Sleepless Nights

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Madeleine and Riley just turned two last week. We had a wonderful celebration with family and friends at a local water park. By all accounts, M&R are happy, healthy, and gorgeous, and I’m thrilled and amazed that we have made it to the ripe old age of two with so few battle scars. Heck, we haven’t even had to take a trip to the ER yet! No stitches ever! (Do you hear the rapid-fire sound of me knocking on wood?)


Maddie and Riley can sing the ABCs, name all of their colors, and string together impressively long complete sentences. They tell jokes and invent games. They love their family and friends, being outdoors, blowing bubbles, and eating grapes. They go down slides, ride trikes, and splash in water.


Here’s what they don’t do: sleep through the night.


I had planned to write a post on toddler discipline today, but other people have done a great job of that already. Instead, my recent experience compels me to talk about the Dirty Little Secret of Toddlerhood. I hate to break it to you, but many of these delightful little imps don’t like to sleep. And there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot you can do about it but suck it up and ride it out.


When Maddie and Riley were six months old—almost to the day—we “Ferberized.” Yes, yes, we did, and with nary a regret. And it worked great. Just like the books said it would, it took three nights for the kiddos to start sleeping from about 7:30 in the evening to sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 the next morning. Oh, sure, we had an occasional streak of early wakings and an occasional need for middle-of-the-night intervention, but for the most part, six months to eighteen months marked a blissful Golden Era of Sleep at our house.


Then all hell broke loose.


Starting at eighteen months—almost to the day—Riley’s sleep began to deteriorate. First he cried when he was put to bed. Then he cried in the middle of the night. Then he cried when he woke up. For the most part, none of this was a tragedy in that he was easily soothed by a quick pop-in and pat on the back. It was irritating and disruptful, but hardly tragic.


Now at the age of two—almost to the day—we have entered the era of Tragic. The screaming at bedtime has subsided thanks to a realization that Riley doesn’t want the door closed, he wants it cracked. Fine. No problem. What the open door does not solve is the middle of the night wakings. Riley wakes two to three times a night these days. When he wakes, he screams and cries at full bore. He doesn’t want me to touch him. He doesn’t want to lie down. He sounds scared and panicked. He is fully awake, so he is not having a night terror (although he could be having a bad dream). The only thing that gets him to go back to sleep is to have me lie down on the floor next to his bed and sleep there myself.


I’ve tried taking him into bed with me; that works OK, but between the fact that he kicks me, wiggles around, strokes my hair, and gets distracted by my close presence, it works better if I lie on the floor. Also, if I have Riley in bed with me and Maddie (who has remained a Toddler Sleep Gold Medalist, thank goodness) wakes up and sees that he is gone, she has a Total Freak Out, and then I’m Screwed. So I stay in their room. It takes Riley anywhere from five minutes to two hours to go back to sleep. Needless to say, it takes me about the same amount of time.


I have tried on a couple of occasions to do a repeat Ferberization, but it’s different this time. Riley’s not fussing, like he was when he was a baby. He’s screaming. He sounds desperate. I do not thing sleep training is child abuse, not by a long shot. Hell, I did it! But to hear your child screaming frantically and throwing himself at the bars of his crib (!) does start to feel like torture.


Eighteen months is a common time for toddlers to have sleep problems. (Read here about the eighteen-month sleep regression.) I thought things would be better, not worse, at age two. I know I’m still an optimist because every night I think, “This is the night we’ll turn the corner.” So far, no dice. But, as has been pointed out to me before, no kids go off to college sleeping with their parents, so at some point, this behavior will change, right? Right? Please say yes, because I’m coming apart at the seams.


I feel like I spend all my waking hours (correction: my ZOMBIE-LIKE waking hours) thinking about this. I turn the problem around and around in my head. I feel like I’m being soft by not sleep training. I feel like I’m being a monster when I do. I find a host of reasons that Riley could be having so much trouble sleeping: bad dreams, a developmental leap, fructose malabsorption, gas, you name it. I feel like I’ve tried every possible solution to get him to soothe himself, then I feel like the reason nothing works is because I’ve been inconsistent.


