Pitter patter pitter patter pitter patter. Plop. Snuggle snuggle. For almost a decade I was awakened in the middle of the night by little feet tripping down the hall and making themselves at home in my bed. I grew not to mind these nocturnal interruptions by our children too much; anything was better than the sleep deprivation I suffered for almost 24 months with my firstborn, the ultimate wakeful baby who literally never slept throughout the night until he was a toddler.
It was the experience with this child that led me to the realization that there are basically two schools of thought on children and sleep: at some point you just let them cry it out or either you continue to try every trick imaginable to get them to sleep until something works— or they outgrow the problem. My husband and I fell into the later category and, thanks to some excellent literature on the subject, I learned a lot of good tricks and we did survive those first stressful two years. Fortunately our second child slept fairly well as an infant, but he continued to make nighttime visits to our bed well past kindergarten.
Now that all our children snore deeply through the night (and into the day if we don’t rouse them!), I still think that some of the most stressful times as a parent come from the exhaustion and frustration of trying to get a baby or child to sleep. For those of you with textbook babies who will fret a bit and then snooze away on schedule every night, congratulations. This column is for the high-need, sensitive babies and toddlers who need a little help and for their parents who need a lot of compassion.
I learned early on that the easiest way for a new mom to cope with a wakeful baby (believe me there is such a baby and there is very little you can do to change his personality!) is to keep the infant in bed with you or in a bassinet or futon adjacent to your bed. This system minimizes the stress of getting out of bed and staggering down the hall every time baby cries. I also found that breastfeeding eliminates the effort of fussing with a bottle in the middle of the night. Later on, after breastfeeding has been well established, dad can wake up to give a bottle of mother’s milk for one of the feedings.
Once other children come along, chances are the older ones will settle for the bedtime routine of reading a book followed by a back rub. This is a good time to nurse the baby who will often fall asleep, too. I’ll never forget one exhausting evening when our second baby was barely a month old. My husband was out of town and our 3-year-old had had an unusually whiny day. When it came time for bed the baby started screaming as I was trying to read my older son a bedtime story. I started to nurse the baby when my son burst into tears crying that HE wanted to be the baby again.
I knew this kind of reaction to a new sibling was not uncommon, but I also knew that I couldn’t put up with two crying children another minute. I grabbed them both, stuck the baby in a front-pack carrier, squeezed the 3-year-old into the baby carriage and off we went for a stroll. I had packed a portable cassette player with a favorite lullaby tape and the three of us relaxed instantly as we strolled around in the cool darkness listening to music. Many a night after that, weather permitting, I would take the children for a stroll just before bedtime. I wasn’t sure if it was the fresh air or the shift in my mood that made the children sleep better on those nights.
As our children grew older, they went through various stages of not wanting to go to sleep. Usually there was some fear about the dark or a monster in their bed that had to be dealt with. The best investment we made was a good bedside lamp that turned into a nightlight. The glow was enough to keep the darkness away, and we also placed a small nightlight in the hall outside the bedroom.
Even with nightlights my older son complained incessandy about the dark. When he was 5, he became fascinated with the solar system and we purchased some fluorescent stars and planets at Tokyu Hands to plaster in the “sky” above his bed. Focusing on the constellations often kept scary thoughts away as my son drifted off to sleep.
The next year we took the idea a step further and helped him paint a mural for his wall (made of large sections of taped-together poster board) with scenes of gentle forest creatures. We built a small bookcase next to his bed to hold his treasure box of special things and his favorite bedtime stories. This was a soothing success, or perhaps he was beginning to outgrow his nighttime fears anyway.
We found that he always seemed to sleep better when one of us lay down” as he drifted to sleep, but eventually he enjoyed sleeping next to his little brother. The closeness comforted them for years until one day they each wanted their own space. Still, some nights I find that they have crawled into one another’s bed.
I can think of so many ideas that we tried through the years, some worked briefly and some became part of our lives for a long time. Both boys like it when I placed a kiss in the palm of their hand, folded their fist and told them to hold it ’til the morning. My younger son preferred to sleep with one of my soft flannel nightgowns, like a little puppy that was comforted by the familiar scent.
For the nights when the kids were restless or scary thoughts threatened to keep sleep at bay, we taught the children to change the channel in their head to a pleasant image. Even young children respond well to creative visualization. At bedtime ask your child to describe a favorite memory or fantasy; this method is a delightful way for any of us to drift into dreamland.
There are many wonderful bedtime books on the market. At the top of our list are Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger, When I’m Sleepy by Jane Howard, The Midnight Farm by Reeve Lindbergh, and, of course, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Once we graduated from little people’s books, our children looked forward to reading a chapter a night together by authors such as Madeleine L’Engle. In lieu of bedtime stories, the kids would sometimes request a true tale from my own childhood, a good way to hand down family history.
Two of the parenting books that helped me to trust my heart and tune into to my children’s individual needs (rather than succumb to peer pressure or the latest “training method” for poor sleepers) are Nighttime Parenting by Dr. William Sears, and The Family Bed by Tina Thevenin, both of which are usually available from La Leche League groups in Japan.
It also helps to network with other families who are struggling with sleep difficulties, although beware of peer pressure, as every child is different. I can assure you that I tried every trick in the book at least once, and in the end, all of my children finally slept through the night only when they were mature enough, physically and emotionally, to do so.
If you are plagued with exhaustion from wakeful babies and toddlers in your house, try to remember that your children need comfort and security from you at night for a variety of reasons, and for a relatively short time. All children eventually do sleep through the night! And they grow up much faster than we realize. It won’t be long before you’ll have an independent teenager down the hall, listening to his Walkman with the bedroom door closed, not really needing that goodnight kiss.