A.T. asks from South Pasadena, CA on April 02, 2008
Toddler Refuses to Sleep Alone and Gets Violent When We Let Him Cry
I am at my wits' ends with my 2.5 yr old son. He has always been an easy one to go to bed, more or less, but recently, he has been demanding that we stay with him in the room until he goes to sleep. The shift started happening after my mother-in-law stayed with us for 4 nights. She slept in his bedroom (we live in a one bedroom) and during one night, he woke up screaming from what seemed like a terrifying nightmare about a tiger. She left two days later and he seemed pretty affected by that. Since then, he refuses to go to bed alone and wakes up at night and wants to come into our bed. This has been going on for three weeks and has escalated to the point where if we leave the room before he is asleep, or if we bring him back to his bed when he comes to ours, he starts yelling, screaming uncontrollably. One night, we decided to let him scream and go check on him regularly. He screamed for a1h30 and finally we gave in. Then, the following nights, he started throwing things across his room, banging on the door. He lifted his table train (plastic, it's light) and threw it across the room. He has thrown the humidifier, the night table... We don't know what to do to calm him down. We have spent the time before bed, reading stories, singing, reassuring him, we talk about it during the day. Initially, he would tell us he was scared and we gave him the attention, but now he can't tell us what is going on. At bed time, he has a smirk on his face and wines in a way that seems fake. We had a baby-sitter the other night and none of that happened. So we think he is manipulating us. We don't want him in our bed because he moves and kicks so much we can't sleep. Last night, we took his mattress and put it next to our bed but even that wasn't enough. He wanted to be in our bed, or for one of us to be in his bed, which is too small.
We are exhausted, and I wake up angry and frustrated at him. I don't know what to do anymore. It is not OK for him to throw and destroy things. It's ok that he has fears etc... and we want to attend to those, but I think that now, he has just developed a habit of waking up at night, which hadn't happened for months.
A few days ago, I was responding to a mom who had the same problem and telling her that I had decided to stay by his bed until he falls asleep, and sometimes take him into my bed, but now I feel that he is using it and if I'm in his room, he will be playing in his bed, distracted and won't go to sleep, sometimes for 1h30. I feel that we are caught in a power struggle and he is winning. My husband and I don't have our evenings anymore, and we are exhausted. Please help!
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So What Happened?™
I never thought my post would get so many responses and reactions! Two days later, I have received 50 responses and I am a bit overwhelmed, but grateful for the time you all took to write me. As you can imagine, there were many different suggestions and ideas and I have had to sort through all of them, set aside my feelings when some of these were presented to me in sort of an absolute way, and refocus on who my child is, who we are as parents, and what we can all live with. I believe every child is different and you have to find what works for your family. I have gotten many resources, websites, book references, and I will check them out. Thank you all so much for your support! I think I knew what I needed to do, but I felt taken aback by my son’s violence and started doubting myself.
I know kids need structure and discipline, alongside with support and nurturing. It is a tough balance to strike. I felt anxious about letting him cry it out, because I didn't know what was going on for him and I was afraid to overlook some emotional stuff he might be going through.
But two days ago, he was playing in his room, and then he climbed in his bed, started jumping on it and pretending he was throwing a fit. He had that smirk on his face. I thought "he thinks it's a game".
So at night, we stripped his room, almost completely. All that was left in there was his crib, a chest of drawer, his changing table, and an empty shelf, which we lied down on the floor so he couldn't knock it over. A few stuffed animals, and that's it. When we put him down after story time, praying, singing and cuddling, he started crying. We initially left the door open, but then he came out so we told him he had to go back or we would close the door. We had to close the door. And we let him have it. He screamed and jumped and pounded on the door, the walls, etc... moved his bed, moved the shelf on the floor. We let him.
We went to talk to the neighbors and explained to them what we were doing, and gave them some earplugs. They were very understanding and agreed.
