How to get your toddler to sleep through the night: Sleep (re)Training

Somehow Lake had gone from doing his nights at 7 weeks to breastfeeding all night long earlier last week at 22 months. There has been a gradual sleep dis-education that has crept up on us creating a family crisis. I couldn’t take it! I was unable to concentrate at work and my brain was processing at a slower rate. I was tired! Easy to cry and quick to anger. One afternoon a few days ago when I wrote Michael how morale was down and I needed a cheer-up, he read between the lines and saw how tired I was and in need of a nap. He poignantly responded with:

I understand sweetie, oh my sleep has been tough lately. Maybe we can have a conference with Lake and do some bed time expectation setting.

I started crying. How simple and how true. So we made an action plan that evening to reframe the nights for sleeping.

The thing is, Lake knows when he’s tired and he knows that it’s nice to go to sleep. He listens when I say something will happen in two minutes or five minutes or twenty minutes. He understands. So after nearly two years of no bedtime and Lake falling asleep typically somewhere between 9-11:30pm, we instituted a 9pm lights out. The new routine involves getting ready starting at 8:30pm with quick bathing, fresh nappy, pajamas, tooth brushing and stories, songs or bedtime horseplay as the mood strikes, (yes, jumping on the bed is still allowed). First we thought 8pm Sleeping Time sounded more normal but that didn’t prove feasible or enforceable for Mummy. Oftentimes our family is still finishing up dinner at that time. The whole point is that Lake’s bedtime and sleeping through the night without interruption will bring harmony to the family life. I explained to Lake the plan. That as a full family member he has a responsibility to care for the other family’s sense of well-being just as we all care for his. He would be helping out the whole family to be doing his part of sleeping through the night. Just like everyone else is sleeping through the night: Mr. Cat, Mr. Silky, Daddy, Luisa, Mummy, (or at least how I was yearning to be asleep).

We brushed up on graduated extinction. The biggest obstacle is lack of parental consistency. Meaning: we shoot ourselves in the foot. We braced ourselves. We had a successful bedtime routine and Lake fell asleep shortly after the 9pm lights out during night milkies. Well, I fell asleep too. So I woke up at 1am and tried to sneak out. No luck. He woke up and began screaming. I left per the plan. He cried for 20 minutes. We had a plan and we determined to stick to it. I would go in at 20 minutes but no milkies, only singing and reassuring and for not more than two minutes. At 20 minutes of wakefulness, I opened the door to find him standing behind it screaming at the top of his lungs. I started singing about our plan for sleeping through the night. That I wouldn’t be coming back in. That he could cuddle up with Hop and Ba and Meow and go back to sleep. At three minutes Michael popped in and looming in the doorway called me back to bed. Lake screaming, I closed the door. It was a challenging seven minutes and then suddenly… silence. Deafening silence. It was a shock.

We were all wondering if he was still alive in there because the shift was so sudden. There, however, was no way I was going to open that door and risk breaking the silence and our sleep training promise. So we lived the rest of the moment until falling back asleep ourselves with the niggling uncertainty if he was actually sleeping peacefully in his bed.

He was. Then the next night, last night, our bedtime routine went like clockwork. Lake bedtime readiness from 8:30-9pm. Night milkies to sleep by 9:30pm. This time I was more rested too, so I was able to not fall asleep and instead slip out undetected at 9:30pm. Michael and I had an adult sit on the sofa and congratulated each other on our diligent efforts. Where else except maybe planking do you get such payoff for rather small investment? He slept all the way through until 8:30am. Tonight we had another timely bedtime ritual from 8:30-9pm. And asleep with me slipping out at 9:30pm. Now we sit reading by the fire feeling very civilized and wondering if nights will be ours again forevermore?

We appreciate last night. And we’ll take tonight. We made sure to let Lake know he can be very proud of himself for sleeping through the night and contributing to the family’s welfare in that way. He lit up with joy and said “ja!” to the first point and “ja!” to the second point. Lake, it’s been a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you. Now the nights are for me! Gott sei Dank!