not saying "7pm is too early". I'm saying "maybe 7pm is too early for this particular child." –  Beofett Apr 16 '12 at 15:47
    
but OP says child is hanging tired. Fighting bedtime is normal even when exhausted. –  Richard Benson Apr 16 '12 at 16:17
    
@RichardBenson Just because the kid is exhausted at 10pm doesn't mean that moving the bedtime to 8-8:30pm wouldn't help. It also doesn't mean that 7pm is "nowhere near too early" for this child. It's fine if you don't think that moving the bedtime would help, but I think you may be misunderstanding what I'm saying. –  Beofett Apr 16 '12 at 16:30
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At about that age, my daughter was so good at keeping herself awake, her babysitter would fall asleep sitting on her bed rubbing her back and "helping her" sleep. ;-)

We would come home and find "Uncle Chuck" (A beloved mentor of my husband's we miss very much) asleep in her rocking chair and Alice Laying awake, eyes wide open. It was quite comical.

First, We had a whole routine as others have mentioned.

Second, I did give her an eye mask like you mention in another similar question. The mask did not have any strings or elastic or anything, it was more of a little pouch and she had to lay on her back for it to work. The pouch was also filled with lavender (which provided a relaxing scent).

Third, we played, "lullabye renditions of Led Zeplin" for her to fall asleep to.

Fourth, we had to make sure it seemed as though nothing special was happening.

This is about the age that kids start to realize the world keeps moving even when they are asleep and their eyes are closed. It is fairly common for them to worry about missing out on things. My sister used to have a rule that she just had to stay in her bedroom after bedtime so mom and dad would often find her sleep right by her bedroom door as if she'd fallen asleep trying to hear what was going on without her (which she eventually confirmed).

We made sure we were super boring after bedtime for awhile. No conversation, no laughter etc. We read books, did work on the computer, even sat in her rocking chair with a reading light and just quietly read while she fell asleep (or in the case of Uncle Chuck - fell asleep before her). Once she was convinced she wasn't missing out, things got a little easier.

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We set up a routine and sick to it. Eventually they become conditioned to wind down when the routine starts.

We brush teeth, then get tomorrow's clothes out, then read books (sometimes for quite a while, 45 minutes), then say good-night to everyone, use the bathroom, get into bed for a song & prayers, then lights out.

Often there will be some noise after that, but we ignore it, and they usually go to sleep shortly thereafter.

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