8 Mistakes to Avoid When Your 2 Year Old Refuses to Sleep

Dealing with a 2 year old who refuses to sleep can be frustrating and exhausting. Avoid these 8 common mistakes to help kids get the rest they need.

2 Year Old Refuses to Sleep

It’s never easy when your 2 year old refuses to sleep, but more so when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

We’ve all made mistakes, from relenting when they plead with us to stay—complete with puppy dog eyes—to holding them until they fall asleep.

While many of these mistakes are rooted in good intentions, we repeat them over and over and they become ingrained as habits. So much so that they’re not helping anyone get the sleep they need.

Don’t worry, friend. If you find yourself dealing with a toddler who suddenly won’t sleep, you’re not alone. Take a look at these 8 common mistakes we make along with how to undo them:

1. Letting your child cry without checking in

One mistake we make is assuming that we need to close the door and let our kids cry the night away. You can imagine how horrible and guilty this can leave you feeling, especially when sleeping in their room can make the tears go away.

But helping your 2 year old feel confident about sleeping alone isn’t about crying. The crying itself isn’t what puts her to sleep—it’s her way of expressing how upset she feels.

Instead, start with a confident and encouraging demeanor. Explain and describe what’s going to happen in a kind and compassionate way. Then, reassure her that you’re in the next room and will check in on her every few minutes.

She’ll likely cry at this point because she’s not used to this way of sleeping, but your confident and calm demeanor can help her feel like this is nothing to worry about. Then, check in on her every 5-15 minutes, lengthening those minutes each time you do.

Each time you do, avoid being melodramatic. Encourage her with supportive words like, “I know you can do this!” or “Wow, you’ve stayed in your room for 10 minutes all by yourself!” Keep these check-ins short and simple, staying no more than a few seconds each time.

The only time you stop checking in on her is when she finally stops crying.

Free resource: Interested in learning more? Get a preview of How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe (works with toddlers, too!). This chapter is all about the mindset needed for successful self-soothing and helping her sleep through the night. As one parent said about the guide:

“I’ve followed your advice in the self soothing guide, and our 18-month-old has been sleeping in his own bed and room for more than a week now! He stopped objecting to being put to his bed, even with the door closed. Even after we leave the room, he doesn’t cry. This is just amazing!

He now sleeps through the night from about 9:30pm to 8am. He also naps regularly from 1pm to 3pm without crying! Thank you so much for your advice! It worked so great for us, even when it seemed it was too late or impossible to correct.” -Hanna de Lange

How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

2. Delaying the inevitable goodnight

I’m normally a fan of giving my kids a “head’s up.” I’ll tell them when it’s 10 more minutes before heading out the door, then five, until finally, it’s time to do what I need them to do.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work so well with saying goodnight, especially when your 2 year old refuses to sleep without you in her room.

Let’s say she’s fine getting ready for bed but is a wreck the minute you leave. You try telling her you’ll stay for 10 minutes only. All is fine once again, but once those 10 minutes are up and it’s time to say goodnight and leave, she’s back to being a mess.

While the intention is good, delaying the inevitable goodnight only makes her upset once that moment arrives. There wasn’t an opportunity during that time to help her cope with her emotions or find ways to ease her sudden separation anxiety at bedtime. She still needs you to feel content, and she can’t be happy when you’re not there.

Plus, delaying the goodnight only makes it seem worse than it is, as if it’s something to dread, instead of a regular or even pleasant part of her routine.

Giving her a head’s up is still helpful, but focus as well on your demeanor. Be confident that bedtime is normal, and that this is exactly what needs to happen.

3. Holding your child to fall asleep

Your 2 year old might spend a whole hour refusing to sleep but will conk out the minute you hold her in your arms. And yes, this seems like a “solution” when you compare it with screaming.

Except you know what happens next, right? The minute you put her down, she’s wide awake yet again. And even if you do manage to get her to stay asleep, she wakes up soon, crying for you again.

Falling asleep in one place only to wake up in another is disorienting, especially when she was upset a few minutes before falling asleep. And since we all wake up throughout the night, she might come looking for you each time she does.

Avoid letting her fall asleep in your arms, as this can make it into a habit that’s difficult to undo. If you do hold her in your arms to comfort her, make sure she’s awake before setting her back in bed. Otherwise, she might wake up just as confused and upset throughout the night.

4. Staying in the room until your child falls asleep

Sometimes it seems like the only thing that can keep your toddler in his room at night is to stay with him until he falls asleep.

Maybe you place a chair next to the bed, one you inch farther away as the night goes on. Or you agree to lie down on the floor, reassuring him that you won’t leave until he’s asleep. You might even start the night patting him on the back for what feels like hours before he’s finally out.

You can imagine how problematic this can be on so many levels. Anyone who has found herself miserable and lying on the floor because there’s still so much to do knows this feeling all too well.

He doesn’t have the opportunity to fall asleep on his own when your presence confirms that it isn’t a good idea to do so. He also might wake up throughout the night, and unless you’re where he last saw you, will cry for you until you come back.

