Friday, May 9, 2014

MiM Mail: Toddler tantrums

Dear MiM,

I am writing you to get some advice on toddler behavior.

I am a 3rd year medical student, mom to an almost 3 year old little boy and currently pregnant with baby number 2. I have been struggling lately with my son's behavior. I used to have a sweet, smart and energetic little boy. Since he has been out of his crib and potty trained, my husband and I have had a tantrum monster on our hands. We have what we call a "spirited child," with a very strong personality and stubbornness beyond anything I have seen in other toddlers.

We put him down to bed around 8pm every night after the usual bed time routine and he usually takes anywhere from 1 to 2 hours to actually fall asleep. It's a combination of "I want different pjs/I need more water/I want daddy/I want a new blanket/ I want the light to be blue/ It's not dark out yet/ I don't want to sleep / I need to pee" but the list is endless. My husband and I try to be firm, we have tried to let him cry it out but he cries even louder so we inevitably comply with his requests so he can sleep. Even worse, he wakes up 2-4 times per night with similar complaints, throws tantrums where he arches his back, cries hysterically but won't tell us what is wrong. As a result I am getting increasingly frustrated and exhausted.

Today must have been the worst of all days yet when after 4 overnight wake ups and very little sleep overall, my son woke up at 5:30 whining, rubbing his eyes, yawing and saying that he does not want to sleep anymore. I found myself yelling and screaming, which is unusual for me and ended up breaking down in tears since I had only gotten about 5 hours of sleep myself.

Being very pregnant at this point, I am anticipating some sleep deprivation once our new baby arrives but I feel like I cannot deal with my son anymore. I cannot imagine how this situation is going to work out when I have two kids in the house who wake up multiple times per night.

Worst of all, I feel like I am failing as a mother. I am having a hard time enjoying time with my son during the day when nights are so painful and feel guilty about it. I can deal with daytime tantrums but the nights are draining my energy.

Do other moms or pediatricians have experienced similar situations and have tips on how to deal with toddlers? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.



  1. I don't have any advice for you, but we have been dealing with similar issues with our 3 year old daughter. We have chalked it up to her being by herself downstairs and being scared of being alone, but some of it is just her being stubborn. Lots of requests at night. She will not fall asleep on her own and she always wants mommy instead of daddy. I often end up rubbing her back until she falls asleep. She will then wake up crying at some point during the night. We finally have allowed her to sleep on the floor in our room at some point during the night. We don't have the tantrums, just the interrupted sleep. We also have a 16 month old who tends to wake up on occasion still, usually just needing his pacifier. I have honestly had nights that have seemed worse than when we had a newborn. I'm interested to see what people say.

  2. The late bedtimes happened for us when our son was getting ready to drop his nap altogether. He rarely napped on weekends, but napped most days at daycare, so on weekdays he was up LATE, then one weekend he also fell asleep for a 2 hour nap, and was up until nearly 10pm. No advice on how to make it stop, we just made sure he got up at the same time daily, he eventually stopped napping much at school, and now he falls asleep within 20-30 minutes most nights.

  3. This was a big problem when I had Jack newborn and C was 2.5. I ended up yelling in the middle of the night at her and was mortified by how sleep deprived I was working as a resident and up all night nursing and studying for boards and losing my cool as a Mom. I researched and researched and found a solution that worked for me - was where I found it. I bought a little palette - foam cheapo bed cover cut small for her - and put a cute flowery sheet with blankie and pillow on it. I put it right next to my bed on the floor. I made it clear that she had to fall asleep in her own bed ( I helped most nights like above commenter) but if she woke up in the night scared she could come crawl in her little bed by Mama quietly, not disturbing Mom and new baby brother. I read to make the palette comfortable enough but not more comfortable than their own bed so when the phase passes they will prefer to sleep in their own bed. I also read that the new baby threats to their attention from Mom partly causes these night time fears - maybe developmental too. It worked! It only lasted a couple of months I think and then she became a good bed sleeper. Jack still sneaks in my bed every once in a while at 5 a.m. but she does maybe once or twice a year now at 11. Hope this helps. Good luck!

  4. Ohhho we've been here. My son (now 5.5) did this when little sis (now 2.5) was on the way. I moved his bedtime earlier, gave him a few choices about the bedtime routine, and made him fall asleep in his bed. Then if he woke up, there was a blanket and pillow on the floor in my room. It took a few months, but he got sick of sleeping on the floor.

    So sorry you are dealing with this but it WILL pass.

