Struggling when your child won’t sleep alone? Avoid these mistakes that make things worse when your 2 year old refuses to sleep at night.
At some crazy hour in the night, my then-2 year old startled me awake with a rousing cry. I ran into his room and comforted him to whimpers and hiccups until I could finally settle him back in bed.
“Stay,” he pleaded, complete with puppy dog eyes.
Delirious with sleep-deprivation, I put him down in bed and stretched out on the floor next to him. I’ll stay here until he falls asleep, I planned.
Unfortunately, it took him forever to settle down and finally fall back asleep. And just when I thought it was safe to get up and leave, he woke up, stood in his crib, and looked for me. My husband and I would then have to repeat the whole process again of putting him down and lying on the floor.
This happened more than I cared to remember, with us trying to sneak out only to be caught in the act or beckoned each time he woke up. The entire household miserable and cranky the following day.
Mistakes to avoid when your 2 year old refuses to sleep
And that’s just one example of when a 2 year old refuses to sleep.
Maybe you used to be able to lay your toddler down awake—with the door closed, for crying out loud—but now won’t sleep in her crib. Perhaps you’ve transitioned her into a new toddler bed, but she runs after you each time you leave.
You feel awful for making her sleep in her room, or are too sleep-deprived for yet another power struggle, so you allow her to sleep in your bed. While this avoids the extra tears, co-sleeping only makes for a fitful night for the both of you.
Plus, you’re not getting much time for yourself. Those hours between her bedtime and yours is cut short when you’re plopped next to her bed for 45 minutes. And forget about sleeping through the night with the frequent wake-ups or tossing and turning when she’s in yours.
There’s a lot of advice floating around, leaving moms exhausted and unable to undo the sleep situation they’ve found themselves in. Many of these mistakes are rooted in good intentions—after all, no one wants to see their 2 year old upset, or they’re too sleepy to deal with it yet again.
But repeated over and over, these habits then become so ingrained that we actually deny our kids the chance to sleep well and feel confident doing so.
Take a look at these eight common sleep problems and mistakes parents make when their 2 year old refuses to sleep:
Mistake 1: Letting your child cry without checking in
One mistake parents make is assuming that they need to close the door and let their 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 yourself. Explain and describe what’s going to happen in a kind and compassionate way. Then, reassure her that you’re right 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 it, but your confident and calm demeanor will help her feel like this is nothing to worry about. You’ll then check in on her every few minutes, extending those minutes as the night goes on.
The only time you stop checking in on her is when she finally stops crying. You never leave her to herself for the night without going in to check on her periodically.
Each time you do, avoid being melodramatic. Encourage her with supportive words like, “I know you can do this!” or “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.
Free download: Interested in learning more? Get a preview from my guide, How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe (applies to 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, and even after we leave the room, he doesn’t cry. This is just amazing!
He now mostly sleeps through the whole night, without waking up, from about 9:30pm till 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. I hope he keeps sleeping well :)” -Hanna de Lange
Mistake 2 Holding your child in your arms to fall asleep
Your 2 year old might refuse to sleep for an hour, but will conk out the minute you hold him in your arms. And yes, this seems like a “solution” when you compare it with screaming with sleeping.
Except you know what happens next, right? The minute you put him down in his bed, he’s wide awake yet again. And even if you do manage to get him to stay asleep, he’ll wake up soon enough and come crying for you again.
Falling asleep in one place only to wake up in another is disorienting, especially when he was upset a few minutes before falling asleep. And since we all wake up throughout the night, he’ll only come looking for you each time he does.
Don’t allow him to rely on only falling asleep in your arms, as this will make it into a habit that’s difficult to undo. If you do hold him in your arms to calm him down, make sure he’s awake before setting him back in bed. Otherwise, he’ll wake up just as confused and upset throughout the night.
Mistake 3: 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 wrap up and put their shoes on.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work so well with saying goodnight, especially when your 2 year old refuses to sleep without you in his room.
Let’s say he’s fine getting ready for bed, but is a wreck the minute you leave. You try telling him 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 actually leave, he’s back to being a mess.
While the intention is good, delaying the inevitable goodnight only raises his anxiety once that moment arrives. There wasn’t any opportunity during that delay to help him cope with his emotions, or adjust to a routine, or find ways for him to self-soothe.
Instead, he still needs you to feel content, and he 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 his routine. Instead of counting down, focus more on your demeanor: be confident that bedtime is normal, and that this is exactly what needs to happen.
