My 3 year old wakes up at least twice per night

by Eva

Question: Hi Heidi, My son has always had problems with sleep. We co-slept with him for a long time, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get any rest at night. But even while co-sleeping he would still wake up in the night and anxiously search with his hand for someone by his side. When he turned 2 and a half, we decided to transfer him to his own bed.

Since I was always the one putting him to sleep we decided that it would be best if his father starts putting him to sleep. After about a week our plan had seemed to have worked. My son was going to sleep and sleeping through the night without any night wakings.

After several months, however, the night wakings had started again. At first I thought it was due to night terrors, because he would wake up screaming and when we went into his room he would be curled up on his bed. When we asked him what was wrong, he would say that he was scared of "the man who lives above". Now, though, it's a little different: he wakes up at least twice per night but once one of us goes in and holds his hand, he falls back asleep right away.

After the night terrors he now hates going to sleep in the evening (he was never a big fan, but now especially so), he grows anxious and wants me (specifically) to hold his hand until he falls asleep. I try to shorten the time that I hold his hand, but when I slip my hand out of his, he opens his eyes and says "mama, hand, hand.." I try to re-assure him that I am here, that even if I'm not in his room, I'm near by (our bedrooms are across from each other).

But it doesn't work, he either starts crying or if he doesn't cry he turns and tosses in his bed and can't seem to fall asleep until I give in and hold his hand.

Recently my mother has come to visit us and we've asked her if she could sleep in our son's bedroom, and she happily agreed. He still sometimes wakes up in the night, but it has become more rare. Since then we've been able to get some sleep and our son also seems happier and calmer during the day, but I'm worried about what will happen when she leaves in a month. I will also add that recently we've had a new addition to the family, and that probably also made him more anxious and possessive.

Thank you in advance

Heidi's Answer: Dear Eva,

I liked reading your story. Of course (!) I am not happy to read that you are struggling with your son's sleep but the gentle way you have been approaching it, with good actions to help him become more independent again all while acknowledging his needs is really well done.

Having his dad (also) take him to his own bed from about 2,5 years was perfect and obviously worked – seeing the sleep through nights you had for months after that. Your son then showed nicely that he can sleep through nicely and that is extremely important.

I suspect that fear and anxiety then kicked in to re-start the night awakenings. Becoming more and more aware of what's going on around him, thinking things through more, getting more vivid imagination as well as dreams and/or nightmares, … are all happening at this age and are typical triggers of bedtime concerns.

And then yes the arrival of the new baby comes in play as well – specifically for being more possessive towards you. Wanting to keep hold of your hand for longer is a nice (and so sweet) example of that.

I think it is great how your mother has stepped in and helped and that that gave you all more sleep. The only drawback you could have is that your son – as much as he probably loves being with her and getting her attention – may also have the feeling of being less with you … and that can go both ways: it can increase his independence or decrease it by feeling more at a distance from you …

And it's a thin line, with the reality somewhere in between. And nothing to feel bad about, it's an interesting phase in his development either way. But just keep it in the back of your mind going forward, that will help with understanding and dealing best with it.

Based on all this, I will suggest the following to you:

Whether it is when first going to bed for the night, or after waking up at night, do hold his hand for a little bit but gradually shorten as you mentioned. But to make that succesful, explain to him that you want him to be quiet (“it's night, everybody is asleep, ...”) when you - in a first stage - let go of his hand and then later walk out of the room. Ask him to be nice and quiet (i.e. not cry) and tell him that if he can do that, that you will come back to his room real soon to check on him. Don't explicitly threaten him that you will not come back if he cries (not the kind of “agreement” you want to make). Just tell him you know he can be nice and quiet, close his eyes and get ready for sleep. Note that it is not an order to go to sleep – sleeping on command is very difficult to do – but by being quiet and with closed eyes he is doing all that he can.

Then as promised you go back soon if he is quiet. Go back ridiculously soon the first couple of times: that will build his confidence in knowing that you do come back as well as raises chances that you catch him before he starts crying …

If he does cry before you get the chance to go out, simply repeat what you asked before, and explain again.

To improve results, work with a sticker chart to encourage him even more. You can print out my monthly charts which I find most handy, or make or buy one of your own.

Go buy some really cool stickers together, discuss what you will be using them for, make it fun and appealing. Tell him that for every good settling (define in his words) he will get a sticker the next morning. Maybe 2 stickers if he sleeps through, or a sticker for each smooth settling after a night awakening, up to you to decide what makes most sense for your son.

While your mother is still around, work with her together on this. And do not fear her leaving next month too much. You have time to gently wean and get ready by then.

Finally, with regards to the anxiety your son expresses at nightmares or simply at being alone at night. Always gently acknowledge his fear by saying that you understand. Talk about it (avoiding it only makes it worse, talking about it takes away its power), help him explain what he imagines/feels/thinks about, … And also reassure him – not by laughing his fears away – but by for example not refusing to hold his hand (yet gently wean as above when you feel he can handle it), telling him how you feel safe etc.

I hope this helps, do let me know how things go,

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