Toddler Won't Sleep - Fighting Naps, Waking at Night, Early Morning Rising

Updated on November 29, 2010
J.L. asks from Harrisburg, PA
7 answers

My 22 month old toddler has often had intermittent napping difficulties but always reliably slept at night. But now she has been an absolute terror for the past couple weeks when it comes to sleep! Some background info, she's had some recent adjustments to make:

- We switched her to the toddler bed 2 months ago after she was climbing out of her crib. We had initial difficulties with sleep after that, but then it resolved within a week or two and she had been fine until recently.

- Her little brother was born 3 months ago. She loves him and has shown no overt signs of jealousy, but she has been more clingy.

The current sleep strike started a couple weeks ago with fighting naps, she used to take a 90-minute nap each day from 12:00 - 1:30. Lately she might nap in her room maybe 1-2 days out of the week. We tried moving the nap both later and earlier and found no change. She now only reliably naps in the car while driving around. This progressed to early morning waking, she used to get up for the day around 6:30 but last week started rising by 4am ready to start the day and having an immensely difficult time going back to sleep. The next step in this awful roller coaster ride was fighting her bedtime, which she NEVER used to do. We used to lay her down and she would roll over and immediately go to sleep. Now she screams, cries, runs out of the room, and just will not stay in bed. It's taking 1-2 hours of repeatedly putting her back in bed over and over and over and over again for her to fall asleep. We only interact with her minimally at this time, telling her "we love you very much but it's time to go to sleep" or simply "bedtime, back in bed". And lastly, now she is waking several times a night, screaming at the top of her lungs and running out of the room. Last night she woke up at 12:30, 1:45, 2:30, and 4:00.

The combination of all these things - no naps, fighting bedtime, waking repeatedly at night, and waking too early - has gotten her completely and utterly overtired. I know that sleep begets sleep, and until she's rested she won't sleep easily. So we've tried moving her naps and bedtime up. We've noticed no change though. She used to go to bed at 8:00pm, last night I laid her down at 6:30pm and she still screamed and took 2 hours to get to sleep, and then still woke frequently throughout the night.

So my question is how do I get her to catch up on sleep when she's so overtired? The only place she reliably sleeps is the car, but won't that create a bad habit? Should I persist in trying to get her to sleep in her bed? Here are other things we've done: put blackout blinds in her room so that the daylight won't be too bright, put a nightlight in so that she's not scared at night, started leaving her door open/cracked (we used to close it, but the separation anxiety seemed worse with it shut). Today I put a baby gate in her doorway so at least she can't leave her room. But she just stands at the gate and screams. How often should I come back and tell her to get back in bed? Should I be in eyesight or out of sight when she's standing at the baby gate?

Other considerations:

Because I have a 3-month old, I cannot just go into my daughter's room at naptime and stay there for an hour or more. My son will inevitably need me during that time at some point. This is also why bringing my daughter into my bed isn't an option. We tried and it just seems to stimulate her more. And worse, either she wakes up my infant or my infant wakes her up. So I need a solution to keep her in her own bed without me needing to stay in the room the whole time. I also don't want to let her cry for long intervals. I can handle a few minutes at a time and then go back to reassure her, but I don't want to be letting her CIO for long times.

Any ideas? I know it could also be nightmares or her molars coming in, but I felt in her mouth and didn't particularly feel any erupting teeth.

Edited to add: I also have made sure to spend special one-on-one time with her daily in case she's feeling left out since her brother arrived. We often go to a park together and before the sleep ritual I spend a good 15-20 minutes cuddling with her and reading her books.

What can I do next?

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answers from Dallas on

SHe sounds stressed and sleepy. Maybe all the changes at once are bothering her and she cant sleep. Can you put her back into her crib for a while? Maybe try using a crib tent over the top so she cant climb out. She prob sees the baby in the crib and feels pushed out. Give her some time. Maybe she could sleep with your husband for a few nights, while you sleep in the babies room. This way neither child can wake the other up.

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answers from Portland on

I suggest that something is going on with her. It may be physical or emotional. And that you need to find out what that is before you can change the pattern.

Try getting some books about sleeping, bedtime, nap time from the library and read them with her. As open ended questions about how the character feels. Work up to asking her how she feels. By keeping your questions in an imaginary situation you're making it safer for her to talk.

After reading the books, you could try making up stories. Ask her to help you. She may reveal things this way too.

Have you tried giving her Tylenol or some other pain reliever before bed? Do you have a calm routine that you go thru every night? Spend 30 minutes giving a bath, cuddling, reading, listening to music before she goes to bed. Your or your husband devote this time to her only with no interruptions. Don't expect instant results. She's trapped in a pattern and will need time to change her reactions.

Have you tried lying down with her for 20 minutes or so? If she knows that you'll stay for a specific amount of time (you could set a timer) this might help her relax. Talk and listen to her before you start a new routine. Sympathize with her difficulty. Reassure her that you're there to help her figure out how to relax and sleep.

I suggest it's important for her to know that she can have your undivided attention when she needs it. I suggest that when she wakes up screaming and running out of the room she is very frightened. One parent can spend that time with her while the other tends to the needs of the baby. I suggest that if you focus on how she feels, letting her know that you accept her even tho she's not co-operating that she will eventually relax and rely on you. That does mean you have to be there for her.

I suggest that if you spend a couple of weeks focusing on her needs that you can break this pattern of fear and get back to normal.

As for nap times, could the 3 of you lay down at the same time? When my grandchildren were young and I was their daily caretaker the three of us napped together in my daughter's king sized bed. This worked while my grandson was a baby and my granddaughter a toddler.

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answers from Cumberland on

Oh dear--its like a domino effect isn't it? It sounds like she is overtired--she's probably getting way less sleep than she is used to. Switching to toddler bed has created some issues for my 2.5 year old as well. She now needs a small lamp on in addition to nightlight. I also lay down with her for about 5--10 minutes to cuddle and settle her down and I leave before she falls asleep. If she balks at me leaving or is acting hyper when we have our cuddle time I remind her about the routine and give her a choice like "I have to leave now to check XYZ I'll come check you in a few minutes--do you want your lamp on or off or do you want the door closed or open. We set up little incentives too like --getting her own alarm clock soon for sleeping through the night and going back to sleep when she is up too early. If she is really throwing a fit --I remind her that I will close (not lock ) the door if she continues the tantrum. Also sending up Daddy instead has helped us and given them some bonding times on the nights my husband doesn't have night shift. Did all this start around daylight savings time ending by chance? That completely messed up our sleep routine for 3 weeks!

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answers from Philadelphia on

You could try driving her for naps, when you can. For nighttime, I would likely just let her stay up, watch movies and play, till she fell asleep on me, then put her in bed. Can you wear your younger baby while you help your older baby? I think the adjustment to the new baby is a huge part of what's going on, but this doesn't sound very strange for any kid around 2 years old. It's a transition. Try Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers book--she has lots of great ideas you could try, too, that take into account siblings, minimize crying, etc. (There are 2 versions of the book--one for babies, and a newer one for toddler-age.)

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answers from Allentown on

Hi, J.:

Get some lullabye music for children,
Aromatherapy from Young living like

Last but not least. Listen to her and negotiate
some things with her that you all will do when she
wakes up.

