Kids will only go to sleep for Dad. Help!
February 20, 2020 4:15 PM   Subscribe

Our kids, 6(f) and 3(m), will only go to sleep when I (Dad) put them down and the resultant pressure and sleep disturbance it’s causing an unsustainable family dynamic. We know/hope that this will pass, but how can we repair or survive this period?

Both kids have historically been terrible sleepers in general, but for the last 4-5 months we’ve been in a new phase that we can’t navigate through. I know that the whole dynamic of preferred parents is nothing new, but none our tactics seem to be working.

The basic issue is that whenever their Mom tries to get them to go to sleep, it just doesn’t work. The primary issue is with our 3yo son who is just incredibly attached to her right now. If she tries to leave him in bed or leave the room he just gets up and follows her, or throws a tantrum. This ends up waking our daughter (they share a room) and then just creates a whole vicious cycle where he won’t sleep unless she is in the bed with him, and then she falls asleep there. If/when she tries to get up and come back to our bed, he ends up waking up in the middle of the night and then climbing in our bed, or throwing a tantrum until she comes back. If he manages to wake me up however, I can just put him back and put him down, no problem.

We’ve tried a bunch of things so far. We’re both fans of Janet Lansbury and her methods across the board - so all those things have been ticked off the list. We tried to be more assertive and set more firm boundaries, we’ve tried just sheer repetition (putting him down immediately after he gets up - can sometime be 20-30 times to no avail), occasional supplements like Melatonin (they work, but he still wakes up in the middle of the night), all the other good sleep hygiene stuff etc.

He can obviously go to sleep fine, because when I put him down I just tuck him In, say goodnight, and walk out and it’s fine (he still wakes up in the middle of the night though wanting to be with his mum).

Anyway the whole thing just has us at our wits end. We end up getting angry at the kids which we don’t want to do. My partner is upset because she has no free time because it literally takes all night to put kids down - by the time they are truly asleep it’s time for her to go to sleep. I’m upset because I can’t do anything in the evening / after work because that means she’ll be on her own with them which makes me feel guilty etc...

As with all things with toddlers, we know that this will eventually pass, but it’s been so long and we’re just looking for a lifeline. Has anyone else been through this and can offer any advice? Can I somehow transfer some of my abilities around sleep to my partner? We’re desperate!
posted by sxtrumpeto to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What a really tough situation for the whole family.

I only have a 2.5 year old, but we do use RIE (the foundation of Lansbury's philosophy) at home and at her school. So I have thoughts but I also recognize that you are way farther along than I am in this journey.

- Have you talked with your three year old about how this is impacting the family? I've been really surprised to see the impact it has on my daughter when I say, "you know, I am starting to feel so frustrated and also very tired. I need to rest too. I know you may not be tired, but right now, I need to rest my body."

- Have you made a (realistic) plan before bedtime for how bedtime is going to go? Whenever we have to change the way we do something, I try to start talking about it with her a week in advance. How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen suggests saying "We have a problem. You want me to stay with you all night and I need to sleep on my own to get my own rest. Let's make a list of solutions together and find one we can both agree on. I think planning and involving them in the plan is powerful.

- How do you deal with tantrums during the day? I suspect that right now, everyone is kind of living in fear of tantrums at bedtime. I think you have to take away their power. If its possible, could your 6 year old start of sleeping in your room and then be transferred to the shared room once the 3 year old has settled/gone through their tantrums? At my daughter's school they say: if your child cannot answer non-yes or no-questions then they cannot modify their behavior during a tantrum and the best thing you can do is wait it out. If they can answer questions, then it's an upstairs tantrum and you can say "I can see you are screaming. Did you think screaming would make me change your mind? You are upset. At the same time, I am still going to leave the room in X number of minutes.

- I do go to bed when my daughter goes to bed. It's really hard, but it has taken away the anxiety of "this is taking forever and I'm not going to have time to do X, Y, or Z." I try to just accept that I'm not going to get that stuff done at this point in my life.

Wishing you and your little ones all the best.
posted by CMcG at 5:06 PM on February 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

So when Mom tries to put him down, it takes forever and is awful. When you do it, it’s fine. Can you... dedicate yourself to handling bedtimes for the next couple of weeks consecutively and sort of reset that as the new normal, instead of your wife putting them down many nights and that being the frustrating normal? My kids (2.5 and 6) have also gone thru those phases of preferring one of us strongly at bedtime in ways that are ultimately disruptive. Changing up the pattern for a consistent bit until the way they used to behave is distant and forgotten (to a 3yo - takes some time but not THAT much time) can be helpful.
posted by sestaaak at 6:08 PM on February 20, 2020 [32 favorites]

I feel this. Just another idea, could she just go to bed with him and then get her alone time from 5-7 am? (I know it's probably not ideal.)
posted by slidell at 6:34 PM on February 20, 2020

