Sleep and Us: A Long Road

Annabelle has always disliked going to sleep, and she comes by this honestly. Staying up late was one of my favorite things to do as a child and, as much as I love feeling rested, I still have a hard time shutting down virtually every single night. There’s always so much I want to do! Parenthood has changed this slightly, making me value sleep much more and work a bit harder to get it. Still, I stay up longer than I probably should on a regular basis.

As a newborn, Annabelle almost always nursed to sleep. When she was a few months old, she started nursing almost to sleep, and then unlatching and letting out a wail before settling right in to sleep in my arms. It was almost as though she was saying, “I’m going to go to sleep now, but I’m not happy about it!” She always went to sleep somewhat late at night and slept in each morning, which was perfectly fine for me. Left to our own devices, the husband and I are both  natural night owls, and it seemed that she would be, too. 

Like a typical newborn, she napped on the go quite easily and this continued throughout her first six or seven months. I enjoyed this flexibility and took advantage of it by meeting friends for lunches and outings and enjoying myself while Annabelle napped in the sling when she was ready and woke up refreshed, rested, and ready to enjoy our friends a bit more. Sometime around eight or nine months, however, I began to notice that she was not napping as well while out, and the lack of quality rest showed on our busier days. I had to change our normal routine a bit and let friends know that if they wanted to get together, we had to wrap things up by noon so that I could get Annabelle home for a nap.

With this small change, she got into a groove of napping relatively well daily and, still nursing to sleep each night, she seemed to be getting adequate rest overall. Sometime between twelve and eighteen months, however, this changed. She was having a hard time getting to sleep for a nap, and often woke up after only twenty minutes or so, which was clearly not enough sleep for her. At bedtime, she was fighting sleep and often ended up awake until much later than was good for her. I became frustrated and exhausted and so, it seemed, did she. 

I tried all of the commonly suggested things: a perfectly consistent and predictable routine, music, no music, rocking, no rocking, completely darkened windows, lavender essential oil on the pillow to help her relax, etc. I saw little improvement. I read The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and decided I would also open my mind and choose a book somewhere closer to the center on the spectrum of parenting styles, for balance. I ended up in a rage throughout most of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, but I read it through and tried to keep an open mind anyway.

The one suggestion I had heard several times, and completely dismissed, was that children need to go to sleep early – as early as 6pm in some cases. Some children are just “night owls,” I insisted. As long as they sleep an appropriate number of hours, it shouldn’t matter when those hours start and end. I was willing to try anything, however, and I shifted our schedule to try for a bedtime between six and seven pm. I was ready to prove myself right and the so-called sleep experts wrong. I knew my kid was a night owl. It was in her genes! Wrong. Out of every piece of advice I tried, this made the biggest difference. At this point, things really started to improve.

Annabelle was eighteen months old and we were just settling into this new schedule when some family came to visit for a few days. I made some exceptions for the occasion and we spent an afternoon at the beach, missing nap and only catching a few minutes of sleep in the car. We visited in the evening and bedtime came late. This was when Annabelle had her first, and so far her last, night terror. It was one of the most terrifying things I had experienced as a parent. She woke up, screaming, and for the life of me I could not comfort her. For what felt like an eternity, she screamed: “NO, NO, NO!” and writhed about, not letting me touch her1. She refused to nurse. I felt powerless, and scared.

This changed everything. It was a huge wake-up call for me. Sleep is hugely important, and in order to get adequate rest, my child needed consistency. Up until that night, we occasionally had dinners with friends and got Annabelle to bed later than I knew to be best. I had to admit that this wasn’t the best idea, and again talk to our friends about how we could enjoy time together without sacrificing quality sleep for Annabelle. We do make the occasional exception, but try to make those times few and far between.

These changes helped a great deal, but as Annabelle has gotten older, nursing has lost its magical sleep-inducing powers, and we have struggled with the bedtime routine. It was taking an awfully long time for Annabelle to settle in and fall asleep for the night, and she was used to always having me by her side as she did so. I was really losing my patience with this. I love time with her, but after a full day of caring for her by myself, having her flop around and on and over me, jabbing me with knees and elbows all the while, was not a good way to say goodnight.

Another thing that turned out to be a huge help, even if only by creating a mental shift for me, was realizing that it’s not my job to put my child to sleep. All I can do is set her up for success by creating an environment that is conducive to sleep, and support her as she gets there. I can’t make her sleep. She has her own process and, just as in an adult, it’s unique to her. It’s simply not realistic, I have come to admit, to expect her to sack out within five minutes like I do. She’s not me, after all.

When I got pregnant again, Annabelle was twenty months old and we started examining all of our routines as we prepared for life with two children. I knew that the first thing we needed to change was the bedtime routine. We started by working to help Annabelle night wean, and have since made a series of small changes in an effort to arrive at a manageable routine that not only meets Annabelle’s needs, but meets ours as well.

Each change has been preceded by a short and sweet conversation with Annabelle, where I explain to her that, “We’re going to try doing things a little differently tonight…” Once we were settled after night weaning, the next change was for me to move out of the bed at bedtime. We kept our bedtime routine the same, but instead of snuggling Annabelle to sleep and tiptoeing out when she finally drifted off, I started tucking her in, and sitting by the bed with a book and a booklight while she did her thing. Using this relaxation cd, recommended by the fabulous Zoie, helped with this shift.

This helped tremendously, as it not only freed me from the feeling of being pinned down by a wonderful, but flopping, and slow to fall asleep toddler, but it also made it easy for The Daddy to become an equal partner in the bedtime routine. We started truly splitting the evening tasks between us, and found that we had much more time to relax in the evenings. We traded off, and each night one of us would read with Annabelle, tuck her in, and sit by her bedside while the other would clean up and wash the dishes from dinner. By the time we were both finished, we were truly both finished and could wind down before heading to bed ourselves. This felt good, and for the first time – balanced.

My plan was to use some of the suggestions I had read in The No Cry Sleep Solution to move toward a scenario where we could go through our usual sleep routine, but tuck Annabelle in and leave the room, allowing her to fall asleep on her own. I didn’t expect this to happen overnight, but planned to start stepping out on errands for short periods once she was comfortable with the way we had been doing things. The idea was to excuse myself to go to the bathroom, check something in the kitchen, and so on, giving Annabelle a chance to slowly adjust to not having me right next to the bed. If this didn’t work, a similar approach was to move my chair a bit more each night, until it was no longer in the room at all, again giving Annabelle time to adjust to less and less of my physical presence.

Last week, however, I realized that this was not working. The reason Annabelle takes so long to fall asleep is because she has a hard time settling down and shutting off at night. She’s always thinking, always talking. Coming in and out of the room was far too disruptive, and if I moved away, she was far too distracted by the idea that I was there, but she couldn’t keep me in her sight, to settle down. I let go of the idea of either approach working, and decided to try yet another approach that I was sure would fail.

I told Annabelle that it was my job to make sure she got plenty of rest so that she could be strong and healthy. I also told her that I trusted her, and knew she could go to sleep without my help. I explained that I needed to go out of the room so that I could let her sleep, that I would be in the kitchen doing my work and getting ready for bed. I promised to check on her, and I reminded her that I would be right beside her when she woke up in the morning. This I tried out of desperation, certain that it would not work. I expected her to begin wailing the moment I closed the door. She didn’t.

She did climb out of bed, and come out of the room within about ten seconds. I picked her up, hugged her, and tucked her back in. Ten seconds later, she was back at the door. We repeated this process a dozen or so times until finally she stayed in bed and, eventually, fell asleep on her own. The next night was similar. I reminded her of the new routine, stepped out, and she followed shortly after. I stayed near the door so that I could carry her back to bed as many times as necessary, and eventually she went to sleep. The next night, she only came out twice. Ever since then, she has taken to calling me in repeatedly, for anything she can think of, instead of coming out. She’ll ask me to clip off one of her nails, to change the song on the ipod, to go with her to the bathroom, or to give her a hug.

It’s important to me that this process be loving and respectful, and that Annabelle know we’re not just closing the door and abandoning her, so each time she calls, I come. Some requests, I grant – especially the requests for a hug or a “snuggle.” Others, I let her know I’m happy to do tomorrow. Each night, this gets a little bit easier. Tonight she called me in twice, came out once, and was asleep within forty five minutes, which for her is really quite quick.

I can’t even describe how good it feels to have arrived at this solution. I feel like it’s truly trusting and respecting of Annabelle, and it’s meeting her needs in a way that nothing else we have tried in recent months has done. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all solution that would work for every child, but I can see it working for ours. She needs sleep, and to get sleep, she needs quiet and minimal distractions. She does need to feel safe, supported, and loved, but she does not need me to sit right beside her and make sleep happen for her. This feels like the best of both worlds: space, with support.

