Sleep issues with young child

>>Ds is I can’t handle him anymore. He’s 3. A couple of months ago, we finally cut his nap. It was becoming a nightmare. We also have a 10 month old, and ds3 will not go down easily, he never has. For a while, I would wear him on my back in an Ergo to put him down for a nap – not such a big deal when he was smaller, but it became really impossible after the baby was born. 
So, I figured, cut the nap. I can’t wear him to sleep anymore, I just can’t. The thing is, without the nap, ds turns into a different person. He’s Mr. Hyde, or whatever it is. Just a complete terror. His whole personality changes when he doesn’t get that nap. So, we moved his bedtime up an hour to make up for it, from 8:30 to 7/7:30ish. 
By the time 7 comes, he’s completely exhausted, and is pulling his Mr. Hyde routine. I know, I know, he’s 3, come will say he’s acting like a three-year-old. But.. I know my boy, and I know when something’s.. off. Screaming, tantrums over nothing.. I just know him, and I know this isn’t him.  I don’t know what else to do. I feel like he still needs a nap but I simply can’t force him to sleep. I regret that I put him to sleep in the Ergo for so long, I guess he doesn’t know how to fall asleep on his own at all now (what do I do about ds10mo so I don’t repeat this horrible pattern?). I feel like he could go to bed at 5 in the afternoon, and he’ll fall asleep. But I don’t really want to wake up at 5am. Please help me figure this out. I really don’t know what to do anymore.<<

Though I’ve gotten questions relating to sleep issue in the past, this is the first time I’m touching on this issue on the blog.  I generally prefer to answer this directly so that I’m not publicly misunderstood, and I’ve significantly delayed answering this because of that reluctance.  But the sleep of young children is a very important issue that really affects the functioning of the parents and the children, physically and emotionally.  There are a lot of things to touch on, but I’ll try to tackle it here because it really is too important to ignore.

It’s very important to realize that you’re doing your child a favor to help him learn healthy sleep habits, because a well rested child is a happy child. Whenever my ds3 starts to whine or act like an obnoxious brat, I don’t bother with any discipline – he goes straight into bed and wakes up a pleasant child again.  Making sure he gets the proper amount of sleep deals with the root of his behavior – it’s very hard to moderate your emotions (even as an adult!) when you haven’t gotten enough rest.  Crankiness can become chronic if a child day after day isn’t getting enough sleep, and a cranky child becomes a difficult child, and a difficult child and parent generally have to work a lot harder than a happy child and parent to bond and get along.

I’m concerned about a trend I’ve noticed – because ‘crying it out’ is considered child abuse, parents are doing anything to keep their kids from crying at night or at naptime.  This leads to a lot of sleep issues for the kids because they aren’t given a chance to learn to fall asleep independently – and it is a learned skill.  Of greatest concern to me are moms who are bouncing off the walls emotionally due to severe and ongoing sleep deprivation – sometimes a little grumpy, but often filled with rage and frustration, overreacting to any little thing, screaming at their young children or wanting to hurt them – far from loving behavior, and usually in the name of  attachment parenting.  I see this expressed online all the time.  I think if the only choice were letting a child cry for a while for a couple of nights or having a parent who is often filled with hostility towards him as a result of her exhaustion, letting them cry is much, much better.

We have to stop being so afraid that if our children cry they’re going to have hangups and feel abandoned and unloved.   (If a child grows up never having his cries responded to, yes, he will develop issues and shut down. But that’s almost never the issue.)  Let’s say my ds3 sees a chocolate in the store and asks for it.  Knowing it’s not good for him, I say ‘no’ and he starts to cry.  Does the chocolate become good for him because he is crying for it?  No.  Should I give him the chocolate because he cries?  No.  If you’ve determined your child needs to go to sleep (and sufficient sleep is a serious need), you can’t let him go without it just because he doesn’t want it or it’s hard for him.  Crying before bedtime and naptime doesn’t mean that he isn’t tired enough or shouldn’t go to sleep; it means he wants to stay up later and is going to try to convince you with crying that he should get what he wants.  Just like the chocolate.

I’m not saying that letting a child cry is the only or best option – it’s not and it’s not generally what I do.  I just want to be clear that I think that it’s not the big hairy deal that moms are making it out to be.  I think the easiest method is preventing sleep issues in the first place.  My babies sleep in my bed for the first 6 – 8 weeks after they’re born.  Then I move them to a bassinet right next to my bed.  This is close enough that as soon as the baby wakes up (not every time he stirs – often they stir and fall back asleep if left alone), I wake up and can nurse him, and we both sleep more soundly like this – babies tend to wake up much more frequently because of the movement of their parents.  And every time they wake up, they end up being nursed back to sleep. Before you know it, you’ve created a cycle of repeated night wakings.  Generally my babies wake up once in the night to be nursed, and start sleeping through the night on their own without much conscious effort on my part.

