As babies grow older and become toddlers, Western parents often start expecting them to sleep longer and more independently. This is especially true for first children, particularly if that child has a younger sibling. When a second baby is born, suddenly the toddler seems like a giant!
Yet, that 15 or 18 or even 24 month old is really still a baby. The move towards more adult like sleep happens on a child’s own individual schedule – some young toddlers adapt easily to sleeping longer stretches in another bed or room, while others aren’t ready until closer to three or four years old. In many cultures, no one really pays attention to the child’s age – the child decides when they are ready to move to another sleeping space (if there is one).
Nightime is scary
I distinctly remember not being allowed in my parent’s bed or room after a certain age. The dark, quiet house was so scary, even in elementary school. When I woke in the middle of the night, I sometimes spent hours reading comic books, trying to distract and calm myself enough to be able to go back to sleep. I didn’t really sleep well consistently until I met my husband and had someone to sleep with at night.
Many parents today are questioning why Western society considers it normal for adults to sleep together and for babies to sleep alone. Yet we sometimes forget that as babies turn into toddlers and then become older children, they often still need the comfort of another person at night. If room is an issue, a single mattress that can be pulled out from under a bigger bed or even a sleeping bag on the floor may be helpful for those times an older child needs to be close.
Sometimes, adjusting expectations is all that’s needed to adapt to frequent toddler wake ups. Parents can play “musical beds” and siblings older than 18 months or so are often happy to share a bed in another room, at least for part of the night. My three were in and out of our bed for between three and twelve years. The one who slept with us the longest hiked 2600+ miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and traveled around the world!
However, if you need more than just a change in attitude, other “nudging” ideas from Sweet Sleep can help. Often it’s easiest just to breastfeed a toddler back to sleep, but certain things may reduce the number of times a toddler wakes at night to nurse (if your toddler has weaned, a snack or a cup of water next to the bed can come in handy).
Nudging a toddler
You can start by patting and reassuring the toddler for a bit before nursing – eventually your child may accept that instead. Getting up to use the toilet first, assuring bubs that you will be right back, may buy you some time in which your child could fall back to sleep on their own. Try “spooning” your toddler after nursing or when they first start to rouse – it may be that a cuddle is all they need.
Sometimes a little distance from the breast can be useful. If possible, have your child sleep on the other side of your partner, or even just turn over yourself and sleep with your back to the toddler after nursing. Mumbling and turning over slowly towards them may eventually be all that’s needed when they stir – a simple reassurance of your presence.
Twiddling, scratching and other unwanted behaviors can make night nursing difficult. Holding the toddler’s hand and demonstrating how to stroke gently or giving them something else to pinch (a stuffed animal or doll) can be useful. It can also help to place your arm across your other breast or take a short break from nursing. Talking gently and empathetically while setting firm limits (“you really want to scratch, but it hurts mommy, pinch this instead; you feel frustrated, etc.”) helps your child learn appropriate breastfeeding manners.
Shortening breastfeeding/chestfeeding times can also make night wakings tolerable. It’s best to work on this during the day at first, when your toddler is likely to be more amenable. Some parents sing the ABC song or count to ten slowly – talking about it for a few days before starting helps the child get used to the idea.
Gentle night weaning
Parents sometimes feel they need to wean completely in order to get better sleep, but weaning doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Reading the children’s book Nursies When the Sun Shines is a wonderful way to introduce the concept to your toddler. Talking with them in an age appropriate way and going slowly can make it a pleasant process for both of you. For more information, check out this article on gentle night weaning.
If you are ready to try starting your toddler out in another room at night, consider forgoing the crib and instead putting a mattress on the floor of a childproof room. You can bring the child into your bed when they first wake in the night, or one parent can go back to that room, cuddling, patting and reassuring as needed.
At bedtime, when your child is older, you can try telling them that you have to leave for a few minutes to do something, always returning when you say you will. Eventually, your child will have fallen asleep by the time you get back. Of course, they may still crawl into bed with you in the middle of the night, but rest assured that they will someday sleep just fine without you in their college dorm room!
Two steps forward, one step back
Of course, “nudging” a toddler to sleep longer doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s important to remember that sleep is developmental and can often seem like two steps forward, one step back. If your child is truly upset with what you are doing, you may want to try something else or try again a few weeks later.
There may be times when you are dealing with particularly disrupted sleep and are feeling exhausted. In these cases, an emergency sleep break can help you cope. Give your baby or toddler to a trusted adult, pump if you need to, then sleep until you wake up naturally. This can make all the difference, even if it’s just once a week during the day on a weekend. Use an eye shade, breathe deeply and feel your body sinking into the bed. If anxiety or depression is affecting your sleep, get help here.
Of course, nightmares, illness, stress and other factors can also contribute to disrupted sleep – when a toddler is wound up or crying at night, soothing and empathy are often the best approach. Even after weaning, children frequently need the reassurance of a parent at night for many years. During the tough nights, try to remember that you are promoting secure and healthy sleep for your child – and it’s a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Sweet Sleep by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, Linda J. Smith, and Teresa Pitman
Safe Infant Sleep by Dr. James McKenna