It may be completely unrelated to the bedtime change, but nap has been smoother and more consistent since we shifted to this new routine as well. As long as we’re in bed by a certain time, she is falling asleep almost every afternoon, and waking up looking and behaving like a child who is well-rested. It took us an awfully long time to get here, and I’m sure we’ll find that we have to adjust again as time goes on, but I’m finally feeling good about this!

Does sleep come easily in your house, or has it been a challenge? What are your favorite resources on infant and toddler sleep? How do you do bedtime? Please share so that we can all learn from one another!

  1. I know now that touching or otherwise attempting to soothe a child having a night terror is not helpful. All you can really do is wait it out.

22 thoughts on “Sleep and Us: A Long Road

  1. Talia's Travel Blog

    Such a nice post. My daughter (at 3.5) still takes up to an hour to fall asleep. I was also really worried about transitioning her out of our bed and night weaning before baby #2, but we managed the whole transition from co-sleeping and nursing to sleep to sleeping in her own room in her own crib (granted, our apartment is tiny so her crib is only about 14 feet from the foot of our bed and we keep all the doors open) in under a week. We did it by having my husband sleep on the floor next to her crib for the first week so she didn’t feel alone. I was also surprised at how much better she slept once she was alone. We basically went from 2-4 night wakings per night when cosleeping to only waking up once in under a week. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from cosleeping with #2 who wakes up at least twice a night.

    Two things that helped us a lot were putting plenty of books and a water bottle within her reach.

    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad we’re not the only ones with a child who takes her time in falling asleep. It has taken me awhile to realize this is just how she works, and we’re not doing something “wrong” – we just have to trust her process, and of course help her start it early :)

      It sounds like you have found a groove that works well for your family – those are great tips!

  2. Amy

    AHHHHHHH! Bedtime! Keeping a very predictable time works best for us also. Additionally, I believe that it helps us “strive for balance” as this is the only part of the day that is Mama and Daddy time. Beyond that tip, who knows??? What I have realized recently, though, is that I have to be absolutely know what I believe. For example, I’ve been getting frustrated this week because Q-ball pretty much always nurses to sleep once she awakes from her initial sleep (meaning- sometimes when she first goes to sleep, I can just rub her back, but for night wakings pretty much always nursing…challenging NCSS’s theory…)
    During the past week, I’ve gotten so frustrated because we’ve had some hourly wakings again, and there have been times when she will start fussing/screaming once I unlatch her and try to put her down, although she was clearly asleep. I was thinking, “You are 13 months old!!! I know that you don’t always need to suck to stay asleep! And, I’m so freakin’ tired!” It’s times like these that I start to get frustrated and wonder, “should she nurse asleep? Is that why this is happening? Should I try NCSS again?” But, then I have to take a deeeeeeeeeeeep breath and think (or sometimes say out loud) “I believe it is ok and normal for a child to nurse to sleep.” I often repeat over and over. It calms me and somehow reassures me that I’m doing the best thing for my child. I know that I’m providing the comfort she needs at the time.
    But, soon it will have to end! And, I love your tips- I’m sure I’ll need to use them and many others when the time comes!

    1. melissa Post author

      Yes, yes, yes! That balance is so important! I feel like a different person when I get that opportunity to wind down with my husband, or even just on my own, at night.

      “Knowing what you believe” is crucial, too! There have been so many times I was just plain exhausted with the song and dance of trying to get Annabelle to relax and rest, and I could absolutely see why some parents would want to just close the door, walk out, and let the child figure it out. Taking a deep breath and reminding myself *why* we had chosen to do things differently was so important. “I believe it is ok and normal for a child to nurse to sleep.” – that one sustained me on many a night, too!

  3. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry

    My Jesse and your Annabelle sound so similar. For Jess, there are so many better things to be doing rather than sleeping. I have found that an earlier bedtime helped Jess too, and I too was convinced that it wouldn’t help, and yet it did. I also find the more sleep he has, the easier naps and bedtimes become. Its when he gets over tired that everything becomes a nightmare. Recently our trip to Cape Town and the wedding through his sleep schedule way, way off, and we are still trying to find our sleep groove again. Loved reading about your success with your new routine, and will keep it in mind, although we are way off from there still.