Here’s a tip that is counter intuitive, but this is crucial.  Put your child to sleep before he is showing signs of being tired.  This is true for a child of any age.  A few weeks ago, my baby was being super cranky.  Crying all day, sleeping about five minutes after being put down and then waking up.  All day long.  After a week of this, I realized what was happening (remember, there are other people besides me putting him to sleep and picking him up when he cries).  He wasn’t being put down until he was overtired, and because he was overtired, he couldn’t easily fall asleep.   What I immediately did was start putting him to sleep before he looked like he needed it and explained to my kids what I was doing and why, as well as showing them the signs of when it was the right time for him to go in for a nap.  The first day he slept a huge amount – it was literally like he slept all day long except for very short waking periods when he would nurse and then go back to sleep.  He had a week long sleep deficit to make up for!  Since then, he hardly cries at all – we put him down for a nap when he starts to look relaxed and mellow (vs alert and bright eyed), and he falls asleep without whimpering.

I’ve shared my general thoughts on the importance of sleep, of preventing sleep issues in the first place, and told you when the best time to put your child in bed is.  Now, to the specific question – you’re right, your son is acting exactly like a seriously overtired child.  So the question is how to help him get more sleep.  First of all, I would try to go back to a nap during the day. He clearly can’t handle the long day without it.  In the earlier half of the day, around 12 or so, I’d suggest you have a nice long story session to get him feeling mellow.  Being in one place snuggled next to you is going to naturally relax him.  When he’s looking drowsy, or even just very relaxed, it’s time for a nap. He may suddenly pop up and start insisting he’s not tired and doesn’t want to take a nap.  That’s okay.  Tell him he doesn’t have to sleep, just rest in his bed for a little bit.  Let him get up after a half hour if he doesn’t fall asleep.  Then do the same thing the next day, but let him stay in bed a little longer.  Do this for at least a week or two.  Soon he should start relaxing enough to fall asleep.  What you’re doing is setting up the situation to help him learn to fall asleep without being carried (I have no idea how you did this for so long – it’s amazing the things mothers do for their children!).   Remember, falling asleep independently is a learned skill and it’s going to take him some time to learn how to do it – but you have to give him the chance to learn.

Until he starts sleeping during the day again, he needs to go to bed earlier.  I don’t know when he wakes up, but since he’s already overwound by 7 pm, I’d suggest trying for 6 pm.  Remember, don’t wait for a child to show signs of being tired to put them to bed.  I understand the concern about him waking up early – go to sleep early yourself just in case he does so you have the energy to deal with it.  But it’s more likely that because you put him to sleep earlier, he’ll sleep longer- the irony is the more rested a child is, the more they sleep.

Good luck, and don’t give up!


18 thoughts on “Sleep issues with young child

  1. We had a similiar situation and now my 3 yr old is in bed at 6:30pm and we are all better off.

    I can so relate to acting in the name of AP and nopt letting my kids cry it out, and yet not feeling like a good mother b/c I was so overtired. I think you are right on! If G-d willing, we should have another child, I will try to remember this advice.

    Avivah, there was one point that I am not sure I follow. You said that babies wake up from their parent’s movements and get nursed back to sleep and this creates a vicious cycle (this I know too well), but how is it that your baby only wakes once a night? Why does he not wake from your movements? I am thinking it’s b/c you let him fall asleep on his own instead of nursing him each time, but I just want to be sure. Also, at what point do you move your babies out of your room?

  2. Aviva-
    Great advice. You are awsome! All my friends thought I was “mean” and “rigid” for setting up a sleep schedule for my kids at a young age, not cosleeping etc. All I can say is that I would not be able to homeschool my oldest today, if my house resembled the houses of my critics. We are all happy, well-rested, and generally get along.

  3. My babies don’t sleep in bed with me after the age of 6 or 8 weeks; they sleep next to me in a pack and play. He’s less than six inches from my bed but since he has his own space he isn’t disturbed by me moving around. Right now my baby (4 months old) is waking up more frequently than usual because he turns himself onto his back and hasn’t yet learned to turn back over – but before this I nursed him at midnight and he slept until 7 am, occasionally waking up one time in between.