Mistake 4: Staying in the room until your child falls asleep
Sometimes it seems like the only thing that will finally get your 2 year old to quiet down is to stay in her room until she falls asleep.
Maybe you place a chair next to her bed, one you inch farther away as the night goes on. You agree to lie on the floor next to it, reassuring her you won’t leave until she’s asleep. Or you might even start the night patting her on the back for what feels like hours before she’s finally out.
You can imagine how problematic this can be on so many levels.
She doesn’t have the opportunity to fall asleep on her own, feeling confident and safe, when your presence only confirms that it isn’t a good idea to do so.
She’ll also wake up throughout the night, and unless you’re where she last saw you, will cry for you until you come back. This eats up into your own personal time. Anyone who has found herself lying on the floor miserable because there’s still so much to do knows this feeling all too well.
Now, there are some cases when being in the same room can help ease her feelings, especially when you can actually see an improvement. When my toddler was transitioning into a bed, my husband or I stayed 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 her dependence on you, then that’s when you know to nip it in the bud.
Mistake 5: Walking your child back to her room
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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 just about gave up. Because for two hours straight, my son did nothing but open the door to his room and walk out, no matter how many times we walked him back to bed. We finally relented and my husband slept on the floor next to him.
The advice is well-meaning: after a while, kids will get the message that they must 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.
The next day, I placed these doorknob covers on the inside of his room, so that he couldn’t get out. Other parents install a baby gate instead. Just as they had been contained in their cribs, now the same needs to happen with their room, at least until they don’t feel the need to keep leaving.
Make sure your toddler’s room is safe and equipped for him to roam. Plug in a night light, baby-proof large pieces of furniture, and use darkening curtains and white noise. All these steps will help him sleep well at night and be safe if he walks around.
Combined with checking in frequently, keeping him in his room is a far more effective way to get him to sleep than walking him back a zillion times a night.
Mistake 6: Letting your child sleep in your bed
I’ll just let her sleep in my bed, you figure. After all, at least you’re comfortable in your bed, instead of sitting in a chair or sleeping on the floor.
But it isn’t comfortable sleeping with a toddler, 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.
Letting her sleep in your bed reinforces that her room or bed are not good places to be. After all, if she is supposed to sleep in her own 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, outfit her bed with new sheets, and do the bedtime routine in her room. And most important, encourage her to sleep in her room instead of thinking she needs to sleep in yours.
Mistake 7: Being inconsistent with your method
There isn’t one set way of doing things. One parent might find that walking her toddler back to his room worked after one night. Another could realize that she could hold her toddler in her arms and know he’ll stay asleep. Sleeping on the floor could only take a few nights before he’s comfortable sleeping on his own.
The trick is to stay consistent with the method you choose. Switching methods only confuses your 2 year old and doesn’t give her time to develop new habits.
How long is long enough? 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 you can’t expect things to go smoothly after just one try.
Mistake 8: Not helping your child cope with emotions
When it comes to children’s feelings about bedtime, you’ll sometimes find two extremes.
One is that we downplay their emotions. We call their fears silly, 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 we act just as anxious as they are, comforting them as if they’re faced with the worst situation.
Instead of either extreme, focus on what we’re supposed to do: teaching 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 give her reassurances she can tell herself so she knows all is fine.
As I say in my book, Parenting with Purpose:
“Words are powerful. Labeling emotions helps your child claim control over sadness, jealousy, 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 sleep regression can be a difficult challenge, especially when you’re making mistakes you never knew you were. To recap, avoid these common mistakes:
- Holding your toddler in your arms to fall asleep
- Letting her cry without checking in
- Delaying the inevitable goodnight
- Staying in the room until she falls asleep
- Walking her back to their room
- Letting her sleep in your bed
- Being inconsistent with your method
- Not helping her cope with emotions
Repeating these same mistakes enables the habits—co-sleeping, lying on the floor next to her bed, holding her 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—even if your toddler pleads, “Stay?” with puppy dog eyes.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Through the 2 Year Old Sleep Regression
- 5 Tips to Help Your Overtired Toddler Finally Go to Sleep
- What to Do When Your Toddler Suddenly Won’t Sleep
- 7 Things You Should NOT Do with a Defiant 2 Year Old
- 6 Tips to Help Your Kids Sleep in Their Own Beds
Don’t forget: Grab a preview from my guide, How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe (applies to toddlers, too!) to help your 2 year old sleep through the night: