Whole Parenting Family

Toddler Behavioral Challenges: Tantrums & Sleep

I’ve written a good deal about our little toddler’s quirks in previous posts about teething, toddler sleep trouble, traveling with a toddler (comprehensive packing list), quick tips for toddler travel, running errands with a toddler, surviving pregnancy and toddlerhood simultaneously, tantrums, toddler naps, and toddler obsessions. And I’ve amassed the best advice from my fellow mamas. Thank you for all your feedback! Now to ask for MORE feedback ๐Ÿ™‚

1) Full fledged tantrums.

They’ve arrived. He’s 18 months old and can tantrum with the best of them. Anything from a routine diaper change, to preventing life threatening maneuvers, to dinner time, to wanting to see the moon at 9 am with his Baba (an impossibility on multiple levels). If you are in a similar situation, take a breath. You’re not alone! (Nota bene, self: I’m not alone!)

A few things seem to work at setting appropriate boundaries while respecting that he is a human being too. What works for you?

a) Tone of voice.

We try to be consistent in our tone of voice when it is really a “no” situation. This voice should be lower, sterner, and not emotionally charged. At a girlfriend’s excellent suggestion, I break it down to “SuperBoy mad, SuperBoy wants X, but Mama said not now. SuperBoy listens, J respects Mama” instead of lengthy loquacious appeasement treaties.

b) Appeasment.

Appeasing does not work in the long run. I realized this when SuperBoy had to have 2 pacifiers, a toy, and a book to achieve a peaceful diaper change. Two too much! Avoiding the occasion of tantruming is always a good idea, but some things cannot be avoided! I.e., diaper changes!

c) Eye contact.

Insist on eye contact when reviewing why something is not going to happen/is going to happen/cannot happen. It may take a little bit, but I settle for anything that looks like he might have looked into my eyes, forehead, nose, or sinus cavity. He knows when I ask him to please look at mama’s eyes, I won’t let it go until he does. I only insist on this when I think it’s feasible. Fewer battles = happier family.

d) Explain the order of events.

If necessary, explanations of order of operations seems to help. For instance, I acknowledge he wants to play with his giraffe, or his Dada, but first we’re going to eat our rice, then we get to leave the high chair and perform desired tasks. He seems to get the idea of a little bit later in time.

e) Work on “the look.”

My mom has a great evil eye. One glare from her and we would freeze in our tracks as kids. Again, like the eye contact principle, only pull this out if you’re going to follow through with a timeout or some sort of actual repercussion if the undesired behavior continues.

f) Pick your battles and move on quickly.

Without using distraction instead of instruction, do move on after you’ve made your point. We do a lot of toe counting during diaper changes. The thrill of it seems to prevent a continued meltdown after he’s been temporarily subdued by one of the above communication styles. Or we talk about Baby Jesus’ birthday. Or that his cousin V is coming on an airplane for Christmas (complete with sound effects and arm movements which he will now do on his own if you talk about her).

He can wriggle out of one of his arm straps on his high chair. It’s a 5-point harness so I’m not too concerned about his safety, but I did realize I can’t make him keep it in. So I just don’t correct him on it or acknowledge he’s doing something that bothers me. My lack of reaction seems to have taken the wind out of his sails, as it were. If you can’t beat them, ignore them?

2) New sleep issues for our 18 month old.

The thing I most commonly google in the middle of the night these days is “toddler sleep trouble 18 months old.” SuperBoy has begun a weird cycle of interrupted sleep seemingly unrelated to health, teething, hunger, fear, or a wet diaper. He just awakens after 5 hours or so, wants to be given a pacifier and laid back down, and then wants you (exhausted, crabby pregnant parent) to sit in the room not even in his line of vision, periodically make noises to indicate your presence, and do so until he falls back asleep. Then he will reawaken within the hour or two and require a repeat of aforementioned behavior.

We are not cry-it-out people. A little wallop here or there before passing out is okay. Minutes upon half hours of screaming, not so much. But my husband works at a very mind-challenging job with long hours, and I’m still sick and pregnant at about 23 (or is it 24?) weeks. This makes for a conundrum.

Why has SuperBoy begun this new need for parental soothing at night, instead of his naturally gifted self-soothing? That is a question for the ages. The real question is, how long can we sustain multi-nocturnal awakenings? My mom has been staying in town with us recently and helping out, so that may prolong our endurance levels. But honestly, I’m a bit at a loss of what to do.

We tried co-sleeping again the other night. Complete disaster. He was uncomfortable, changed positions frequently, and clearly did not like his lack of space, and we were awake. All. Night. Long. Considering he hasn’t truly co-slept since 4 months old, it wasn’t a surprise it wouldn’t work well.

