I have a 34 month-old boy. His father and I have been separated for a year, and my son lives half the time with his father and half the time with me and my partner, with whom I'm expecting another baby. We are regularizing our situation through advocates and we've already had our "precautionary measures", which state that the mother gets to see the kid two days, then the father two days, then the mother five days, and the father five days, and then we start over with two days, etc.

The thing is my son hasn't been sleeping well (at all?) for about 10 months. When the kid stays with his father, he tells me he sleeps all night. When he stays with my mother, they tell me he also sleeps all night. But when he stays with me, he doesn't sleep. It takes about 45 minutes every night for him to fall asleep, and I need to lie with him so that he can fall asleep. He (unconsciously) moves, he flinches, he kicks, and it looks like he wants to fall asleep but can't.

He goes to bed everyday at 8 or 9, and at 1 o'clock he wakes up and comes to my bedroom saying he wants to sleep in my bed. I return him to his bed, stay until he falls asleep, and at 2 he comes again. And so on, for about 4-5 times each night. And most of those times it takes him from 30 minutes to 1 hour to fall asleep again, because he can't stop moving.

When he's with me, it's all the time mama this, mama that, mama come here. My mother says the issue is he wants to spend more time with me when we're together, and that he wakes up repetitively to check I'm there. When I return him to his father, he cries and cries, saying he doesn't want to go, although I know that he's ok when he's with him.

How can I help my son with this? I've tried everything. I've put him in my bed but he just moves and moves until he falls asleep and then keeps waking up a thousand times during the night. He says he hates sleeping, and he's anxious to wake up when it's light outside. Is he just a nervous child and has a hard time falling asleep? Or is there a deeper psychological issue? I am quite sure if he were with me all the time, he would sleep all night, but of course I can't do that. I no longer know what to do so that we all can have some rest.

  • How far along in your pregnancy are you? I assume he knows you're pregnant? It might be that he's nervous about losing you to a younger sibling, especially since he's already seen you separate from his father. Perhaps you (and your son) could see a professional for help how to deal with this aspect? Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 21:29
  • My son 2.5 can fall asleep in minutes or take hours depending on if he has had enough exercise during the day. Here are some heavy work activities that help him mamaot.com/40-heavy-work-activities-kids
    – parent
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 19:50
  • 1
    Did he sleep okay before you were separated, or has he always been like this?
    – Warren Dew
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 22:13

7 Answers 7


Children like routine. A framework allows them to feels safe and then start to explore the world and their place in it.

People need routine for good sleep. People who have problems with sleep need to start quite a rigid routine and stick to it.

So, try that first. You and your ex should try to agree a routine that you both try to stick to.

This will include some quiet time before bed; a ritual like brushing your teeth or a warm (not hot) bath with child friendly lavender; then into pyjamas and into bed for one or two quiet calm sleepy time stories.

Make sure the room is quiet and dark (although some children like a nightlight) and is the right temperature (18 Celsius to 24 Celsius [~65°F to 75°F] is recommend safe range).

Your child will need very roughly 11 hours of sleep per night with a one and a half hour nap in the day. 8 or 9 pm sounds much too late, especially because children tend to wake early. It's possible that your child is too tired to sleep properly.

You mention some episodes of separation anxiety (the child shows distress when changing location between parents). In general this is a healthy sign - it's a demonstration of strong loving bonds between the parents and the child. It helps if hand overs can be kept quick with a clear, firm but cheery "see you soon!"

You say that you ask your child about how well he sleeps at his father's home. Your child is unlikely to have accurate memories about this and might just be saying what he thinks you want to hear.

How much sleep do children need? (UK NHS)

Please let me know if I've misunderstood anything!

  • 7
    Of all of the British English spelling differences, pyjamas is the one that I have the hardest time with for some reason...
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 19:53
  • @Joe haha! I wont edit it back to pyjamas if someone edits it to pajamas.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 19:54
  • Oh, there's no preference for british or american english on this site. Just seems weird to me to use the y for some reason.
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:00

This sort of thing isn't limited to separated parents. My oldest (who's 3.5) is very similar, but with "daycare" in place of the other parent. He naps consistently every day at 12:30 on the nose for 3 hours at daycare (or until recently did; I think that time is going down a bit now that he's older). Best napper they've ever seen - and has since he was a baby (even at a different daycare).

At home, total opposite. Refuses to nap unless he's fall-over tired. Many of his naps start at 4pm or 5pm. You can imagine what that does to bedtime those days.

Our theories on why this is boils down to two reasons primarily:

  • More consistent environment in daycare. They put everyone to nap at the same time, together, consistently every day. Thus, he's used to it.
  • More rigidity at daycare. He knows that daycare isn't going to let him get away with running around - he's put down for a nap with everyone else and then the caretaker leaves the room. I imagine he tried to get away with things a few times and failed, and so stopped.

Our environment simply isn't as structured as daycares, and can't be. We have trips on the weekends where naps can't be at the same time. We aren't able to be as rigid with discipline (in part because of our approach, and in part because of emotional reasons). When he cries it makes us - particularly my wife, but also me - sad.

As far as nighttime, we stay in his room until he falls asleep at night, still, at nearly 4. He (and his 2 year old brother) wake up at night and come to our beds sometimes. Not every night, but once or twice a week each. Sounds like a lesser version of your issue. I don't think it's nervousness or "needing more mommy time" - I think it's just a little guy who finds it comfortable to sleep with Mommy and Daddy. He's usually so tired that he can't really think, anyway.

