My son is 17 months old and has always slept pretty well on his own, until the last three weeks. He goes to sleep fine on his own but wakes up about 12:30 AM every night crying. It's not his usual cry but a very scared-sounding cry. When I go in there to soothe him he grabs onto my arms for dear life and won't let go or lay back down.
I work full-time and unfortunately have been taking him back to bed with me to get some sleep. I have tried letting him cry it out but he has cried for over an hour and I have finally given in. When I wake up in the morning he is fine about going back to his crib and sleeping by himself. I don't know what to do and I am so very tired because of this. Do you have any advice?
These sound like either night terrors or night awakenings but I can't tell from the information you gave which they are, so I will describe both.
Night terrors occur mostly in toddlers and preschoolers. Like sleepwalking and sleeptalking, they are a parasomnia, or an event that happens while the child is really still asleep.
Typically, a few hours after falling asleep, children cry out in terror, often thrashing about, and sometimes claiming to be seeing scary objects. Because they aren't awake, though their eyes are open, they can't be consoled and don't acknowledge their parents with clear recognition. In the morning, there is never any memory of the event.
Night terrors are distressing to parents, but there is nothing more to do other than offer comfort. Though they can occur several times in a row, night terrors don't drag on for months and months, nor do they indicate that a child is in any way troubled.
One suggestion is to awaken your son 15 minutes or so before the terrors usually start. This disrupts the sleep cycle and prevents him from heading into the phase of sleep in which the night terrors occur.
If, on the other hand, your son clearly recognizes and responds to you, this is a behavioral sleep issue, and a very common one. In this situation, the more often you respond to your son's demands for your presence, the more frequently he will demand it and for longer stretches. The remedy is to break the cycle and teach him to expect to get back to sleep on his own. The solution is some variation on the cry it out method, even if it is to wait longer periods before reassuring him (with only your voice) each night. Most methods advocate waiting ten minutes the first night and adding on ten more minutes each night. It's tough for some parents to do, especially when they have to work in the morning, but this usually works for most families within one week.