Sleep training a toddler
Babies are notorious for keeping their parents up at night but what happens when your toddler starts holding you to ransom?
The problem began when my two-year-old son started waking in the small hours of the morning. I would bring him into our bed and we’d drift back to sleep together. I’m not going to lie to you – I loved it. There was nothing better than waking up with his little body, heaving quietly in slumber beside me. But night by night he began calling out earlier and earlier.
Soon I found myself trudging zombie-like to his room to get him whenever he started shouting. He’d lie between me and my husband, tossing, turning, snorting and stretching his little body in unlikely ways to occupy maximum bed space.
My husband and I soon fell into a miserable cycle of sleeping badly, waking up angry, making poor decisions, acting irrationally and arguing about whose fault it was. Sam blamed me for getting us into this position, I blamed him for not coming up with a better idea.
In fact, he had come up with an idea. He suggested that when Winston started calling out we should go into his room, tell him to knock it off and then go back to bed and fall asleep. Theoretically this plan sounded solid but I just couldn’t stomach it. I couldn’t lie in bed listening to Winston shouting, crying and pleading for a cuddle without feeling wretched. And although I knew it would only be a few nights of pain for long term gain, there was just never a night where that seemed appealing. After four years of broken sleep caused by both him and his older sister my brain was in short-term survival mode.
So I came up with a ‘better’ plan and called baby-sleep consultant Emma Purdue.
Emma told me that the original problem of early wake-ups was a common one and could be resolved. Hooray!
First, she wanted to make sure that there weren’t any external factors contributing to the problem. What was his diet like; how long were his day sleeps; was he warm enough at night?
Once we’d fine-tuned things, we moved on to phase two: settling strategies.
Emma suggested that we could either try ‘gradual withdrawal’ (staying in the room) or ‘extinction’ (staying out). Finding an approach that suits the temperament of both parents and child, said Emma, is the key to success. Extinction was likely to be the most efficient way to resolve the problem, but I knew that with his ability to shout and my inability to cope with it, this probably wasn’t going to work. We opted for gradual withdrawal.
Phase three: Emma suggested a nice way to reassure Winston about the process was to do a little role play with one of his toys at bedtime. That night I made a great show of saying good night to his baby doll, tucking her into her bed and telling her that I’d see her in the morning. Then I went out and came back a few seconds later and heaped praise on her for staying in her bed all night. Winston regarded the exercise with deep suspicion and then, uncharacteristically, took over an hour to get off to sleep.
Phase four: I placed a cushion near his cot to demarcate the spot where I would sit when he called out during the night. Here I would stay, periodically offering verbal reassurance but not coming any closer. Over the next few nights my cushion and I would move progressively towards the door until the joyous day when we were both surplus to night-time requirements.
At 1am the next morning, when he started rattling the bars of his cot, my plan swung into action. He cried while I sat on my cushion and periodically said ‘lie down, darling’ in a reassuring voice. After about 30 minutes he heaved a dejected sigh and assumed the horizontal position. I waited till he was fully asleep then crept back to comfort. He slept in till 7am!
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one week, the next night he slept through! I felt delighted and embarrassed in equal measure. Why didn’t I do this years ago?
Then Emma warned us about what’s called ‘the extinction burst’. This is where after a few nights of improvement the child has one last hurrah and regresses to the original behaviour.
Sure enough, I was back and forwards to my cushion repeatedly over the next three nights. I had moved it further away but I couldn’t quite seem to break the pattern.
On the fourth night, I caved. When I woke up with him next to me in the morning it was worse than rolling over and remembering a one night stand. “Now I’m back to square one,” I moaned to Emma.
Emma was positive – it was just a hiccup, we could get back on track. She suggested that we might still have been doing too much when we went in and that we needed to keep interaction in those times to a bare minimum.
I blamed my husband – I’m sure I heard him chatting to Winston one night. She also said that in my eagerness to get back to bed I might have been leaving the room before he was fully asleep. Emma told me to stay right by the door, grab a pillow and a blanket so I was comfy and settle in for the long haul. I could sing quietly so he’d know I was there but nothing more.
We modified our strategy, and slowly, over the next few nights, it worked.
For us, having a wise and experienced third party to guide us made all the difference. It’s difficult to stick to a plan when it’s just one you concocted yourself in desperation. And it definitely helps two parents with different ideas to stay consistent.
Winston still periodically calls out but he’s generally satisfied with an extra tuck in instead. We are happily taking sleep for granted once again.
By Nicky Dewe
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