Leave your poor mother alone!
September 5, 2014 6:36 AM   Subscribe

My two year old currently really prefers his mother. This is not a surprise, she is awesome. She is also very pregnant. I would very much like to be able to settle him back to sleep at 2am, but when he sees me he cries harder. Does anyone have a successful strategy for getting a toddler to accept the ministrations of the less-preferred parent rather than get more upset? I would prefer something that doesn't just disrupt my wife's sleep anyway, like letting him cry until he calms down. I know I am asking for magic here.
posted by OmieWise to Human Relations (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You are asking for magic. Your toddler senses that Mommy is less available to him and is fighting that tooth and toenail. Toddlers are smart like that.

That said:
1) This depends on how far along in his twos he is, but have you talked to him about the baby yet? (How Very Pregnant is your wife?) This is not what you asked, but when we talked to our two year old about having a baby, we never ever ever said "Mommy is having a baby". It was always, Mommy and Daddy and Micropanda are getting a baby. We also explained (a lot) that having a baby growing in your tummy is a lot of work and it makes you very tired and you need to rest a lot. We got him a baby doll and encouraged him to practice taking care of a baby so he'd be ready when our baby came. If you can establish this during the daytime, you might be able to refer to it at night. (Script: I'm sorry, LittleWise, you are really mad because you want Mommy, aren't you? But Mommy is SO TIRED and she needs to rest right now. Tonight, Daddy is going to help you. We'll see Mommy in the morning, ok?)

2) Can you try to forge a stronger bond during the daytime? Do special things with him on the weekends? My son has always rejected his dad more during periods where Daddy is traveling or working a lot of late nights. The more present and involved Daddy is, the better it goes. I am NOT implying that you aren't already doing this, just suggesting you make some Boys Club rituals that Mommy is NOT invited to because they are just for you and LittleWise. Saturday morning donuts? Trips to a specific park? A certain game? Also maybe remind him at bedtime that "If you get sad in the night, Daddy will come and help you!"

3) This is temporary. It's hell on wheels and it will get worse before it gets better, but it is temporary and you will live. Do what you need to do to stay alive and cut back on extraneous things. Sometimes your only goal is "Stay alive until tomorrow", and if you make it, you win!

4) Props for not dumping this on your wife. I am certain she appreciates it.
posted by telepanda at 7:10 AM on September 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Can your wife go away for a night? Sometimes for kids knowing that the preferred parent is completely not an option can help.

Or, talk about it with himm. "Tonight when you wake up, Dad's going to come and help you get back to sleep."

Ultimately, don't cave. The first couple of nights will be extra hard for all three of you but if you are consistently the one, and if crying and screaming never bring Mom, he will very probably (there really aren't absolutes) come around, and very probably after only a couple of nights.
posted by cCranium at 7:12 AM on September 5, 2014

I know a lot of people do it, but for me letting him cry until he calms down would be teaching a pretty harsh lesson - like, no-one cares & no-one will ever come for me when I'm upset.

Our two were completely different from each other, and what got one to sleep would be no good with the other. I rocked my son on my shoulder when he was a baby & it worked every time - but if I did the same thing with my daughter she would throw up all over my back. So I doubt there's going to be any simple method that works for every child. But, let your son know that you're there & you're doing all you can to show him you love him & that it's fine.

Nice calm bedtimes also helped a lot for ours. Do you read him a story when he goes to bed? If you both have a quiet & calming time together each evening, you can maybe try to get back to that feeling when he wakes at 2am.

Good luck. It's tough. Every stage you go through when they're small feels like it will last forever. But you'll get through it. Ours are 9 & 10 now, and for all they were often challenging, I miss those toddler days sometimes.
posted by rd45 at 7:15 AM on September 5, 2014

I see two options.
1. Sleep training, although it's unclear why he's waking up. Does he wake up every night at 2am because he is not sleep trained? If so, this is an option, and doesn't need to involve just letting him cry until he calms down - the way I did it was with check & console method/Ferber. It kind of tends to backfire when you have a kid who cries MORE when you go in to check on them (I did too), but at least you feel better about them not just thinking no one cares if they cry, you do just some brief consoling/backrubbing or a little song or something, and then leave for another 10-15 mins, and eventually they realize this isn't really a good strategy to try to get out of bed or get mommy. I would definitely second the idea that it's best if mommy could go sleep someplace else for 2-3 nights when you do this until he gets the picture.

2. Is he just waking up because of something else? My similar-aged toddler is a great sleeper but wakes up some nights at 2am because of a dirty diaper or whatever. If this is the issue and it's just something that happens once in a while, then I think the best strategy is to immediately try some distraction tactics to un-focus him on the lack of mommy. I am the mommy/preferred parent but I've seen other people use these tactics very successfully. Some things that can work for my daughter are suddenly breaking into an enthusiastic rendition of the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" (with hand motions) or, secondarily, other songs - she loves songs, especially if she can participate - i.e. "pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man!" Maybe if he loves to eat, just bring him in a tiny sippy cup of warm milk to drink while you settle him back into bed? My daughter even loves the dog so much that if someone would bring the dog in to her room she'd be all like "DOG! DOG!" and immediately stop crying and want to pet her. Anyway, point being if you can distract and break him out of the thought cycle he's in, he might just hop on a better track mood-wise until you can get him back down.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:45 AM on September 5, 2014

