Positive associations, and following the cues

Rachel: As new 1st time parents, that had spent time watching Super Nanny and listening to other mainstream views on parenting, we figured sleep training, or at least a solid, set in time, routine was essential.

We didn’t use cry it out, as it just didn’t sit right with us, but we did try to shoehorn in a routine with a set time for food, bath and bed. We found that it went smoothly up until trying to get to sleep, and then could lead to hours unsettledness and lots of tears.

It was exhausting. But more importantly for us, it was heartbreaking. Nobody likes listening to their baby or toddler cry, whether they are in your arms or in their own bed behind a closed door. I would walk with him for hours, put him back in bed every time he tried to get up and the whole situation was not very peaceful at all.

So I decided to rethink what we were doing. My husband and I discussed the fact that sleep shouldn’t be difficult, and associations with his bedroom should be positive, rather than tearful and stressful. We decided to think about our own preferences with sleep, and it soon dawned on us that we were expecting far more from out toddler than we did of ourselves.

We don’t feel tired and ready to sleep at the same time every night. Sometimes we have had a busy day, and crash out not long after the children. Other times we’ve had quite a relaxed day, and we sat up late, watching the TV, eating a take out, talking, reading, or whatever. Sometimes we have had such a busy day that we struggle to sleep, because we have something on our minds and we struggle to switch off.

We can’t just get into bed at a set time and guarantee we will be sleeping right away. So why were we expecting our toddler to do that?

Then we thought about during the night. I quite often wake up and use the toilet, or get a drink, or adjust the duvet if I’m too hot or cold. If my pjs are twisted and annoying my toes I can wake up and fix it, and go back to sleep again without it really interrupting my night. If I have a bad dream I can shake it off (even if that means going to get a drink or reading a book to distract myself).

I am capable of working out why I woke up, fixing it and going back to sleep, before I’m even really fully awake. My husband, and most other people I have spoken to are the same.

But infants can’t do that, and even as they get older, children take a long time to become independent in the night. In fact, if my husband is home I will still wake him to comfort me if I have a bad dream, and sometimes even if I just can’t sleep.

Actually, I sleep better knowing he is there in bed with me, because I feel safer. Yet we are encouraged to put children in beds in rooms alone, despite knowing being alone affects our own sleep.

Another concern I had was that if all the time spent awake in his bedroom at night, my child was crying, and distressed at the thought of sleep, we faced the possibility of making negative associations with either his bedroom, being alone or sleep, or all of them.

I wanted to make positive relationships with these things. I wanted to teach him to follow his own body’s cues.

So we made some changes. We have a routine, but it’s not bound in strict time, we watch our children and pick up on their cues of being tired.

The whole thing tends to start between 7 and 8. When we see that tiredness is setting in we start with the little things that we know help our children sleep.

If its a bath night thats the 1st thing we do. Bathtime lasts as long as they are happily playing, and the oldest (aged 3) will tell us when he is done. This can mean it’s a long bath…but that really doesn’t matter, and actual sleep still happens around the same time anyway.

After, or instead of that, we change into pjs, turn off the TV if it’s been on, and dim the lights, talk about our day and read stories.

Talking is important as they get older; this is where we figure out if they have anything on their mind that may could stop them being able to switch off. But even before they have the language for that we have found getting into the habit of talking through the day really helpful.

The children then have their warm milk, and a snack if they would like, and we watch their cues for tiredness.

As we see them change from tired to ready to sleep we move upstairs, brush teeth and use the toilet, then have more stories in bed. Our son will always fall to sleep during his stories – we read until he is sleeping.

We have been following this routine with no time constraints since our oldest son was 18 months. We now have a 3 year old, 18 month old and 3 week old, and through following their cues, they have been learning to follow their own. Our 3 year old often asks to go upstairs to bed now, and it is rare that we have tears at bedtime.

No matter what time we start the wind down, it always takes less than an hour for them all to be sleeping. Of course we still have the occasional bad night. Sometimes overtiredness overrules their ability to wind down, and that is always our fault for not reacting to cues of tiredness sooner.

The older two go to sleep in their own shared room. However if they wake in the night, which they often do (like me!), then they are welcome in our bed, or we get in with them.

Ultimately it means we all get more sleep. We can address why they woke up, fix it, and all be sleeping again pretty swiftly that way.

The way I see it, one day they will all be able to fix their own night time problems. They will go to the bathroom, get a drink, and read a book until they fall back to sleep, without calling out for me.

When they do that it will be because they are both physically and mentally able, and therefore ready. I’ll be proud of them for being so grown up, but I’ll be sad that I’m no longer needed in that part of their life.

Night time wakes are hard, but I’m a 24 hour parent.

I don’t believe we learn to sleep, like many sleep trainers will let us believe. It’s a natural process. We can’t sleep if we are not tired, what we need to learn is how to recognise our own tiredness, and being forced into sleep at a set time doesn’t support that learning.

My main aim is to avoid tears, and stress, and to aid our children into falling to sleep peacefully, whilst teaching them how to recognise their own cues for tiredness.

– Rachel