We checked on him once, but after a good while. I put him back in bed, gave him a kiss, told him I loved him. As soon as I left, he jumped out again. Close the door again. Tantrum again. I went back after 10 minutes, put him back in bed, told him he had to sleep. When he started crying, I asked him if he wanted the light in the hall way and the door slightly open. He said yes. I did that, and he didn't move. Not a peep.
At 4:30, our son came to us. I brought him back, turned the light on in hallway and left door open. He wined a little bit, then after a while, came out again. So I brought him back, kissed him and closed the door. Tantrum, banging, screaming. We waited, and waited. It wouldn't stop. I went back, did the same thing. Tantrum, banging, screaming. I went back, put him in bed, carressed his face, told him I loved him, but he had to sleep. Asked if he wanted the light on and door open. He said yes. I told him he had to stay in bed or I would turn it off and close the door. And he fell back asleep. He came to me at 7:30, pretending he was a puppy and licking my face :) He was adorable at breakfast and gave me a kiss good bye and didn't cry when I dropped him off at daycare, which hasn't happened in weeks! He always cries and protests!
I picked him up from daycare around noon and at nap time, he went down no problem. At night, we did the same routine, and it was harder. I felt he was a bit scared of the dark, so I spent longer with him, came back a few more times. Then we had to close the door. He threw a fit, but we went back after a few minutes, told him we could leave the door open with the light if he stayed in bed. Not a peep. Came to us at 4:30 (which goes to show, it’s a learnt behavior, not fear based, because it is exactly at the same time every night) and we put him back to his bed. We had to do it three times and it was good. No problem at nap time. And finally tonight, I took him to the YMCA pool in the afternoon and he had a blast jumping in the water and swimming, but was so exhausted that he fell asleep in two minutes.
Hopefully tomorrow we can put all his toys back in the room, because our apartment is a mess (we live in a one bedroom and our bed is in the living room).
Thank you all again, and sorry this is so long, but I got so many responses and reactions that it was impossible to respond personally to all and I thought you might want to hear what happened and what works. For the record, I don’t spank my child but he does get time out or consequences, and I don’t ever and won’t ever abandon him. Some posts seemed to make such assumptions, and I would just like to encourage sympathy and openness when you respond to someone who reaches out, because they are searching and doing the best they can. Thanks to those who acknowledged that, it meant a lot to the tired mom I was/am (I feel more rested now)
04/06/08: just a little update. Last night, he went to bed without a peep, didn't come to our bed in the middle of the night. He did wake up screaming and I ran to his bed. He was sitting in his bed and as soon as I got there, laid down again. I asked him if he had a bad dream, he said yes, there's a dog. A dog outside. I said "it's ok, it was just a bad dream, you need to go back to sleep now. And he said "OK" and went back to sleep, immediately. Waow! I really think boundaries reassure them, and when we are wishy washy, they get anxious. Hope this helps others who are struggling too!
J.B. answers from Las Vegas on April 03, 2008
I personally do not see any harm in staying with the child until he's asleep. I actually did this with all of my children until they were ready to listen to relaxing music to help them fall asleep. My kids were anywhere from 5-7 before they could fall asleep to music. I was ok staying with them though, it didn't bother me...if it bothers you to stay with him then maybe there are other options for you. I have a tendency to feel paranoid if I wait too long to fall asleep, even as an adult so I sympathized with my kids. Dark can be really scary to some kids. Having the door shut absolutely terrified me as a child. I never saw the point in making my children suffer through the trauma of being scared to fall asleep. It took years for each child but I don't have any regrets the way I did it. I don't think I damaged them. And I'm sorry but at his age, he is not "playing you" this is not a power struggle...he's 2 yrs old! lol. There is nothing to nip in the bud. He's truly afraid. I don't think a 2 year old can rationally decide, "hmmm I think I want to control my mom."
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B.O. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
It is such a hard thing to be missing sleep. Especially when it is with a toddler and not a new infant. My son did something similar to this when we moved 6 months ago. I read a wonderful book called 1,2,3, magic. I really think it might help right now. It does sound like a power struggle to me that began with a real fear. Tough situation. I wish you the best of luck. Definitely read the book. It talks specifically about room destroyers and how to handle them. You are doing the best you can and keep up the good work. :)
M.B. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
This is so awful for you. Sounds like he is messing with you.
