Just go to SLEEEEP already!
May 1, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I get my toddler to go to sleep on his own after spoiling him like I have?

My toddler (28 months old to be exact) is spoiled when it comes to his bedtime routine. Obviously it's all my fault for keeping the same routine since he was itty bitty. I get him a sippy cup of milk, get his favorite blanket and I rock him to sleep while I watch TV, then I put him in his crib (he's still in a crib since he hasn't tried to climb out of it yet). Well, I've finally started to realize that he's too old for that and sometimes it takes up to an hour for him to fall asleep, or he'll fall asleep and then wake up when I put him in the crib, and then I have to rock him some more until he falls back asleep, ugh! So it can sometimes be very time consuming. I tried a new routine last night...bath, cup of milk, brush teeth, read book, hugs and kisses, bed. Of course he cried and screamed bloody murder and would not even lay down. I took him out after one minute. Tonight I'm going to let him cry for 2 minutes and increase it every night. Sort of like the newborn sleep training method. Does this sound like it would work? Also, any other ideas? Thanks!
posted by daydreamer to Human Relations (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I know it's hard to listen to your baby cry, and I think it's great that you're responding to his changing needs.

The way you're doing it will just train him to cry for x number of minutes. It doesn't seem like it'll work very well. The way you do that kind of sleep training with infants is to check on them but not take them out of the crib. Ferber is the one who pushes that method so if you want to get his book it'll have a schedule as well.

You can also try Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Weissbluth, but I can tell you what he'll say: soothe him with the new routine and then let him cry until he falls asleep.

At 28 months, it is okay for him to scream and be upset--just like it's okay for him to scream and be upset if he doesn't get to eat ice cream before dinner. He needs to learn how to fall asleep independently just like he needs to learn how to use a fork, dress himself, etc.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:42 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Sleep Lady Shuffle worked for my toddler (though he was younger). See if your local library has a copy of the book, because it's a relatively quick and simple process. Kids really do adapt pretty quickly to new routines.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:42 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, your current routine is:
milk, blanket, rock / tv, crib

and it sounds like the rocking is your problem here, right? You're stuck for an hour and he can't go to sleep without rocking.

So what do you do for naps? Can you work off of that routine?

But, personally, I'd be more inclined to change one thing at once rather than everything at once or do a total reframing of bed.

(Personally, I'd move him to a bed first.)

Then, I'd start by reading a book in bed instead of rocking. You can still be next to him and pat his back.

I personally wouldn't do CIO (cry it out), I'd rather work on getting him okay with not being rocked.

But, before you jump into something tonight, why not read the No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers?
posted by k8t at 10:42 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

It should.. sleep training is really rougher on the parents.. went through 3 kids, and all were slightly different.

I know the normal recommendation is to put them down and leave for the time period and then come back. Though, maybe just sitting down next to the crib and ignoring him for the two minutes, then comforting. I'd say you don't want to get in the habit of taking him out of the crib after the time is over, as that will get into his head that you'll take him out, as opposed to it being bed time, period.

My personal experience was just to get to the increment you want right off the bat.. so put them down, leave 5 minutes, Come back, then 10 minutes, come back, then 20 minutes, etc.

On preview, k8t's suggestion of moving to the bed I was thinking of, too.. it may make a clean break from the crib marry up with the new routine. When we switched to bed, we had to put up the babygate on the bedroom door. For all of them, we had to resign ourselves to them eventually passing out on the floor next to the door for awhile before it stuck.

They all sleep well now, if that matters. But for the worst, it took a bit over a week of listening to them wail and moan bloody murder.
posted by rich at 10:46 AM on May 1, 2012

I agree with k8t, start by moving him to a "big boy bed". Then you can make minor tweeks to the routine, again, I agree with the back patting as your little angel drops off.

My parents had a hard time keeping me in bed when I was two. I'd pop up like toast and come out to see what was up.

One night I came out and there were two people reading. I hung out for awhile, got bored and went to bed. Apparently there wasn't any problem after that.

So perhaps darken the house and read for a couple of nights while adopting the new routine, if that's doable.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:55 AM on May 1, 2012

I've found as our kids get older we can change the bed time routine and as lnog as it seems like its the "new way of doing things" they quickly get used to it.

