The Struggle for Sleep

My husband suggested letting my son, who is now 2 ½, cry-it-out when he was around 4 months old. However, I just couldn’t do it. I could not imagine leaving my sweet boy – the one we tried so hard to have – lay there and cry. I wasn’t against sleep training in general. However, that particular method wasn’t something that felt right for us me at the time.

Around the same time, I read a story on Facebook about an orphanage in Africa where a man walked into a nursery filled with babies and found the room completely quiet. He asked the woman who ran the place how it was possible that none of the babies were crying. The woman told him that after crying-it-out for countless hours, they all just eventually stopped. They realized no one was coming for them. Maybe ever. How sad is that?

There was no way I could do that to my child. No matter how hard it got. I wanted him to know we were always there for him. That, to me, was even more important than getting good sleep.

In all honesty, our child had been sleeping pretty well for a baby and I wasn’t entirely sure sleep training was necessary. I followed the Wonder Weeks app on my phone and knew when to anticipate a sleep regression. Each time the app predicted one, like clockwork, it began. And, inevitably, in the middle of it, my husband would come out of our son’s room one night leaving him wailing away in his crib and close the door and whisper to me, “Let’s just let him cry-it-out.” Each time I would reply, “I’m not okay with that.” Because again, it tugged at my new Mama heartstrings too hard to let him just cry-it-out. His tears meant he needed me. And he needed comfort. Not to be left alone crying for who knows how long, wondering if anyone would ever come for him.

Eventually, we’d make it out of the regression and my son would remember how to sleep through the night again. I assumed things would level out as he got a little older (naïve, I know). But, then we took him out of his in-home daycare when he turned 2 and enrolled him in preschool. The first week went well, even though it was a big transition. He loved his classroom and his teachers almost instantly. There were very little tears. In fact, the first day we dropped him off, he jumped out of my arms and went to play with some cars and we were able to sneak out quietly without much fuss.

Nevertheless, after about the second week of school, he started having trouble sleeping again. Bedtime, once more, became a battle. Most nights it would take more than an hour to get him down. Then he would wake up every single night, refusing to go back to sleep. More than once, the middle-of-the-night wake-up became a whole ordeal that went on for 2-3 hours.

His teacher told us it was normal for kids his age to regress in sleep during big transitions and that he would come out of it soon. A quick Google search confirmed that, and I also learned we should avoid any other big changes, like converting his crib to a “big boy bed” or potty training, until his sleeping patterns were back to “normal” too.

We tried hard to stick to a routine, which was tough since moving him to preschool was a big transition for us too. I had done drop-off and my husband picked-up with our old day-care provider. However, since he had recently started his own business and had increased flexibility with his schedule – we switched. As a result, drop off was a bit later than it used to be. And we got home an hour later every day as well.

Since we were often up for hours trying to get our son back to bed in the wee hours of the morning, most days, the boys were still sleeping by the time I left for work. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why he fights sleep tooth and nail every night. Because, he misses me. And sleep means he might not see me until after 5:00 p.m. the next day. 

After nearly 2 months of exhaustion, I took my child to the doctor to see if there was something going on that might be affecting his sleep. We were desperate for a good night’s rest. His doctor told me she doubted it was a medical issue, but instead was probably behavioral. Evidently, it’s typical for toddlers his age to try to exercise some control. And he had learned that sleep (or lack thereof) was something he could control. Simply put – we were locked in a power struggle.

I told her we had tried everything – sound machines, humidifiers, essential oils, night lights. Earlier bedtimes. Later bedtimes. Nothing seemed to work. She gently reminded me that we had in fact NOT tried everything and that perhaps it was time to do the one thing I had been trying to avoid for nearly 2 years. “I think you just need to let him cry,” she said. She told me it would be hard, because he is smart and he is strong, and it would likely take three nights before he got the hang of it. At this point, letting him cry-it-out was necessary in order for all of us to (hopefully) finally get some rest.

That night, like some small miracle, our son slept through the night for the first time in 6 weeks. However, the next night it was not so easy. He protested when I left after story time and started yelling for me to come back in his room. I steeled myself to the crying, reminding myself that this was the last straw. After 2 minutes – I kid you not – my husband went in there. The man, who 4 months in, insisted we should let him cry-it-out, and I swear, blames me for every sleep issue we have had since because I couldn’t.

After he left his room 5 minutes later, our son cried for 12 minutes and then stopped and went to sleep.

The night after that, again, he protested. And again, my husband went in there after I put him to bed. After he gave up and left, our son cried for 7 minutes and that was that. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be.

