My Son Won’t Sleep!

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.

Hi Annie,  My son won’t sleep! He’s 3 1/2 years old and gets up 1–4 times a night, comes into our room, and says, “Mom.” I go back and tuck him in. Sometimes it’s that easy; other times it’s a battle, and he shouts, “I don’t want to go to sleep.” Sometimes he says, “No, go away.” I put him to bed and walk away. He screams and comes after me. I put him to bed. Same thing.

Then I usually threaten him with, “If you don’t stay in bed, I will lock the door.” If that doesn’t work after 1-2 times, I lock the door. I did it once for 20 minutes until he passed out and once for 30 seconds, and he got the point and didn’t get out of bed for about 4 hours.

We’ve tried stickers and other rewards and incentives. None of them are working. Now he comes in and asks Dad to sleep or lay with him. He doesn’t ask me because he knows I won’t. And dad will currently go and lay with him; if my husband returns after he falls asleep, he will undoubtedly get up and come to get his father again.

He doesn’t say anything that’s waking him up. Sometimes his pull-up gets full and he wets the bed, which I understand, but I’m not sure what to do. We’re now encouraging sleeping through the night with a Spiderman poster as an incentive. After four straight nights, he gets a sticker on the calendar, etc. We say, “If you wake up, just roll over and go back to sleep.”

He has a bedtime routine that usually consists of a bath, a Spiderman cartoon, a book, and bed—unless he falls asleep on the couch. He has a cool mist humidifier and insists on the table lamp being on.

Suggestions welcome 🙂  Thanks Paige.

Hi Paige,

my son won't sleep

I understand how difficult this is for you. My feeling is that both you and your partner/husband are suffering from the classic case of “not being on the same page.” Children need clear expectations, and although yours are clear, your partner is completely undermining you. This is something that you’d find a lot of help with on my parenting services page.

The reason your son won’t settle is that he has a huge reason why he shouldn’t. It’s called getting a whole lot of attention in the night, which is certainly worth waking up for. It’s not coming from you; it’s coming from your husband/ partner, but the only way to get rid of the behaviour is to deny him the attention he gets when he wakes you up.

My son won’t sleep!  Remember nights are for sleeping.

It doesn’t have to be fraught with anger, and it’s best if you can stay completely calm, taking him back to his bed as many times as necessary. Keep your tone low, say only what’s absolutely necessary, and try to lead him without looking directly at him. The less attention you give him, the better. If you want to explain why you aren’t giving him attention, do it during the daytime. Say, “When you wake me up, I’m tired, and we don’t do lots of talking in the middle of the night. Nights are for sleeping.” Don’t “tuck” him in because that just adds another opportunity for attention. Just place him calmly and gently back in bed.

Take a look at your routine.

The fact that you say “My son won’t sleep” means that the equivalent of an alarm clock is ringing away and trying to get you to examine your approach. As a result, you might want to look at what time you’re putting him to bed. A child of that age shouldn’t be any later than 7 p.m., and it’s ideal if the bedtime routine can start an hour before that. Try to avoid allowing him to fall asleep on the couch and put him in bed while still awake. Give him lots of cuddles before bed and include a good-night poem or rhyme so he understands when the day ends and the night begins.

He may also benefit from being “lifted” at night, i.e., being taken to the bathroom before you go to bed. It was always a help for my boys, and they eventually grew out of the need to go in the middle of the night.

My son won’t sleep: Remember give clear expectations and follow through with logical consequences.

If stickers work for you and him, terrific; if they don’t, I wouldn’t bother. Just keep expectations very clear. Sit down with him and explain the rules up front. Tell him exactly what you will do if he wakes up in the night. Of course, he’s going to try you out to see if you mean it, but if you both mean it, the resistance won’t last that long. You can also use logical consequences by explaining to him that you have a nice day planned for the next day—perhaps a picnic in a park—but you’ll need to have a good night’s sleep or you’ll be too tired to go. After that, don’t go on about it.

If the night goes well, all well and good; take the trip and make it lots of fun. If it doesn’t, don’t go. You’re too tired. Be completely boring for the whole day. Don’t play, and you can try your acting skills by looking thoroughly exhausted and disengaged. It’s fine if he’s bored. If he whines at you, explain politely that, unfortunately, you didn’t get the rest you needed, so you’re too tired to go. It’s amazing how quickly kids catch on when it’s in their self-interest to do so. Don’t forget to give him an opportunity for a day out when his sleep habits are better.

My son won’t sleep!  Ok, sing off the same song sheet.

The biggest thing, though, is to make sure your partner is on board before you start. Any action without his backing makes things, sadly, much more difficult. Your son will always go to the partner that is most likely to give him what he wants, and all I can do to encourage your partner to get on board is to say things will likely get a whole lot more challenging in the long run if the two authority figures in his life cannot agree on a path forward. When boundaries become fuzzy, that’s when they are challenged.

Would you like to know why downtime for kids is so important? Read this. For more help with your parenting, please visit my parenting services page.

I hope this helps you out. All the best to you,


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