Remember Love and Calmness When Sleep Training
Oh my love will fly to you each night on
A n g e l’ s wings
Godspeed Little Man
Sweet Dreams Little Man
And I … L o v e … You.
~ Dixie Chicks
Two and three-year-olds are unrelenting trouble and unconditional love rolled up into one. They are monkey business, laughter, sticky fingers and gooey love one minute—then temper tantrums and hell-on-wheels screaming the next. By the end of the day, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our children are blessings. They believe in magic, have open hearts close to angel’s and are innocent—even when screaming. Single moms close to exhaustion can easily forget this when their cherubs just won’t sleep at the end of the day. I know. I’ve been there.
In fact, my situation was so bad, I sought expert counsel and Jill Spivack of Sleepeasy Solution came to help via the Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers show (watch the clip shown on TV here.) Jill is amazingly thoughtful and takes her work seriously. Even after the show taping, she called many times to see how I was doing. I can’t recommend her and her company enough! Her advice did help, tremendously, but in ways that she may not realize. As a former parenting editor and journalist, I had read many tactics to sleep-train babies and toddlers. My situation was unique because I have my nine-year-old in the same room as my almost three-year-old. I didn’t sleep-train Jamesy when he was a baby, as I was breastfeeding him in my bed. And to be honest, I was a bit depressed as I was (and still am) going through a divorce with little family help, and their dad living abroad. Back then, I was always exhausted and let the baby sleep with me to make breastfeeding easier and allow his older brother the chance to get much-needed sleep for school.
But by the time the baby was a year and a half, I started trying to sleep-train him. He hated his nursery on the first floor and would run upstairs where my and his older brother’s bedrooms are located. Jamesy would be shaking while screaming and I’d give in and let him sleep with me. Later, to remedy the situation, I put bunk beds in the master bedroom and moved both boys in there this summer. Since Jamesy hates to be alone, I thought he’d be more comfortable with his big brother and I had the summer to sleep-train him.
Surprise, surprise, it didn’t work. Jamesy still wanted to sleep with me, and to be fair, I wasn’t consistent in my attempts to get him to sleep on his own. When I got completely exhausted, I’d give in. For instance, after three days of sleep-training—when I’d gently nudge the toddler back into the room and say “night-night”, over and over and over again—I’d find myself dragging for days afterwards. Most nights I didn’t fall asleep until midnight, but was still up at 6 a.m. My little guy just napped more during the day to catch up, but I was working. By the end of the week, I felt like I was broken. Jamesy is very stubborn: he’d scream and scream and then get himself jacked up and excited instead of tired. At that point, his older brother would start yelling at him, taking an authoritative role like a drill sergeant, which never works. The minute I’d start raising my voice to quiet both of them, I knew it was over. By the fourth day, I’d give in and sleep with my little guy to make peace and let his big brother sleep too. After days of falling asleep in the bunk bed with my clothes on and not brushing my teeth or washing my face, I’d start to get resentful. (I mean, who wouldn’t?) Of course this situation couldn’t go on forever. But it feels that way when you’re in it—especially when you’re in it alone.
What I learned with Jill is that the whole process has to come from a place of love. If the older brother is inserting corporal punishment or yelling and adding more stress to the situation, he needs to be removed. So while I trained Jamesy, William slept in another room. The other brilliant tactic of Jill’s is her book. All toddlers love books where they are the main character and it preps them for how the process will begin and end. Jill and I created a book together called “Jamesy Goes Nite Nite.” In this book, with stick figures, I tell Jamesy that I love him SO much, I want him to get a good night’s sleep. We explained why this is so important for him and why it’s a matter of loving him so much—it’s not about me needing sleep or needing time alone. Two and three-year-olds don’t care about your needs, remember?