Now, there are some cases when being in the same room can ease his feelings, especially when you can see an improvement. When my toddler was transitioning into a big-kid bed, my husband and I took took turns staying in his room the first night or two until he got the hang of it.

But if you sense that your presence isn’t helping much or is even worsening his dependence on you, then that’s when you know to nip it in the bud.

5. Walking your child back to the room over and over

After switching from a crib to a toddler bed, it didn’t take long for my son to realize he could get out of it and even open the door. But I was prepared—or so I thought.

“If he opens the door,” I told my husband, “we’re supposed to walk him back to bed without any fuss.”

“For how long?” he asked.

“For as long as it takes, I think,” I responded.

And that’s about how long it took before we gave up. Because for two hours straight, our toddler kept getting out of bed, no matter how many times we walked him back.

The advice is well-meaning: after a while, kids get the message that they’re supposed to stay in bed. Except here’s the problem: they also get the message that they can get out of their rooms and that mom or dad will always be on the other side, ready to walk them back in.

Instead, keep the door closed, and don’t let your 2 year old walk out of the room. Just as she had been contained in her crib, now the same needs to happen with her room.

Use a night light and baby-proof the furniture to keep her safe if she walks around. Hang darkening curtains and use a white noise machine to help her sleep well at night. And use your old baby monitor so that you can “speak” to her the second she makes a move to leave—this is often enough to keep her in place.

Combined with checking in frequently, keeping her in her room is a far more effective way to get her to sleep than walking her back a zillion times a night.

Toddler Keeps Getting Out of Bed

6. Letting your child sleep in your bed

I’ll just let her sleep in my bed, you figure. Otherwise, she won’t go to sleep until 11pm. And hey, at least you’re in your own bed instead of sitting in a chair or sleeping on the floor.

But it isn’t comfortable sleeping with a 2 year old, especially one who likes to kick, make sounds, and pull the blankets throughout the night. Never mind that you feel like you can’t move, lest she wake up because you stretched your arm an inch.

More importantly, letting her sleep in your bed sends the message that her room or bed isn’t a good place to be. After all, if she is supposed to sleep in her bed, then there wouldn’t be any reason for her to sleep anywhere else.

Reinforce that her bed is where she needs to be. Spend time in her room—including doing most of the bedtime routine there—and outfit her bed with new sheets and stuffed animals. Encourage her to sleep in his room instead of thinking she needs to sleep in yours.

7. Being inconsistent with your method

There isn’t one set way of raising our kids, as we all know. But if you decide to try a new method or technique, do so with purpose and intention. Expect a few rough nights in exchange for the possibility of good sleep moving forward. And remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.

You see, consistency is key with whichever method you choose. Switching methods only confuses your 2 year old and doesn’t give him time to develop new habits. He may not take your word the next time because you keep changing your mind. And you’re able to develop the confidence to execute the plan the longer you go.

This doesn’t mean you can’t pivot and change if you find that something just isn’t working, but only do so after careful thought and consideration. And even then, once you try something else, give that something else the same commitment and purpose.

So, how long is long enough to keep trying before considering other options? Give it at least five days. If you find that nothing is improving or that things are getting worse, then switch at that point. But if you find that you’re headed in the right direction, even with a few dips here and there, then you’re better off sticking with your original plans.

8. Ignoring your child’s emotions

When it comes to children’s feelings about bedtime, you sometimes find two extremes.

One is that we downplay their emotions. We call their fears silly and say “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or get irritated when they cry for us.

The other side finds us overindulging their emotions. We make a “monster spray” to supposedly clear evil creatures we know aren’t there or act just as anxious as they are, comforting them as if they’re faced with the worst situation ever.

Instead of either extreme, focus on what we’re supposed to do: teach our kids how to manage their emotions on their own.

Start by labeling and describing what your 2 year old feels so she knows they’re normal and common. Talk about different ways to cope, from hugging her stuffed animals to thinking of her favorite parts of the day. And teach her a few phrases that she can tell herself when she feels worried.

As I say in my book, Parenting with Purpose:

“Words are powerful. Labeling emotions helps your child claim control over sadness, jealousy, and fear. She may not be able to articulate that her heart is clenching or her head hurting. She may not understand why she’d rather be by herself than do fun things. To say, ‘It looks like you feel sad,’ helps her identify sadness and, more importantly, reassures her that she’s not alone in feeling this way.”

That way, she won’t need you to sleep in her room. Instead, she can practice these self-soothing skills and feel braver and more confident in the process.


Dealing with a 2 year old who refuses to sleep can be a difficult challenge when you’re making mistakes you never knew you were. Repeating these same mistakes enables the habits—co-sleeping, lying on the floor, holding your child in your arms—that you’re wishing away.

Instead, start with the end in mind. Decide on the outcome, set good habits early on, and nip everything else in the bud. Yup, even if she pleads, “Stay?” with puppy dog eyes.

