Sorry, this is a little long...
My 2 yo (32 months) DS co-slept exclusively, until he was 25 months old and just about weaned. We then moved him in with his brother, who is exactly 2 years older. He sleeps on the bottom bunk, which is on the floor. He was pretty ok with this move. He gets in bed with me in the morning, and we still rest in the afternoon together, although he just dropped his nap.
In the past 2-3 months, he has had a really hard time with staying in his bed. He goes to sleep just fine, independently, happily. Somewhere in the middle of the night, he would come in crying. DH (does all the nightime parenting!) would bring him back to bed. Then DS stopped coming in crying, and just crept in quietly, and get in bed with us. I would wake up with him there, having no memory of it happening! Now, over the past month or so, he has been waking up hysterical, sobbing and screaming. He doesn't calm down until he is in my arms. He is gasping for air, shaking. Last night, he said he didn't like the dark, which he has never said before. Their room is dim, but not even close to dark. He has his special blanket, special stuffed animals etc with him.
The thing is, we cannot co-sleep. I work from 8pm-2am at night, and in general, get 4-5 hours a night. With DS dropping nap, I am struggling. DS is a restless sleeper, tossing, turning, talking in his sleep. If DH works on getting him back to bed, I am awake the whole time. Most nights, I am getting 4-5 hours of very interrupted sleep. I can't function on that or drive back and forth to work safely.
What can we do? How can I help him with what seem to be nightmares? How can we gently work towards him sleeping through in his own bed? He is very articulate and also, very stubborn. For example, we have tried stickers, special surprises in the morning etc, but he isn't motivated for them. He likes getting them, but doesn't care in the moment.
I went through the same thing with my son at that age. He would go to bed fine, then wake up screaming hysterically in the night, and was inconsolable even in my arms. His fits would sometimes go on for 20-30 mins and happened at least 3-4 nights a week. My dr. concluded that it was night terrors caused by sleep deprivation; he has never been a good sleeper and was dropping his nap most days at this time as well. I had to resort to sending him to daycare an extra morning a week because he would nap there, and then driving him around in the car the other days to get him to go to sleep. I know that this is certainly not an ideal, or do-able, solution for everyone, but after a month or so of this, the night terrors settled down and was able to tolerate not having naps. They went away almost completely after about 2 mths.
I hope this helps. Good luck.
My son had nightmares around that age. Woke up but not 100% awake. Clearly upset but would NOT tell me what the nightmare was (usually).
Tried every mode of comforting. Nothing calmed him except time. I would hold him and he'd cry. I'd ask if he wanted me to leave. He'd say no.
I said I would leave if he didn't stop crying - he'd tell me not to leave, but could NOT stop crying.
It was heartbreaking.
I don't know if we had 100% success, but what often worked was 'jarring' him completely awake. I started offering him (or just bringing it if he was too out of it to ask) a glass of water or milk. I think the interaction and the sensation helped pull him into 'reality'. Once he got fully out of the feeling of the nightmare he was able to accept comforting and get back to sleep.
So my thought would be to try something like that if possible. When that didn't work I'd just hold him till he fell back asleep :(