We’re trying new bedtime rituals of longer massage, more songs sung, along with more time hugging and rocking while walking (again, though, the more pregnant I get, the heavier his 28 pounds feels around my burgeoning belly). I’m trying to carry him more during the day and have more physical touch too.

Any suggestions or has anyone else encountered something similar? Maybe it’s an 18-month-old stage that will pass.

No one said parenting, especially night parenting, would be easy. And poor little SuperBoy will be contending with a sibling with night needs come April. I hope he’s back to happy sleepy time by then!


  1. Whitney Blessing on December 18, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Oh Mama, I feel your pain (and panic). The good news is that this is all quite normal, and parents all over have experienced similar tales with our toddlers at some point or another, and we’ve all survived. As I write, my 20-month and 4 year old sleep peacefully in a shared bedroom… certainly there are challenges that proceed the successive sleep. For the 18-month old, you have a child who is coming into his own. He is exerting his own independence at every step, his curiosity is heightened, and no doubt he is testing you and seriousness of each boundary you put before him. Play into his inherent quest for independence as much as you can (safely). For example, remove the high chair which restrains him at mealtimes – invest in a child-size table and chair from Ikea ($) or a Stokke chair that he may learn to get in and out of himself ($$$). He will appreciate the freedom of movement. The 18-month old is also beginning to learn that his actions can be used to manipulate his situation. The toddler is an actor, rather than a passive observer. He is walking and soon, if not already, will enter into an explosion of language. “No!” is a toddler favorite. He will resist your rules (because he can!) and until he understands what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Consistency is key! The 18-month old thrives on order and consistency, so if you can provide him with the same routine every bedtime, he should take comfort in that and give you peace soon enough. This is the time, however, (especially with a baby on the way) to set the ground rules. Let the bedtime ritual be brief – he knows you love him, and he may only be trying to prolong the inevitable good-bye because you are the center of his world after all, but no harm will come to him in the night which is intended for rest. Give it a week, consistent in your routine, and though it may be difficult those first few nights, resist changing things up the following night – be consistent and in the long run you will all appreciate the rest that comes later. It’s great advice to explain the order of events. The 18-month old likes being talked to like any other human – but he doesn’t like surprises, which can undermine his intelligence. Let him know what’s coming to him even moments before, so he is always in the know. This empowers him and gives him a sense of respect and comfort. Lastly, knowing an 18-month old requires infinite patience. Toddlers live in the present moment – a concept we adults should value as a high order – and their thirst for life and the desire to explore their surroundings (its vastness and limitations) are innate to their very being. Have patience with your toddler – sit back and observe him for a while, give him an environment that is safe yet stimulating, and watch as he discovers his own capabilities and limitations. This is not an easy task for an adult conditioned to the ways of modernity, but finding that patience within yourself and letting your toddler enjoy his freedom of will is an invaluable lesson. A lesson that the child aims to teach to us again and again.

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:27 am

      This is so helpful to hear your experience and expertise! We had company in town for a week and J’s sleeping arrangement changed, though the multiple awakenings did not abate between 2 and 6 am. I’m hoping that continuity in ritual as you suggested will help guide him back to normal. It is amazing to watch his personality unfold!

  2. Tasslyn on December 18, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Here’s my advice for the sleep issues. We called it the “padded room” philosophy. Yes, co-sleeping with anyone and a toddler is a challenge. However, drop a mattress on the floor – or two, so you have somewhere to go too – is a safe alternative. In our house we had the main bed and eventually 2 twin mattresses for both kids. More often Dan (six feet 9 inches tall) ended up on the twin and more important for me when the second arrived, was that I slept.

    Let me be really, really clear. This was our choice and worked for our family. Might not be the family philosophy you or others choose. But for me especially, sleep was the most important thing with a toddler and new baby. If that meant Perrin slept on a mattress on the floor in our room … that’s what I needed to do.

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:28 am

      We loved co-sleeping with J for the first three months, but after he stopped nursing at night of his own accord around 12 weeks, and was simply a gurgling talk-in-his-sleep baby, he did move to his own room. Now we are trying co-sleeping again and it doesn’t take! He cannot stay asleep and wants to play with us in bed.

      The mattress idea is great, especially as I’m concerned about having kicking toddler in bed with us and our newborn when she arrives in April.