Ultimately, here’s what I’ve decided based on a lot of reading and asking for advice from friends, colleagues, and other HDYDI moms: Riley misses me. My sweet, sensitive boy is having separation anxiety. His longest sentence to date, uttered a few weeks ago, around the time all of this started, is “Riley no like it Mama go away friends.” Maddie and Riley spent the day with my mom and stepdad yesterday as our daycare is closed for a week’s vacation this week. Riley was sad to see me leave in the morning, and never have I been showered with more kisses and hugs than I have when I returned yesterday afternoon. “Mama came back!” he triumphantly announced multiple times. He’s been extra-needy during the day, so there’s no reason that he would not be extra needy at night. And if, in fact, separation anxiety is what’s at play, then the best thing I can do is give him the reassurance and love he needs. Which means that I need to get an aerobed for the floor. 


It’s so hard, especially as a single parent, to give and give and give all day and then suddenly be called upon to give and give and give all night. Night used to be my time. Suddenly, I have to share that time with Riley. I love the fact that I can soothe my boy, but I wish that I could share that duty with someone else, and I wish that sometimes there was someone soothing me, too. Conventional wisdom in my situation with Riley would be that if it’s me who Riley wants to see, send in my partner instead. After a few times of that, Riley might give up and decide that sleep is better than not getting who he wants to see. But I don’t have anyone else to send in. So I go in myself, reminding myself as I go that this is just a phase. It’s all just a phase.


Evidently, co-sleeping peaks worldwide between the ages of two and five because co-sleeping is easier than fighting with your toddler all night long. And according to Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution, approximately 50% of kids wake up at least once a night even after the age of two. So I know I’m not alone. But it sure feels like I’m alone a lot of the time as I think that many parents are embarrassed to admit that their toddler has sleep issues.


For those of you whose toddlers sleep well, I am grateful but envious. For those of you who are struggling with sleepless toddlers, you have all of my empathy. For those of you looking for solutions—I am supposed to tell you how I do it, after all!—I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer this time around except a safe place to talk about what your kids’ sleep issues are, what’s worked for you, and what hasn’t. Today, that’s how I do it: by sharing with you and hopefully learning from you as well.

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16 thoughts on “Sleepless Nights”

  1. I can count on one hand the number of times both of my boys have slept through the night since they were born. All but two of those times occurred between the 4th and 9th month.

    It’s hard to hear people complain that their 5 month old woke up TWICE for a pacifier replacement (gasp!) when we’re waking up a heckuva lot more than that! Even then, we just resorted to putting one of the kids into our bed. It seems that is what he needs, and I’m (now) okay with that.

    A few months ago, we ended up buying a house with all bedrooms on the same floor. It beats walking stairs many times per night.

    I figure…SOMEDAY they’ll truly sleep through the night.

    But to hear that co-sleeping peaks between two and five…I think it might be time to move to a California King-sized bed.

    I hope that the new sleeping arrangement works out and, most of all, I hope that you get some much-needed zzzz’s!

    P.S. Costco is offering $20 off on Aerobeds right now! :)

  2. Oh man. We just went through the 18 month stage, I thought we were over the worst of it. =( Thanks for bursting my very fragile bubble. =)

  3. snick, i read your ferber post back when my boys were 7 months…and it did work at first, but ours have never been great sleepers and they have just hit 14 months. most nights are okay but the 5 a.m. wake up call is their specialty. and there is very little to be done at 5. and they have no skills at self-soothing at five. and now they like to talk at five. lord, help us, sometimes at 445. anyone else in the early waker boat?

    i figure as you do, they will eventually do something else…and that is all i can hope for.