  5. I have no advice but feel your pain. D1 is 5 and starting a talking back phase while she insists on wearing pink boots w/o socks with everything; D2 is 2.4 and having trouble going to sleep but insists on sleeping with D1 who she then keeps awake for an hour trying to go to sleep and she has been falling asleep around 4:30pm for a nap the last few days though she doesn't usually nap then gets up at 6 every morning; S is 6mo and doing well puking on me just so he can nurse again, sleeps with me from 1230-630 each morning.

    I'm finding myself short tempered which is worse than normal since I am signing out of the Army on Monday and start my first civilian job in june so my stress about a total life change is contributing.... I've tried looking for a book on calm parenting and they just tell me to be calm.... yeah, thanks, if I could figure that out I wouldn't be googling for it!

    I keep telling myself that I am not the first person to do this, I will survive and more importantly so will my kids :)

  6. I had 3 kids in 4 years. When the 3rd recently went through this phase, my husband could not stand it. I suggested we pretend to be asleep. I would keep my eyes closed and pretend I was still sleeping. NO amount of her yelling and foot stomping, and almost barfing after crying would bother me. Sometimes she'd even try to hit me with her arm to wake me up, but nope, I was not "waking" up. I'd just roll over the other way quietly and pretend I was a very soundly asleep. I kept earplugs next to my bed and would pop them in my ears just as I heard the footsteps coming towards my bed. It dulls the noise and makes it easier to bear. There were some nights she got so exhausted having a tantrum she fell asleep on the floor next to my bed. After a few nights in a row like this (she could go on for a few hours) it all stopped and she is sleeping in her own bed every night. Would you throw a tantrum if no one is going to wake up to see you? Why would you sleep on the wood floor if you could sleep in your own bed? I counted 4 nights total. We've had continuous sleep since that time. Funny thing is, we asked her siblings if they heard anything at night after all the tantrums. They said "nope!" and all 3 siblings even sleep in the same room! These things come and go so there may be another time, but as they get older, these things seem to become less frequent.

    As for not going to bed to begin with. My first child had to be walked back to his bedroom over 200 times at bedtime (I counted) so that he would stay in bed. I would not say a word, but every time he came out, I'd march him right back to his bed. That second time it was 89, the 3rd night it was ~20. It lasted about a week. You'd never imagine it now. He's the best sleeper. Never wakes up for anything.

    Another thing that worked (it's all coming back to me now!) was reverse psychology. Kids steps out of room. I say "oh, you must not want your bed? No problem! No bed!" I'd take the mattress out of the room and put it away, then close the door to the bedroom with the child in the hall. "Ok, good night now!". This would immediately result in a protest. "no no, i do want my bed! I do want it back!". Not so easy. I would say "no, you don't want your bed. you just came out of it! Good night!". Then I would go to bed, and leave the child standing in the hall. He/she would cry. I'd let them cry for about a half hour. Then I'd come back out "do you want your bed now?" Child would say yes. "OK, let's bring your bed back in. Remember, if you leave your bed, it must mean you don't want it anymore!" tuck in, kiss, goodnight. Silence.

    Later in the week, when tucking kids into bed, I'd also remind them just as I kissed them good night "remember, where do you stay at night? in your own bed, that's right! Mommy needs to sleep. Then Mommy will be rested and happy. And you need to sleep in your own bed! understand? great! thank you!" And when they do sleep in their own bed all night, child often wakes up very proud, and will say "I slept in my own bed all night!" and we'd say "Yes you did, you did a great job sleeping in your own bed! thanks!".

    As with everything this all shall pass. It all depends on how badly you want it to be fixed and what you are willing to do to fix it. Some parents live with the inconvenience and the kids eventually outgrow it. I tend to decide early to nip it because sleep is important to me! There's lots of approaches. Sorry for the long post, but sleep is just so very important to a person's well being and I'm hoping sharing my stories will show how my nights looked when I was in the midst of it all, and the nights did not look great at all. Good luck and hope you will all be able to have some better sleep soon.

  7. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent. It has to be something you can live with and that will get you some sleep. I know a lot of people who have done the little-bed-on-the-floor thing with sucess. I also know people who have set up a reward system - spend the night in your own bed, get a toy. Then two nights in a row. Then five.

    Do whatever will get you sleep. You will not ruin him and you can adjust it later - as long as it's something you and your husband can agree on and can be consistent about.

    I LOVE "you must not want your bed". Love it.

  8. "You must not want your bed" is the best thing I've ever heard. My husband and I could not stop laughing.

  9. Check out the comments for lots of advice.


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