Finally, Jill reminded me that sleep-training doesn’t need to terrify a little guy. Leaving Jamesy in the room to “cry-it-out” really isn’t fair or nice, especially at this age. I had considered locking the door, as some other moms had suggested to me, “in order to break him.” Jill reminded me that when a child approaches three, they start to believe in all sorts of things—such as monsters, dragons or evil witches, etc. He may be having legitimate fears. And just after I saw Jill, sure enough, Jamesy started expressing them. Which is why I waited until after Halloween to start in ernest and I limited trick-or-treating to a neighborhood that wasn’t too scary.
Even still, Halloween got under his skin a bit.
“Monsters, mommy! Monsters under the bed!” he said one night, running into my room. “Spider came up through the bed and ate me!” he said another night.
So, after putting William in my room for two nights as I “trained” Jamesy, I’m having much more success. Not every night is smooth sailing, but it’s getting easier. I also came up with a few additional solutions of my own, that may help other moms with multiple kids or single moms who lack additional hands for help:
- Create a way to tackle fears.
For me, it was monster spray. I made a huge deal out of buying monster spray and I showed it to my son. It is a spray bottle with water of course, but I said I bought it at a magic store and I sprayed it all around his room and bed…so now NO monsters can come near him! For the spiders, I told him that all spiders were terrified of geckos and guppies. Since we have a fish tank and a huge gecko in his room, he’s safe. In fact, the safest spot in the WHOLE house is his room.
- Reward the older sibling for helping.
One night when we were saying our prayers, which consist of listing the 9 and 3 things the boys are thankful for (9 things for a 9-year-old, 3 for a 3-year-old) I said what I was thankful for: “I am super thankful that Jamesy has a big brother who would do anything for him, loves him and protects him.” William laughed, but it made a big difference. In the morning, I found the two of them sleeping together in the top bunk. (I’ve also added “being nice to your little brother” on his board of chores for his allowance. Might be bribery, but it’s starting to work!)
- Be flexible with bedtime.
Since my kids are far apart in age, their bedtimes differ. I used to spend hours on bedtimes—trying to enforce on earlier time for the baby, then going through another routine with the older. Of course, finding it hard to find time to finish whatever I need to do later, such as dishes, lunch, my own editing, before bed, etc. I was spinning my wheels for hours, as the baby wouldn’t sleep until big brother was down. Why fight it? I’m now taking a more European approach. I let the younger stay up later with big brother, as I wash dishes and get myself ready for bed. Then I put them both down at the same time: 8:30. The older son gets a flashlight and can read in the top bunk for 30 minutes as I help Jamesy fall asleep. For now, it’s working.
- Stay Calm.
Even if Jamesy doesn’t want to sleep on his own, I gently nudge him back into his room over and over again calmly. I never raise my voice. In fact, by the third nudge, I say nothing and just pat his back and walk him back to his room. For a week it was tough, but now, it takes about 3 nudges and he’s on his own.
- Tell them where you’ll be.
I think just knowing that I’m right next door, reassures him. I used to think it would inspire him to follow me, but it does the exact opposite.
- Allow middle of the night snuggles.
If your kiddo sneaks into your room in the middle of the night, let it slide. In fact, enjoy it. They grow up so fast, you’ll miss snuggle time later. I find that if my little guy goes to bed on his own, but sneaks into my room at 3 a.m. scared by something, I’m better off letting him stay there and not making a big deal out of it.
I hope these additional tips are helpful. If you’re a single parent of a little one like me, just remember that this phase of your life won’t last forever. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t think about other couples who take turns with the kiddos. Don’t allow yourself to sink into doubt or self pity. Call a friend in the morning and thank God for your little angels. Remember that they want to feel safe and if you can help them feel safe now, it will last a lifetime. In fact, helping them feel safe, may be more important than getting them to bed at a specific time, so keep your cool.
Hope my story helps. Email if you’d like to chat, or let me know what is working for you!
- Motherlode Blog: How Do You Get the Children Back to Their Own Beds? (parenting.blogs.nytimes.com)
- How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep (dailyglow.com)