Everyone says, If you let them cry itout, they will eventually fall asleep.
But, my sister had a similar problem, just not as extream.
Her son (at that time was 2 1/2 years old) would not let her leave the room until he fell asleep. It took some time (a month)but, she inched her way out of the room over time. When she started, she would stand a foot away from his crib, then a few more feet (I think it was a week for each one. She was finally able to stand at the door until he fell asleep, then she would stand outside of the door. He son would say "MOM?"
And she would say "I'm here honey" that seemed to be enough.
Finally, she simply puts him in bed, reads a few books, and then she is out the door.
Yes, he cried. But after a while he was ok with her just standing at the doorway.
Hope this helps!
J.G. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
Wow, I feel as if I'm reading my own biography. My son started this kind of behavior a little after he turned 3. It was months and months... he had been sick, so we were a little lenient with letting him sleep in our bed, etc. He claimed he was afraid of his room, and that there were shadows, and all kinds of stuff. To ease his fear of shadows, I told him the shadow was a train, and it was taking care of him. We talked to it every night, and after awhile, he just stopped needing to do that. But, he would still wake up and freak out, and not go back to sleep until he was in our bed. I tried the mattress on the floor thing, too, but that was of no use. I also tried letting him work it out on his own, and he was doing the same kinds of violent things-- slamming doors, throwing stuff, throwing himself off the bed, and all kinds of other junk, and we were worried he would wake his sister.
One weekend, my husband went out of town and I just decided I'd had enough. I laid with him until he fell asleep (which, honestly, I still do sometimes) but when he woke up, I tried the "Ferber" method with him. It took 3 nights, but it worked. He rarely wakes up in the middle of the night anymore, and when he does, I just have to go give him a kiss and a hug and he goes back to sleep. Sometimes it takes him a little longer than other times, but eventually he goes to sleep on his own.
Last night was the first night in months that my son actually fell asleep without me in his room, but it was a battle to get that done. He wants me to be in the hallway, so i just tell him that I'm in the hall, and whisper to him if he talks to me, and he seems to buy that. Sometimes I'm not really in the hall, but I just run there quickly and whisper to him to go to sleep.
I hope that helps a little bit. I totally, totally, totally know how you fee. It's so frustrating-- you are all sleep deprived, and you are cranky, and irritated, and you snap when you don't want to, and it's just awful. It's a phase, though-- a learned behavior-- and just know that it will pass.
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J.P. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
What ever you decide. Don't give in to letting him sleep with you. That will be worse.
My Son didn't want to sleep in his room alone so we had a sister sleep in his room for about a week. Then we said see you can do it. It's not scary, there is nothing in their to scare you. He would tell me the things that would scare him, I said okay then we need to throw it out, but he didn't want to throw out his toys. So now he knows what it is and doesn't think about it.
It does sound like he is playing you, so you just have to play back. Get meaner and tougher. If he cries for 15 min you go in their and take his favorite toy away, he won't be getting it back until he sleeps in his bed without the tantrum, if he cries another 15 min you go take another toy and so on. Be prepared for him to screem louder with every toy you take. After you have 3 or 4 toys, talk to him and tell him that if he want's his toys back then he'll stop this game and go to sleep now. Let him pick the one toy he wants back, give it to him and tell him now no more crying or I come back and take it and another and you won't get any of them back until you stop this crying at bed time. If he sleeps all night without getting up then tomorrow give him one toy back if he sleeps the next night give him another. But if he tries this game the next night start this all over again. If it takes a few nights that's okay you just get meaner each night. Don't let him win.
