My Toddler Won’t Sleep!


These three families were desperate to break their kids’ bad sleep habits. Read on for expert strategies that helped them take back the night.

“Her Bedtime Routine Takes Up Our Whole Evening”

Jill and Mike Lewis, and Lilly, age 2

Problem: After she’s tucked in, Lilly calls out to her parents for more than an hour, asking for hugs and kisses, then says she has to use the potty, then asks to have her back rubbed. And she’s often cranky in the afternoon.

Typical Routine: Lilly goes to bed at 8pm, but may not fall asleep until 10pm. The problem started when Lilly was moved to a toddler bed at age 2. The move may have come too early, says Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Ballantine Books, $24.95). Some toddlers need the security of a crib until they’re 3 years old, which may be the reason Lilly is fighting bedtime.

Sleep Solution: After considering the idea of putting Lilly back into a crib, Dr. Weissbluth concludes instead that most nights she’s overtired and fueled on adrenaline, which masks her fatigue. He advises the Lewises to put Lilly to bed at 7pm instead of 8pm. “Over time, I think she’ll become better rested, more cooperative at night and less crabby during the day,” he explains.

Three Weeks Later: “I can’t believe it was this easy,” says Jill. “Lilly has been going to bed between 6:30 and 7:15pm every night. She’s usually asleep within minutes, and she doesn’t wake up any earlier in the morning.”

“My Kids Never Sleep Through the Night”

Renee and Sodigi Karibi-Whyte; Kaya, age 3; and Odein, age 13 months

Problem: Both children wake up several times during the night. Kaya gets out of bed and comes into her parents’ room and Odein cries until his mom nurses him back to sleep.

Typical Routine: Odein and Kaya cuddle up with Renee in her bed for stories, a song and a prayer at around 9:30pm, a routine that usually becomes chaotic and can easily stretch to two hours. “Odein also needs to nurse to fall asleep,” says Renee, who carries both children to their own beds once they’re sleeping.

Sleep Solution: “All kids wake up between two and six times during the night,” points out Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99).

The problem is that Odein and Kaya are so accustomed to falling asleep cuddled with mom (and in Odein’s case, breastfeeding) that now they can’t soothe themselves to sleep without her. Dr. Mindell advises Renee to stop nursing Odein to sleep. Instead, she should walk with him held against her shoulder until he is drowsy, then put him in his crib.

She should also put Kaya to bed in her own room. “These changes will not only shorten the whole family’s bedtime routine, they’ll teach Odein and Kaya to naturally soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night,” Dr. Mindell says.

Three Weeks Later: “The first 10 days were tough, but since then it’s been like magic,” Renee says. After several tearful nights without breastfeeding, Odein is now falling asleep — and staying asleep — in his crib without a whimper. Plus, both kids are falling asleep at 9:45pm instead of 11pm.

“My nights are so much better because I actually have a chance to talk to my husband,” Renee says. Her next move:  Switching Kaya and Odein’s bedtime to 8pm.

“Our Son Demands Water in the Middle of the Night”

Diane and Peter Loughlin, and Patrick, age 3

Problem: Patrick wakes up Diane and Peter at least once a night asking for juice or water. Leaving a cup of water by his bed hasn’t helped.

Typical Routine: After a story, Patrick falls asleep at around 8:30pm. He tends to makes his move into his parents room at about 3am.

Sleep Solution: The issue isn’t that Patrick is thirsty, but that he’s become dependent on the security of seeing his parents in the middle of the night, says Marc Weissbluth, MD. He needs to be motivated to give up his late-night water breaks.

Dr. Weissbluth suggests that Diane and Peter help Patrick make a poster for his room that states the following sleep rules:

  1. Stay in bed.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Try to sleep.
  4. Stay quiet.
  5. Don’t get up until it’s light outside.

Diane and Peter should recite the rules with Patrick before bed so he knows exactly what’s expected. If he stays in his room, he gets a small reward, like a sticker; after three good nights in a row, he can have a larger prize: a piece of candy, a small toy or 20 additional minutes of DVD or computer time. If Patrick gets out of bed, he doesn’t get a reward and a privilege gets taken away. Dr. Weissbluth also urges Diane and Peter to move Patrick’s bedtime to 7pm.

Three Weeks Later: “From day one, Patrick has been sleeping through the night,” Diane says. “He’s been happier in the afternoon and he’s nicer to his sister.”

The key to the success? Diane thought long and hard about what to use as rewards. Since Patrick isn’t into candy or snacks, she bought inexpensive party-favor toys. Each day, Patrick got a toy if he followed the sleep rules. At the end of three nights, he got a bigger prize, like a toy car.

The family needed to adjust to Patrick’s earlier bedtime, which meant eating dinner by 6pm. Still, it’s worth the extra organizational effort. “I can’t believe how much more sleep I’m getting now,” Diane says.

Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer.


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