It had been three years since we had slept.
Slight exaggeration, but not by much.
Our son had held a reign of terror at night time since he was a month old. Despite my close reading of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Weissbluth (the sleep bible that everyone tells you to get if you mention your baby’s sleep issues) when my son was a newborn, his severe reflux and food allergy issues kept us from instilling those “habits” early on.
Despite later sleep training (yes, the controversial — but not really — cry it out), followed by some good weeks or months of sleep once we learned the real reason he (or any baby) wouldn’t sleep through the night. Despite help from our pediatrician and from sleep consultants. Despite my purchase of every sleep book published in the last 20 years. Despite ill-fated attempts at co-sleeping. Despite all of this, we always ended up back at square one. Constant ear infections, other viruses, travel, anything! would eliminate any progress.
And we still hadn’t met the Mother of All Toddler Sleep Destroyers: the transition from the crib to the toddler bed.
That fateful evening started out as a normal night. After a bedtime battle of average length, we thought our son was settling in to stay asleep. My husband and I were in our bedroom, discussing what we should pack for our trip to Florida in a few days.
Then we heard it. Thud. We looked at each other in horror. He had climbed out of the crib for the first time. Seconds later a very small boy dashed into our room with a huge smile on his face, delighted by what he had discovered he could do. And do again and again. That night we made a panicked crib to bed transition. My husband got out his tool box and took down the crib.
From that day on, things became unbearable. He would not stay in the crib. Eventually we took to sitting with him in a chair in his room until he fell deeply asleep. Every time he woke up — sometimes several times per night — that process would need to be repeated. My husband or I would spend long portions of the night asleep ourselves (uncomfortably) in that chair. And to top it off the misery, he was now completely refusing to nap during the day.
Eventually, I contacted Alanna McGinn, a pediatric sleep coach and owner of the Good Night Sleep Site. I had met her online, when she had given me a few helpful sleep suggestions on my Facebook page. My husband, son, and I couldn’t function like this indefinitely, particularly since I was now in my first trimester of pregnancy and desperately tired and sick from those early weeks.
Because my son was so resistant to falling asleep on his own, alone in his room, she developed a plan that involved one of us sitting in a chair in the room and gradually moving further and further away from his bed. We tried that, and we made a little progress.
Until the dreaded hand foot and mouth disease. For several nights he was up, screaming in pain from the huge sores in his mouth, dozens of times per night. After the illness was over, things were once again worse than before. Bedtime might take hours. He might spend hours of the night, wide awake with us in his room.
This time we followed Alanna’s quicker approach. We got a gate (and then a lock for his door). On that first night, we explained what was happening to our son, that the gate was there to help him to sleep better on his own. We again showed him how his new toddler sleep clock works. We went through his normal bedtime routine. And then locked him in. We established non-negotiable limits: he was staying in his room and we were not. End of story. We did gradual checks — first at three minutes, then five, and then seven and so on. He fell asleep after about an hour of intense screaming. The next night it was closer to a half an hour. The next night it was ten minutes. And then soon he wasn’t crying at all.
Now bedtime is easy. He climbs into bed by himself after his last book (always “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site“), gets a few big kisses before we leave the room, and falls asleep in a few minutes. He doesn’t wake up during the night anymore. (Or, rather, he puts himself back to sleep on his own when he does.)
Let me tell you: It is bliss. It is life-changing. It is a miracle.
He’s still not napping. But that’s okay. We’ll take it.
If your toddler’s sleep habits are impacting your family’s life, here are my humble tips for you:
1. Don’t put off what needs to be done. There will always be an excuse for why you should put off teaching your baby or kid better sleep habits: He’s getting over a cold. He’s had a bad week at preschool. Your mother-in-law will be visiting soon. It’s almost the holidays. In my experience, sleep problems don’t just magically disappear. Your child will keep waking up all night until you tackle the real issue that’s keeping him from sleep through the night.
2. More gradual and “gentler” approaches can be often harder on everyone. It took us a while to learn this one. For many parents (particularly moms) first facing sleep challenges, their main goal — other than to get their kid to sleep — is to prevent crying. Even though I knew the unequivocal research that a few nights of crying will do absolutely nothing to hurt a kid’s development or his attachment to his caregivers, the thought of listening to my son scream made me crazy. So I often opted first for the “gentler” and gradual approach. And when it didn’t work or it stretched out all of our misery for weeks, we always ended up using more drastic methods. In short, it’s like the difference between ripping off a bandaid or trying to pull it off slowly, gently, and progressively.
3. Establish firm limits. One would think that after more than a decade and a half of teaching students from the elementary grades to college, I would be better at recognizing how crucial limit-setting is. Not the case. My own child’s whining, pleading, screaming, tantrums drives me to distraction, and I forget everything that I know about positive discipline, routines, and boundaries. For me, I’ve learned that I need to pick my battles, work on one or two areas at a time. Right now, sleep is one of them. As Tovah Klein, my new “Toddler Whisperer” and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success, states, “Setting limits actually builds children’s trust.” Bedtime is now a comforting, predictable, and happy time for my son.
4. Get help. Don’t let months or years go by before you reach out to someone to get a fresh perspective about what’s going on. It’s easy to start thinking that no one will understand how difficult sleep challenges are, that everyone else’s kids are better sleepers than yours. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that you know your child best and no one else can help. You might even be embarrassed about how bad the situation has become. You might be frustrated about all the contradictory information in sleep books. Trust me. You’re not alone. Talk to your pediatrician. Reach out to your friends and relatives, and listen to their own stories. Join a Facebook group, like Alanna’s, and listen to other parents’ perspectives.
This weekend my son started potty training. And now we’re onto another challenge….
What’s been your biggest toddler sleep challenge? How did you handle it? What advice would you give other parents?
For more on toddler sleep problems, read my posts “What Do You Do When Your Toddler Suddenly Stops Sleeping?” and “The Real Reason Why Your Kid Won’t Sleep Through the Night”
More recommended resources, with an emphasis on toddler sleep (books that I love and have turned to over and over)
- The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep-Newborn t o School Age (my new absolute favorite baby/child sleep book!)
- Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep (by the wonderful Jodi Mindell)
- The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5
Our new book is available now!