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Would You (Or, Um, How Did You) “Sleep Train” Your Toddler?

Taylor Hengen Newman

The question “Are you getting any sleep?” comes up a lot when you have a new baby, and the answer—for most people (those of you with babies who slept through the night at six weeks and never slowed down, you are the lucky few) – is no. Eventually, however, families figure out their systems, with more or less success, depending on the kid. Sleep is a really personal, highly important but definitely NOT guaranteed element in the young family equation, and I’ve seen families make it work in many different ways. Some – especially those closer to the Attachment Parenting end of the spectrum – swear by co-sleeping. Others swear by “sleep training,” a term I hate (and evocative of some approaches I could never, personally, handle), but one that I think actually offers a broad range of possibilities, many of them perfectly peaceful for parents and kiddos alike. While I don’t think I’d attempt a true Cry It Out approach with a baby, I (believe me) understand the hell that is sleep deprivation, and I’d never dare get judgy on this front.

Our family has had a unique and extra challenging situation around sleep; Kaspar’s food allergies manifested, symptomatically, as chronic, full-body eczema for just over the first year of his life. He barely slept. Which meant we barely slept. It was rough. Once we started to put the pieces together and address his allergy situation, we – after what felt like an interminable time of non-stop scratching on his part – found relief, both for the eczema, and for the incessant scratching. (More on how we did that here). While his skin—and sleep – definitely improved, he continued to scratch at night, sometimes more than others, but an actually good night’s sleep was still the exception to the rule. It was definitely a mysterious, sometimes maddening problem, but since Kaspar was, after some help from Traditional Chinese Medicine, so much more comfortable than he had been, and since we were finally seeing clear progress, we rode it out. Co-sleeping seemed to work better for us than separate beds (Kaspar never used his crib) in a couple of ways; he’d sleep more soundly in our bed, and we could address his needs – when he did wake up – at 3 a.m. without having to stumble up and down the hallway. Often, a little bit of lotion on his legs was all he needed, and – with us beside him – he’d go back to sleep pretty quickly. During those nights, co-sleeping was cozy, and I liked having my little guy right next to me. It was a gift to be able to provide comfort to him in that way, given how much he'd been through. But sometimes, he was simply wakeful (not itchy), and he’d keep both of us up for hours by talking, fidgeting and generally preventing sleep for all involved. In these cases, offering him a bottle would often do the trick and settle him. We realized, vaguely, that we were creating a non-ideal habit, but we were so sleep-deprived that we did what it took to just get some shut-eye.

Because Kaspar was still clearly experiencing some discomfort at night (itching sucks), I felt like we couldn’t really “sleep train” him. I didn't want him to scratch his skin up, alone, in his room. Aaron and I were each running on far fewer cylinders than any adult should, though, so we created a pretty workable system wherein one of us would sleep with Kaspar in his bed, rather than letting him into ours; by trading off, at least (the other) one of us would be near-fully functional by day (the 'off-duty' parent was, as part of this trade, on duty for bedtime... A routine that involved the parent in question sitting on Kaspar's bed until he finally fell asleep... Also not ideal). Kaspar actually started sleeping soundly from 9 pm until 1 or 2, when he’d wake up. This, I discovered through a lot of research and reading, is a common pattern among people with inflammatory conditions, which allergies can create. But, with a bottle and some lotion –sometimes just the bottle – he’d pass out again… as long as one of us was beside him.

And this is where I left you last: hybrized, improvised co-sleeping. Not ideal, but doable.

Some recent developments over the last several months, however, have led me to the conclusion that the time has finally come to cut the co-sleeping cord. For one thing, Aaron, while an amazing (truly) father, is less able to hack the night shift than I am. As in, I'm just better at dragging myself out of bed and being semi-functional in the wee hours. Kaspar doesn’t sleep as well next to Aaron, anyway. Thus, in the interest of all of us getting more (rather than less) sleep in this already-sleep-deprived tangle, I ended up doing far more than half of the co-sleeping in our trade arrangement. Which could have been fine, had there been more sleeping involved, but… I often work at night until the time Kaspar wakes up; being kept awake longer (or, even worse, awakened half an hour after finally hitting the sack), started to wear away on my daytime brain. (I function, as it turns out, surprisingly well on precious little sleep… but still, I am human). Kaspar’s bed, additionally, is not the most comfortable for a grown up mom and a kid. I was waking up stiff and sore, having slept in bizarre contortions. Kaspar, meanwhile,  became less and less itchy. In fact – and this is worth celebrating – his itching stopped entirely (more on how we did that here and here). The eczema, and the itching, are gone (knock on wood). Yet, he continued to wake up, want his bottle, want a story, whatever. I pushed back a bit (“No story, dude. It’s time for sleep,” times five thousand), but not purposefully or productively. Kaspar carried on, sleeping well for the first half of the night, and requiring company for the second, for many weeks. Then suddenly, last Friday, after I tried to sleep in our adult bed (my back hurt from his) and was awakened four times for no real reason other than that Kaspar is totally conditioned to wake up and want me, I decided we were done.

I didn’t choose any one method in particular. I also didn’t choose an ideal time for “sleep training” (ugh, shudder… Still don’t like that term!), as I’ve been in the middle of a work crunch as we gear up for a vacation next week. But, I dunno, it was time, and I had a sort-of-plan. I definitely had a goal. During nap time the next day (Kas is home from his Montessori daycare, on summer break, at present), I introduced Kaspar to our new sleep routine. I read his books to him, snuggled him, told him I was going to leave the room and that I knew he could fall asleep by himself, and that I’d come back in five minutes to check on him. I turned on his music, and left.