  4. I think you’re right: people are embarrassed to admit when their kids aren’t sleeping.

    But I’ll tell you: my almost 3 yo is up all the time (so much so he now has an aerobed on the floor in our room–nevermind that we have to have all the furniture on a diagonal to accommodate it) and my 13 mo is still up 1-2 times a night.

    It’s miserable but it’s true.

    Hang in there.

  5. Dear God, snickollet! You sound like an amazing mother.

    Before my babes were born I heard all about how the first six months were the hardest with twins. Now that mine are almost 5 months and into the golden age of sleeping, I realize that advice was all wrong. Toddlerhood is coming! I’m resting up now.

    As you say, remember, this is just a phase!

  6. Carrie…on the paci replacement action, our pediatrician (who conveniently also happens to be a twin mommy) told us (and we implemented!) to scatter pacis all around them at arms length at bedtime. Surprise! Once they knew how to insert their own, voila! Sure, it wasn’t such a photo op at bedtime…they looked as if they’d been pelted with pacis, but it worked well! Eventually, we got down to one each, but that helped A LOT in the interim! 😉

    Truly, we had sleep phases periodically (not to scare anyone) until ours were almost 5. BUT, we were fortunate in that keeping them in the same room (I think) provided them (and continues to provide them) with some middle of the night reassurance, and that they know unless it’s traumatic (think you are going to spit the iccky, horrible nightmare, etc.) you can go back to sleep on your own.

    Maybe we’re tyrants (it’s likely), but we don’t (and really never have — but I completely understand doing what you have to do to sleep!) ever let them come in our bed until their clock says 7-0-0. We’ve had the attempts at 6-5-0, etc….we’ve got envelope pushers. We stand on our nitpicky ground.

    Ultimately, I think it’s prioritizing your ideal nightly scenario at any given point, and directing your actions to get as close to it as possible. One thing that has made a HUGE difference for our twosome and as a benefit to their dad and I, is keeping a consistent (and early) bedtime.

    At 6.5, we’re still making EVERY effort to have them in bed (if not already with lights out) at 8pm. Any later, and we feel the pain with wake-ups and disrupted sleep. AND as odd as it sounds, the later they go to bed, the EARLIER they wake up!

    And Snick, I agree with Gena! You are an AMAZING mother. So much focus is thrust on the challenge of the first few months with twins, no one really “warns” us that graduating from newborndom isn’t a “finish line!”
    Hang in there!

  7. You are probably right when you say the toddler screams because he wants YOU. But sending in the partner doesn’t work in this house. She takes one look at daddy and just keeps screaming until I go in. I keep telling myself that “It will not always be like this” but when you’re in that zombie-like state it’s hard to focus on anything else.

  8. I was told that kids don’t really start sleeping through the night until sometime after age 3. Our girls slept through 12 hour stretches from 4-6 months. Since then, I’ve been up at least once a night with at least one of them. I could count on each of them sleeping through 3-4 nights per week, but never on the same night. Now at 2 years 9 months, the night waking is decreasing. We can count on at least one of them waking up once but it is usually before 11pm and then they are almost always sleeping through until 6am. The worst time for nightmares, at least in my house, was from 18 months to 2 1/2 years and we did spend A LOT of time dozing on the floor beside their beds, holding little hands. I’m happy to report that current night wakings are usually just a pat, rub, and kiss and back to bed for me.

    Of course, I’ve now jinxed myself and will be spending the night on the floor in the girls room for the next several months.

  9. Heard this worked for someone….
    A fishtank…. Leave the light on which will serve as a nightlight, and the pretty fishies are something to look at if he wakes in the night…
    Either way…hope things get better…

  10. We let one of our boys cry it out at four months, and it worked like a charm. But I agree with you that sleep training a toddler is an entirely different animal, and that didn’t work for us at all.

    I’m an optimist on your behalf, especially since when Primo turned two we had the same problem with waking in the middle of the night. We brought him into our bed for a few months, just so we could get some sleep. And then, one night, it just stopped. So, it can happen.

