‘Our toddler is still waking up in the middle of the night. We’ve been cowardly about letting her cry it out up until now. But I think we’ve reached the end of our rope. We need our sleep.’
And she needs hers – not just now, but in the years of night ahead. Night waking is normal – everyone wakes up three or four times during the night; what is not normal is being able to get yourself back to sleep. And this is your child’s problem.
Her problem affects the whole family, disturbing not only their sleep but their ability to function during the day. For your toddler, however, there’s another downside: If she is always tended to when she wakes during the night, she won’t learn to fall back to sleep on her own. Whenever she awakens, she’ll stay awake until you provide her with the comfort she’s come to expect, whether that comfort is in the form of a bottle, a dummy, cuddles and lullabies, or a place beside you in bed.
So its not only in your best interest but also hers that the wakeful nights end and the restful ones begin. This transition may prove somewhat trickier than it would have been if you’d made it in the second half of the first year, when children are generally more adaptable – after all, your toddler’s not only more opinionated now but more verbal about her opinions. But the following tips may make your job easier:
- Start the night right. Studies show that children who go to sleep alone at night (rather than with a parent at hand to comfort them and keep them company) are more likely to go back to sleep on their own when they wake at night and find themselves alone. If you’ve been ‘helping’ your child fall asleep by staying with her, you’ve also been helping to perpetuate her night-waking habit.
- Consider her comfort. Being physically uncomfortable makes it difficult to fall back to sleep. Try to keep the temperature in your toddler’s sleeping space neither too hot nor too cold. Wriggly toddlers tend not to stay under the covers long, so keep nighttime shivers in check during the chilly months by outfitting yours in heavy, footed pyjamas. Switch to lighter nightwear and coverings in spring and autumn. In summer, a nappy may be sufficient on the hottest nights, unless your child’s room is air-conditioned, in which case light pyjamas and a light cover should be fine. Try to discover whether your toddler prefers sleeping in a dark room or one lit with a night-light, and then adjust the lighting accordingly. If noise tends to disturb her, close the door to ensure a quiet room. (You could try running a fan or other appliance in her room. The ‘white noise’ it makes may block out distracting sounds, but this could become another dependency, making it difficult to her to sleep when it’s quiet.) If she seems to sleep better when she hears you going about your business in the evening, leave her door ajar.
- Wait out whimpering. Many parents make the mistake of responding to the slightest whimper, and end up fully waking a child who was only half-awake and might otherwise have settled down by herself. Toddler are notoriously noisy sleepers, and it’s important to recognize that most of the noises they make souring the night don’t require a response.
- Check out the situation. If whimpering escalates into wailing, slip into your toddler’s room to be sure she isn’t sick or tangled up in the covers. Straighten out her bleeding if necessary. Change her nappy if it’s dirty or sopping (preferably without taking her out of the cot and with only a dim night-light on). If she’s standing up, lay her down and tuck her in again. Then…
- Offer quiet comfort. Keep the reassurance low-key; the idea is to help your child comfort herself, not to do the job for her. Without talking picking her up, gently pat or stroke her back for a moment. Add a soothing, ‘Shhhh…’ if necessary. Wait until she’s calm, but not until she’s asleep, and then quietly tell her that you’re going back to your bed now and leave the room. If she begins crying again (which she probably will), wait a few minutes before going back in, and then repeat the comforting process if crying continues. The key is to let her fall asleep on her own – rub and/or comfort her until she’s just drowsy, not sound asleep. You may have to make repeat appearances before she falls asleep on her own. Over the next couple of nights, the number of crying periods should drop, and by the fourth or fifth night the crying will probably cease entirely (although there may be some whimpering when your child awakens and resettles herself.)