I should mention, key to either strategy - mommy should not be involved AT ALL in any of the above. As the mommy I know this can be hard, somehow I always think that if I just come in to help settle her down, she'll be settled and I can leave. I've learned this is a terrible idea resulting in much longer and louder crying, and what I really need to do is grit my teeth and not show my face at all during those times. "Daddy can handle this. She needs to have some quality time with daddy" is a good mantra I use in those moments (which is really true because she sees him so much less than she sees me).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:48 AM on September 5, 2014

only thing I can think of is what telepanda suggested above - schedule some fun regular event that is just the two of you, to plant the seed that it's fun and ok when it's just the two of you together. Like you take him to Starbucks on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and get a treat. Or you go to the park. Or you read a special book that only you and he read together. And you do it at regular scheduled intervals, so it's not a one-off. Good luck, I know this is hard.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:04 AM on September 5, 2014

Thanks to all so far.

LittleWise spends a lot of time with me and likes me just fine. He shows regular preference to have me do some specific things, and there have been other periods when he wants me to do most things. The pendulum has just swung, and while I used to be the exclusive one to settle him down on intermittent wake-ups, now mom has become the go to. I don't think there is anything universal that will change this preference, although if the situation were different I think the suggestions about that are good.

He seems to be waking every few nights for reasons unknown, perhaps having to do with some disruption in his summer schedule and a new room at daycare. He's actually very easy to put back down. If the right person goes into his room he lies down and goes back to sleep as long as the person is there.
posted by OmieWise at 8:10 AM on September 5, 2014

Yeah, I'd focus on surviving this rather than curing it. It will probably pass when he adjusts to some of the other disruptions in his life. You have to decide whether that means living with the crying or having Mom get up and then give her and extra nap during the afternoon or evening. Either way, remember that This Too Shall Pass. sympathies!!
posted by acm at 8:17 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

In that case, and as an emergency measure, maybe the thing to do is to make sure there's a decently comfortable place for your wife to lie down. When we had this phase I went to bed bath&beyond and bought a memory foam pad around 2 inches thick that we kept rolled up (with sheet on) in the corner of our toddler's room, which served as a serviceable emergency mattress for when one of us had to go in and sleep with her there in the night. Not ideal of course for a pregnant woman especially, but better than not being able to get any peace.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:17 AM on September 5, 2014

Unfortunately, this sounds like it's just kind of in "life lesson" territory. Schedule disruptions are hard, and part of being a growing toddler is learning to cope with that. Life disruptions are harder, and part of being a growing toddler is learning to cope with that too. He has two parents who love him and will take care of him, but not always in exactly the way that he would like. Right now, Mommy has to rest. She is sorry and she loves him but she has to rest and you are there for him. This is a prelude to the much larger disruptions that will come when he gets a baby.

Or, if you're desperate, and if he's not a wild flailing kicker and you don't think it will set a precedent you will regret forever, you could bring him to bed with your wife when he wakes up, and you can sleep elsewhere (does he have a twin bed yet?). Our kid can do this on a temporary basis and then go back to his room a couple of nights later. This is playing with fire, but you can probably make an educated guess as to whether it will work for your family.
posted by telepanda at 8:28 AM on September 5, 2014

I have a 2-year-old son who prefers me most of the time to my husband, but one that that has helped is that he and my husband come up with special things that only my husband does with him, so my son will actually look forward to it sometimes. So maybe when you go in, you can play a little music or bring him a cup of water. Just a small thing that only daddy does.
posted by sutel at 8:34 AM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had to sleep train my two year old. I used the Sleep Lady book for reference. Sleep training involves a lot of tears, especially if you are a stubborn parent dealing with a stubborn child, but everything turns out fine in the end. The child won't remember the tears, so crying is only a problem for you. You get used to it.

To be honest there's no way of knowing if my child would have stopped with the tears already without the sleep training program, the program could just have been a placebo to give me something to do and help me deal with the tears.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:29 AM on September 5, 2014

How quickly are you giving up when you go in there and he starts crying harder? I would give it a few minutes, and he will probably give up on your wife coming in and accept you as the comfort-giver. After a few times of you providing sufficient comfort, he probably won't get more upset when he sees that it's dad at his door and not mom. Maybe your wife can wear earplugs for a few nights until you get over that hump.

Just a warning: it's likely that anything sleep-related that you accomplish with him now will be temporarily undone by the arrival of his siblings. Expect some temporary regression.
posted by amro at 4:18 PM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are these super cute fuzzy animals that, when pressed, shine stars on the ceiling. Give that to him and explain that it is your toy that you are sharing with him and not mommy. Put it on a shelf that she can't reach. Whenever he cries, go into his room and give him the toy. Ask mom to never give him the toy.

Or, you could bribe him with candy. We won't judge you harshly if you do.
posted by myselfasme at 7:52 PM on September 5, 2014

oh, based on what you've described, I would just do something like have mommy sleep with earplugs or give HER white noise, and you do your usual thing with him until he stops. Seriously - not sure how it is for everyone else's toddlers but my experience is that the stress/disruption related random wake ups will only last for 2-3 weeks at the most, it's not worth doing anything too life-disrupting over.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:24 PM on September 7, 2014

Thanks to all. This actually resolved very quickly when I read the advice here to just give it more time with me in the room. He settled down quickly and then the intermittent waking stopped soon after.
posted by OmieWise at 9:41 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

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