Remember this: If he is smart enough to play you this way, and they are at 1 years old. Then he is old enough to understand I don't get what I want this way so I'll stop. Be prepared for this to happen all through his life. Not the sleeping thing but the testing you thing. Every couple years. You only have to be mean for a few nights or days then they give up until they hit 11/12 then it's a little more trying, but stick to your guns. Don't Let Them Win or they will rule you. Praise him when he does well and after a week of him sleeping in his bed everynight do something special for him. A treat to McDonalds, Ice cream, Slurpy at 7/11, or go to the park. Rewards for good behavior is always a good thing, just don't reward on the first night make sure they are sticking to it first or they think they won. Good Luck! JP
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S.A. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
I feel so exhausted and frustrated for you as i read your post. There was one questions that came to me as i read it, are you pregnant? Is it possible that you may be? Usually children can tell before we can - wierd instict. When they sence that they can become a bit hard to deal with becuase they get jealous.
If your not and he is just having tantrums...thats a tough one. if you have the energy (and the space) when he throws his stuff, take it out of the room and let him know that he seems to not like these things so you will get rid of them for him. even if that means taking ALL his toys out of the room. put them in storage where he doenst know they exist till he can stop the tantrums. The less he has to toss around, the less he will do it. let him kick the door and bang on it, let him scream - even if its more than 2 hours. even if it breaks your heart to hear it and really gets on your nerves, you need to gain control of this young man or you will be having it much WORSE as he gets older and just think about that when he gets to his teen years if this continues. You and your husband have to agree to APPEAR that his tirades dont bother AND that you dont hear them or see them. If he comes out of his room screaming, calmly take him back to his bed and lay him down until he stops and falls asleep. do NOT acknowlege his tirade (he just wants the attention) act like it doesnt even exist - just take him back to his bed, say good night and close his door and walk away. if he starts throwing himself on the floor, watch his movements when he gets ready to do that and trick him, pick him up and lay him on the floor BEFORE he does it - belive it or not, he will be confused and stop. i've done it, it works. my dad did that to me as well - it worked. which is why i suggest you take out the things he throws as soon as he throws it.
Even if your wanting to tear your head's off when he does these things, be patient and calm infront of him and within his hearing range. It's a very difficult thing to deal with, being a parent is not easy.
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C.H. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
I am a 54 year old mother of 4 and grandmother of 6. We let our kids and now our grandkids sleep with us as long as they wanted. We believed that they NEEDED to be able to reach across a bed and feel for us at night. And just as breastfeeding is much easier than formula feeding.....we had no tantrums or frustrations at bedtime. I had friends who were constantly at their wits' end about this but it was never a problem for us. And in the romance department, we still managed to be intimate far more frequently than my friends who were guarding their space. We were just more creative and had to put a bit more effort into it but we have said many times that we would not have changed THAT for the world either. We think it HELPED our relationship.
There are some good books on the topic and I would be happy to talk with you about this or any other parenting topic.
I am no psychologist but I have been in the birthing field for more than 30 years (I teach midwives and founded The Trust Birth Initiative.)
My heart went out to you because I remember how frustrated we were in those first months when we wanted out baby to be with us but the experts warned us not to. we moved to a really small house and actually gave our baby the only available bedroom and we slept on the floor....not in his room but the living room.....trying to be the kind of parents others told us to be....then.....one night I decided that I was not getting up off that floor one more time to go attend my crying baby...if we were what he wanted....we were what he was getting.......And my kids are wonderful adults who nurture their kids the same way we did, pretty much. We proved the experts wrong....we did not squash our kids, our warp our kids, we did not have demanding kids, and there was never a sense of them winning some kind of power struggle. It was a this works for all of us kind of attitude.
Please don't think I am trying to tell you what you should do.....but just my experience from a used mom to a new one.....
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S.K. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
I am no expert. I am 35 with one child who is 17 months. I just must say that you sound like you already know the answer to your problem. Bite the bullet and let him cry it out. It may take a few trecherous tries but he must learn who is running the show. Even at 17 months, my son is keen on manipulation. Whenever I tell him "no" he smiles and giggles, hoping that I change my mind. Break the cycle now before you end up on super nanny! I have similar problems, and am trying to take my own advice. Good luck mama!
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T.F. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
Hi A., please understand that this is a very common problem. And many parents (and magazines and pediatricians and "super nannies" will advocate that you stick with CIO. Meanwhile there is the "reality." That so many, many young children and parents have this exact issue. And they have it for a reason. Please read this article, it explains my POV perfectly.
