Five Stages of Toddler Sleep

Five Stages of Toddler Sleep

The following was originally published in “The Good Life Men’s Magazine”

It’s 8:02 p.m. Macklin’s mama and I exchange knowing looks, reluctantly nod our heads and announce to our audience of one that it’s time for bed. Our nightly dance is about to begin, and we wonder, as we start the chase, what new moves may be introduced into the well-worn routine. 

Some nights, with naive optimism, I think back to the days when Mack was an infant and wanted nothing more than a quick night time bottle before being left alone to fall quickly asleep in his crib. There wasn’t much cuddling or soothing required in those early days. If you wanted to sneak a snuggle, you had to risk waking him up by taking him out of his crib mid-slumber. 

It was well worth — and still is to steal those precious moments of silent bonding — but lately we’ve been getting our fill during the hour-plus emotional extravaganza that is toddler bedtime. 

My wife, Emily, is a highly experienced and sought after child and adolescent therapist. A real pro, in other words. I do my best to follow her lead and pick up on the lessons she teaches through her interactions with Mack. Her patience rarely expires, but some nights the challenge of getting Mack into bed (and keeping him there) can push even her to the limit. 

In the middle of one recent bout with an especially tired boy, she walked out of Mack’s room and announced, “This is like grief therapy… hoping we hit acceptance here soon.” Three seconds later, the sounds of three-year-old fists banging down doors made clear we hadn’t yet made it past stage two.

Emily nailed it. Like I said, she’s a pro. Mack’s bedtime has evolved into what we now call the five stages of toddler sleep grief. Our goal is to navigate our way through as quickly and as quietly as possible. 

Denial

It’s now 8:02 p.m. … and ten seconds. The proclamation of bedtime has been made, and Mack — right on cue — issues his retort: “No it’s not.” He’s in full on denial, often going even further. “I want to wind up!’ he shouts before turning his back to make his escape. Next to acceptance, denial is the easiest stage to get past… I simply catch him, throw him over my shoulder and march him up to his room. 

Anger

8:05 p.m. Time for some old fashioned kicking and screaming. It’s best to just keep your distance for a few minutes and let the little guy wear himself down on his own. It’s not a fool-proof strategy, but it’s better than catching an errant kick to the shorts. At some point, we do have to jump in and pry him out of his clothes before steering him into the bathroom to pee and brush teeth… and yes, cry-brushing is a common occurrence, but we gotta get those sugar bugs out! Anger is the least enjoyable stage for obvious reasons. Our secret weapon is Mack’s low tickle threshold. He loves it, and uncontrollable giggles always helps the transition into stage three… my favorite of the five. 

Bargaining

8:20 p.m. A slightly more tired Macklin turns on his charm and proceeds with his attempt to disarm us with an onslaught of surprisingly witty compromises he hopes will score him a few more minutes of play time. The most common bargains are “just one more story, please Daddy?” or “how about some nighttime music, is that a good idea?” or “will you send Mama in?” Lately, he’s been very concerned about our new robot vacuum and requests to double check that it’s safely “at its home” before he can really feel settled.

Depression

8:50 p.m. After a good 20-30 minutes of stories, more bargaining and more tickling, Macklin resigns to the fact that there is no escaping the inevitable. He’s not getting out of his room until morning, and the revelation crushes him. Regardless of who does the reading and the initial tuck-in, the other parent is consistently called in to replace the starter mid-way through stage four… and the back-up always gets the best snuggles. A sad toddler is sad but oh so loveable. Plus, the second parent gets the win… ushering Mack calmly into stage five. 

Acceptance

9:05 p.m. After fifteen minutes or so of soothing Mack out of his nightly depression, he rolls over, turning his back to me and says, “Good night, Daddy, you can go now.” Stage five comes and goes in an instant, and it’s as comforting to me as it is to him. Once stage five hits, we rarely hear another sound coming from his room, aside from perhaps one last visit to the bathroom. 

Do I miss infant Mack and his astonishingly easy tuck-ins? Absolutely. Do I wish Emily and I would have more time to ourselves before we crash exhaustedly into our own bed? Yep. Would I give up his brilliant bargaining and adorable acceptance stages to avoid the other three? Nope. Some day, not too far out, I’m sure I’ll miss our nightly sleep grief therapy sessions every bit as much as I miss the other struggles that seemed so endless… until they were over. 

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