Go Back to Sleep! Advice from Dr. JJ Levenstein


Take Back the Night - A Guide to Getting Your Toddler Back to Sleep! From the moment our first babies are born, we respond to every cry and squawk with parental love and attention, because it’s in us. Face it. And babies NEED us.

But when our angels start to manipulate us, especially at night, it’s sheer exhaustion.

So essentially from day one, our babies become the boss of us. Why does that happen? Out of necessity we must 100% meet our babies needs in those first few months. By 4-6 months they are intelligent enough to know how to use their cries very specifically when they need us – and they do, brilliantly.

It’s no wonder that they push back when we start to put up boundaries to protect them, say no, and all of a sudden have to become the boss of them! It’s the reason why toddlers sometimes cry and protest excessively – these rules, gates, boundaries and no’s weren’t asked for…..but are necessary to help structure their days and keep them safe.

And as those little tots get a little bigger and bolder, they pull out their old bag of tricks and start MANIPULATING to get their way. During daylight hours we can usually handle it and re-direct their attention…but at night, it’s brutal.

I certainly experienced this with my son Max. I was a resident in the hospital 16 hours a day, barely saw him in the light of day, and when he showed up standing on the side of my bed every night at 2 am breathing in my face, waiting for an invite, I said yes. I didn’t have the energy to sleep train him when I had to get up in four hours.

So how do we break this cycle with our little tykes?

Based on years of doing this here’s what works best.

  • Make sure your little one is healthy--no ear infections, etc.
  • Make a PLAN, stick to it and share the plan – alternate who gets the duty each night to walk your angel back to bed.
    1. Make sure your child naps every day, without fail. A toddler who doesn’t nap goes into sleep overtired, overly wired, and fails to enter deeper phases of sleep.
    2. Don’t keep your toddler up too late. Since most kids are up at the crack of dawn, a 7pm bedtime is very appropriate – even if one parent isn’t home.
    3. Start dinner earlier, and after meal a soothing bath. NO MEDIA--quiet play dials down that active brain.
    4. As you are starting your bedtime routine, tell your toddler what is going to happen – you are going to have dinner, a bath, a book, two kisses and lights off. You might be a little sad when we leave the room, but we’ll kiss you awake in the morning. If you get out of bed when it is dark, one of us will walk you back to bed and tuck you in.
    5. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES give in to wishes for attention, milk, more books, water, playing, videos, etc. That secondary gain is the reason night waking often happens. Walk your tot back to bed without saying anything, tuck him in and walk out.
    6. Repeat.
  • Don’t give in.
    1. Make a big deal the next morning if he was successful. Point out how happy everyone is when they slept well! Encourage him for the next night…and stick to your plan.
    2. If your child wants his book to be an encyclopedia, don’t give in either. Get a small hourglass that counts down to 5 minutes – tell your tot when all the sand is at the bottom, it’s time for two kisses and lights out. It’s a concrete and sure way to end the routine.
    3. Hang in…he loves you so much and doesn’t realize the toll this takes on you…so you and your partner have to take back bedtime and take back the night.

JJ3BIO: Dr. JJ Levenstein has spent the last 30 years caring for children. She received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, graduated summa cum laude with a second undergraduate degree from Duke University, and completed training as a Physician Assistant with a specialty in Pediatrics at Norwalk Hospital/Yale University. After serving as a Pediatric PA for 5 years, she was accepted at the Keck School of Medicine at USC and completed her internship and residency at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. There she was acknowledged as the outstanding pediatric intern, and was also recognized as one of the top three graduating residents in her class. While in private practice, she was voted one of the Best Doctors in America® 2004 through her retirement in 2012 and recognized as one of the top pediatricians in her community.

Dr. JJ continues as a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and continues to be committed to promoting infant and child health by serving as an educational and media speaker and is also a regular contributor to several parenting websites. Since 2013 she has appeared as a regular medical expert on Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family television show, and leads the Food Allergy Awareness Committee for the National Peanut Board.