Just a thought.
Good luck.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

I feel your pain. When my son was about 3 he started doing this. No nap, waking up multiple times at night. Cranky all the time b/c he was tired. I still don't know why he did it, but I was able to stop it. I don't know if it will work for you b/c she is younger, but its worth a try.
1. I gave up on trying to make him nap, but I did require that he rest on the couch for an hour. I would put on his favorite shows & he had to sit and watch. I would do this when my youngest was napping, so I could get a break. Sometimes I would clean during this time. Other times I would sit with him & we would cuddle. Often times we both would fall asleep. Once he fell asleep, he would sleep for 1 to 3 hours. Depending on how tired he was. And once he was fully asleep I could get up and leave him on the couch.
2. One night before bed (while he was in the tub) I told him that I was very tired. That all of his wake ups were exhausting me & I needed some peace & quiet tonight. I needed to get some good rest so I could be a nice & happy mommy. I told him I loved him, but no matter how much he cried that night I would NOT come in and get him. I told him I would check on him to make sure he was ok, but then I would leave the room & he could cry as much as he wanted to, but I was not coming back. I needed to rest. He said ok. He had taken a long nap that day & was not very tired. I put him to bed at 8pm. I gave him a flashlight (we have some very small ones that fit just right in his hand), a book, a sippy cup of water & tucked him in. I told him again that I loved him, but I needed rest & would not be coming back. I told him I hope you sleep well. He said, night, night. I left. At 9 pm my husband came home from work. He went in to kiss the boys good night. My oldest was still awake. He had been "reading" quietly to himself. He told my husband that mommy was very tired & needed her rest, so he wasn't going to yell for me tonight. My hubby said he wasn't upset at all, just stating the facts. And that night he didn't yell for me at all. I felt great the next day, since I was well rested & he was much better too. The next night I told him I needed another night of rest & he was fine with that. He didn't yell for me at all. On the third night I said nothing. Again he slept through the night.
Your daughter probably can't talk much yet, but I bet she understands almost everything you say. Its worth a try.
Good luck.

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answers from Portland on

What a difficult situation for all of you. I agree with Marda that something's going on with your little girl, or even a combination of things; sibling anxieties, bed change, possible separation anxiety and bad dreams are among the most obvious.

There are subtler potentials for sleep disturbance with which you might want to experiment:

Now that days are so short, she may not be getting enough bright daylight to help set her day/night sleep schedule. The blue end of the color spectrum, as in natural daylight, affects the production of brain chemicals like melatonin that regulate wakefulness and sleep. Get her outside as much as possible during the day, as weather allows. Let in as much daylight as possible – for some toddlers, even napping in daylight works better than napping in complete darkness. The brain handles naps somewhat differently than nighttime sleep, and complete darkness for naps may actually be working against her sleeping at night.

Likewise, avoid sources of blue light, TV and computer screens, within the last two hours before bedtime. Nightlights are necessary for emotional comfort sometimes, but they may actually interfere with sleep, particularly if the light that emanates is cool bluish or greenish.

Ask your pediatrician about using melatonin at night. Some think this is safe in tiny doses (perhaps only 1 mg) or even beneficial, considering how important sleep is to overall health. I've seen reports in this site of kids on the autism spectrum sleeping better with melatonin. It may be acceptable for other children, as well.

Be sure she gets lots of physical exercise during the day. Dancing, pillow fights, tumbling around the rug, trips to a park, whatever it takes. A well-exercised body relaxes and sleeps better.

In case of teething or other discomforts, you might try a small dose of tylenol before bed. If it helps, then something physical is going on.

Finally, be aware that allergies to food and sensitivities to common chemicals can increase anxiety and mood problems, and make sleep less possible. I suffer from pretty severe chemical sensitivities, and can go for days on end with only a couple of hours sleep per night. I just can't stay asleep when I've been exposed to perfume, or air fresheners, or scented laundry products, or many common household cleaners, or even the smell that comes off of new plastics.

I've watched kids in group testing situations go from calm to crazy when a tiny drop of a dilute chemical is squirted under the tongue. And a large British study confirms that common food colors and preservatives do a number on sensitive kids. Try getting your home environment, and especially your children's rooms, as clean and non-toxic as possible. You can google terms like "healthy home" or "non-toxic home" for lots of tips and ideas.

Good luck.

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