He got the hang of it after a few days, just as the doctor predicted, and bedtime started to go a bit more smoothly. Each night, he would lay down like a good boy after brushing his teeth and reading three stories. I would tuck him into bed and tell him good night and he’d give me permission to leave with a “Go tell my Dada.” He slept through the night many nights and on those that he did not, we were able to get him back to bed quickly and without much drama.

toddler in bed not sleepingThat lasted for about two months. And here we are, right back where we began.

Four nights in a row last week, we put our child down at his normal bedtime (8 p.m.), and two hours later, he was still in his crib chattering away. He’d eventually hit a wall and realize he was overtired. And then the screaming would begin. “Come tuck my in!” “Tuck my owls in!” “I need a Kleenex!” “I have an owie!” “I’m scared!” “I have poops!” Every trick in the book to try to get us to come back into his room. 

We tried letting him cry-it-out again, and after a full hour one night, my husband went in there to try to calm him down. All that did was start the process over again. Another hour of yelling ensued, after which, I went in to see if I could get him to sleep. By 10:30 p.m., he finally tuckered out, laid down and went to bed. But, four hours later, he woke up and did it all over again.

I don’t know what happened or why, since we had made such good progress over the last couple of months. But for the past two weeks, every single night, bedtime has been a battle. And letting him cry-it-out doesn’t seem to be working. I often wonder if it would have even worked had we tried it back when he was four months old. While I can’t go back now, I am open to new ideas and strategies. Because this Mama is exhausted.

What has worked for you in the constant struggle for sleep? 


Alicia was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin and moved to Madison in 1996 to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received her degree in Communication Arts with an emphasis in radio, television and film. She’s been working on campus in some capacity ever since and currently manages career and leadership development initiatives in the School of Human Ecology. Alicia married her husband Eric in 2012 and became a mom to her sweet and funny son Ellis in 2015. When she’s not playing with or reading to Ellis, she likes to read, watch TV, and might be caught playing bingo at the VFW. She also runs her own lifestyle blog ( and catches for her softball team through Madison Schools & Community Recreation every summer.


  1. Maybe try letting him sleep with you guys. I may regret it someday, but so far, cosleeping with our two kids has been the best. No feeling bad letting them cry it out. We’re right there if they wake up scared. It’s been great.

  2. We made a visual schedule for our daughter. A picture for each part of the bedtime routine, and pointed to each picture as we go through her routine each night – the exact same routine. If she needs us at night, we go in to check, but don’t talk at all. Talking is for daytime – sleeping is for nighttime. She knows what to expect, and knows when it’s time for her to go to sleep. For us, being consistent is so important so all of us are rested!

  3. This sounds so much like my husband’s and my experience with our 21-month old. Until 15 months he was still waking every 2-3 hours at night and even naps were a huge battle. We tried a couple forms of sleep training and read all of the books, and nothing really worked consistently until he was 15 months. One day we let him cry it out for 45 mins and that was it. He started sleeping through the night. However a few months later we went on a trip and that destroyed all of our progress. For 6 weeks we dealt with him waking 2-3 times a night. This time if we went in right away and rocked him for a little bit he went right back to sleep vs. letting him cry for 30-60 mins and then still needing to go in eventually to help him go back to sleep. He is back to sleeping through the night again but it never feels like a for sure thing.

    I had all of the thoughts, ideas and knowledge on what sleep training would look like before I had kids. What I found is each child is still a unique being and sometimes all of the proven-strategies don’t work for every kid. Routine has helped the absolute most. Trying to let him cry it out sometimes works. Going in and soothing him is sometimes the right choice. It’s a little different each time he goes through a regression.

    You’re not alone! Hope your sweet kiddo finds a peaceful sleep routine soon.

  4. Aww I’m so sorry you’re struggling with sleep. Sleep deprivation can feel so lonely! I’m a former teacher and daycare provider who is now a gentle Pediatric Sleep Consultant here in Madison. I’d recommend looking at your son’s total sleep in an average 24-hour period. Unbroken night sleep is highly dependent on timing, calorie intake, and routines. Some tips for toddler sleep are to add a timer to your bedtime routine to keep him moving through each step, allow him to feel a sense of control by choosing between given options (red or blue pajamas?) and put him in charge of setting and watching the timer (you chose the amount of time per activity). Bring in bedtime cue cards/checklist to teach and remind him how we go to sleep. The biggest change comes when toddlers feel empowered to learn the skills to fall asleep and connect sleep cycles on their own. Sleep training does not have to mean hours of crying when kids are walked through the skills necessary for independent sleep. I wish you the best of luck! Take time for self care and reach out if you need help. <3

  5. When my daughter was 18 months old, we had to stop her from napping. A simple half-hour nap would give her the energy to go 4 more hours at night. I asked the doctor why and he said some kids genetically just don’t need as much sleep. Is depriving a child of a nap during the day fun for parents in the evening? Not at all. But they get used to it and will go to bed tired and sleep through the night.


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