The toddler who won’t sleep

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Four kids. Four sleep training fails.

Many parents of young children struggle with instilling good sleep habits. It seems like kids don’t ever want to go to bed, plus they obviously know we parents like to throw parties and eat ice cream the second after we tuck the wee ones into bed.

My wife and I probably do a lot of things wrong as parents, but sleep training feels like the biggest fail of our childcare careers. We made a habit of letting all four kids fall asleep in our arms, and this routine stretched far beyond the typical newborn and infant stages. Sure, we could get them to lay down in their cribs after they were asleep (sometimes), but by trying to be as nurturing and supportive as possible, we eventually hindered their ability to fall asleep on their own.

Babies love and need the attention, but, as I’ve learned now through reading several sleep-related parenting books, it’s better to give your little ones the tools to comfort themselves in their own sleep environment as soon as possible.

Our youngest is now 18 months old, and yes, his crib is STILL in our bedroom. Before he turned one, little Marshall slept extremely well in his crib. He could always put himself back to sleep with minimal fuss. So even while we were still letting him nap in our arms during the day, the night routine was going well, and my wife and I felt like Parenting Champions. After four tries, we finally had a good sleeper.

Of course it didn’t last.

As Marshall got more active, sleeping became a major inconvenience for him. Worrying he would miss out on the activities of his siblings, he just stopped wanting to rest. Naps were a struggle, and he screamed bloody murder whenever we laid him down in his crib. My wife and I lost sleep. As the stay-at-home parent, it also began to feel like Marshall and I were one entity, because he was attached to me for 20-hours of the day.

Now, finally, we may be in the midst of a permanent solution.

By far the best book I’ve read on the subject, “The Happy Sleeper” by Heather Turgeon, MFT, and Julie Wright, MFT, has finally given us tools that work in our household. The entire book is worth a read, and it provides convincing evidence and useful routines to improve the sleep habits for kids of all ages.

The blurb on the book’s back cover actually does a nice job summarizing its premise:

“Most parents feel pressured to ‘train’ babies and young children to sleep. But kids don’t need to be trained to sleep - they’re built to sleep. Sleep issues arise when parents (with the best of intentions) overhelp or “helicopter parent” at night - overshadowing their baby’s innate biological ability to sleep well. ‘The Happy Sleeper’... shows parents how to be sensitive and nurturing, but also clear and structured so that babies and young children develop the self-soothing skills they need.”

Big talk, right? But the book walks the walk too, because we’ve found the strategies presented work better than other methods we’ve tried. The book also takes a sensitive approach to the underlying conundrum that results in these sleep issues. It relates to that idea of being a “helicopter parent,” which can be a touchy subject for many people who have struggled to find a balance in how to intervene in our children’s development.

As parents, we all want to be nurturing and supportive, but at the same time, many of us have been warned and chastised (by previous generations and ingrained cultural norms) about being too soft, or trying to overprotect our children from the realities of everyday life. This can be wrenching, because while I want my kids to succeed and find happiness in an imperfect world, I have the temporary ability to make them happy now and help them see the world in its most idealized form.

That may seem like “big picture” values, but it relates directly to sleep, the simplest comparison being the difference between rocking your child to sleep every night and the strategy of making them “cry it out.” In “The Happy Sleeper,” I was struck by how Turgeon and Wright approached this debate, and how their proposed sleep routine finds a workable balance between the two.

They describe the value of internal attunement, or the idea of comfort and trust in oneself. Here’s the elevator pitch on why they think it’s such a valuable skill related to sleep:

“Instead of only sending the message, ‘you need me,’ to your child, we want to help you give her the chance to feel secure by herself and able to sleep peacefully, knowing Mom or Dad is nearby.

“When our babies gradually become conscious of the feeling of comfort and trust in themselves - solving some of their own dilemmas and being okay on their own - they start to develop the inner world of their mind and a growing awareness of their unique self. This ‘awareness of awareness’ or relationship with self is part of what makes us uniquely human and able to move through the world with kindness and compassion.”

Assuming you buy into that explanation (which, spoiler alert, I do), the book then offers a very specific model for an ideal bedtime routine. It does involve some crying, and that can be hard for a parent who is hardwired to pick a baby up and snuggle them when tears are flowing. But the process isn’t about letting your kid scream and feel alone either.

I’m simplifying it for the sake of this space, but basically:

Step 1: You lay your baby down in their crib when they’re drowsy but still awake (I call this baby drunk). You pat him a few times, and say, “It’s time for sleeping. Daddy is right outside, I love you, good night.” The words can be modified, obviously, but the book says to stick with a specific script every time - the exact words are part of instilling a routine. Tone should be calm and matter-of-fact. Then you leave the room.

Step 2: The five-minute check. When your baby starts to cry (not just whine or moan sporadically), wait five minutes before going back into the room. Set a timer. Go in, and either stand by the door or next to the crib and you say the exact script again. “It’s time for sleeping… etc.” Don’t touch or pick Baby up. Leave the room again.

Step 3: The Wave. If your baby is still crying, wait five minutes and repeat Step 2 exactly. Do it every five minutes on the dot, unless the crying turns to more sporadic whining or moments of quiet, at which point use your best judgement.

Maybe it sounds mean to you, or at the very least, similar to the “cry it out” method. I offer this little nugget from the authors:

“This amount of time is short enough and the frequency always predictable so that there is no risk that your baby moves beyond the ‘protest stage’ into even the ‘wondering where you are’ stage. Yes, she’ll get louder and madder, but with the frequency and predictability of your visits, she will still feel safe and secure. You are responding to her, you’re just not responding the way you used to. Once she trusts your new pattern, she will stop protesting, relax and turn inward to her own very capable sleep abilities.”

Real talk: When I first read this and tried it for a couple nights, I was skeptical. It didn’t seem like it would work. To its credit, the book offers several pages of troubleshooting and explanations for road blocks. Even reading those, I was dismissive. Our kid was just too stubborn to be “tricked” by this routine.

But after a few nights, the Wave step got shorter and it actually started to work. Some nights now he doesn’t even protest beyond an initial “battle cry.” When he still woke in the middle of the night, I would apply the same logic - I’d use a calming voice, tell him “Shhhh, it’s time for sleeping,” and let him nestle himself back to sleep without me picking him up.

We still have occasional rough nights, and during the holidays, our exhaustion led us to be a little lax on the routine, which only made things worse. The regression wasn’t because the book wasn’t right. It was because my general laziness as a parent poisoned the process.

It’s important to note the book covers several age ranges, including a process for helping older children stick to bedtime routines and fall asleep easier. The process described above is specifically tailored to the 5-24-months-old-age range. There is a long, detailed chapter on sleep processes for younger babies, because they are obviously still developing their relationship to you as their protector and caregiver.

Anyone struggling with this problem should read the book, but I will share one more major takeaway- Babies and kids both want and need sleep. Their bodies need it, just like the rest of us, and more so than the rest of us. It’s a natural process, and they’re biologically set up to do it. They don’t need to learn how to sleep from their parents.

I know that sounds obvious, but sometimes when a baby is screaming at 3 a.m. we as parents think they need us to get them to sleep. But they already know how. Sometimes we just need to get out of their way.

Visit the website, for more information, or purchase it wherever books are sold.

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