Our bedtime routine has gone through a couple iterations but the basics are:

7:30pm bath time
get into pjs
sit down on the floor and read 3-4 books with a low light
say "it's time for songs now"
and place our baby in her crib
sing 3-5 lullybyes
8:30pm say "night night - see you in the morning"

it took a couple nights (and there are a bunch of theories on the best way to sleep train, 1-2 minutes is too short, we've used 5-10-15, and just check in, no pickups) but now both girls are great at going to bed.

with our first girl we had gotten into the trap of a long drawn own sleep process. We were able to get everybody on track and now they can go to sleep pretty quickly and for the most part sleep through the night.

good luck!
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:59 AM on May 1, 2012

I found that, for my toddler (32 months now), we really needed to drop his nap. He wasn't napping consistently at nap time, he kept fighting it, and if he did nap, he'd stay up one way or the other until 10pm or so - exhibiting some of the behaviors that you outlined. So, once we stopped sending him for a nap, he was exhausted by bedtime. It was much easier to get him to sleep, and to make small changes to his routine.

Of course, this wasn't without it's downside. He has a "witching hour" around dinner time, where he gets very cranky and is subject to extra tantrums. But, he's growing towards a reasonable daily routine, and we're OK with there being some bumps along the way.

My rule of thumb is that if he's crying, we attend to him until he stops. If he's yelling/complaining, but not really crying, we leave him to tire himself out. We're not fans of the whole Cry-it-out fad. Too much crying leads to a harmful buildup of the stress hormone cortisol, so we try to avoid having him cry unnecessarily. But, the way tantrums are, if a 2.5-year-old decides that he wants to scream "NO!" for 20 minutes straight, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop him/her.
posted by Citrus at 11:01 AM on May 1, 2012

I do not love crying it out, but I have really enjoyed Ferber's Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. It's helpful in terms of understanding baby/kid/adult sleep, and the tone is not too strident.

As for you: You have been attending to your child's needs, you were doing a thing that was working, and now you need to change it up. That's all. You're handling it. Please don't worry about having "spoiled" him, and don't dwell on whether this is your fault. That way lies madness. Trust me on this one.
posted by purpleclover at 11:19 AM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

So my latest guru on all things sleep related is the Sleep Lady - a lot of sensible stuff, packaged nicely.

However, the basics that we tend to revert is what Tracy Hogg referred to as Pick Up, Put Down.

Forgive me if my description is a little sloppy but it basically amounts to picking up (or doing something else like rubbing his back) the baby/toddler until he calms down and then putting him down again immediately. It's from her first book not one of the later ones, but that principle is great: give them just the exact comfort they need to be set off on their own and then... set them off on their own.

When he cries again you judge based on the cry if you need to comfort him again, and then do so. You don't ever need to abandon him and, usually, within a week or so, he can be putting himself to sleep. The first time you might be dealing with 20 consecutive pick up and put downs but there you go.

Good luck.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:34 AM on May 1, 2012

We used the Sleep Lady Shuffle and it worked well for us. Don't forget earplugs for the parents; there will be crying, but the earplugs will keep you from going crazy from the crying.

Whatever routine you use, be consistent. The first couple of nights will be unpleasant, but if you stay with it, you should be seeing results within a week or so.
posted by mogget at 11:39 AM on May 1, 2012

If you think it's time to move him into a big boy bed, that might be helpful. Mine is 21 months, and our routine consists of me saying "bedtime!" and then we both toddle into his big boy bed and read stories and snuggle until he falls asleep. Usually it takes 15-20 minutes. I don't think it's necessary to make him cry and learn to go to sleep alone. If he can put himself to sleep while you're laying next to him, it's an easier transition for him. Also you get the benefit of some snugglie one-on-one special time.

Please don't think you've been spoiling him by being a sweet mom&rocking him for "too long."
posted by katypickle at 11:46 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Do exactly the same thing, but in his room, without the TV, 15 minutes. It will take up to a week for him to adapt.
Do exactly the same thing -- no rocking -- him in the crib and you patting him/soothing him, 10 minutes. It may take a week or ten days.
Do exactly the same thing, without the milk (and no substitute), for a week.
Do exactly the same thing -- he's in the crib, soothing/patting, blanket -- for ten minutes for ten days.
Cut to 5 minutes. And so on.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:54 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah and this is the perfect "big-boy-bed" moment if he's distractable/reward-focused in that way.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:55 AM on May 1, 2012

My daughter 29 months, and while it sounds a bit wacky, adding a bedtime snack worked for us. She was jazzed that she was getting so big that now she got to have a new! awesome! snack! at bedtime. We give her a half a plain greek yogurt before brushing teeth and tell her how special it is. This does two things, it helps her sleep better and it made the change about how super awesome fantastic she is.

