Sleep & Nap Issues: A Toddler's Sleep Dilemma Solved

Hi Dr. Heather, I have a sleep question regarding my 11-month-old. Since he was 5 months, he successfully fell asleep in his crib after our nightly routine, and woke 2 or fewer times to nurse. Similarly with naps. We do not use any type of music or white noise when putting him to sleep.

We have always had a music box in his crib. We usually turn this on when we put him in the crib for "safe keeping" while we wash our hands after a diaper change. We do not use it for sleep.

In the last 2 weeks or so, we have noticed he frequently uses the music box. Now when we put him down, he will get up less than a minute later and turn on the music box. Sometimes he will play with it for a few minutes (turning it off and on) - but eventually he will usually lay down and fall asleep. We have noticed him using it in the middle of the night as well - sometimes letting it play out then turning it back on again. (Usually this is after I have gone in due to his crying and put him back down again).

Putting him down for naps has been a struggle this past 6 weeks or so, and the last 2 weeks he has been playing with the music box during naps, sometimes falling asleep, sometimes crying after he is done playing and defiantly not going to fall asleep anytime soon. (about 60/40).

Okay, so all that to ask: Is this okay? I do not want my baby dependent on a lighted music box to fall asleep, and I do not want him playing in the middle of the night. But, if this is how he "self-soothes" . . . Will this become a dependency problem or will he grow to not need the music box? Should we let this continue as he chooses or should we turn off the music box or do we need to remove it from his crib? What do you think?

Thank You, Angie

Dear Angie,

Thanks for your question! You're not the only one to wonder about this; our 3rd baby used to do the same thing, with a very similar music box. We'd be asleep late at night, then all of a sudden we'd hear that familiar tune coming from his room. What the heck? We'd wonder. Our little guy was in there, happily rolling around, very pleased that he'd turned on the music all by himself.

At first we worried that we'd have to take out the music box, since we didn't want him to be up and playing, late at night. Then I realized...Hey, instead of crying for me at midnight, he's entertaining himself. This is a good thing, right? I left him alone in there and sure enough, he'd fall asleep on his own after awhile.

Because the overall drift of our parenting goals is to support them in being independent, as soon as they are ready. And babies and toddlers DO normally still frequently waken at night, it's just an issue for us when we have to get up too to help them get back to sleep. But if they're handling it on their own? That's a good thing. I also recall that the late-night-music-party was a short phase. The excitement ran out after awhile and then we were on to the next dilemma.

And now that your little guy is approaching toddlerhood, you're going to get a lot more testing along these lines. The nap issue is always going to be there, in one form or another, through toddlerhood. The music-box thing is only his first effort to avoid naps. Most toddlers go through phases where they're really good at napping, and then take a stab at trying to stay awake. Let your expectations be known, urge him to nap, but don't get too worked up about it. He'll make up for any lost sleep at night, or when he's done testing you with that particular phase.

But I also hear that you're concerned about being consistent as a parent, and not wanting to send him mixed messages. Listen: Don't worry. It sounds to me as if you're trying to be very consistent, and all you can really do is send a general message of what you expect from him. There is a lot of parenting advice out there that says you need to be consistent to a fault. I don't agree with that. These are people we're talking about! And rigidity is never a good approach in dealing with people, large or small. We have to be flexible as well as consistent, as our kids think up all sorts of new wrinkles to throw at us.

I, too, used to over-worry about the importance of being perfectly consistent, until my mentor suggested that I lighten up. "A habit isn't a habit until it IS a habit," she told me. In other words, you're trying to be consistent in order to instill a sense of structure, predictability, and behavioral expectations. But you can do that by being generally consistent; it doesn't have to be a 100% effort. I promise: You're allowed to be flexible -- I even strongly SUGGEST that you're flexible. It offers a good model to our kids that we can consider new situations and not be rigid about them. Consider every new situation afresh, THEN make your decision.

So next time you hear that familiar music drifting out of your son's room late at night, try to let the music calm YOU back to sleep too. Your baby is getting bigger, and soon he'll be getting into bis "big boy bed", and then you'll have reason to worry about new things...wandering in the night, monsters, and everything that goes along with THAT phase. So enjoy this time when he's still captive in his crib!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink