My 2 year old keeps me up all night
by Sandra - Answer by Heidi Holvoet, PhD
Question: Hi, My daughter is 2 years 3 months old, and my husband took the rail off the crib a few months ago because she was about to climb it thru even though the mattress was set up on the lowest position.
Since she was born she will wake me up up to 4 times per night, her Dr advised me not to feed her milk thru the night after she reached 1,5 years but she still cries for it or for tea.
So I would leave a cup with water but like last night she stayed up from 2am to 5am every time I would put her in bed, she will get up and walk to my room. Then she would cry out loud, for mommy, daddy, I want milk, I am scared, help me, and so on. Then she would get out of her room again.
I am desperate and don’t know what else to do. I even spank her and she would not quit crying. At one time, my husband went and laid by her side, and then she stayed still but as soon as he got up, it all started again.
I don’t know how to make her stay in bed, and how to make her sleep. Usually we don’t put her to sleep till 10pm, thinking that would give her more time for her to be more tired. But it is not working.
Please give me your advice. Thank you. Sandra.
Heidi’s Answer: Hi Sandra,
Sorry to hear you are having a difficult time. Your daughter seems like a healthy 2 year old with a strong character. Rest assured, it is quite typical as you know for a two year old to have tantrums as you describe. Of course you want to avoid them at night so you can all get a good night’s sleep. So let’s see what we can do.
Has this started around the age of 1,5 years, when you stopped the night feedings? Did she sleep nicely before that? That is, only woke up for feeding and then went back to sleep?
Let me suggest the next steps for you to start working with.
The idea is that you will set clear rules you will all stick to consistently. That will help you make it clear to her what you expect from her. Once she understands that, it will be easier for her to do as you require.
1. First of all, in case you do not do that right now, talk to your daughter about sleeping during the day regularly, and do this in a positive way. Tell her nights are for sleeping. Everyone sleeps at night (her friends, her toys, grandparents, …) and everyone is quiet. Tell her you are proud of her when she is quiet at night.
She may be a little bit young for it, but a reward chart may be worth the try: print out a nice monthly calendar with a white space for each day. Show her nice stickers and tell her she will get one after each quiet night. Be very positive in this: even if the first night was only slightly better than the previous one, give a sticker to encourage her.
2. Make sure you have all the basics in place, please see my free e-book for a full list, you can get it here. These basics include a regular sleep schedule, a good bedtime routine, a pleasant sleeping environment, …
As for her night bedtime: I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but most sleep experts agree that a later bedtime does not help. A well-suited, early bedtime, combined with nicely balanced daytime sleep, usually results in deeper sleep and longer nights. So this will also be one of the first things I would suggest you do: shift that bedtime to earlier. Go to 9pm for a few days, then 8.30pm and even to 7pm after that.
You do not mention naps, but I suppose she takes one? Try to have her do that one very regularly too and do not make it too late in the afternoon (rather between noon and 2pm)
3. It is definitely safe to say she does not need night feeds anymore. (Since your doctor recommended it I am also assuming you daughter has no medical condition that would require night feedings at this age.)
So, from now on, leave a sippy cup with water indeed but never give anything else. Tell her she is a big girl now and is allowed to drink from her cup 3 times each night. Since she is a big girl she does not have to ask you but can do it all by herself.
4. When she wakes at night and calls out for you: go to her, and talk softly. Simply tell her it is night, everyone is sleeping (friends, toys, … use the same words you used during the day). I know it is hard when you are tired, but try to remain calm. Getting angry, let alone spanking, will only upset her more and keep her awake longer. Make sure she stays in the room all night, keep lights out or dim.
Then tell her you will go back to bed, and that you will come back to her very quickly if she is quiet. Then you leave her room: there are two possibilities:
- If she does not cry: wait a minute and then go back in: this is very quick, just to show her that you are really coming. Tell her how well she did, that she is a good girl and you are very proud and now she can go on sleeping (same words again: “everyone is sleeping, friends, toys, …). Tell her you will again come when she is quiet. Little by little, make the time before you go back in longer until at some point you will find her asleep.
- If she cries: stand at the door, and tell her you will go to her when she stops crying. Then start over again.
This is a process that may take some patience but will be very rewarding if you pull it through. Make sure you act confidently (as uncertain and tired as you may feel): if she feels you are serious, she will go along more easily.
5. You mention she cries that she is scared. This could of course be just part of her tantrum, but check also if anything could scare her for real. This could be a too dark room (then a dim night light can help), large teddy bears that take strange shapes in the dark, etc.
Have a look at the toddler section too, you'll find further age specific help there.