    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks, Christine! You are so right about the overtiredness, too. The idea that sleep breeds sleep seemed counter-intuitive to me, but in practice it really is much easier for to help an on-schedule child get to sleep than an overtired one.

  4. Jess

    Ah yes, sleep is sacred in our house. Our world revolves around it, the difference when we don’t have enough and when we do is tremendous. My oldest I always said only fell asleep on accident. He slept with us on and off until he was 6. I told him when he turned 6 that was it and it was, very easy (thank goodness). You are so good and trusting your gut and listening to A, she is very lucky.

    1. melissa Post author

      I need to get to that place of honoring sleep as sacred for myself! I know I’m a much better parent, and person in general, when I’m well rested!

  5. Jessica

    Oh my oh my, I have so been there. You are doing a great job! I have SOOO been there. If you ever need to talk let me know.

    1. melissa Post author

      It’s so nice to know I’m not alone, Jessica. Thank you! I should have talked to you in my desperation a few weeks ago! Don’t be surprised if things fall apart again and you hear from me! ;)

  6. courtney @ larking.

    I can understand your frustration with Healthy Sleep Habits because his writing style is so abrupt, but I actually think he is a pretty smart guy — I’ve learned a lot about natural sleep rhythms from reading that book, and though he advocates “extinction” for sleep-training, he also talks about the use of a family bed and seems much more open minded about making a choice that’s right for you and your child than some other sleep experts. The thing that’s hardest for me with all of the sleep literature out there is that I really want to get advice from someone who has significant medical training and experience in dealing with the science of sleep specifically, but they tend to be clinical and cold. Pantley’s “No Cry” series and Dr. Sears’ literature on sleep are much gentler, but they also lack the authority of Weissbluth and Ferber when it comes to actual scientific data. SIGH…I’m writing this response at 2am because my daughter is going through a rough phase with her nighttime sleep, so this is a very near-and-dear topic for me at the moment.

    1. melissa Post author

      He’s definitely an intelligent man, and I appreciated that he was respectful of different approaches. The basic sleep information was certainly helpful. I had such a hard time with some of his suggestions, though (lock your child in their room – but only as a last resort!), as well as with his general manner of speaking about children. So many of the things he said seemed to reflect a wildly disrespectful view of children, and a whole lot of preconceived notions about the issues he researched. There seemed to me to be a high likelihood of experimenter bias in his work. Of course, my copy of the book is packed up, and I read it in a sleep deprived state, so I’m sure I probably had an emotional reaction.

      I have some issues with Pantley as well, though those mostly have to do with semantics. I feel like the idea of a “no cry” approach perpetuates a view of crying as inherently negative – a view that says that if our children are crying, we’re doing something wrong. In reality, if there are problems preventing a child from getting good sleep, they need a change. Change is hard, and hard stuff can lead to crying, plain and simple.

      In any case, I think both books probably have some value, and both have their faults, so it’s just a matter of taking what works for us and leaving the rest. Our sleep solutions have come from a mixture of Pantley’s advice, thoughts from the RIE perspective (like Janet Lansbury’s blog), tips from other parents, and intuition. I think a bit of Weissbluth with my own twist even snuck in there somewhere, too.

      But anyway, I have gone off on a tangent here, so I should stop! I definitely appreciate what you’re saying about the value of scientific data vs. parenting advice without a basis in research. In any case, I hope you managed to get some rest in the night, and tomorrow is a better day sleep-wise. Those rough phases are, well, rough!

  7. Jennifer

    Wow, I could have written the first half of this entry. (Including the bit on Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Children). Your perfect description of my situation has strengthened my resolve to help my daughter fall to sleep at an earlier bedtime.
    Can you advise how you adjusted her bedtime to so much earlier?

    1. melissa Post author

      Ah, we are not alone! :)
      Shifting Annabelle’s bedtime was just a matter of skipping nap one day so that she would be tired earlier, and then disciplining myself to wake us both up earlier in the mornings until her waking hours naturally adjusted to the earlier waking and sleeping times.

  8. Anna

    I always considered that between 7pm and 7am it was sleep time for anyone under the age of 7 in my house. This shifts slightly as the kids get older but not by a lot. Children of up to 12 years old need between 12 and 9 hours a night and teenagers often need at least 10. So, balancing my need for time off with their need for lots of sleep, we have a very firm and consistent bedtime routine that even my nearly 12 year old is happy with!