If all else fails, feel free to memail me and we can text each other miserable missives while stuck in the room with toddlers. :)
posted by Nickel Pickle at 12:12 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

A 28-month old is not a baby, and I personally would not do infant-type sleep training with an child who is old enough to actually communicate with you.

I think many of the comments above are getting at similar goals: make a definite change in the routine, ideally a change that your son sees as a positive one and retains what soothes him most about the old routine. And think about making it gradual -- rocking him in his room, then rubbing his back while he's in bed, then staying in the room without contact, and eventually leaving.

If you switch him to a bed, you can lie down with him. That's one way to keep the comfort of having you near while making it less exhausting for you. Over time you can decrease the amount of time you lie down with him. But I think you're going to have to be prepared for a long process here.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:57 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't do the switch to a big bed now -- not only will it add to the layers of things you're changing, but my regional parents list is full of posts from parents of 2-year-olds who have discovered the ability to walk themselves out of their room again and again -- our 4-year-old was already able to understand Staying in Bed when her Big Girl Bed arrived.

Anything is going to be hard, so steel yourself for a rocky transition period, and given any new technique a few nights to work before giving up. I know that for babies, to encourage "self-soothing skills," they always recommend putting the baby down while drowsy but not yet asleep, so they don't need your arms (and repeated cycles when setting them down wakes them up), so maybe that's a place to start? Rock him drowsy and put him gently to bed. Return for pats and comfort only (at some intervals that you can stomach and that allow him to wear himself out but not get hysterical), don't ever pick up again. I'd bet that this will be more successful if you tell him about the new plan in advance, possibly framed in a Big Boy way.

I suggest changing as few things as possible initially, but in the long run, you should be inserting a tooth-brushing session between that last bottle of milk and the rocking into drowsiness. For that matter, now is a good age for a first dental visit! :)

Good luck!!
posted by acm at 1:01 PM on May 1, 2012

As a warning - I started laying down with my girl when she transitioned to a big girl bed at 28 months. She's now 40 months and I am held hostage nightly - I have to pretend to be asleep before she will let herself fall asleep. Wouldn't be so bad except that these days it takes a good 45 minutes for her to sleep and by that time I'm a gonner - dead asleep for a few hours until I roll off the twin bed and hit the floor. I keep telling myself there's got to be a better way, so I'll be watching this thread closely.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 1:59 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have answers specifically, just encouragement. My guy was just about three when we overhauled his sleep. He had been falling asleep only curled up with me, usually watching tv (Mad Men or No Reservations). Then I would put him in bed. He'd always had bad habits since he used to fall asleep during his evening nursing session. I can't remember what all we did, but there were some nights of sitting on the floor beside his crib, holding his hand, then sitting across the room, in the doorway, in the hall, etc. It took less than two weeks.

Now that he's four we don't even have a fight. He hangs out in bed, looking at books if he's not tired, until he falls asleep.

You can do it. It's so worth it in the long run.
posted by wallaby at 2:16 PM on May 1, 2012

PorcineWithMe, my wife had the same exact problem with our 3.5 year old. We recently changed our bedroom routine to fix this, and also used a "star chart" with reward and the problem fixed itself almost overnight. At 3 / 3.5 she was old enough to understand that things were going to change (we gave a couple days count down) and made it a big deal that she was going to be such a big girl.

My wife has an hour back each night and almost doesn't know what to do with herself! (Unfortunately I have an hour LESS of project time back now!)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 2:49 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, I hope this doesn't come off as too harsh. Letting your toddler fall asleep every night to the television is just, well, no common sense. Bedtime can be work with little ones -- your work -- but it is so wonderful and satisfying when they can have their own little routines to unwind from the day. It's a critical moment of autonomy, the beginning of becoming themselves, not just part of you. Unwrap their loving arms, and help them find their way into their own dreams. Without grown-up TV as the soundtrack!
posted by thinkpiece at 5:41 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's interesting, people associate the phrase "sleep-training" with Ferber and similar advice-givers, but really, you've been sleep-training all along. You've been training him to fall asleep given certain cues: rocking plus the background noise of the TV. The main thing about having "quiet, dark room; prone position" as his ingrained sleep circumstances is that they're what will be there the rest of the night. He won't be disturbed by slight wakings, as he is now: "Where's the rocking? Where's the gentle hum of the TV?"

