“Toddlers” and “sleep” combined are two words that can trigger many questions, frustrations and emotions for any young parent. I am no exception.
Like many parents, we have experienced sleep issues and have had to deal with them the best we can. With my oldest, we have just come through the other side of the dreaded toddler sleep regression. I really hope we are done with them- at least when it comes to Dylan. [Knock on wood]! While it’s fresh in my memory bank, I thought I’d share what I have learned. I am by no means a baby guru as quite honestly I have learned by trial and error. But hey, practice makes perfect, right? Now that I have another baby, I will use these tips and tricks with Kyler if needed… which they probably will be!
I should preface this and acknowledge that this is just my personal philosophy and strategy. Each child is different and no one knows your child better than you. I may not be a parenting expert, but I am an expert when it comes to my babies. At the end of the day, do what works for you. If you find this helpful that is awesome, if not that’s fine too!
SLEEP TRAINING AT 4 MONTHS
At 4 months we initiated sleep training with Dylan. Up until that point, he would NOT sleep in a crib or bassinet no matter what we tried. Our paediatric nurse said, “Some babies just like to be held.” This was comforting in the sense that I knew that nothing was inherently wrong with my baby, but I also felt discouraged, as this was apparently a thing. Since that time, I have read more about this. The first three months of a baby’s life are often referred to as the “fourth trimester.” It makes sense that going from the warmth of the womb, to the cold world can be an overwhelming change. Providing that security and affection to a higher needs baby is a good thing, but at some point we needed to nudge Dylan towards independent sleep.
We adopted the “Cry It Out” method. It’s controversial and not for everyone. In our case when we slept trained at 4 months and then again at 18 months, it wasn’t our first course of action. It was our last resort.
I should clarify that sleep training is not the same as night weaning. I wasn’t trying to eliminate feedings at 4 months old, rather; I wanted to teach sleep independence and change the sleep location from my arms to a crib! We chose 4 months because at this age a baby can learn to self soothe and make connections. The connection we wanted Dylan to make was, I can sleep in my crib and it’s okay because Mommy will get me afterwards! I should note we did this in consultation with our doctor.
Based on Dylan’s personality, previous gentler methods attempted [one example- "Pick Up, Put Down"] and natural deposition, I knew we needed to implement “Cry It Out”. It was a battle of the wills and I needed to win. Surprisingly it only took three days. The first nap was BRUTAL- a bawl fest lasting two hours! However; by the third day he was fighting less then 10 minutes. Soon there was no fuss whatsoever. Truthfully I was a little concerned about traumatizing him, but we observed that he was as sweet as ever when awake. He was also happier overall as his quality of sleep had improved. I’m convinced it was harder on me than him. I was sobbing the whole time he was! It was difficult, but I have zero regrets.
SLEEP TRAINING AT 18-22 MONTHS
Fast-forward a year and we have an 18-month old busy toddler. We were getting great sleep and then BAM a major sleep regression! A sleep regression is described as an abrupt disruption of sleep. Literally overnight chaos ensued our home. There were several potential factors that could have contributed to this- night terrors, teething, moving, my pregnancy [to which I was sick the whole time], typical toddler rebellion…etc.
Because I couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of Dylan’s regression, I initially opted for a more compassionate approach. We spent the first few nights holding him. After a week or so, we began to have him cry it out to sleep. When he woke up a couple hours later, we would often bring him to our bed. This lasted for a couple of months. I think at the time we were just in survival mode and wanted to catch a few zzzz’s. Compounding the problem was that I was pregnant, therefore making frequent trips to the bathroom and disturbing his unusually light slumber. Consequentially, we had fostered some less than ideal sleeping habits and associations.
I came to the realization that Dylan had no motivation to regain independent sleep. At one point maybe he felt like he had to be held. Now he just expected it. With a new baby on the way, there was no way I was going to have a baby in my room AND a toddler in my bed! Having a toddler in our room also hampered our intimacy [TMI I know], but that reason alone was enough to justify a call to action. With a reluctant heart, I knew we had to do “Cry It Out” again.
I’ll be honest. It was harder, much harder. It wasn’t as heartbreaking as before, but he had way more steam, gumption and fight! At 4 months old he could only lie there and cry so he would succumb to sleep quicker. Now he could jump, kick the sides of the crib and throw his blanket and lovey onto the floor. If he woke up in the middle of the night we wouldn’t take him to our bed nor pick him up, but would go to him to provide reassurance, kiss his tear-streaked cheek and explain the expectations of bedtime. We wouldn't rush in his room, but would wait 15-20 minutes. As the whole point was to learn independent sleep, it was important to give him an opportunity to relearn that skill. This battle carried on for weeks. It was exhausting. However; one night he fought less... then less... then none at all. The parents had WON!
Naptime was no different from bedtime. He would fight naptime daily. I was beginning to question whether he had dropped his nap, but he seemed tired and would often fall asleep on the couch after his “nap.” A friend of mine gave me simple advice, “Do not give up on naps.” That phrase would replay in my mind as I would hear him protest.
For this I did an adapted “Cry It Out” approach. Everyday after lunch he would go down in his crib for at least 45 minutes to an hour. He could choose to sleep, scream, or play solo, but it had to be in his bed. Several weeks after bedtime settled down, his naps followed suit. Once he truly outgrows naps, he will still have a 30-45 minute quiet time in his bedroom. This gives all of us a bit of reprieve and helps us recharge our batteries. I love my kids, but Mama needs her coffee break!
I believe the single most important thing to implementing any sort of sleep training is consistency. It may take some time, but it will come. Sweet dreams... and good luck!