Wednesday 6 April 2011

Toddlers who can't sleep

I've always known that in well regulated families, the young children sleep for a couple of hours around lunchtime and then go to bed at 6.30pm and wake at 6.30am. This is a sign that the parents have their act together. They can spend time together in the evening or go to a Bible Study knowing that the other parent only has to act if there is a fire or the roof falls in.

Image: Dynamite Imagery /
And we've never been this well regulated family. At best, the children sleep after the allocated hour and at worst they are up all evening. One child stopped sleeping in the day at a year. The others have managed a nap to just over two. We've done many of the things suggested-well ordered bedtimes, controlled crying, routine but failed. More recently, I was advised to feed the toddler at 4.30 then only to allow two books, no screen time or exciting play before bedtime two hours later. I haven't succeeded-we wish to have our evening meal as a family so eating at 4.30 just doesn't work and he does have to have something to do-I haven't managed to arrange unexiting play with four siblings around.

We have had two toddlers who find sleep very. very difficult and another one with moderate problems.

What happens: they sleep well until aged twoish then drop their afternoon sleep and learn to climb out of a cot. Often, about this age they seem to sleep lightly and may wake in the night if they hear a noise or have even very mild ezcema.

Why: I've felt much better about this since I found out that my husband slept badly as a toddler and was strapped into his cot because he would otherwise have climbed out. Even being forced to stay in his cot, he stayed awake for "a long time". Now, he sleeps about 5 hours a night. I can't totally excape blame-certainly not being in the eight hours a night camp.

What makes it worse: changes in routine especially being away from home. Having guests isn't great. Other people manage to have sleeping children when they have visitors. Me-well, at best there are thumps and a vague noise of children talking and at worst, there are little visitors.

Solutions:What are they? Anyway, a few thoughts. Punishment doesn't really work-I've tried. Some elements may merit punishment-appearing when there are visitors when they have been asked to stay in bed.

After many years of this, it seems that the underlying problem is not needing as much sleep as "Average toddler". Appreciating this does help.

Things that have helped are
-not persisting with the afternoon nap once it is obvious that the child is dropping it. It is better to have the child up in the early afternoon than in the late evening-I know! They may need a nap every four or five days for a while. It is worth trying to avoid late afternoon car journeys at this stage.

-accepting that holidays make things worse. Having a night walk is less stressful than forcing a wakeful child to sleep. Not going on holiday with families whose children sleep conventionally.

-having visitors around when the child is awake and can learn to participate in hospitality. If this is not possible, then allowing them to greet the visitors and then go to bed with a picture book and a clear statement about consequences of reappearing. It is unkind to say that the child has to go to sleep-this may not be possible.

-remembering that this does improve. The lack of sleep doesn't go away but once the child can read then it becomes much less of a problem.

-be thankful. This time round this is easier as the fact that this toddler is almost certainly the last, having been born when I was well over forty. It is a joy and privilege to have these little ones even when they can't sleep. We need to teach them how to handle problems and to pray about them.

Just a few thoughts-not solutions-our toddler was wide awake at gone 11pm last night-but hopefully may help fellow sufferers!


  1. SarahElisabeth,
    This is us, too! We've never been the family who had their children in bed by 7:00 and had the rest of the evening together. Between my husband's schedule and other issues, our toddlers were often up late, though they did sleep in later. Grace, grace, grace...for them and for ourselves and for those who don't understand and think we're undisciplined. :)

    And I'd love to hear how old you were when you had your most recent baby....those stories are always encouraging to me. :)

  2. Hi Trisha,
    I was a few days past my 44th birthday when our youngest was born. I've had two babies in my forties-they are a great blessing and I am so thankful to have been able to have these little ones.

  3. Oh, how wonderful!!

    We have hearts for so many of the same things. I'm glad to have "met" you.

  4. How great to read - I am recently trying to figure out bedtime (you'd think I have it sorted by now lol) but I am beginning to ask myself why I am desperate to have them in bed don't I enjoy their company? lol though mine do need the sleep and can be difficult after a few nights of not going to to sleep on time!
    Anyway thank you for sharing xx

  5. One thing I've found that helps me is running a fan or humidfier during the night. The white noise blocks out any noise from elsewhere in the house. Especially when you have a new baby. My girls never woke up at night because of hearing my son waking up for a feeding. It's worked well for us. But I am learning with my son, that some kids just don't sleep as much! :)

  6. If I put my children to bed at seven, they would be up at four in the morning. Some children really do sleep less!

    Homeschooling gives me the freedom to let my children stay up later, since they don't have to be up early for school. I prefer to have quiet time to myself in the morning rather than in the evening, anyway. :)