Reading Ferber is a great idea; he has a lot of information about sleep issues at all ages, not just infants. My personal opinion (as a parent, no kind of sleep expert) is that replacing your son's current sleep cues with ones that remain constant through the night will involve a few nights of prolonged crying. But I also do think that he is not getting enough sleep the way things are now: he's tired, but he's waking when you put him in the crib because that's not how he knows to fall asleep. All that rocking-him-back-to-sleep is tiring for you, and it's also lost sleep for him. My own tiredness never motivated me to sleep-train Ferber-style, but what did was realizing that my kid was probably feeling the way I do when I'm 2 hours down on sleep.
posted by palliser at 9:10 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My oldest daughter would try to extend going to bed into a long, drawn-out 2-hour ritual at that age. The best thing we ever did was to unscrew her doorknob and flip it around so that we could lock it from the outside. We'd do bathtime, teethbrushing, stories and cuddling. And then we'd tell her that we loved her and that we'd see her in the morning. And we'd shut her door and push the little lock button in. We had a small house so we were literally right on the other side of the wall in our living room -- I think this is one of the reasons she had so much trouble sleeping -- so it wasn't like she was far away and alone.

The first couple of nights she bellowed like a baby rhino on the other side of the door. On the third night she tried the door and gave up. A week later we no longer had to lock the door. We should've done it sooner ... it felt like a "last resort" type of thing at the time. (Also, I had to leave the first couple of nights because my husband could handle the crying better than I could ... it IS hard).
posted by Ostara at 9:29 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice. I'm definitely going to take a look at some of the books recommended. In the meantime I think I'm going to take bits and pieces of everyone's advice and see what works. I'm now thinking about going ahead and switching to a big boy bed as that would probably be a fun incentive for him. I'm going to gradually change the routine....very very gradually. For instance, last night, instead of him drinking his milk while I rock him he had his milk first, then we brushed teeth, then I rocked him while reading a book (this is much better for his teeth too). I'm not sure what the next step will be...maybe rocking him until he's very drowsy then putting him down and patting him if needed. Having the TV on while I rock him (after I read him a book) is for my own sanity...at least I get some TV time in since I hardly ever have time to watch, but I keep it real low. Because as soon as he's asleep, I'm beat and all I want to do is take a shower and go to bed. Oh, someone asked about naps...I wake him up pretty early in the morning for preschool so he definitely needs his nap in the middle of the day. He would be a little terror without his nap and probably fall asleep at dinnertime only to wake up and stay up late.
posted by daydreamer at 6:42 AM on May 2, 2012

Best answer: I'm going to gradually change the routine....very very gradually.

I know a lot of people recommend gradual changes to routine, but sometimes I think it's actually easier on kids to just make all the changes at once -- kind of like ripping off a band-aid. If you go slow, you end up leaving them in a state of "this isn't right, this isn't how we do it" discomfort for a longer period of time. And I know it's mentioned in one of the sleep books that you need to be careful not to go TOO slowly, because kids do ritualize easily and you don't want the new transitional habit to become the ritual.

I think you should probably do some reading before you decide on what to do. The first time I "tried" (I put it in quotes because in retrospect it was a very desultory half-hearted attempt) sleep training, I kind of had a vague idea of what to do, and my plans were easily derailed by the confusion and unhappiness of my son. So what I ended up doing was just causing us both misery and not getting anywhere. When I finally succeeded in sleep training my son a few months later (in, literally, one night!!), the thing that I think made it successful is that I had a plan in place, that I was determined was going to succeed. If you're educated about the potential pitfalls along the way, and if you have a clear idea of the goal, it's much easier to be firm and stay on track.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:58 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

That said, you also do need to read your child. My husband was much better at this than I was. The Sleep Lady says to pat your child without picking him up to comfort him (and I think there was also some "shhh" too), and my husband was finally like, "That is not helping, it is only making things worse" and he was right, for my particular kid, not touching or talking to him (though we were still in the room) seemed to be what worked best.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:21 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You're right, we definitely need a plan before we start on this and my husband and I need to get on the same page. I can't wait to get his big boy bed now and see how this goes. I think for my son, reading and then patting will work because sometimes he wakes during the night and all I have to do is pat him for a little bit and he goes back to sleep. But it'll be way more comfortable if he's in a bed and I can sit by him.
posted by daydreamer at 8:21 AM on May 3, 2012

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