Woes of a Sleepless Toddler

sleepless Fin

I was horrified to realise that I hadn’t written a blog post in ages.  About a month.  There have been a couple of reasons for this, but one main thing has been sleep, or lack of.  For all of us.

You see, if you know me, you will probably be aware that I’ve been incredibly smug about how well my children sleep.  They’re in bed at 19:00 and sleep through until 07:00 the next day.  Brilliant.  However, in the last month or so, my elder son has begun to resist this magic routine, favouring prancing around his bedroom, emptying the contents of drawers into his brother’s cot, spitting his water out all over the room, waking his brother up if he managed to fall asleep with all of this nonsense going on… Yep – we’ve gone from sleepy bliss to a daily evening nightmare.  And the nightmare drags on until well gone 9pm.  In my book, this is way too late for a two and a half year old to be up and awake.  And his behaviour at the end of each evening is testament to this.  He has been falling asleep in a hysterical, tearful, anxious mess.  He must have such a headache each night before he finally falls asleep.

So with their (on average) 7am rises, he is getting about 9.5 hours sleep per night.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that he has also been presenting with the same behaviour before nap times, which means in a 24-hour period, he is getting about 10 hours sleep.  Not good.

Now all of this prancing around could be interpreted as meaning that he is full of energy, and therefore probably doesn’t need to sleep in the day, and doesn’t need an early bedtime.  Let him stay up.  Don’t put him down for naps.  Right?  Wrong!

You see, since he was born, I’ve become very familiar with the concept of ‘sleep begets sleep’.  In other words, when a baby, toddler, or anyone, for that matter, has a good sleep routine, i.e. they get adequate naps or adequate sleep each day, it brings about sleep much easier the next time they need to go to sleep.  Translated again, the more a baby or toddler sleeps, the more they sleep.  Sounds crackers, doesn’t it?

A baby or toddler who has missed a nap, or is not getting adequate hours of sleep in each 24 hour period, is working up a mounting sleep deficit.  I can see your eyebrows raising in scepticism.  The common misconception is that if a kid has missed their nap, they’ll go off to sleep much better or earlier when it is bedtime.  Not true. The other one I frequently hear is to ‘tire him out’ in the day so that he goes to sleep better at night.  It doesn’t work.

sleepless Fin2

The theory goes as follows: If babies or toddlers have had insufficient sleep, they become so wound up from feeling overtired, as their adrenalin has hit the roof to compensate for lack of rest.  This adrenalin sends them into a fit of hyperactivity.  So you’re faced with the crazy, hyper child bouncing off the walls at bedtime, appearing full of zest and energy.  What’s actually happening is that they can’t wind down.  They’re stressed and can’t relax themselves into a peaceful state by the time evening hits because the adrenalin is circulating their blood stream, propelling their tired little bodies to carry on with the madness.  They may collapse into a sleeping heap, but the quality of sleep they get will be inadequate, and they’re likely to waken during the night.  Don’t believe me?  Read any of the following articles:  Baby Sense, Canadian Living, Troublesome Tots… the list goes on (see Google).

This mounting sleep deficit manifests itself in some worrying behaviour that will have your relatives talking behind your back about how out of control your child is, or how out of control you are with controlling your child.  Namely, crankiness (understatement of the century), defiance, hyperactivity, night wakening, lack of patience, unable to concentrate, meltdowns at the drop of a hat.  Basically, a lot of seemingly worrying behavioural patterns that may provoke you to seek expert assistance from behaviour professionals (psychologists?). (see Better Health Channel and The Sleep Lady for more information on symptoms of sleep deprivation in children).

So getting back to the original story, my elder son has taken a sleep-nosedive in the last few weeks or so.  I have some insight into why this could be.  We moved home at the end of March.  His little brother moved into his room the day before we moved.  We transitioned him from cot to toddler bed a few weeks later.  Lots of changes, and I guess I overestimated how well he was dealing with all of this.  Indeed, he seemed to be dealing with it well at the beginning, but he is not dealing with it all well now.  He constantly attempts to make a bed for himself in his brother’s cot or on the floor.  He doesn’t seem to want to relax for sleep, no matter what strategies we take.

Since he was a baby, he needed a lot of persuasion to calm down, so I adopted the Dr. Harvey Karp technique of using the ‘5 S’s System’ when I needed to relax him for sleep.  And boy did it work a treat.  I suspect that he still needs strong cues to relax and calm him, but I just don’t know how to trigger them in him.  We’ve always kept the same, traditional routine of bath, milk, story, cuddle, bed.  It has always worked well.  But that no longer relaxes him.  We’ve tried to keep things chilled and calm in the run-up to bedtime, but we end up with a house full of calm, relaxed adults and super-toddler running around us.

I think I do everything I possibly can as a parent to try and help him.  I take him out to places, sit with him, play with him, teach him, encourage independence by leaving him on his own to play, I buy him toys, I make things with him, I give him the best food, I’m kind to him, I discipline him, I’m there for him physically and psychologically, I care for him full-time…  I literally don’t know what else I can do or give to him that will help him be more settled and happy at bedtime.  (Suggestions in the comments box or direct message please).

So here’s where we are now (and you have my permission to chuckle at this); to get him to go to sleep, I am driving him in the car pre nap and bedtime until he falls asleep, and then transferring him into his bed.  I know.  I’m an idiot.  But hear me out.  Because he has had weeks of a mounting sleep deficit, I was keen to get his sleeping back up to scratch, no matter what it took.  I now have to figure out how I am going to wean him from the motion of the car to a different way of falling asleep.

If only he would tell me what his issue is.  He’s very smart – great at talking (just like his mama).  He can talk to me about electricity pylons, double-decker buses and diesel trains, but will not talk to me about what ails him at night.  So in the meantime, it is a guessing game of trial and error as we venture further on the white-knuckle ride that is ‘the terrible twos’ (a term I’m really not fond of at all – two-year olds are gorgeous creatures).

It may be a while before our sleep schedules have recovered, but we’re working on it as always.  If you’ve had struggles with a toddler resisting journeying to the land of nod, I’d love to hear your experiences.

Till next time.


2 thoughts on “Woes of a Sleepless Toddler

  1. Oh no poor you and beautiful boy- and some great tools there. Sure once he’s used to the new environment he’ll get back to sleeping again!

    Alexander slept well as a baby then teething happened and sleep didn’t again properly after that (eek!)

    We are pretty relaxed so bedtime should be a lot earlier (light evenings don’t help) but A has long afternoon naps and is still such a restless sleeper!

    I’m hoping when all his teeth are out, things might change. I wonder if it’s nature though as well as I’ve never been a great sleeper myself (too big an imagination) and still wake up a lot in the night even now (even if I get a rare night in a hotel) and have always been that way.

    My eldest sleeps better now he’s 4 but often gets nightmares and to be honest, life is easier when we all just sleep together. Each to their own though, we all need to do what it takes to get some sleep. Gorgeous photos by the way, sure he’ll be sleeping again soon xx


    1. I hope you’re right that he settles once he’s more used to the new environment.

      I totally hear you with having an active mind. I had bad insomnia as a teen and find it so difficult to switch my brain off at night. Even worse, if the kids wake me up, I can almost never get back to sleep. My hubs just doesn’t get it – he can fall asleep in seconds. Envious. Bed sharing is underrated and underused. That reminds me, we must get a bigger bed! 6’4 hubs and two kids in the bed is always a squeeze!

      You’re absolutely right – do whatever you need to do to sleep/survive/stay sane. Thanks so much for reading, for the compliment on my photos and for your thoughtful comment, Vicki xx


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