We tried regularizing things like Dan suggests, and I do suggest following that advice. For us it didn't work: maybe we didn't do a good enough job of it, which is certainly possible, but we always have the same routine. Upstairs, PJs, brush teeth, go potty, read 2 books each, lights out. Doesn't matter for us; we still have issues.

I basically saw (and see for you) two options if that doesn't work. One is to become much more rigid with what you permit. Put him back in bed, leave the room. Basically along the lines of the cry it out type methods. Have firm rules with bedtime.

The other is to simply live with it. If he wants to come into your bed, fine, let him come. This is basically what we do. He gets into bed, falls asleep in our bed again, and then if he kicks too much one of us wakes him up and moves him (asleep) into his own bed.


Is it possible that your ex is not telling the truth about how well your child is sleeping?

I think this is a possibility as we have friends who forget that they should be together with parenting even though they are divorced.

I think you should keep to routines and be comforting and loving. We pray before bed, but if you do not, you could just make wishes together. It is a nice way to end the day and you can express your hopes for others and for yourselves. We love Mommy and Daddy and... We want everyone happy and healthy and to be good to each other. Include your ex, but only positively.

The children suffer when they are used as a weapon between their parents. No matter what, do not return unkindess through your child.

I hope you can keep doing what you know is right, and try not to talk against your ex so that those words do not harm your child.

While all these changes are happening sleep patterns are affected. Just keep trying and your child will probably adjust in time.


The simplest scenario is usually the most likely. It might be that when he's with his father they are doing active play, so he's simply tired out at bed time. Not sure about your mother, but when I was a kid I was way more physically active than my kids are today, so it's reasonable that she also keeps him physically active. With you expecting another child, you're probably at the limits of your energy.

Another reasonable scenario is that both your ex and your mother have higher expectations of his level of independence, and have (deliberately or accidentally) established a routine where he knows it's time to go down and stay down. In general, men expect higher levels of independence from kids, and prior generations certainly gave kids much higher levels of independence than they enjoy today.

He's in the routine that mama's "on demand" now, so it will take time. Return him to his bed, but don't stay with him. Repeat as often as necessary. Within 4 weeks most kids get the hint.


Sleep deprivation is hard, especially while pregnant. So you have my sympathies. It's a tough one.

When my older kids were small I had to travel for work sometimes. It used to drive me crazy trying to sort out why they could sleep well (at least better) for their father when I wasn't home, than when I was.

In hindsight I have attributed most of these things to being the "safe" one for my kiddos. I have watched as they have continued this, but with other things. They are always more whatever it is, with me. More teary, more sick, more likely to wake. Even now, my children will always wake me if they need assurance at night, never my spouse, ever. He isn't unkind or stern. I believe he is simply less soft & what they are seeking is that. I assume that likely my children did wake when I was not there, but since the one they wanted wasn't there, no sense getting up.

I know none of that helps you to get a child sleeping better. I felt it merited saying though, because I often stressed myself wen my kids were small about what I was doing "wrong" and most of those things just became apparent in time that it was more about the child's needs, temperament & phases than about my mistakes or successes. At least then, I was only dealing with whatever the issue was at hand, and not all my own second guessing or guilt or feeling like I was failing.

The things that help for me most are lots of activity, particularly swimming & being outside. That isn't always possible, so I also had some things to help indoors, like those small trampolines with a handle for toddlers. We also had a bike that had games on it attached to the television, and they had to pedal to make it work.

The goods news is, for me I found tiring out a toddler a lot easier once you have another, because they tired one another better. That isn't instant of course, but as the baby gets to walking, I found that sleep was the hardest when I had my oldest only because he tired me out more than the other way around.

Congrats on the new baby coming.


I am in agreement with your mother. My guess is that he misses you and wants to be with you more. As another commentator (Joe) mentioned, children tend to sleep better when they are in daycare vs. at home. According to You are your Child's First Teacher this is because when they are at home they are with their parents and want to maximize their time with them in the form of waking up early/not going to bed to see their parent more. Further, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters argues that the mother is of paramount importance in the development of a young child.

What does your son want? Perhaps you can talk to your ex to come up with a solution that is in your son's best interest.


It's possible there is some separation anxiety going on here. There are games you can play that help with this. Peekaboo, for starters. Also, if you can enlist the help of someone he knows well, such as your mother, you could try this: the three of you are in a room playing. You tell him good-bye, you'll see him later, and you leave. Come back after a very short absence. Train him this way to expect you to come back. Over time, repeat this experiences. The goal is to come back before the child starts crying.

The first few times you do this, it may be painful for you. But remember, you don't have to stay out more than 5 minutes at the beginning.

You might want to consult a professional (e.g. psychologist) to see if an altered mother-father schedule might be helpful, and if so, try to negotiate that, with the help of the psychologist who made the recommendation.

Tip for child wanting to join parent in the middle of the night -- have your child drag a small sleeping bag and pillow into your room when needed, and have the child set it up at the foot of your bed. It may take some patient training for your child to get the hang of this.

You could try some over-the-counter melatonin right before the bedtime story.

  • 1
    I think any medications other than those specifically prescribed should be avoided. If we do not wish our children to think drugs are okay, we should show them that we avoid them unless ordered by their doctors.
    – user27143
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 0:36

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