    If he wakes up in the night, I feed him. But I try to help him get solid blocks of sleep so that he isn’t waking up all the time – just like for us, there’s a difference in the quality of sleep when it’s broken up or when it’s a solid chunk and babies benefit from a relatively long stretch.

    They usually move out of my room by about a year old. At that point even the worst sleeper of them (ds2) was sleeping through the night.

  4. if I understand correctly, the babies are waking up b/c of the parents movements when they co-sleep in the same bed, but not in the same room?

    If you nurse your baby when they wake in the middle of the night, how is it that you avoid this becoming a habit?

    Is it a difficult transition when you move them from your room? do they stay in the pack and play or do you move them to something else?

    Thanks in advance for your answers

  5. I’m not sure that the co-sleeping is always the culprit in poorly sleeping children. I co-sleep my children (three with one on the way, b’shaah tovah) for about two years a piece. Now I nurse them to sleep but don’t necessarily go to sleep when they do. When I do get into bed, I do nurse on demand (more or less) through the night and they do nurse on and off during that time. When they hit two, I want their big bodies out of my bed. :) I transition them to their own twin size bed by getting up in the night and nursing them in their bed. That transition time lasts about 3-5 weeks. Yes, I am more tired during those weeks, but they gradually nurse less since I am not in the bed with them. (Oh, and I potty train during this time too) Why do I co-sleep this long? Honestly, I have amenorrhea for two years if I follow this routine. The one time I didn’t I got my period back (and it was unwanted). I’d rather do this and have the result than deal with the other consequences. :)

  6. Aviva, if you co-sleep (in the same bed) until your kids are 6-8 weeks old, how do you teach your kids to learn to fall asleep on their own and not just via nursing? My older son co-slept with me till a year, and ONLY knew how to fall asleep from nursing, and would wake every 40 minutes and need to nurse to get back to sleep.
    I decided that with my new son I would not let him sleep in my bed at all, not even in the first few weeks, because i want him to learn to fall asleep on his own, so he’s in the pack-n-play right next to me, 6 inches away.

  7. I do the pack n play next to my bed as well, but I still think they hear my movements…and even if they sleep better the first few months, I’ve found they wake up more frequently as they’re older and hit separation anxiety age. It could be because I’m working, and at around 11-12 months I found my babies needed to snuggle with me for a couple of weeks in the middle of the night, even if they weren’t hungry for their EMOTIONAL needs. I try to move them out at a year or so as well when I know they don’t need to be eating in the middle of the night. I think this is key in sleep advice — knowing each family is different. I KNOW my babies needed me but they also didn’t have the same closeness during the day as other children are lucky enough to have with their mothers…
    But all this has nothing to do with putting a toddler/preschooler to sleep. I can’t agree more with the sleep begets sleep idea. I also found that getting enough fresh air during the day made my kids easier to wind down for bed time; winter time was much harder with my first till I noticed this pattern, and now I make sure to take them out even if it’s freezing cold.

  8. >>Aviva, if you co-sleep (in the same bed) until your kids are 6-8 weeks old, how do you teach your kids to learn to fall asleep on their own and not just via nursing?<<

    I don't mind nursing them until they sleep, but there are enough times in the day that I don't when I make it a point to put them down when they are very, very drowsy but not fully asleep. They wake up a little when they're put down but because they're so mellow and ready for sleep, they fall asleep on their own within a couple of minutes. So they learn to fall asleep on their own pretty early on.

    LN – good point about fresh air.

  9. Hi,
    I really liked what you wrote about sleep, and found it really hit home in some ways, and yet you were very sensitive to how a parent who is APing feels about the issues around children and sleep. Thanks for writing with such balance and sensitivity.
    On a practical level, I’m still very unclear about the reality of my own family, compared to what you’ve described. My daughter, now 3yo, from the get-go, never slept more than 5 minutes alone away from a body. She only ever nursed to sleep, even in the beginning. As she got older, she slowly started sleeping a bit better. But she could hear me turning the page of a book two rooms away with the doors closed when she was napping. I’m not sure what would have worked to change her sleep habits, but I’m fairly certain that what you described wouldn’t have worked for her. For her, cutting out her nap time around 3YO actually worked really well. It brought her bedtime earlier (from midnight-ish) to 6-7PM, for some reason. We actively keep her awake during the late afternoon when she seems drowsy. Its just what works for us now. But I really can’t wrap my mind around what I could have done to help her sleep.

