When a 2-year-old refuses to go to bed — Good Parenting


cranky toddlerDear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I are facing major problems with getting our 2-year-old to sleep. He’s been screaming and throwing a fit before bed every night for weeks. Our nice routine of bath, stories, songs and cuddle time isn’t working. We try to make sure that bedtime isn’t too early or too late, but this seems to be an inexact science at best.

He doesn’t care if his brother is there or not (they share bunk beds), neither does he care whether Daddy stays in the room with him. Plain and simple, he wants me. So if I stay in the room, he doesn’t scream but he also doesn’t quickly go to sleep. Instead he happily plays around or lies there awake. I fall asleep first. And he’s a light sleeper so when his brother comes in to go to bed the screaming starts again. If I’ve left, he leaves their room to find me.

I was thinking it was due to my working long hours (I work in a hospital). Sometimes he doesn’t see me for days at a time. But even when I’m off and at home for a few days, he still loses his mind after songs at bedtime when I leave his room.

Do you have any strategies or resources to recommend?

Hush Little Baby

Don’t miss last week’s column When your teen wants to spend the night at her boyfriend’s — Good Parenting

Dear HLB,

Yes, it’s tiring to have a 2-year-old. A wise pediatrician counseled a friend of mine, a mother of five, to come back with her complaints of non-sleeping children after the youngest had turned 5 years old. By then, the doctor calculated, most of the common reasons children don’t go to sleep or stay asleep have passed.

If it’s any consolation, there are enough 2-year-olds out there who give their parents a hard time at night that it has a name — sleep regression. The definition includes any formerly easy-to-bed toddler who now adds drama to going to bed or staying in bed.

There are several reasons that this is typical of this age, including those you have explored.

  1. Mistimed bedtime and or nap time. Since there will always be 24 hours in a day (except twice a year when there are 23 or 25), it can be challenging when the schedule is thrown off due to the irregularities that can occur in an active family.
  2. Wanting you. A toddler is sometimes called “an adult baby” because he thrills to do more and more things for himself. At the same time, the prospect of being independent of you — the person he has come to know as his primary source of food, comfort and entertainment — is devastating to him.
  3. Light sleeper. A light sleeper can be particularly troublesome. “White noise” distractions often cover up such sounds as big brother traipsing into the room. A fan, an aquarium pump or a radio tuned to static may help your light sleeper stay in dreamland.
  4. Overload. You are probably noticing an explosion of language and other evidence of more and more complex thinking. Your son is learning new things every day. His busy brain has a hard time disengaging from processing ideas and mastering skills.
  5. Teething. Those 2-year-old molars may be working their way through the gums for a few weeks or longer at this age. Nighttime is when bones and teeth do their growing, causing discomfort, clinginess and crankiness. Check with the pediatrician about pain relief.

A phase of Sleep Regression is likely to pass in a few month’s time as the cause dissipates. Meanwhile, continue the consistent evening routine you have established and support your son’s powerful need for you. Take a deep breath or do a few shoulder rolls so you can be calm and confident as you go through the standard activities. You might insert some humor about putting pajamas on his stuffed animals, but all the while focusing on the ultimate need of his brain and body for rest.

Focused one-on-one time, at bedtime especially, strengthens his connection to you as his “internal mom” continues to develop. If you think about how easy it is to conjure up your mother’s or father’s opinions, rules, and values, you can see how strong such an image will someday be for him. For now, he craves the real you. When you are home at bedtime, give him the physical experience of knowing you are truly there for him. So take your pillow with you and catch your z’s under his watchful eye. This is especially important since sometimes you are not there. Parents who must work through their children’s bedtime might institute a FaceTime ritual so they can say good night to each other. Or, at least have Daddy include your photo, your recorded singing or something that smells like you as part of the evening routine.

A truly helpful reading I came across in preparation for the childbirth experience (which I committed to memory) advised taking the baby’s point of view. Instead of reacting against the pressure on your body from contractions and the descending child, the author recommended saying something like, “Come on baby, out you come! You can do it!” and working with those forces. Try that with your son. “Yes, honey, I’m here for you.” Give him more cuddles, more co-sleeping and more assurances that he can count on being amply guided and protected by the magnificent being that is Mommy.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.