My wife and I have two kids – a girl who is almost 5 and a boy who is 2. Everyone who has kids is more tired than before kids as there’s so much more to do – but for those parents whose kids don’t sleep through the night, the tiredness can become almost incapacitating.
Our daughter wasn’t a great sleeper but with a little support we managed to help her to learn how to sleep through the night relatively consistently. She still sometimes wakes up and wants to be tucked back in to bed, or needs to relieve herself – but then she’s only human.
Our son, on the other hand, has been a relatively bad sleeper since birth. He would regularly wake several times in the night and it would take ages to settle him back to sleep. Sometimes he was clearly uncomfortable – probably something to do with his digestive system. Other times it was because he was upset.
So after over two years of almost never sleeping through the night, we brought in a professional. This lady is an incredibly experienced nanny and childcare professional. We had consulted with her a few times previously but this time decided on a 3-day package of intensive sleep training. The benefit of this level of focussed attention is that every aspect of our day was under the microscope as there are so many factors that affect sleep.
I won’t take up valuable reading time describing her techniques here – I’ll focus on the changes that we made – there are many. Some readers will wonder why we weren’t already doing these things; others might think we’re being over the top. I suggest that you find what works for you – and remember that whilst these techniques have worked for us, your mileage may vary.
So, in no particular order – well just the order that I recall them:
Before: Breakfast in our house was sometimes a high-pressure experience. Trying to get two children out of bed, dressed, fed, teeth brushed, bags packed, and the same for the two adults was never easy. There was no real structure – each person ate breakfast when they were willing and available to. There was always debates and negotiation over what to eat. By the time we all left the house we were already a little frazzled!
After: Every Sunday we prepare a menu for the week for all our meals that we eat at home – breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Clearly this doesn’t include meals at school & nursery and if we are out at friends, family or restaurants. The menu is stuck on a cupboard door in the kitchen for all of us to read and refer to. Breakfast each day follows the same pattern: one cereal, toast and butter or one other spread (cream cheese, peanut butter or honey), and one fruit. It’s different every day but the structure is the same. All four of us are dressed and sitting at the breakfast table at 7.15 having a calm, congenial breakfast. We prepare the breakfast table the night before and have even moved the toaster to the island in our kitchen that is next to the table so there is as little getting up from the table as possible. It sometimes feels like a surreal experience having such a relaxed breakfast. What really amazed us is that the kids didn’t object at all to the lack of choice. They can decide if the want the cereal or not; same for the toast and fruit. They can’t choose anything that’s not on the menu. We really thought there would be huge resistance, but I can confidently report that after a month of pre-planned breakfasts there have been no objections.
Vitamins in the morning instead of the evening
Before: We used to give our kids their vitamins at bath-time. But then it was pointed out to us that delivering a high dose of Vitamin C just before bedtime might be providing an unwanted energy boost at just the wrong time.
After: Vitamins are now served during breakfast time
No fruit after dinner
Before: We try to encourage our kids to eat healthy food – sugar and salt are rarely in the food that we prepare or buy for the kids. Therefore deserts have usually been fruit and/or yoghurts.
After: We learned that having fruit before bed might be generating some of the digestive discomfort. Therefore the kids have fruit throughout the day until dinner time. Desert, if required, can be a yoghurt, but certainly no fruit.
Black-out the windows upstairs at bed time
Before: We live in a converted bungalow so every room has a sloped roof with velux windows. We also have a skylight above the landing, just outside the kids’ bathroom. So bedtime, particularly in the summer, was a very bright affair.
After: We have blackout blinds on all the windows (added one to the bathroom window) and we also use blackout material to cover the skylight. At bedtime it doesn’t matter how light it is outside, it’s now dark upstairs.
Calming music at bed time
Before: Whilst we would try to be calm and quiet during bath and bed timem energy levels would sometimes become elevated, which wasn’t conducive to settling two active children into bed.
After: We have a Bluetooth speaker outside the bathroom that we connect to a tablet or phone, from which we play calming music. It starts quite loud, when the kids are still downstairs, to provide an audible cue that it’s time to calm down. The music continues during bath time and all of the bed time preparations. It might be just a minor change but it certainly sets the tone for bed time.
No more carrying
This is a biggie!
Before: There is nothing our son likes more than a cuddle. This meant that it became quite normal for us to carry him around when he was perfectly capable of walking. Of course, we didn’t carry him all the time, but it was usual for us to carry him downstairs in the morning, and quite often whenever he asked at any other time too.
After: Now he has to walk everywhere! Cuddles are still absolutely fine – we’re not monsters! But going from room to room is achieved using his two perfectly good legs. We hold hands quite often – particularly up and down stairs – but no more carrying! Initially this was quite tough as he would sometimes have a melt-down when we declined his request to be carried up or down stairs. If he did have a tantrum then we would calmly explain to him that this is “not acceptable behaviour” and that he should come and find us when he’s finished shouting or crying. What’s amazing and slightly amusing is that when he has finished his tantrum he’ll come over and tell us “I’m finished” ! We then ask him to say sorry for shouting, which he does. After a quick cuddle it’s on with whatever we’re supposed to be doing.
Rapid settling in the middle of the night
Before: Whenever our son woke in the night it would take ages to settle him. In essence this was a reward for waking up – cuddles with mummy or daddy. There was a time that we’d sometimes give him milk too – but we managed to wean ourselves of that habit a while ago thankfully!
After: If he wakes in the night (typically between midnight and 2am) we’ll go into his room, pick him up, give him some water if he’s thirsty (it’s been really hot here in England over the past few weeks) and then put him back to bed. Just before we put him back to bed I’ll say “Mummy is sleeping. <Sister> is sleeping. It’s bedtime. Goodnight”. My wife will say the same words, replacing Mummy with Daddy. We’re told that it’s important that we use the same words for consistency. Like many of these changes, what’s amazing to us is that it works!
Leaving to cry if he wakes before 6.45 am
Before: I would wake up in the morning whenever our son woke up. I’ll put my son’s literacy and numeracy down to the many episodes of Countdown that we’ve watched at 6am on a weekday!
After: If our son wakes before 6.45, and it can be as early as 5am, then we leave him to make whatever noise he wants. Most of the time he eventually settles himself. It can take quite a while, which is frustrating as I find I can’t then get back to sleep myself. But in the long-term this is really helpful as his ability to self-settle will improve.
When we look back on all of these changes, as well as the ones I’ve surely forgotten and therefore omitted from this blog post, it’s impossible to identify if there were specific changes that have made the biggest difference. Our son still wakes in the night but his sleep is considerably better than a month ago. He sleeps through the night several times a week, and if he does wake up then settling is quick and relaxed.
If you’re struggling with getting your toddler to sleep then you might find that some or all of these techniques work for you. But then again they might not. If so, get in touch and I’ll let you have the details of the professional who helped us. I’m sure that she can help you too.