    I would say that I am far harder line, and always have been about the excuses for calling parents back time and again. Once I have said goodnight, I am firm about the fact that I will not be returning because it is sleep time. To make sure this is as possible as possible I make sure every child has had plenty of cuddles, chats, drinks of water, are comfortable, been to the toilet etc before I leave. Once I am gone, unless there is a real reason, there is no more talk. If a child comes out of their room “for a cuddle” or a chat or with excuses they are put kindly but firmly back in their bed with NO TALKING. ‘cos I’m mean like that! On the plus side, they none of them argue it any more and all sleep extremely well and are rarely the worse for wear because of not enough sleep. Onc ethey are at school or mixing with more children this is also a powerful aide in not picking up every germ they come across.

    1. melissa Post author

      Good sleep is definitely important, and having a block of time to yourself in the evening once the hectic days of infancy are over can be such an important part of finding balance – it has proven to be for me anyway!

      It sounds like you have a nice system of making sure your kids have everything they need before bedtime. I have always loved the way you use the time before bed to spend one on time with your kids as well. It seems like making sure their cups are full, so to speak, before you say goodnight, is working really well!

      At Annabelle’s age, and since we’re in such a period of transition – both with this, and with life in general (the move, the baby, etc), I feel like coming when she calls is important in keeping a sense of trust through these big changes. The calls seem to decrease each night as she gets comfortable with this new way of doing things, so I suspect they’ll be rare in the future and for now they’re no big deal to me. It will be interesting to continue watching and see how it all goes!

  9. Leanna @ AllDoneMonkey

    I love that you listed the two main books I have read on sleep habits! We have really struggled with sleep routines as well. Thank you for sharing your experiences. We will have to try your new solution!

  10. Natalie

    Thank you so much for this post.. reading about how Annabelle is going to sleep now is kind of giving me a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ kind of hope. My daughter is 17mo, and feeds to sleep initially and throughout the night. We cosleep, so at least I don’t have to fully wake, but I would love a full night’s sleep so much..
    She’s going through so much developmentally, and physically (eye teeth anyone..?) that I understand why she’s not sleeping well at the moment. I keep telling myself that one day she’ll be independent, heading off to bed on her own, and I’m going to miss her little body next to mine. In the meantime though.. I might try a few of these ideas, just to give us a bit of help in being well-rested. I definitely need to try the earlier to bed part..

    1. melissa Post author

      I’m so glad our story could give you some reassurance! Your daughter is fortunate to have such a caring mother, who understands and respects the need for comfort in the now. Teething and developmental spurts are really tough, but it’s true that they don’t last forever! I hope you all get some good rest soon!

  11. teresa

    It’s amazing that you have that all chronicaled! It’s especially nice since you’re doing it again. Of course they’ll probably be totally different, won’t they?
    We have had an ongoing series of sleep issues. My husband just reminded me last night of some of our greatest hits. Of course he tells me to write about it all. Em is almost 5 now, so we’re on really different track from you, but it’s so much better now. I don’t know if it was more her or me who wasn’t ready for the falling asleep alone stage. She tried it several times, but mostly we’ve been together. More than once, right when we were making some leap toward independence, she would get sick and everything would turn upside down.
    The hardest thing for me was that she had such a long period of not letting her dad do anything for her. It was all me. Now I know that I allowed this to go on too long. Sigh… the list of things I might have done better is too long.
    Anyway, she’s all about the daddy now and it’s heavenly. She finally likes to roll right into him and fall asleep. He’s totally blissed out as well.
    We went through some fun phases where found amusement in telling her it was a race to see who could fall asleep first, so she would close her eyes and try… Then one day she was too smart for that and so we told her to just close her eyes for 5 minutes (always negotiated down – often to 1). The deal was that after that, if she was still awake we’d talk about getting up. (careful never to promise anything we weren’t going to actually do.) In nearly 2 years, she has never still been awake. Of course she doesn’t know how long a minute is and on that, we have padded a bit.
    Oh, I also took forever to take the very basic advice of having a routine. Not to be a rebel. I just couldn’t really get it together. But she did need it. She needed that structure and has thrived. We start bedtime at 6 or 6:30 p.m. and she’s asleep between 7:30 and 8:30.
    Oh, I have to check out that cd too, thanks!!


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