My 2,5 years old toddler Son has a sleeping problem

by Rohana Hung
(Jakarta, Indonesia)

Question: Dear Heidi, Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Anna, im a mother of 2.5 years old son, and 6month old pregnant second son.
My 2.5 years old son name Josh, he has a sleeping problem and now is getting worse.

His sleep somehow need 3 times a day, 6 hours, 2-3hours, and 1-2 hours. this happen almost his age life. we tried everything we could to change his sleeping way.

But now it is getting worse. Night become his short nap time (2 hours), Day become his sleep night time (6 hours) and dawn become his active hours.


Day 1 : Sleep at 11pm, woke up on 2am. insist to play and beck to sleep on 8.30 am, woke up again on 2.30 pm, and then we don't let him sleep afterwards but again
Day 2: 8.30 pm he is way to sleepy and we thought he will be have a long sleep hours but again woke up at 12pm, back to sleep at 8am in the morning

I am just worried about his health, how the body works in optimum way in night sleep time.

Please help me, I'm kind of desperate since now I have a baby on the way, and I dun think me and my husband could handle double sleepless night work.


Heidi's Answer:

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your kind explanation of your son's sleep situation. And congratulations with the new baby on the way!

Of course I fully understand that you dread double sleepless nights once the new baby arrives. But please don't worry about it too much, and try to relax about it. Second babies often tend to go with the flow a bit easier so there is a good chance you have a very nicely little one there.

Also, not worrying about it will help you relax and act confidently around your children. And that has an important effect on their sleep, one that is often overlooked. “Relax” is of course easier said than done but important enough to try. Simple meditation or relaxation techniques effectively help.

Your son's sleeping patterns are upside down right now but that is not a harmful condition in itself. Yet I do advise you to consult your doctor to exclude any medical condition that could cause it. But once he or she assures you there is nothing, you can fully relax and work with my suggestions below.

It is clear that you cannot force a child to sleep at a specific moment. But you can focus on giving the right cues that determine his day/night rhythm. That, within a strict sleeping and feeding schedule is the way to improve his sleep.

So first of all, from now on, make sure you give all the “night cues” continuously between 7pm and 6-7am.

Nighttime cues are:

- Voices are kept low, whispering
- Activity is minimal and quiet before bedtime, once bedtime there is no activity until the morning for him. That also means when he 'wants to play', offer no toys, don't interact/play with him, ...
- Lights are dim and kept constant through the night (a simple night light in his room and or the corridor). Do not switch on any light when he wakes at night.
- Once bedtime, he stays in his bedroom. Even if he wakes up, is totally awake, ..., whatever happens, he stays in his bedroom. If he is allowed to walk out to come to you, you immediately walk back to his room with him.
- Noises and activity around the house are kept low, keep the house nice and quiet and block out as many noises from outside/neighbor's as possible.
- Avoid stimulating foods from early afternoon onwards. Any sugary snack, high-vitamin C fruit/vegetable, chocolate, fizzy drink and caffeinated drink (even white and green tea have some) can keep a child from sleeping well. Of course no food after bedtime.

Then when day starts, and all day long, give plenty of daytime cues. Talk cheerfully, open the curtains, windows, have a lot of bright light, activity all around, ... His nap still requires a quiet moment of course but if possible there is a little more light then at night and the house does not have to be absolutely quiet.

These cues are extremely important. Even if your son will not sleep at the right moments from day 1, it is important to consistently stick to the cues. They are the foundation for good sleep patterns but will need at least a week or two to settle fully and give results.

At the same time, start setting up a strict, timed sleep schedule, with meals also at very regular moments.

At his age, your son would normally take one 1-3 hour nap, in the afternoon (roughly around 2pm). An early bedtime will also be important.

You mention in one example that he is 'way too sleepy' at 8.30pm. A child who is very very tired (over-tired) will not sleep well. That may sound a bit contradictory but it is so. To sleep well, deeply and for long stretches, a child needs a quiet onset of the night. That is only the case if he is not too tired when going to bed.

So ideally, set his night time bedtime to around 7-7.30pm. Even if he does not seem very tired, he will most probably be ready for bed.

Also make sure to have a consistent 'ritual' or bedtime routine. That helps reinforce the regularity of the schedule, and also physically helps with sleep.

Set this schedule, and stick to it patiently. Write it down on paper, it will help you be consistent. Also towards your son, be determined and act confidently.

Talk to him about how good is is to sleep, how nicely he will sleep at night, how proud you will be if he sleeps well and just like you at night ... Mention this often, always concentrating on the positive and without making him feel bad about maybe not sleeping well.

As I mentioned, when you start the day-night cues and the schedule, he will not necessarily actually sleep at those times. That will take time. What counts now is to offer the opportunity at regular times and to set the right environment at the right times.

For the nap, if he has big difficulties sleeping then, you can make it a habit to take him out or a long walk in the stroller or a car ride (if he easily sleeps in those). Doing this for a week or 2 can help set his “nap clock” so sleeping in his own bed at naps then becomes easier.

If he wakes at night, stick to the nighttime cues. Minimal interaction, no lights, no playing. You just go to him if necessary (or bring him to his room if he came out). Tell him the same thing each time, that he needs to stay in bed quietly.

Tell him if he stays in bed nicely, that you will come back to check on him. And then do so. After a few minutes, go back, stroke his head for a bit, then say the same thing. The first few times you go back to him really early, so he learns that you really show up.

Stay away a little longer each time, to give him the chance to start sleeping.

Praise him each time that he stayed and waited for you nicely, without going too cheerful of course (sticking to the nighttime cues).

Reward charts can be very helpful too, you can learn more about their use and download free sticker reward charts here to get started.

As a final remark, once your new baby is there, it is a good idea to use the same day-night cues. That is the key for a newborn baby to develop a good daily rhythm from an early age. For more specifics on newborn sleep, you may find my Complete Newborn Sleep Guide helpful.

Best of luck, I would love to hear how things go.
Kind regards,

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