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How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

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  1. Britanee Foster says:


    We currently have a 3 year old who recently started a sleep regression that has us both at our whits end. Your advice is great for a toddler/child who is consolable and cooperative. What about the kid who cries and screams for hours? Nothing has changed with our nap of bedtime routine, but irregardless she now is uncooperative no matter what we do. Going into her room only escalates and draws out the drama. Please help!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Britanee! It’s definitely tougher when they resist and put up a fight. One thing that has really helped for me is to start by showing empathy and compassion for what she’s going through. For instance, start the conversation with, “It’s really hard ending the day when you’re having fun…” or “I can see why you’re upset—I’d be upset too if it were me…”

      What this does is it melts her defenses and she feels like you’re on her side. She feels heard and understood, instead of compelled to fight.

      That said, it’s also important to put your foot down when you say you’re going to do something. If she’s really not allowed to, say, sleep in your bed, make sure to keep your word and not let it happen. You can still do this with empathy and kindness, but she’ll know that you stay consistent with what you say you’re going to do.

      If she gets riled up every time you go into her room, try and space out the times you check in on her. If you go in every time she cries or every five minutes, try going in every 15-20 minutes to check in and reassure her that you’re still here and that it’s time to sleep.

      Hopefully by not making it an issue, she’ll be less likely to resist. Sometimes they act up when they know they’ve pushed our buttons somehow! Hang in there, mama <3

    2. My little one turned 2 in May & the past couple of weeks she has been having a harder & harder time going to sleep. It started small, me & dad will sing twinkle twinkle little star a couple times as I rock her, lay her down & cover her up & say sweet dreams, sleep tight, I love you, consistently every single night & at first she’d say she’s hungry. We would try to give her something to eat but more times than not she wasn’t really hungry, fast forward a couple weeks now it’s I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, read book, medicine (2 year molars coming in), mommy’s bed, cry for a specific stuffed animal or my new favorite she’ll say she has to throw up (thankfully she’s yet to follow through). She hasn’t napped with me or dad since she was about 6 months old & when I would lay her in my bed when she was adamant about it I would just get comfortable & she’d ask for her crib. Me & her dad are losing our minds. When she inevitably calms down & acts like she’ll go to sleep, she’ll lay there for at least an hour talking or singing to herself or stuffed animals with her. She doesn’t fuss anymore at that point but her 7 o’clock bedtime went to 8 & now she’s not going to sleep until the earliest 9 sometimes 10. Also, lately with naps have been hit or miss & regardless of whether she takes one there’s always the going to sleep challenge. I try my hardest to tire her out throughout the day because I’m home with her all the time but I really only tire myself out & then I’m tired & cranky when dealing with her so now I’m feeling guilty too. I try to let her cry it out for a few minutes but she gets this scream that I know if I don’t go in there right then it will end with her getting herself so worked up she’ll make herself sick. I’ll go in & calm her down but every time I leave it’s like she’s terrified I’ll never come back or something. After all the song & dance, so to say, with her, dad will have to go in without me, maybe give her one of those gerber pouches or sing to her & she’ll calm down. We tried just him trying to get her to bed but she gets hysterical screaming for mommy. I just don’t know what to do anymore, I even talked to her doctor & I would have gotten better advice from a brick wall because with this “waiting it out” isn’t working. Posting a novel online is not something I thought I’d ever do for this but idk where else to turn. Do you have any suggestions for how to resolve this?

      1. Nina Garcia says:

        Hi Rachael, It’s definitely rough when kids don’t sleep and put up a fight as well. One thing that might help is to kindly but firmly put your foot down when it comes to her stall tactics. Bedtime is bedtime, and that means no more books, hugs, snacks, milk, water, etc. Give her all the time before bedtime to do all that, but once 7pm hits, it’s time for bed.

        I would also try doing strategic check-ins. Yes, she’ll cry, because she’s not used to this routine. But again, by kindly but firmly letting her know it’s time for bed, she knows that no amount of crying will get her out of bed. Instead, set your timer for 5 minutes and check in on her if she’s still crying, letting her know it’s time to sleep. You don’t even need to try to calm her down (because she likely won’t). It’s more about reinforcing the idea that you’re here, and that it’s time to sleep. Do the same in 10 minutes, and every 15 minutes thereafter. It’ll be a rough few nights, but if you’re consistent, she’ll eventually learn to put herself to sleep when it’s bedtime.

        I hope that helps!

      2. Bseargent says:

        Or maybe they’re molars are coming in…

    3. Needs Sleep says:

      Getting my child to bed usually consists of three check-ins. Sometimes more and sometimes less. Our major problem is if she wakes up at night from a bad dream, sounds, whatever it maybe, it’s a 1.5-2hr showdown before she wears herself out and falls asleep. Sometimes, she’ll get quiet, we think she’s asleep, and then she screams with a vengeance. She’s not inconsolable, because when we check-in the crying stops, but once we leave, it’s on. Any advice?

      1. Nina Garcia says:

        Hi there! I can imagine how exhausting it is waking up in the middle of the night for a two-hour showdown! One thing that might help is to praise her the next day for her positive behavior (yep, even if she screamed a lot). For instance, you can say, “Wow, you were only awake for an hour last night! You were able to put yourself to sleep!” And hopefully she’ll feel bolstered by the praise and realize that she should be putting herself to sleep, perhaps in shorter windows, too.