Basically humans have evolved to need to sleep together. Especially infants. At night they are so afraid (predators?) and they need reassurance. Isn't it weird that SO MANY parents have the same struggle? Is it really "you"? Is it really him "manipulating" you? Nope. It's a biological need. (And that same author says all misbehavior is due to unmet needs - which I have found to be very true.) Some babies/young children do learn to sleep alone and do it "OK" but even in those cases, the child will realize, hey, I want this to be different and throw a fit (at age 3.5 say - hanging on to the doorknob for 2 hours at night with the parents "not giving in either). It's just totally crazy.
Anyway, here is how I've handled this issue with 2 children (8 year old boy and 3.5 yr old girl). Firstborn was completely unable to sleep alone as a newborn, so that's how we discovered co-sleeping. He was in our bed till he was 2. DH kicked him out at that point (fine) and he went to his own twin bed in his room. But I * knew * he still needed nighttime parenting/comfort. So my plan was to nurse him to sleep (if I wasn't nursing him - just lie next to him in the dark) and leave when he was asleep. Then I'd go back to my husband.
IMPORTANT - I discovered if I was angry with him (age 4-5) because he couldn't sleep, it would keep him up for an hour (9-10pm). It would drive me crazy. I realized he was picking up on my anger, stress and anxiety and it put HIM on "red alert" (hardly a relaxed state) and that's why he couldn't sleep.
BTW, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's SLEEPLESS IN AMERICA does a great job of explaining the "green zone" and "red zone" at night. You need to get him to a relaxed state.
Anyway, once I stopped stressing and just focused on lying next to him and NOT being mad at him, he fell asleep in 5 minutes. He needed to feel SAFE. If I was lying mad next to him, he wasn't feeling safe and could not relax.
Anyway, he would wake up crying, and I went back to him (2am - after having plenty of time with my husband in bed) and stayed there. I didn't want to sit up awake, waiting for him to sleep, I just slept. It was far easier for me. Around 5.5 yrs of age he stopped needing me to lie with him to sleep. I was thrilled.
My daughter was in our bed till age 1. Then we put her on a twin on the floor next to her brother's bed. (When he was 5 he insisted on lying on the other side of me not to feel left out - sure and that went on for a few months until we both realized "this doesn't feel good anymore.") When she wakes up at 3am, she quietly walks down the long hallway to our room and quietly knocks on the door. I always get up, walk her back to her room and lie next to her. (Compare and contrast that how other parents "fight" this with their children. For what? This stage doesn't last forever. Just roll with it.) DH can't sleep with the kids in the bed, so that option is out. They never beg. They know that I will lie next to them for the rest of the night and it's perfect for us. I have time for myself and my husband at night and we all get sleep and we all get our needs met for nighttime comfort.
Just an idea for you to consider.
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E.O. answers from Washington DC on April 03, 2008
Have hope. My son is the same age and is just now moving out of that stage. He is still waking up about once a week crying but he doesnt get out of bed anymore. I go to him, we say his prayer, leave his door open, and our door open and he goes back to sleep. It all started for us the same way too. My mom had come to visit and he got real used to her being here and then she left and his PERFECT 7pm bedtime was so messed up. I tried EVERYTHING. THe worst mistake I made was laying in the bed with him or bringing him into our bed when i was so exhausted. Just keep strong. They grow out of it. I ended up removing all the books and toys from his room so he wouldn't get out of bed and play and mess around then cry that he wanted out. So keep consistent. It WILL end!!!
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P.J. answers from Los Angeles on April 03, 2008
I had the same problem with my now 5 year old when she was 18 months. The pediatrician said that kids start having nightmares at this age, so I decided not to force her to sleep on her own. I just brought her to our bed and my husband and I adjusted to having her sleep with us. I didn't feel as if she was manipulating us, I just felt that we should be there to comfort her when she needs us. Kids don't stay little forever, soon, this stage will be all over with.
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