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For The Sleepless Mama of The Toddler Who Never Sleeps


This is our response for a very sleepless mama, who writes... 

My almost-2 year old used to sleep through the night. For over a year now, she's slept soundly in her own bed in her own room. We sleep trained her around 10 months, and she did great. She cried a bit but got over it, fast. She snored. She was happy to have her bottom patted, her sleep noise machine turned on, and her mama to quietly say, "sweet dreams!" And that would be it until 7:45am. 

Until last week, when she decided to never sleep again. When I put her into bed, she screams. I am not exaggerating- it really is screaming. She wraps her arms around my neck and refuses to lay down in her crib. It is severe enough that I actually made a doctor appointment, because I thought maybe she was in pain, like with appendicitis or something. I don't know why she's crying so much. She used to be so easy to put to bed, and I don't know what to do. 

The pediatrician told me to stick to the routine, and let her cry. She said it's normal, and it'd only be a few more days. I am trying that- but its not working. Like she is crying- screaming- for hours on end. Her crying makes me cry. Last night, she cried for nearly three hours. Then I gave up completely and went into her room, got her out of the crib, and brought her to bed with me. I don't even know if this was the right thing to do. 

I need help, except I already went to my pediatrician for advice and it just isn't working. I feel like I'm going crazy. I am just at a total loss, and I am so, so tired. Please help.

First of all.... I see why you're struggling. Did you know sleep deprivation is a torture tactic? Many mamas in your situation are just utterly exhausted, and need help figuring out how to get everyone to sleep more, mamas included! 

I want to stress that whatever you do, you and your partner need to be a united front. That means making a plan and sticking to it, whatever it takes. 

If you decide to go with your pediatrician and sleep train your little one again, then you do need to follow the advice to create- and stick to- a routine. If that routine involves your little one going to bed and you patting them, turning on the noise machine, and wishing them "sweet dreams," that is OK. But you have to stick to it. 

The reason you have to stick to it is that when you allow your little one to scream for two hours and then go and get her and allow her to sleep in your bed.... you have unfortunately reinforced her upset. So what she learned.... was that, by crying for a really long time, she can get what she wants- to sleep in mama's arms. What is working against your little one's consistent sleep pattern is in fact, adult inconsistency. 

So- your pediatrician has identified one way to think about this issue, and I've outlined what you need to do to make this approach effective. 

However, I'd encourage you to think about this from another angle. I'd encourage you to think about this in terms of your daughter's needs: what might she be needing right now, that she isn't getting at bedtime? 

Given her age- approaching two years- she is very likely becoming more aware of her environment. It's very common that as she becomes more aware, she may develop new anxieties about the world, herself, and her experience in the world. At this age, many children need their sleep routines to shift- often, naps become a thing of the past just before or around the second birthday. Sometimes, its not hours of sleep that need to change around this birthday- it can also be patterns ​of sleep. 

So, given where she is developmentally, and given her upset around bedtime, it seems plausible that what she is needing- and really, demanding- is comfort. It is OK, and good, and developmentally appropriate, for you to offer her that comfort. She may be afraid of the dark, or afraid of being alone, or afraid of you being in another room, or afraid of the unknown sleep brings.

Can you lay with her as she goes to sleep? Many parents sneak out of their children's bedroom after their breathing becomes long, deep, and even- evidencing sleep. That is OK, and it may mean laying with her, or sitting next to her bed, or delaying your own evening routine a bit. It is all developmentally appropriate, and it is also the case that it demands a lot of the parent. 

So often, we are asked as parents to deny our children comfort, or to ignore our own instincts. Your instinct was good, mama- you went and got your crying child. You are hard-wired to go and get her. Now, we just want to hone that impulse and refine it a bit so that it is attuned to what your child needs.

First and foremost, that refining requires that you and anyone parenting with you decide what you are willing to do. You and your partner must be a united front: Will you lay with her? Allow her to sleep with you? Do you need her to cry it out, so that you can sleep alone, in your bed?

Get clear on this, first. Your needs and approach will shape her experience- and it will negatively shape her experience if you are unclear, inconsistent, or if there is discord between parenting partners (this includes and grandparents, nannies, aunt/uncles/brothers/sisters/others who may put a child to bed). So take some time to talk and to understand what you need, what you want, and what you believe, as a family. Then move forward into the decision making process. Make a plan that works for you and your family. Make a contingency plan for when it feels like its not working.

One option is to let her cry it out. That is what the doctor suggested, and in order to make it work, you must be consistent. 

Another option is to lay with her until she falls asleep, to cuddle her as drifts off. What's hard about this option is that it requires more time and attention from a parent that may be already exhausted. This is why parents must be a united front: is your co-parent too exhausted tonight? You may need to relieve each other.

This option may feel better, but may be harder to practice because of the emotional demand on you as the parent, at the end of the day. It will require a commitment to supporting your co-parent (if you have one). Of course, if you're solo-parenting, it may mean you need to really set up more support for yourself. It's not easy, though it may well be the best option for your family.  

We get it. It's really, really hard. As you venture through this sleep-disruption, we hope you are able to support each other in whatever decision you make, and of course- to always be consistent with your little ones, regardless of what works best for your family.  

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