Q&A: 2-year-old sleeping (and everything else) problems

Katie P writes:

"I've thoroughly enjoyed all your advice, and I've poked through the archives, but haven't seen anything that quite explains what is going on with my two-year-old son (technically, he'll be two on July 1). My formerly good sleeper is now taking well over an hour every night to settle down and go to sleep, and even that takes me going in there and either hushing him to sleep or rocking him.

Caveats: There's a whole lot going on right now. We just -- as in we've been in this house less than a month now -- moved 400 miles west, and the daylight is different. It's not more daylight or less, just a time shift since the sun sets about half an hour later than it did where we were before. This does mean that it stays light in his room longer, although we've tried to fix that with a light-blocking shade (which we used before). The move also marked his transition out of the crib, in part because I'm 26 weeks pregnant and we wanted him to have plenty of time to adjust to being in a big-boy bed before the baby arrives.

I've tried to keep our bedtime routine pretty much the same as it was before we moved, although I have played around with the actual time itself a bit, and it hasn't helped. I used to go through the routine, put him in the crib and tell him "Night night, Mama loves you," and he'd put himself to sleep with no crying in about five minutes. Now there's some extended playtime (he likes to get up and shut the door to his room all the way, among other things) and wailing before he settles down. And again, it's taking me having to go in there and either sit on the bed and say "hush" to him or pick him up and rock him in the living room before he'll go to sleep. But I cannot take this much longer: the last couple of nights it's been 10 p.m. until he's in bed, and then he's sleep-deprived and cranky during the day. Which, by the way, is now spent entirely with me, since I stopped working when we moved, too.

We won't even get into the issues with him flat out ignoring me when I ask him to do things like go get a diaper change or pick a toy up off the floor (he closes his eyes because if he can't see me, then he doesn't have to listen). Not to mention that as soon as Daddy gets home, I might as well not exist anymore, which is hard on my husband who feels he gets no time to himself to relax in the evenings. Oops, I guess I got into them after all.

Help! Where do I even start?"

What I find fascinating about this email is that the child's whole demeanor, day and night, is going kablooey, but Katie titled her email "Another sleep question." Isn't it funny that we're able to put up with so many troubling phases our kids go through during the day, but they really bug us at night?

It sounds like this kid is dealing with a bunch of things right now. The first are the things all kids go through at this age: the second major separation anxiety phase, a big gap between receptive language and expressive language, and the normal control issues that seem to fluctuate by the day.

Then add onto that a move, losing all his friends, losing his daycare provider(s), a new house, a new bed, spending more time with his mother (a positive stressor, but still a stressor), the different light schedule in the new place, and a sibling on the way.

Of course he's freaking out. Frankly, I'm surprised that he's not waking up multiple times in the middle of the night with all the stuff that's going on in his brain.

Time is eventually going to fix all the problems he's having, because he'll adjust to the new house, new schedule, new time with his mother. He'll make new friends and get engrossed in new activities. It will all become normal to him and he won't be stressed out about it anymore (except for the new sibling, but that's just part of being the older child).

In the meantime, probably the best thing you can do is focus on maintaining a solid, predictable, almost rigid daily schedule. He needs to feel like he knows what's going to happen over the course of the day when he wakes up in the morning, and what's going to happen the next day when he goes to bed at night.

When he wakes up, review what's going to happen that day. You might even consider doing the picture schedule some daycares and preschools do, where there are pictures of the different activities up on a wall so non-readers can keep track of what's going to happen next.

As you finish one activity, talk about what's going to happen next. Keep talking about what's going to happen all throughout your daily activities. Before bed, talk about what's going to happen the next day.

Giving him a solid, predictable routine is going to help him feel more secure. Try to build playdates and errands into the same time slots every day. That way he'll know that right after breakfast you go outside and meet someone else at the park, and after lunch you go out in the car to run errands, or whatever you decide the schedule should be. It doesn't matter what you do when, as long as it's predictable and comforting for him.

This isn't going to transform your son into a smiling, obedient cherub, but it will probably cut down on some of the tantrums and control games he's trying to engage you in.

You've only been a SAHM for a month, but I'm sure you've already figured out that sticking to a routine (even a flexible one) is essential or else you both end up still in your pajamas at 3 pm. (Er, not that there's anything wrong with that.) So having a strong routine for the next few months is going to end up helping you get stuff done and get established in your new town, too.

I don't have any good advice specifically for bedtime. When we were having the same problem I tried putting my son to bed much earlier, then putting him to bed much later (figuring that if he was going to be up until 10 anyway I might as well start with the bedtime routine at 9:40), then being strict and mean at bedtime, and then letting him fall asleep in our bed. Eventually he did start going to bed again easily, but I don't think it had anything to do with anything I did. You might end up happening on something that will help your situation if you can figure out what exactly is causing him to stay up. Is he afraid that when he wakes up things will be different? Is he too excited from some activity you're doing in the afternoon or evening in the new place that you weren't doing in the old? Is he working on some new skill? Or is it just the lightning rod of all his stress?

If you can't figure out exactly what his particular bedtime issue is, don't feel bad about it. Just know that it will get better as he gets more comfortable in your new place with your new routine. And see if you can trade off bedtime duty with your partner so neither one of you has to deal with it too many nights in a row.