How to Get Your Child to Sleep (Really!)
With my first baby, I discovered that there really is a Land of the Living Dead. It's populated by zombies whose children don't sleep. My son had a voracious appetite, so he (and I) would be up every two hours so he could eat. My daughter was a tough one, too --every time I put her down, she howled like a wet cat. Still, by the time they were toddlers, we were all sleeping through the night pretty well. Then came baby number three. Aidan hatedgoing to bed and woke up every time a breeze blew on Pluto. I didn't sweat it, though --I knew all babies eventually sleep through the night.
But, as it turns out, I knew nothing. By the time Aidan was 3, my husband and I had dubbed him "Mr. Attorney Loophole" because he always had a good reason for not sleeping: He needed water, a snack, a softer blanket. The music on his CD player was too loud or too soft. There was a wasp in his room. Or a ghost. Or a monster! The hamster wheel was keeping him awake. He wasn't tired. He was too tired. His throat hurt. "It's just that everything won't let me sleep, Mom," Aidan told me.
Why? Why was my third child so impossible? "Children come as sleepers or non-sleepers," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night --you'll know which yours is by the time he's old enough to try climbing out of the crib. And if you've got a non-sleeper, you may find he does his non-sleeping in different ways as he grows (oh, it's true; Aidan tried everything). But you can get these kids into bed. I did, and Mr. Attorney Loophole practically puts himself to bed now. Here's how to handle the most common post-babyhood sleep problems:
12 to 18 months: "Go back to sleep!"
For young toddlers, the most common sleep problem is frequent waking --some naturally wake up as many as six times during a single night. "The question isn't really why your child wakes during the night," Mindell says, "but why he can't put himself back to sleep."
If he can't soothe himself in the middle of the night by this age, there's probably some part of his bedtime routine that he can't do on his own: a song, a story tape, or you sitting cross-legged with a grapefruit balanced on your head. Developmentally, too, this is a tricky time, since a child is old enough to figure out that the minute he closes his eyes you'll leave, his pacifier will drop out of sight, and his music will squeak to a halt. The bottom will fall out of his world. Therefore, why would he want to fall asleep?
The solution: Train him to drift off on his own by creating new sleep associations. This way, you won't have to "drag your sorry butt out of bed every few hours," as Sarah Bieber, a mom of three in Rockland, Maryland, puts it. The first thing to do is make sure your bedtime ritual is up and running (see "The best bedtime routine"), and then:
See nighttime through your child's eyes. Stand in his room and imagine that it's 2 a.m. What does your child see? A light on in the hallway? Toys in the bed? Make his bedroom look the same at bedtime as it will in the wee hours. If you don't plan to be sitting in that rocking chair singing to him then, get out of there before he falls asleep.
You might need props, too, to ensure the sameness. Tori Stewart, now 21 months old, would wake at any sound and cry out for her mom, Amanda. But turning on a fan in her room drowned out the sounds. "It was a small miracle-no more midnight awakenings," says the Campbellsville, Kentucky, mom. Practice your poker face. When you do get that late-night wake-up call, do a simple checking routine that involves going into your child's room (or taking him back there) to tell him that everything is okay. Be gentle but firm: Don't cuddle, play, or stay too long. Your goal is to make him think it's not worth his while to call for you.
Delay gratification. As the night goes on, stretch out the time between his first call for you and when you go into his room. Try waiting five minutes the first and second times, ten minutes the next, and so forth. And give him several days to adjust. "Here you are, changing all the rules," says Mindell, "so it can take a week or two for the new sleep associations to take hold."