    My son, 7mo, is a different story. He seems more amenable to sleep, with some exceptions sometimes. But still, he wakes as soon as a person puts him down, no matter how drowsy of a state he was in. And he wakes in the night not because of my movements or noise (I’m not even in the room with him in the early evening and he wakes up every 20-30 minutes then). Our bed has no springs and motion can’t really transfer. He really does wake up on his own, for his own reasons. I don’t know why. How do you put them down into a pack and play without them waking? I can barely reach down into one, let alone gently deposit a sleeping baby (I’m very short).

    Oh, and I’m curious how you arrange naps around your other kids outings? You have older kids, so maybe they stay home and babysit, or take the younger kids to their activities… I don’t know. I guess, for example, I’ve signed my 3yo up for classes at the community center. I don’t see how I could arrange to take her to any classes if I worked around nap times, so I just bring the baby with, and if he sleeps, he sleeps, if not, he’s a wee bit cranky. What do other parents do about this?

    This is extremely long. Perhaps I should have posted it on the Jewish AP board, lol. Let me know if I should post it there instead.

    Thanks! Shira

  10. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Shira, and welcome! Since it’s a big topic, I’ll try to answer your questions in a post – I didn’t really write comprehensively on teaching kids to sleep on their own, and I don’t think I can write a post that can be comprehensive enough. But at least I’ll try to answer your questions! :)

  11. well, I would be really interested to hear from you Avivah, as well, on all the issues Shira mentioned. Shira, you sound like you could be me. I can relate to everything you mentioned, including being quite short and never imagining being able to put a baby into a pack and play and not have them completely awaken. Neither my three year-old or my 16 month old has ever slept in a crib or a pack and play and that has made life a challenge. They both have have slept (since we stop co-sleeping in my bed) on a low mattress on the floor. It’s the only way I could transfer without waking them. Sleep for me has been hands down the hardest thing about having children and I feel so silly about this, but it has consumed a lot of my time and effort for the past three and a half years. Thank G-d, my son has become a much better sleep, but the road to getting here was rough. With nightmares, teething, taking to beathroom in the middle of the night, illnesses, etc., with so many kids, K”H, Avivah, I cannot imagine how you get any sleep, since with two I barely seem to.

  12. Hi Aviva, this is my first article that I read about all this sleeping thing, my Husband always talks about you and has you as “the home school MOM”. I have 6 children ages 9 to 8 month, even I DO agree that sleeping is the master key for good behave children I don’t remember getting any yet (but the kids seems to do ok). There is always something, a bad dream, and accident on the bed, a sick child or more than one, nursing baby or run to the bathroom because of the pregnancy, etc..

    At the beginning I got angry (it’s not fair) but now I see that the days keep on going and I keep on going, that Hashem some how keeps me strong. There is something wrong with this picture?

    I don’t have any family close by for help (I’m from Argentina) no money for babysitting, we are homeschooling our kids, my husband is my only help and he needs help for himself.

    How do you do it Aviva? Is there any secret to know? Do you get any can of help? Is money an issue?

    I totally agree with my husband that a strong rutine is very important, is there anything else we should know?

    I really appreciate your help. Shana Tova!

    Mariela Broome

  13. Welcome, Mariela! I will be”H answer all the above questions! It’s just my lack of computer access that is limiting me – I need more time that I’m alloted on the library computer where I’m checking in until mine is back at home.

  14. Well, I’m not Avivah, but everything that Avivah writes seems to be how we handled our six children when they were young (except we are not Jewish), so since it has been a few months, I’m going to jump in and give my opinion to Shira and Mariela. I think the key to babies and toddlers falling asleep on their own in the nighttime, whether you co-sleep or not, hinges on putting them down for naps while they are awake. I liked to do daytime nursings as soon as they woke up from naps. To put them down for a nap, I created a very short routine – throw blanket over my shoulder in a specific way, sing the night-night song, cuddles and kisses – and when they get to be about 5-6 months old, they will reach for the crib when the routine is done. There are times that they wake up way too soon – my first reaction is to assume something bothered them and to comfort them and check their surroundings, then do the routine again. This works for nighttime wake-ups, also. Realistically, though, there will be times, especially as they approach 9-10 months, that they just don’t want to go to sleep, but I know that is what they need. I believe it is my confidence in telling them that they need to go back to sleep, along with the fact that they need it and they have the skills to go to sleep, that keeps the crying to a minimum. About older children’s activities – I found when my babies were taking two naps a day, one could be a mini-nap in the van without too much crankiness. And by the time they are about 2 1/2, they can wait to take their nap if need be. But between about 12-30 months, I think it’s important to just plan to be home when they need their nap. If not, they will fall asleep in the van and get just enough sleep to prevent them from being able to go back to sleep when we get home, but not enough to meet their needs until bedtime. Hope this helps some!

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