“Dear Kim, I have a two and a half year old son name Gavin. He has always slept well at night for his entire life. Goes to bed at 7:30, 8pm and wakes up at 7 a.m. He’s healthy. At the end of July, we went to visit family for about 9 days. I put him to bed on his own – in his own room in my niece’s room. I laid down with him and he cried each time I tried to leave room until he fell asleep.
When I went to bed, I also slept in the room with him but in my own bed. He would wake early in the morning and crawl in the bed. Since we’ve been home, Gavin has a hard time going back to our old routine and instead of reading a book or rocking for 10 minutes, he wants me to lie with him and cries.
He also started telling me he’s scared of things. He wakes up several times at night (almost every other hour last night) and cries for either mommy or daddy. We’ve gone in to reassure him it’s time for bed and he usually agrees and lays right back down but is back up and calling for us within hours. The last two nights, he asked me to keep the door open and I thought he might feel more connected to the family with it open. I close the door in the morning trying to allow him to sleep. He still wakes up early, usually before 6:30 am and yesterday he did not sleep when I put him down for his nap at all. I can only think that he is completely overtired. Please help. Let me know what we can do. Sarah”
Make Sure Your Child’s Crib or Bed is Age Appropriate
It sounds like he’s in a bed. Just so you know, two and a half is the very earliest I recommend a child being in a bed. The cognitive ability to understand “stay in your bed all night long” is just beginning to develop. Impulse control to not run in to mom and dad’s room is also only just beginning to be developed. I don’t know what his understanding is, but it is possible that his age makes this a little bit harder for him.
Shifting Gears when Vacation has Ruined Sleep
He also sounds like he is sensitive to change. A lot of children have a hard time with, “well, you did it on vacation, how come you can’t lie down with me here?”. And then of course, we give in when they get hysterical and then we further ingrain the habit by not addressing it until months later. You may need to actually talk to him about how we’re all done lying down. “Mommy is not lying down with you anymore. We just did that when we were away on vacation. I’ll stay with you and sit with you until you go to sleep.” And go through the Shuffle.
Create a Simple Sleep Manner Chart
Download my chart and keep it to about three rules, like “Lies quietly in bed, puts self to sleep without mommy lying down with you, and stays in bed all night long until the wake-up light comes on”. Consider getting a wake-up light or toddler clock.
At bedtime and every time he wakes during the night say, “Shh, you’re wake-up light is not on that means it is still sleeping time and you should lie in your bed quietly.” Then you will resume your Shuffle position.
Download your own customizable sleep chart, here.
Avoid Perpetuating a Sleep Crutch
You wrote that you used to rock him for 10 minutes. Be careful! Ten minutes is a long time to rock. I don’t know if that’s including when you’re reading to him or if it is after you read and you turn off the lights. During those 10 minutes he may very well be entering in to that first stage of sleep where he’s sort of half awake, half asleep. Then you suddenly jar him awake and put him in his bed and then he says, “No, no, no, lie down with me.”
So, I would shorten the rocking just a couple of minutes maybe enough to tell him, all the people who love him and blow kisses to the moon or whatever your ritual is. Tell him how safe and cozy he is in his bed and how you always check on him when he’s sleeping, all of these kind of comforting rituals. And then kiss him and put him in his bed and sit next to his bed.
Try a Soothing Bedtime Routine
You may enjoy reading this article on Creating Soothing Bedtime Routines to Ward Off Stalling and Nightmares. I also discuss in this article how to teach your child about creative visualization and what to do with the scary thoughts so they do not become additional toddler sleep problems.
Remember that Reassurance is Key…
Reassure him that he’s safe and mommy and daddy do a great job keeping him safe and that there are no monsters. Teach him to “throw away his scary thoughts” and to replace them with something nice, like puppies or a special tree house or that time you built a sand castle on vacation. Encourage him to consciously shift his thought from the negative to a positive thought.
But Be Careful of Creating a Crutch
Be careful and don’t fall in to talking him to sleep or you will create a new problem.
Those are all of the things that I want you to do. Remember to stay consistent for long enough. If you go on vacation again and the same kind of pattern happens, try to nip it in the bud quickly when you get home by telling him you can’t lie down with him anymore. You can even do a super fast Shuffle, like one night by the bed, one night by the door or one night in the hall in view.
Remember to be super consistent about the early morning and not start the day until the wake-up light comes on. Good luck!
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