We went to Australia from Canada for two months to visit (and stay with) family when our son was 2.25 years old. He is now 2.5 years old.
Now he is terrified to go to sleep, screams if we leave him (even if we keep the door open) and wakes in the night screaming for mama (me). I have taken to sleeping on a mattress next to his crib when he wakes in the night because he becomes so hysterical and seems confused – screaming, crying, banging the wall, jumping up and down, demanding things that seem to make him even more upset – that I cannot leave the room because it’s so distressing to everyone and only makes him worse. We have never seen him so angry – he almost seems possessed. He also wakes up very angry in the morning and after nap, throwing his stuffies and drink.
Some background: He was successfully potty trained a month before we left. At six months old we sleep trained him using controlled crying/CIO and then again when we night weaned him at 14 months. Both occasions worked effectively and quickly and he slept like a dream from 7:30pm–6:30am every night, happily putting himself to sleep in his crib with the door closed, and very rarely waking at night. He would also go down for nap in the same manner and sleep for up to three hours, usually waking up happy.
During our trip he had a few experiences that we think may have caused some prolonged anxiety:
- Our flight to Australia was awful, he barely slept the entire time and vomited all over himself. It was his first real vomit.
- He then vomited in his sleep one night when we were at his grandparents’ house (a month after we arrived). I brought him into bed with me that night and from then on, for the rest of our holiday, had to sleep with him from some point in the middle of the night because he would wake up crying and we couldn’t let him disrupt the people we were staying with. He still talks about when he vomited at his grandparents’ house.
- The day following the vomit in his sleep, he fell and hit his head on the concrete and vomited twice right afterwards. After monitoring him for signs of concussion (of which there weren’t any that stood out) we decided to take him to a doctor, but the doctor didn’t think he had suffered a concussion.
- There was an occasion after the night-vomiting episode when I went out for dinner with a friend and his dad put him to bed. He was hysterical and nothing his dad did helped him, so dad left him to cry himself to sleep. This took over an hour.
- Behaviourally, he seemed to change in Australia. We stayed with various family and friends and in a few hotels, and travelled a bit but still tried to keep our routine as close as possible to our regular one. Tantrums and mood swings started and he seemed quite unsettled. He also started biting his nails (which he saw his cousin do) and still does.
- We have been home six weeks now and we were making progress where we could leave the door open and he’d fall asleep without me, but he got a terrible flu two weeks ago which has set us further back and added this night time anger to the mix.
Prior to our trip he was a very happy, kind, well-behaved child who never had sleep issues or displayed any separation anxiety. I am his primary caregiver; he does not attend daycare; his dad works away for weeks at a time; and we have no family close by to help.
Our bedtime routine is solid: book and milk, brush teeth, pee pee, bath, PJs, white noise, night light, goodnight song, kisses and down.
We thought things would return to normal when we got home to his familiar surroundings. We are at a loss as to how to handle this. I am exhausted and worried he will never return to the great sleeper he used to be.
Questions: How can we help him get back to sleeping well again (going to bed and sleeping through the night without me)? And how should I be handling these distressing nighttime wake-ups? I want to be firm/not give in all the time, but I also don't want to exacerbate any fears/anxiety he's experiencing.