  3. Theresa on December 19, 2011 at 12:24 am

    We’re having “put-to-bed-and-GO-TO-SLEEP” issues with our 23 month old. Granted, we just started a “routine” about 2 months ago (and we’ve stuck to it!!!), but she sits in bed and talks for over an hour every night, us laying with her or not. I’m at a loss and no help. She does not listen to a word we say – “Lay down.” “Be quiet.” Haven’t found anything that works ๐Ÿ™ Every night its a battle.

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:30 am

      She must love to talk!! How incredibly difficult when you have the two now. I recommend the Dr. Sears sleep book, and the No-Cry Sleep Solution. Some people love the Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child book by what’s his name, but his techniques aren’t really for me. Has anything you’ve read helped? You guys must be exhausted!!

  4. Tasslyn on December 19, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Here’s our other mantra. You can’t make them sleep. But you can make them (or strongly encourage them) to be in their sleep place – your bed, their bed, mattresses … we go by even, “you can play if you want, but Mommy’s going to have her time and will be back in 10 minutes.”

  5. shena on December 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I am so sorry you’re having sleep issues! Especially hard when you’re pregnant, and your own sleep is enough of a challenge.

    This is such a personal issue, but my general rule has been to nurture a scared or troubled sleeper (regardless of age) and to discipline a demanding one who’s just trying to throw his weight around and show who’s boss.

    If it’s the second, I’d tell them that a) they are OK to sleep alone and b) I’m going back to bed now. It might help to prep them before you say goodnight, by telling them what you’ll do if they cry.

    If it’s the first I find it helpful to have kids repeat back to me after they’ve been comforted, “I’m OK now, Mama.” It seems to help them regain a sense of composure and ownership over their emotions.

    BTW – briefly sticking children out on the cold back porch isn’t the worst way to quickly defuse a temper tantrum! Usually takes about 2.5 seconds for screamers to become repentant.

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:33 am

      Good division between the need to nurture and the need to shape behavior. I’m having trouble discerning the difference! It is far clearer to me during naptimes (when the latter is primarily the culprit of an awake toddler). But at night it’s tougher to tell. The repetition of comforting terms is a brilliant tool to help the child feel empowered. Great suggestion.

      And the cold porch idea reminds me of your excellent comment many months back on fussy children having the sit-of-shame outside the store wherein they had been naughty. You have such a common sense approach to mothering! I love it.

  6. mothering spirit on December 19, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    For tantrums, I’ve found a few things that usually help: 1) acknowledge their emotions (“I know you’re mad/frustrated/want x) – this helps me not to belittle the tantrum and also helps my toddler to learn about different emotions); 2) offer choices (“do you want oatmeal or eggs for breakfast” in response to wailing about some other food); 3) good ol’ distraction – offer an alternative book or toy, move play to another room or floor of the house, start singing a favorite song.

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:35 am

      Great list. Yes, yes, and yes to all three. Excellent! Just yesterday we had several tantrums but I acknowledged, moved on, ignored the undesired behavior (whining), and presented future options. The next thing you know we were either up the stairs playing tickle on the landing, or banging pots and pans with a wooden spoon ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. KateJ on December 19, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    18-22 months is a common age for toddlers to wake up during the night and want to be soothed back to sleep. My middle son did it for about a month when he hit 18 months, and, like you, I was expecting, and was quite nervous that his sleep habits wouldn’t return to normal before the new baby came. Although I had initially sleep trained him loosely following the Ferber method (when he was 6 mos), my instincts told me that I should just soothe him during his toddler night time wakings. After about a month of sitting in the glider chair in his room and rocking/shushing/singing/feeding him, one night he returned to his peaceful sleep habits (that was about 10 mos ago). I was so relieved once my champion sleeper returned! Wish you luck!!

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

      So helpful to hear! We are going on about a month of disrupted sleep and I’m praying and hoping he returns to normal happy 10-12 hours again soon. And there is something that tells me that he needs comfort and company and not discipline.

  8. Donielle Olson on December 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

    With the sleeping problems I find they pop up from excitement (holidays) and because some kids have alot of steam/energy at this age. Try giving him more active things to do. I also think they need more sensory. Salt dough, cornstarch mixed with water or Elana fav “washing dishes”. I give her a wooden spoon, some cups, etc and let her play with them in the sink! She feels helpful and adult like and it helps fine motor. I allso gave her sensory balls these are great! They also feel your attn drifting too another little one even if said little one isn’t here yet =)!

    • Novice Natural Mama on December 29, 2011 at 7:38 am

      That is so true. The more J runs and goes around the house or outside, the better he sleeps (at least during the day). I love the sensory learning too. Sounds like we need to make some dough and clean some dishes!

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