Our toddler’s not sleeping well anymore

Dear Family Coach

Our little boy Harry has just turned three and has always been a brilliant sleeper – until five months ago when his sister was born. Initially we had less time for him than he was used to, which lead to him becoming quite clingy and difficult. Now the baby is sleeping really well, but Harry is a nightmare! He won’t go to sleep unless one, or preferably both, of us lie down on his bed with him. Then he tries to get into our bed two or three times each night, requiring the same hassle to re-settle each time. We’re exhausted from it all – what can we do?

Family Coach tips

The most helpful thing you can do for a toddler is to provide stability and security while they adjust to a new family member. Inevitably mum and dad will be less available and quite distracted for a period of time, but only a short period of time, while everyone settles into a new rhythm and routine. A big trap for parents at this point is to feel guilty about the upheaval facing the toddler, worry that he’s being permanently scarred by the lack of attention, and so start parenting in ways they never would have before.

Presumably Harry has always been a brilliant sleeper because you have done some great work providing a predictable, comforting bedtime routine and encouraged him to feel relaxed about falling asleep on his own. When his sister arrived, he was momentarily unsure of things, and felt he needed you around at bedtime. You perhaps felt more inclined to go along with this due to guilt about having less time with him, or you may initially have welcomed the chance for some quality time for just the two of you. Let’s not forget it’s also difficult to make balanced decisions when you’re sleep-deprived after the arrival of a new baby!

For whatever reason a new phase began, it probably won’t change until you change your response. First, make sure Harry gets enough attention during the day. He doesn’t need hours at a stretch, but does need to know that you’re accessible when he really needs you, and that one-on-one time will happen regularly. When it’s bedtime, stay as close as possible to the routine he had before the baby arrived. If you didn’t lie down with him before, don’t do it now. Otherwise, the message you are sending is, “You’re right, this is really tough, you need us with you to fall asleep”. If he protests, calmly and gently remind him that he knows what to do at bedtime, all by himself.

If you have the time and energy, return him to bed with minimal fuss each time he hops out. If you don’t, close his door and tell him you’ll happily open it again when he’s lying quietly in bed. Use the same method when he’s roaming at night, but be prepared for it to be much harder to implement in the wee small hours. Perhaps take turns, with the other sleeping in another room so that at least one of you can sleep well each night. It may sound harsh for Harry, but keep in mind he’ll feel much more rested when his normal sleep patterns have resumed. He’ll also be immensely reassured that despite the new baby arriving, life continues as normal. And mum and dad are important too! When you regain the sleep you need, you will be much better equipped to deal with all of the parenting and relationship challenges you face.

Take care Harry doesn’t pick up that he’s naughty or wrong for this behaviour. He’s just forgotten how to sleep independently, and needs a little help to remember again. In the book Saying No, Asha Phillips reminds us how important it is to be consistent with a strategy like this by explaining, “Children are more comfortable with predictable outcomes, even when they are not what they wished for, than with the roller coaster of hope and disappointment.”

So once you feel ready to start, don’t backtrack. A sticker chart could help to motivate him to stay in his own bed all night. Keep it very simple, with an immediate treat if he manages a successful night. Resist the temptation to remove stars after a disastrous effort – keep it positive and encouraging. There will be a few upset nights before things improve, but it will be worth it for both Harry and the rest of the family.

The outcome

In theory we agreed with the advice and gave it a go. I think the problem was that we were so tired it was too hard not to give in – especially at 3am. We tried to tackle the problem for another few weeks but weren’t very consistent, which actually seemed to make Harry even more frantic in his efforts to get us to stay.

Finally, after a night where I had exactly one hour’s sleep between dealing with the baby and Harry, I knew it was make or break time. From that night on we stopped lying with him and tried hard to be calm, positive, and encouraging when we spoke to him about sleep. The first two nights were really hard, the third was a lot better. The night after that I slept for six hours in a row for the first time in six months! Harry occasionally still tries to get us into his bed, but we have seen far too much improvement to want to go there again. He’s such a happy little boy now – it’s been a complete turnaround.