This was my nightmare too, until I decided to accept it and just go to bed with my kid. It made a huge difference to my sanity to not be frustrated and thinking about all the things I should or could be doing. Now that my kid falls asleep quickly, I still do it because I actually prefer it now! I'm getting more sleep and the time to myself at 5 am is peaceful. Plus the snuggle time is sweet! Of course, every family is different, this may not work for yours, but it might be worth a whirl even as a temporary measure.
posted by bighappyhairydog at 6:56 PM on February 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

In some ways, I share your partner's lot. I wonder what would happen if, on nights you're out, she puts your son to sleep in y'all's bed, and then when you get home you move him to his? This gets him snuggles with mum, she can sleep there comfortably too if she needs or possibly get up more easily since it's presumably a bigger bed and if he fusses it won't immediately wake your daughter, and maybe the minor disturbance of being moved will reset his "middle of the night wake-up" impulse but it'll be you doing it so he'll settle back in.
posted by teremala at 7:30 PM on February 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

We used a different method (Our pediatrician was Marc Weisbluth who wrote many books on sleep), but faced similar situations when our kids young. We have 3, one year apart or 30 months top to bottom. When one of ours would do something like go to sleep for one parent but not the other and we wanted it to be the under appreciated parent doing the activity, we would transition.

Both you and your husband put him down. Do that for a week or two. One night make is so Dad is unable to put him down. Out of the house or something. Tell son that Dad will be back tomorrow night or both of you tomorrow night. Slowly transition to mom being the one. It may take a month, but eventually they come around.
posted by AugustWest at 11:11 PM on February 20, 2020

Can you separate the kids for a spell? Daughter goes on a mattress in a spare room for now?
If so- I think you need to ride out his behaviour when his mother puts him down. Put a baby gate on the door. Mum does the bedtime routine exactly how you do it, puts him in bed, leaves him, and ignores him. This will be horrendous. He will shout and scream. But he does know how to soothe himself and go to sleep- he does it with dad. I think by his mum reinforcing the behaviour he has learned that he can get what he wants by screaming for it, and as you say, you have to break that vicious cycle.

When he wakes in the night Dad goes to soothe him. He doesn't get to spend time with mum in the middle of the night. The baby gate means he can't just wander in and demand attention. Mum deserves sleep and autonomy in the night- he is three years old, not a little baby who is dependent on her anymore. He can do this. You know what you are doing is good for him and not hurting him, even if he gets very upset.
posted by Balthamos at 1:14 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is a really tricky problem...

Or it would be, if you didn't have a pretty easy solution! You can put the kids to bed easily and quickly. That means it's on you right now. You don't need to be home ALL THE TIME, just at bedtime. Almost everyone can manage to be home for a specific half-hour (or less?) each evening, plus in the middle of the night. You can still do stuff before and after. Because it's really unfair to make your wife spend her entire evening on something you could have done really quickly and easily. You can go out after the kids are in bed, and come home before they wake up.

This would be different if you were better at bedtime because you'd spent hours and hours practicing. or because you tried harder. Like, it wouldn't be okay to say "I'm no good at laundry or cooking or cleaning, so you should do it all." But you're good at this specific thing because of a three-year-old's developmental weirdness, which won't last long, in the grand scheme of things. Just take care of bedtime.
posted by MangoNews at 6:28 AM on February 21, 2020 [14 favorites]

Seconding everything Balthamos wrote, especially that he has learned he can get what he wants from his mom by screaming long enough.

>> If/when she tries to get up and come back to our bed, he ends up waking up in the middle of the night and then climbing in our bed, or throwing a tantrum until she comes back.

This is a typo, right? Given that they’re sharing a room, I’d guess that she is trying to go back to her own bed.
posted by eierschnee at 7:17 AM on February 21, 2020

Parental preference like that is not a thing that can be easily retrained or reasoned with, it is a dynamic to be ridden out with time until they can age out of it. If I were in this crappy situation (and I have been, my kids are 6 and 2), I would ABSOLUTELY have the "easy" parent (you, Dad) do 100% of bedtimes except where it's truly unavoidable like business travel or whatever. It's not forever – just for another couple months. I would expect that to be enough time where you can "reset" bedtime expectations and reestablish the norm of a short, sweet, calm, quiet routine.

On nights, when Mom has to do the bedtime routine because you are truly not available, I might also do something like Balthamos suggests. When I am forced to do something like this that sounds awful and harrowing (and any sort of sleep training falls firmly within this category, even when they are a bit older like your son is), I get through it by reminding myself that what I am doing is in the service of their greater health and happiness.
posted by anderjen at 8:50 AM on February 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not sure if this will help but my kids about their age will stay in bed if they have something to listen to, and I tell them "you don't have to go to sleep, you just have to lie there." There's a great podcast called Bedtime FM with lovely, ad-free stories, and I also always put music on when the story is done (they like crazy Christmas music all year long, YMMV.) It's gone a long way towards them falling asleep on their own as it doesn't feel so lonely.
posted by caoimhe at 12:21 PM on February 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Did I miss why you, dad can’t put kids to bed until this passes, which you already say you know it will? Frankly this sounds like an easy problem to solve: dad puts kids to bed until further notice?

If mom successfully managed to put the kids to bed every night... would you be clamouring to take the chore off her hands?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:40 PM on February 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

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