How To Stop Nighttime Tantrums

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

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Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

How to stop nighttime tantrums.

When you’re faced with a question like how to stop nighttime tantrums, it’s likely you’re already exhausted. You’ve probably been up night after night, wishing and hoping that for just once your child would finally go to sleep without it being an enormous battle each time. Well, take heart; you’re not alone. Here’s Brittany with a letter about her toddler, who continues to wake up like a baby even now that he’s a toddler.

Hi Annie,

I’d like to know how to stop nighttime tantrums, among other things. My toddler is two and a half years old, and to start with, he’s a very picky eater. I’ve tried everything to make meals as nice as I can, like hiding meat and other foods he doesn’t like in foods he does like, but nothing works. He also gets up in the night like a newborn baby every three hours or so, wanting a cup of milk. I’ve tried just letting him cry, and I keep putting him back in his bed, but he cries for hours and then vomits, throws a temper tantrum to the point of hurting himself, and beats his head on the floor. I tried sleep training for 2 months, but it didn’t work, so now I’ve given up and let him sleep with me, but I still have to get up every three hours to give him milk. I don’t normally give in to tantrums, and I’m not a pushover with my boys, but my husband insists on being the nice guy. Can you help?

Hi Brittany,

How to stop nighttime tantrumsHow to stop nighttime tantrums is often a tricky question, but let me start by saying that I understand how frustrating this is for you and how tired you must be. Let’s look at how to stop nighttime tantrums as well as your son’s picky eating issue.

How to stop nighttime tantrums: First, rule out other issues.

Firstly, you want to rule out any medical issues that might be causing these problems and making him turn his nose up at all his food. The best way to do that is to take a look at his general health. Look at his weight. Is it normal, or does it suggest a problem? Look at his energy level during the day.  Again, is that normal, or is he lethargic? Make sure he has a good once-over with your doctor first.

Once you’ve ruled out any medical reason for his behaviour then you’ll want to start looking at other reasons. You mention in your letter that you have more than one boy and that you’re not a pushover. You obviously have lots of good instincts, and you obviously want to do what’s best for him and have the desire to follow through. That’s always good to hear, but unfortunately, this is not just about you. You have a partner, and you parent together.

Challenging kids don’t need a different strategy.

You obviously have a character here in your two-year-old in that he is a more challenging child than most and needs strong leadership. It’s amazing how personalities can differ hugely within the same family. You can find laid-back individuals who won’t push much and, at the same time, more intense or, shall we say, more “challenging” kids, who certainly do. I think we can safely say that your two-year-old fits in that category.

So you have a little guy who is actively pushing back against you. He wants a whole bunch of things, and for two and a half years, he’s done a very good job of getting them. All children need the same leadership, whether they are challenging or not. It’s more a case that the laid-back ones won’t notice a few holes in the leadership, or if they do, their inclination is not to push, yet the challenging ones will.

How to stop nighttime tantrums: Being on the same page when parenting is key.

But you have an additional problem. Even though you’re not a pushover and you’ve obviously been trying very hard, there is someone in your immediate family who is a pushover, and that undermines even the best leadership. Imagine if you had to get out of a circle with a six-foot fence and there was a nice hole in one side of the fence. Well, you’d figure out a way to use that hole to your advantage. That’s an opportunity, and you’d take advantage of it, and that’s exactly what your little boy has learned to do when he wants something. He goes to where he’s most likely to get it: his dad. The fact that your husband wants to be the nice guy means that the leadership that your little boy is programmed to look for is lacking, so why listen to you if he just runs over to his dad and gets a different answer?

Understanding his challenging behaviour is the key to solving it.

Children show their discomfort through their behaviour so when you start seeing massive tantrums and vomiting when he doesn’t get his way, even if he does it in response to being upset, it’s important to see that as a control behaviour. It may have started naturally, but it continues because it works at getting you to change your response to him come bedtime.

Your little guy is trying to run things, and yet when he gets what he thinks he wants, he feels very unhappy and doesn’t just drift off to sleep; he wakes again and again. That’s because “winning” in the moment might feel good immediately, but it doesn’t feel good in the long run. Without the direction he craves, he is compelled to repeat the behaviour over and over again. That’s because what he wants is not the same as what he needs.

How to stop nighttime tantrums: Know his real needs

What he needs to know is that you and his dad are his rock, dependable, and solid at every level. What he’s getting instead is two people who are scrambling all over the place to fulfill his wants, even though those wants are blatantly unreasonable and prevent you from getting any rest during the night either. In other words, he is running you, not the other way around. He shows that during the day with his picky eating and at night with his temper and other behaviours.

You have to be a leader all the time.

So what to do? Well, firstly, just changing things at night won’t solve your problem because you can’t just be a leader at night. You and your husband have to be together during the day too, reacting and dealing with your son as “one unit.” That means you must stop allowing him to rule over your life. After all, he’s two, and frankly, what does he know? Does he know what he should be eating to maintain the correct nutritional balance for a child his age? Does he know your food budget? Your shopping priorities? Does he know the value of a proper night’s sleep?

How to stop nighttime tantrums: Children aren’t in control for a reason.

No, he doesn’t know any of those things, which is why you are the natural leader and he is the child. It has nothing to do with some kind of false hierarchy, and to start leading is not the same as being a control freak. It’s the way children are designed to grow into healthy adults by watching, mimicking, and taking their lead from you.

Sit down with your husband.

Because you are not a pushover, I suspect you know what to do to correct what’s happening. I suspect what’s prevented you thus far is the fact that you are undermined constantly, and you are likely totally exhausted. To fix this, you want to concentrate on those two things. First, discuss with your husband how his need to be a nice guy is not helping. Children, after all, need a parent and not a friend. Hopefully, you’ll be able to persuade him.

How to stop nighttime tantrums: Surround yourself with support.

Secondly, you need to get that nighttime backup in place so you are not as tired and you can go through what will likely be a rough few nights with some additional support. You will need to teach him that what he needs is a good night’s sleep. That, of course, differs from what he wants, which is to spend the night constantly requiring intervention from you. Expect him to be enraged because, let’s face it, no one enjoys having their wishes denied.

Watch your confidence

Remember, you want to look totally confident in what you’re doing, in your voice, and in your body language. If he vomits, you must, of course, clean him up, but don’t offer him any extra attention. Take away the milk and simply provide water instead, because you don’t want to give him anything to wake up for. When he vomits, try to clean him up with a minimum of fuss and then put him back to bed as many times as it takes with a calm, confident, loving, and patient attitude. I know that is a tough call, but consistency is everything. I’m sure you can do it, and believe me, one day, when he routinely enjoys a good night’s rest, he will thank you. Visit this services page for more personal answers to your parenting questions.

Good Luck. Annie

Do you have a supreme picky eater?  Read this to find out how picky eater problems develop and what you can do to stop them.

Did you know Annie the Nanny was on CTV’s morning show for years?  Here’s a clip of Annie talking about how to help kids to learn appreciation and gratitude.

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