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!
- 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. ↩