We have always had trouble with our little boy not sleeping through the night. He will do it in spells (every night for a week, then not at all for a fortnight). But he has recently developed a frustrating habit.

Having fallen asleep by 9 O'clock, he wakes again distressed at around midnight. When I come in to him, he is wide awake and asking to go downstairs to play. I usually try gently explaining that it is night-time and that he needs to go back to sleep. He is a clever boy, and I know he understands this, but the moment he is put back into bed he screams angrily and will not settle. It takes up to 4 hours for him to tire out enough to fall back asleep.

I've tried leaving him to cry, visiting intermittently. This technique is ineffective, since he tends to be more angry and upset each time I leave him. The other night I tried this for four hours- he was in an awful state by the end.

I've tried sitting/lying in his room with him. This stops him crying but he is still wide-awake and keeps sitting up and talking.

We're at the end of our tether at the moment. Can anyone suggest what would be a good way to get him to sleep through the night consistently.

UPDATE: It's now 3 months on and his sleep is a lot better. Two things that made the difference for us: (1) A new "big-boy" duvet, instead of blankets/growbag (2) A toddler sleep-training clock, so he knows when he's supposed to get up.

5 Answers 5


I've been there before. My son was over a year old before he started sleeping through the night. Here are my suggestions:

  • Put him to bed earlier - like 7pm. It sounds counterintuitive, but sleep quality goes down when you're overtired, leaving you prone to waking more (and the same is true for children). As the saying goes "sleep begets sleep."
  • Do not stop his nap if he's down to one. If he's still at two, try consolidating. Children his age still need a mid-day nap, and the nap should be at least an hour (some children can do well on 45 minutes, but generally speaking, an hour is needed to get a ful cycle). Again, sleep begets sleep.
  • Make sure he's eating enough. It's hard to sleep when you're hungry. We generally give our son a granola bar shortly before bed, and of course, make sure he's eating enough throughout the day.
  • Keep a cup of water in his room. I know the air in my house tends to be dry, so our son has a sippy cup with water in it for when he's thirsty. He gets up, drinks some, and goes back to bed.
  • Make sure his room is comfortable. If he uses a blanket, make sure his pajamas aren't too warm. If his room has a ceiling fan, turn it on to keep the air circulating. If the air is too dry, put in a humidifier.
  • Get him a new mattress. This one will depend entirely on your child, and of course make sure to still keep the sleep environment safe, but I found that my son slept a lot better when we switched him to a twin mattress (his bed is now just a mattress on the floor) from his old infant/toddler mattress. He simply couldn't sleep on a mattress as firm as the infant mattress. Switching to a softer mattress worked wonders for us.
  • Follow his circadian rhythm. We all have our own sleep schedules, but they generally follow a particular pattern. For young children, it's easiest to start with "the 5 hour rule." That is, awake for 5 hours, then sleep. So, if your son gets up at 7am, put him down for a nap at noon. Assuming he takes a 2 hour nap, then put him to bed at 7pm. The key is to find his natural patterns and make a schedule out of it, putting him to bed during those key "windows" when getting him to sleep and keeping him that way will be easiest.
  • Pick a "sleep training" method and stick to it. It doesn't have to be exactly the "leave them and don't return until morning" or the "Ferber method", just as long as you're consistent about it. We're at the point now that, for the most part, we can lay him down and walk out of the room. For the nights that aren't that easy, we make sure his needs are taken care of (food, water, dry diaper, etc), and if he's doing it just to be stubborn/defiant, we let him have his tantrum. When it sounds like he's starting to settle down, we go in and lay him back down and tuck him in. One of the first things I did, too, was sit by his bed and not allow him to climb out (I don't like locking a small child in their room if I don't have to). For my son, at least, it sends the same message - it's time for bed, and no amount of fighting is going to change that, but does so without locking him in his room alone (which, I think, helps convey that I'm not abandoning or neglecting him, but that I'm enforcing a rule). It took a good half hour, but I only needed to do it once to get him to stop fighting bedtime all of the time.
  • Encourage him to choose to go to bed. Bed time shouldn't be a negative thing, if you can help it. Make sure he knows that it's okay to ask to go to bed early. For our son, it helps to make him feel like a "big boy" if he does such things, and explain things like "big boys know when they need to go to bed early" (telling him about what big boys do is a great motivator for our son).
  • Have a pre-bedtime routine. It doesn't have to be elaborate, just consistent. For us, it's my husband starting a sort of "countdown," starting about 6:30. He'll tell our son things like, "it's almost time for bed," and "you have 5 minutes left before bed." If our son hasn't had a snack recently, then we'll get out a granola bar or some yogurt and give it to him. After he's done, hubby has him say good night to me and walks him back to his room, where he changes him and puts him to bed.
  • Do you have music or white noise of some sort playing in his room? If not, that might be worth trying. If his life is busy and noisy during the day, it might be too quite for him to be comfortable. Some soft music or some other white noise might help (conversely, if you do have music going, it might be the cause, so it might be worth tring a few nights without).
  • Have his two-year molars come in yet? If not, that might be one of the things waking him and keeping him awake. It might not seem like it during the day, but he's likely too distracted to notice or care about the pain, but once night comes and the distractions are gone, there's nothing left but that pain.
  • Talk to his pediatrician. You mention that he wakes distressed. It's possible that he's having night terrors, or may be waking up, disoriented, from a sleepwalking episode. While some of both are fairly common at his age, the frequency may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Your child's doctor would be able to help you determine if this is the case and refer you to a pediatric sleep specialist if necessary.
  • Try to also teach him sign language, especially if he's not actually talking, or his vocabulary is still limited. Being pre-verbal is particularly frustrating, because toddlers are really smart, but they can't communicate things in a way people understand. Knowing some signs can make life a lot easier on both of you, because then he can communicate what he needs/wants during the night wakings (and no, it won't hinder his verbal skills).

