Navigating Toddler Sleep with a Newborn in a Pandemic

toddler boy sleeping

Written by Samantha McClelland

Grab a drink, stay awhile, I am about to dive deep into some of the messy parts of parenting a toddler. 

Over the past six months, our family has seen a lot of transitions, as have most around the world. A global pandemic changed the landscape for many, many families. We went from having full time childcare to taking care of our son while we both worked from home. By the time May rolled around and we delivered our second baby, we were in the throes of a new normal. A new normal of life with two kids, no childcare, and both of us returning to work from home in the future. 

When quarantine and the stay-at-home order had Jack home with us 24/7, we managed to push his nap time later and later, aiming for a 2-4pm nap window. Sometimes he took one, sometimes he refused and would chill out in his crib, and other times he would full-on tantrum for an hour and a half before caving and sleeping. Bedtime routines? Out the window. Late bedtime, movies in our bed, sure, why not. 

There are a million guidebooks out there on sleep training babies. But toddlers? I never even thought to investigate this topic until it I needed advice and needed advice like yesterday. Recently we made the hard decision to send our 2.5-year-old son back to daycare. My husband and I were finishing up maternity and paternity leave and are now both working from home. We made the decision to have our newborn, Lucy, stay home with us for the time being. The two of us knew it was the best decision for our family to have Jack return to school for a consistent routine, social interaction, and the fact that he takes NAPS at school. Something he stopped doing for us right before we brought Lucy home from the hospital. 

Last week my husband went back to work and Jack went back to daycare. I was shocked when we saw how well he was doing at school and they insisted he had no troubles sleeping at nap time. Kid was taking 2+ hour naps (!!!). We could not get Jack to nap if our life depended on it over the weekend and there, he was napping from 12:30pm onward with no issue for his beloved daycare teachers. Over the weekend, he would nap either in the car or just have quiet time with us, as we had simply given up attempting to put him down for a nap, more so because we just didn’t want the battle that we knew would lose (or cave into his demands).

Two weeks ago, we hit a tipping point with one of his worst ever tantrums. It started because one of his action figures was stuck in the kinetic sand and he did not want to dig him out, so he started to throw the sand while I was feeding Lucy.  I told him he could not throw his kinetic sand across the room. Cue epic meltdown. It lasted at least thirty minutes, through bath time, diaper change, pajamas on. Kicking, screaming, hitting the door, falling to the floor, the whole nine yards. The only way we could figure out how to calm him down was turning on my iPhone to a tv show and turning up the volume loud enough to distract him so he could finally take a deep breath and calm down. 

At this point, we let him stay calmly in our bed until he fell asleep and moved him to his bedroom around 9:30pm. After we all fell asleep, we woke up to him screaming in his room. I glanced at the clock, 11:22pm. Almost two hours in and there we were again. Another huge tantrum and every excuse in the book. More water, dirty diaper, food, requests to go downstairs, outside, you name it. There was no reasoning, I tried laying with him and ended up bringing my phone in so he could watch it as I laid next to him with my eyes closed. 

I finally caved and brought him into our bed where he proceeded to stay up until 2:30am! The next morning after another few battles, we got him off to school. I ended up breaking down to my husband and we had some major discussions about what we needed to change to course correct our entire nighttime routine. 

I ended up watching a few highlights dedicated to toddler sleep after asking my mama community on Instagram from SweetBSleep (she has Instagram posts, some highlights, and an IGTV on the topic labeled, “Ages 2+”). I would say she was a bit more in-your-face and blunter than Taking Cara Babies, but in a way, I needed her to be in her recommendations. 

To summarize, we, as the parents, needed to take ownership in routines we had set up for Jack that led to this behavior during bedtime and naptime. We enabled Jack to tantrum, talk his way out of naps, get extra screen time. Again, I recognize that we were in survival mode for the last six months, but now that we had a grip on Lucy’s sleep, returning to work, it was time to turn things around. 

There is no secret sauce for toddler sleep. We just needed to provide routine and boundaries for Jack to operate in, so he knows that we mean business, even if that means letting him cry it out and fall asleep next to his door. I know a lot of sleep experts say to keep toddlers in their bed if you can help it, or even buying a cheap crib if you are reusing one for a new baby. That just was not in the cards for us, we had committed to transitioning Jack into his twin bed and baby-proofed his room to allow this to happen (the door lock is key…he can’t twist the door knob from the inside to come into our room). 

Our new routine incorporates both tips from SweetBSleep and BigLittleFeelings. We have started talking and prepping Jack for what is to come in the evening. We state out loud to him that we will eat dinner, have some quiet wind down time, then it’s upstairs to brush teeth, take a bath (every few nights), change diaper, read books, then bedtime. 

The transition from quiet playtime to getting upstairs is tricky. This is where BigLittleFeelings recommends the timer trick. We set a five-minute timer on the iPhone and have him hit start and stop. All the while we continually talk through what is coming during the next transition. 

My husband has completely taken over Jack’s bedtime routine so I can focus on Lucy’s bedtime routine. This has helped because Jack is getting one-on-one attention from one parent while the other is handling the second child. I attempted night two of this routine while juggling both kids, and it was freaking hard. I had to step outside because he had an hour-long tantrum and fell asleep at the door. I did not want to go in and soothe him because it would have started the tantrum right over. I had to hold my own boundaries (and even shed a few tears) because I knew what we were trying to implement was going to be worth it. 

A few other changes we made were making sure to get outside to get the wiggles out after we get home from daycare pick up. We had been going on walks after dinner and before bed, but that was too much physical stimulation to wind down from. Now we focus on more mentally exhausting activities before bed such as puzzles or Magnatiles. The biggest change is no screen time (if we can help it) at night while Jack is still awake. 

We also started eating back at our dining room table as a family with no phones at the table. Dinner can be a battle because Jack can be a picky eater when he wants to be, but that is a battle for another day. Previously we had gotten used to eating in the living room, with Jack at his IKEA table while we watched a movie.  

We have been doing this new “routine” for a few weeks, and for the most part, it is working. He’s sleeping by 8pm instead of 9pm or 10pm, other than putting PJs on and changing his diaper, there is no correlation between his bedtime routine and anything related to our bedroom (he used to snuggle with us and sometimes fall asleep in our bed when we were desperate, and would watch a movie with us or get iPad time before bed). 

We’ve had a few nights where one of us has gone in there when he’s woken up in the middle of the night and we have snuggled with him to get him to go back to sleep but I would say we are in a much better position than when we started. We are not perfect and are not holding to what others are saying so tightly, as we know there is some fluidity to happen as we all figure out these transitions. Also, in full transparency, we still do screen time, usually now in the mornings on the weekend or before school. We all have to do what we need to survive (with a newborn), especially during these unprecedented times. 

This long-winded story of our toddler sleep journey is still a work in progress, but I just want to share our story with you if you happen to be in the same boat!


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