He immediately got out of bed and opened his door. “Mommy, come back.” I repeated what I’d told him, and added, “You’re okay. You’re safe. Listen to your music, and your breathing, and rest. I’ll come check on you in five minutes. Do not get out of bed.” I was sure to use a suuuuuper gentle, compassionate, tone while communicating, so that he wouldn’t mistake the change as a punishment. But I was also firm. We repeated this process, um, maybe fifty (?) times as he grew progressively more upset. Then finally, he did what I’d told him to; he stayed in bed. And he wailed, “Mommy, come baaaaaaack.”

I made it to four minutes. It was rough. Despite his itching and allergies and whatnot, he’s always been a robust, uber-happy child. It’s just the way he’s wired. He’s never really cried much. It was difficult for me to hear him calling for me, and not to go to him. (I cried, too.) At four minutes, I knocked on his door (all smiles, gentle voice), “Guess what? It’s been five minutes, Kaspar. I’m checking on you, just like I said I would. You’re okay! I’m so proud of you! Do you need a hug?” I sat with him on the bed for several minutes and held him, reminding him “Mommies always come back.” He asked if nap time was over, and I said sure, why not.

Aaron and I got WAY clap-happy for Kaspar right after this "nap", kind of like potty training (“YAAAAY! You did it!”). I then busted out the crayons and made a “Sleep Chart” for Kaspar, drawing seven spaces on it, representing a week’s worth of nights (I explained this), and then let him at the decorating. We told him that for every night he falls asleep in his bed by himself, and flies solo until morning, he gets a sticker. Seven stickers = one Hot Wheels (80 cents at the grocery store, and yes this was a bribe). He was into it.

We ran Kaspar like a wild thing in the afternoon; after dinner with some friends and their sixteen-month-old, we hit a neighborhood pool right up until bedtime (nothing like water play to wear a toddler out). Having had no real nap, and tons of fun, Kaspar was ready for bed when we got back. He had a short bath, and then I carried out bedtime exactly the way I had before his nap; two books, a quick lullaby, lights off, music on, see-you-in-five. He didn’t cry. At five minutes, I kissed his head and said I’d be back in ten (“Okay, good-night Mama!”), and at ten minutes he was sound asleep. He slept (are you ready for this???) until 8 a.m. the next day.

The next morning, I was – aside from rested like I haven’t been in years – ecstatic, and relieved. I’d expected the first night would be brutal, nut now thought we’d cleared the hurdle, piece o' cake (just five minutes of tears???), and would be sleeping like this until baby number two (no, I did not just announce a pregnancy… But we are starting to feel ready for the next round). Turns out I’m optimistic to a fault, as that night was brutal. Basically like the transitional nap, but from 3 until 6 am. I led Kaspar back to his room a zillion times, but I stuck to my guns. I figured if I gave in now, it would be all over and I wouldn’t get to sleep until his adolescence.

The good news is, now several days in, Kaspar has as many stickers on his chart (he gets them for staying in his own bed, alone… we’re not requiring he actually sleep through the night yet). And, last night was way easier. He woke up once at 1 a.m., fussed (for show… barely a whine) when led back to his bed, and then plopped over and went to sleep until 7. We may not have had the miraculous breakthrough I’d initially thought, but we are, for sure, making progress. I really do see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s close. Like, a few days away. And Kaspar is one happily rested 2.5-year-old, who’s darn proud of his sticker chart, not to mentioned revved up for his Hot Wheels prize.

I honestly can’t believe I’ve gone for two and a half years without anything near normal sleep. I know most of getting through that happened because it had to; we had a health issue on our hands. Kaspar had some night-time needs. I’m his mom. Of course I was going to meet them. But when he stopped itching, I realized we’d also created some night-time habits that, at this point, for the sake of my sanity, and for the sake of Kaspar learning to sleep, needed to be broken. As much as I enjoyed co-sleeping, while it worked for us, a good night’s sleep is a worthy trade. And while I do dislike the term “sleep training,” and didn’t choose a patented method (or did I? Let me know if this is a real thing!), “sleep training” is definitely what this is. I know many “natural” minded parents are dead set against sleep training in the baby years, and many others are okay with gentle approaches that result in better sleep for the whole family. Although I don’t see nearly as much debate over toddler sleep training—or discussion around toddler sleep issues – I know others share them. Perhaps the pieces are different, but the puzzle’s still the same.

One thing that’s quite different about sleep training now, rather than doing so with a baby, is that Kaspar can understand what’s going on. He may not have a clear concept of what five minutes is, but when he hangs in his room for five minutes before I come to check on him, he realizes it isn’t very long… and that he can handle it. He’s also actively ‘involved’ in the process, as per the chart and a motivational prize. Last night I even told him I’d appreciate it if he’d go back to sleep as it would be helpful to me – I had my massage licensing test scheduled for today (I passed!) – and he felt proud to help me in that way (he talked about it this morning). A baby, on the other hand, has no way of understanding that he or she hasn’t actually been abandoned. But, I’ve read about gradual approaches that ostensibly address that pretty well.

So tell me, would you sleep train a toddler? Have you? What sleep issues have you dealt with, and what were your solutions? (Let’s keep this experience-sharing helpful and respectful, too, and remember that this part of parenting is hard, however you slice it.)

PS. Do you Alt-Mama? Stop by my other blog and say hi!