We've put three-sided cribs next to our already huge bed to make it basically a wall-to-wall bed and have our toddler sleep on one side and the baby on the other.

The basic advantage of this setup is that toddler (3.5 years old) or baby (1.5) waking up in the middle of the night is (98% of the time) minimally disruptive on anyones sleep. Sure we wake up a little bit, but nobody ever has to get out of bed or really get awake.

Everyone is there and feeling safe. When they wake up they're rarely entirely conscious before they hear we're there and doze back to sleep. If they wake up entirely it's easy to see and explain that it's night and still time to sleep (and come cuddle/nurse depending on which one wakes).


Some ideas:

  1. I know this is counter intuitive, but put him to bed earlier. When you are very tired you tend to wake up more (I find this true for me, my husband, and the kids)

  2. Put books in his bed and a light he can use on his own, so he has something to do in bed.

  3. Settle him down, leave and DO NOT GO BACK, he WILL stop eventually, and I know it is torture for you, but he will learn that it is at least quiet time if not sleeping time.

4.Cut out a nap if you are still giving him one (I imagine he is taking a nap as he must be exhausted.

  1. Be patient with yourself, it is frustrating, annoying, etc and it is easy to take out on him. He is not doing this to get you, he is doing this because he wants to explore the world.

My first thought is that there are plenty of related questions with some useful answers on this site already. I've posted a few of them below.

I think you can approach this problem with several practices at once. Each one of these steps can be adjusted to what works best for your son:

  1. Make sure that your son is really, really tired. This will improve the chances that he will sleep longer in the first place. Stop or shorten the nap time during the day. Do stuff outdoors, and/or with other kids and/or adults.
  2. Have a solid bedtime routine that does not change. This will help him understand that he's really meant to dial back now and relax. Make this routine longer if he's too excited to begin with. Include some more time-consuming elements like a bath or some book-reading if the routine is too short.
  3. When he does wake up at night, be very, very consistent in how you deal with it. Put him back to bed and give him a cuddle, then say you'll be right back. Then leave the room for 30 seconds and return. Slowly increase the length of your absence every time: 1min, 2min, 3min, 5min, 7min, 10min...
    • Note that this isn't something I'd generally advise to be used in the middle of the night; it's more often used at regular bedtime. But your case seems a bit worse than average so it might be a good way forward.
  4. Ensure that his bedroom is how he likes it. Too dark? Put up a small night light. Too bright? Hang better curtains. Too quiet? Add some white-noise generator. Too loud? Reduce noises (appliances?) if you can. Health issues? Check for allergies, draft air, and such things.

Team up with your spouse. Let one of you do every step in a night, to stay consistent. Only swap if your nerves get frayed. Let the other parent start the next night.

Here are a few related questions. Nevermind the actual question headlines but look through them and pick the bits that might work for you. Some might address infants, but the tricks work just as well for toddlers.

Try to remain calm, and be consistent. Don't give up, and don't give in. This will show him that you are confident and in charge. He is not in control of you.

Good luck!

  • Strongly disagree with continually returning, he will learn he can have you at night. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 13:35
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    @morahhochman: I know the two of us disagree on this point, and that's okay: when we offer very different answers, the asker can choose among a bigger toolbox :-) But let me clarify: the trick with returning is to show that yes I am around and no you don't need non-stop confirmation on that and the idea is that the child will learn this over time without the stress of a cry-it-out approach. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 13:39
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    I see your point and have read about it many times, sorry if I insulted you, I just wanted to make a point. I respect your opinion and I am glad we can agree to respectfully disagree. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 13:49
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    @morahhochman: No insult at all. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 13:55

Perhaps this answer isn't relevant to the original poster but here's my two cents: my youngest ( of three boys) has never been a good sleeper. Ever. He still wakes up frequently now that he's twenty two months old, but most nights he goes back to sleep after a minute or two of fussing and rolling around in his crib. The nights he wakes up every hour or two and needs my attention to get back to sleep are a warning sign to me now that he has an ear infection. 9 times out of ten he has one after two nights of waking up like that. It's the only symptom he has. No fever, nothing. Except waking up. His ears show signs of scarring from a bunch of ear infections we never knew he had when he was an infant and we attributed the crying to "fussy baby stuff". So. Take your kid to the doctor if he's not himself. Could be nothing, or, it could be the answer to your (and the baby's) problem.

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