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For most of his life our toddler had no issue settling down to sleep on his own (in fact leaving him alone in a crib was the only way, as an infant, we could get him to sleep, and it worked reliably; he slept through the night at 3 months and always napped well) -- but at 25 months he abruptly developed an infuriating evening habit.

When I put him down to bed at night (typically 7:30pm, following the bedtime routine we established years ago), he'll spend an hour or more lying with his eyes open, writhing around in bed, babbling, fiddling with his stuffed animals, blankets, pillow, or water cup, and occasionally shouting for my attention (sometimes there's a pretext like dropping things from his bed, sometimes he's just bored or frustrated); he isn't crying, and seems to be making a good faith effort to relax, but gives up easily. I don't interrupt him much -- trying to balance encouraging him to relax and lie down with not rewarding his attention-seeking behavior -- but it doesn't seem to make a difference whether I do or don't. Sometimes it's 9pm or even later before he finally passes out.

At first I thought it was a temporary separation anxiety thing (it cropped up right after I'd been gone for a two-day trip, one of just a few times I've ever left him at night) -- but that was over two months ago. None of our subsequent interventions have dislodged this behavior; we've tried later bedtime, earlier bedtime, earlier nap, shorter nap, no nap, regular reassuring visits, ignoring him completely, white noise, lavender scent, different styles of pillows and pajamas, transitioning from crib to bed (no problems but no improvement), all with no luck.

I would just let it slide, but he isn't gaining back sleep time in the morning -- he usually wakes like clockwork at 6 AM despite being obviously tired (yawning, cranky), then winds up crashing for a huge nap of 2 or even 3+ hours. (We wake him up if the nap encroaches on 4pm, to make 7:30 bedtime less absurd.) If naps are interrupted or missed due to life circumstances, he becomes impossibly overtired and hyper -- he doesn't seem ready to drop his nap at such a young age -- and the same bedtime behavior recurs anyway. In the aggregate, most days he is sleeping less than 12 hours total, which is low for his age and clearly not enough for him.

The past couple months have been stressful for him and me because he's so obviously always tired -- it's leading to less disciplined behavior and frayed nerves for everyone. And this sleep resistance is beginning to invade naptime as well; today his 12:45pm nap met 90 minutes of resistance, until he passed out at 2:10.

Do we just have to wait this phase out, or is there something else we can try to get his rhythm right?

  • I'm afraid this won't be reassuring, but we had a similar experience. My daughter had always been a great sleeper, always liked bedtime, never fussed. Then, when she was 6 we went on a week-long trip to Hawaii, leaving her with grandparents (who she loved being with). When we came back, her sleep time had changed. She had to have the light on and the door open. She's fifteen now, and hasn't really gotten over it. I hope your son is young enough that he will. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 14 '17 at 15:49
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As an adult, you understand cause and effect, etc. It's really hard to imagine what it's like to be 25 months old.

But imagine you are 24 months old, and one morning you wake up to find that one of the most significant and constant presences in your entire existence is gone. Gone. And you don't understand that it's not permanent; you are the center of your universe, somehow you caused this to happen, you don't know how, and you're scared. That's not too far fetched; toddlers constructs are pretty foreign to us. We only know about them from what we can study.

I can imagine it would be fairly unsettling, and because this problem started soon after this event, it's not difficult to believe the cause of your child's reluctance to go to sleep might be because he's worried you won't be there when he wakes up (so, try not to go to sleep, right? If he's awake, he'll be able to prevent it. He is the center of all things.)

In your position, I would concentrate on reassuring him of the temporary nature of your absences. I definitely wouldn't worry too much about spoiling him.

Read him stories about people going on adventures and returning (like "Runaway Bunny"). Read him "Goodnight Moon" and point out that the moon always comes back though you can't always see it. Inundate him with security. It seems he needs it right now.

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    Good catch, I must have missed that this started after a trip in my 1st read through. – threetimes Aug 14 '17 at 1:09
  • Thanks for the feedback. My skepticism about the separation-anxiety thesis is that this has gone on now for over two and a half months; that's a rather long time for him to not to learn that I always come back, and moreover, this behavior doesn't (generally) manifest at naptime (when we follow the same pre-sleep routine). But it's certainly possible! I'll try emphasizing this idea (he loves "Owl Babies", which is about an absent parent). – mrtk Aug 14 '17 at 10:53
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Just like you can lead a horse to water but not make it drink, you can lead a toddler to bed and he may not sleep.

First off, you are absolutely correct in not giving in to any attention-seeking-behavior. What you describe is borderline but if you give in now, it could escalate.

Secondly, it's OK to play around in bed. I used to battle this with my son but we eventually came to the agreement that it is OK to play in bed as long as whatever it is he is playing with is not electronic, has no flashy lights, and doesn't make noise. Quiet toys like drawing pads or action figures are perfectly OK. Toddlers do not, unfortunately, come with a Sleep button like our most popular computer operating systems so if a toddler doesn't want to sleep, they just simply aren't going to.

Final point, this is just me but I think it's time to draw that nap time down a little bit. Take it down to only an hour. You also might consider upping that bedtime to 8PM. A good early bed schedule with a long nap is great for infants but little man is growing up and just like he is physically changing, his sleep needs are also changing.

  • I also think this sounds like a very long nap for the age. I know shortening may not help immediately, but after a week or so, I think you are better able to see if it's helping. – threetimes Aug 13 '17 at 23:31
  • May I ask whoever downvoted why? – SomeShinyMonica Aug 14 '17 at 0:53
  • It wasn't me. I upvoted. I am an "it's okay to play quietly in bed" mom. I especially am cool with reading in bed. – threetimes Aug 14 '17 at 1:07
  • @threetimes Just in general! I know it wasn't you. But this is the second time I've been downvoted in the past couple weeks or so without an explanation. It's OK to dislike/disagree with my answer but I'd prefer an explanation. – SomeShinyMonica Aug 14 '17 at 1:16
  • I would as well, I just don't ever see one. It's rare I've had someone say what they disagree with. I wish they would too. It helps to open the convo and to learn by chance. I've never really learned anything from the people that agree with me, so I don't mind someone giving a different perspective. I often quite like it. – threetimes Aug 14 '17 at 4:55
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He might just be an age or phase that makes winding down a little harder. One safe thing you can try is adding in a little tart cherry juice. I started it & it helped us quite a bit. There are no major studies on it, but the small studies seem to indicate that it somehow assists the body in producing more melatonin at appropriate times. So for us, it doesn't seem to matter what time of day it's drank and I only aim for 2 ounces per day, which for us has been easy. I imagine that depends on personal taste as I know, as a mom, some kids hate all things out there (I even have one that hates ice cream). But if your child doesn't mind the taste, it's worth a shot & at least isn't a medication and has no major money invested and my pediatrician was completely fine with it, as it's just a food, so no risk other than allergy. I just buy it in concentrate & they like it just off a spoon, and then we can do 1 tsp, versus a drink. It has seemed to help us with hastening the tossing & turning. I can't swear it will help anyone else of course.

This is the link to the very very small study abstract. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22038497

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