    Hang in there!

  11. Oh, the toddler sleep disruption. It caught us by surprise as mine were/sometimes are excellent sleepers. It was bad at 2, but now 3 months later it’s getting better. L wakes up at least once a night, sometimes she whines a little until she finds a paci, but sometimes she yells “mommy, mommy, mommy” until I go in (never daddy, of course). G is back in sleep heaven, I can’t recall the last time she woke up (knocking on wood as I type). Since L is getting her 2 year molars, I know that’s part of it.

    These sleep phases are tough, I like that fish tank idea though. I also leave a sippy of water in their cribs, this cut down on the having to go in quite a bit. And we have multiple pacis in L’s crib, although we do know we really need to pick a “bye bye paci” time soon. She only gets it in her crib.

  12. For what it’s worth, your analysis of why he’s not sleeping sounds accurate to me. My second boy went through something similar. And it’s so frustrating, because you can’t really solve that, other than hanging out w/ him all night. And oh my god when my kids were little I NEEDED that alone time. Being on call 24 hours a day every day just BREAKS YOUR SPIRIT.

    So, if you don’t mind a little assvice…maybe instead of concentrating on what you can do to make him sleep better, you could focus on what you could do, temporarily, to get some more sleep? (Like: a “sleep babysitter” for Sunday mornings, a “sleep vacation” where they go to daycare but you don’t go to work…that kind of stuff.)

    Sorry if this is being presumptuous. When I wasn’t getting any sleep I also hated (among…everything else) people telling me what I should be doing.

  13. Hi, Denise, I really like your re-focussing. It’s the Moms who need the sleep more than anybody else. Some Dads too. Unfortunately there is a lot of borderline-trite information on how to combat insomnia. “Combat’ – hardly a sleep-inducing state of mind. There is a recent book, if you don’t mind: I Want to Sleep – Unlearning Insomnia, that takes a novel approach.

  14. My two year-old triplets don’t sleep through the night either. I just roll with it and work on a predictable bedtime routine for them. I figure they are only young once and it is normal and healthy so why mess with it. I have found that going to bed at the same time they do once a week is a lifesaver. It restores my reserves. I’ve also given myself a firm bed time so that I don’t fall into the trap of staying up late for “me time” and then being exhausted the next morning. And we still co-sleep, too. I love it.

  15. Co-sleep if that solves the problem and gets you the sleep you need. Sleep on a mattress on the floor next to his crib if you have to. Anything to make sure you get your sleep. Make sure he’s not napping too long during the day. This often is a transition age from 2 naps to 1 nap per day, is it not? Mine are 11 and 3 — I’ve almost forgotten on the 11 year old, and the 3 has never had a sleep problem thanks to co-sleeping. The 3 has been on 1 nap of 2 hours a day for at least a year now and in the past 2-3 months has been going several days without a nap at all — so he is always good and exhausted come bedtime. I don’t deny the nap — he refuses to take one. Point is: too much napping and too little daytime physical activity can disrupt the nights as well. Does the daycare have loads of physical activities or are the kids basically sitting around playing on the floor with toys? They have to “go go go” at this age, climbing, walking, running around, wearing themselves out to sleep well at night. I hope you find your solution!

  16. Try talking to him about what you’ll be doing with him in the morning before he goes to sleep. Part of the bedtime routine could be walking through exactly what will happen from the moment he wakes up, including reassurances that you’ll be there. Make sure that you make it happen just like you said – maybe he’ll wake up less in the night if he knows exactly what will happen when he wakes up. It can be daunting – especially if part of your usual variation in the morning is sometimes he’ll just chill in his crib when he wakes up and you use this time to do your own thing. But giving him a really set routine in the morning might help. This works for getting my 2 1/2 year to relax and go to sleep at night. Good luck – it will get better!!

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