One of the things my mother frequently reminds me is just how easy I’ve had it in the sleep department.
“Your brother,” she will solemnly intone, “didn’t sleep through the night until he was three.”
What’s strange is that I actually have memories that relate to this odd little issue. Things like the fact that for a while, every single night they would let him watch "The Great Muppet Caper," which I guess lulled him to sleep.
Perhaps it was the musical numbers.
And there was also the time that I woke up in the middle of the night and noted an odd thing. I was sleeping on the top bunk of the bunk beds my parents had gotten for me and my brother.
My brother, at the time, was still in a crib.
On a small table on the floor, a TV was showing cartoons. Or rather, a cartoon, "Animalympics." Why I remember this, I have no idea.
I do recall getting out of bed, and turning the TV towards myself, and getting back into bed and watching for a while. And I have an even more vague memory of my parents coming into our room, turning the TV back towards my brother, and telling me that the TV was for him.
So clearly, this no sleeping thing made some kind of impression.
Over the years I’ve known many sets of parents to ask (or really, more like beg) each other for advice on the topic of sleep. Mostly along the lines of, “I’m dying here, I MUST sleep, please tell me what you do to get your kids to sleep.”
For that matter, there are whole books dedicated to the topic. I recall coworkers passing around a book called The Baby Whisperer with a kind of reverence, while others inquired in hushed tones, “Did it work? DOES IT WORK!?”
Or, as my nanny friend said when I explained our current predicament: “Sleep is a tough one.”
The thing of it is, mostly sleep has been an easy thing around our house. Despite a huge time change, our little one slept through the night starting about three days after we got home. Then we had some teeth/night terrors/awakening at night issues, but those eventually went away.
And we were finally reaching the next stage, when you stick a toddler in their crib, say goodnight, and let them put themselves to bed. And it was working fine. We’d hear some playing or some talking, for a bit, and then finger-sucking snores.
Until we visited my in-laws for Thanksgiving.
I’m not blaming them for her sudden sleep issues. I’m blaming the unfortunate shift in what was a perfect, well-oiled machine of a routine.
To wit. 7 PM arrives. Bath time. Reading time. Bed time by 7:30-ish.
And during the middle of the day, a little nap to prevent the little one from being overtired.
So, yeah. We went to Indiana for Thanksgiving and things started to unravel.
First she stopped taking a nap. Any attempts to put her down in her Pack ‘n Play were met with the kind of screams usually reserved for being eaten alive by fire ants. There were tears, and loads of snot, which indicated to us that this wasn’t a standard “I don’t wanna,” but rather a “Something is really wrong,” kind of situation.
But the fact of the matter was, by the middle of the afternoon she was totally wiped out. If I sat with her, and held her, she’d pass out in my arms. But the minute I tried to set her down? Screams of terror.
After a couple of days we didn’t try all that hard to get her down for a nap. Either something was wrong, or she just didn’t want to be away from mommy and daddy in "not-home," and either way she’d be back into a routine in a few days. We could deal with a little bit of ornery.
Then bedtime started to become an issue.
With no nap, the kid was WIPED. Holding her for even a minute seemed to put her into a near-coma-like state, right up until her head touched her temporary resting place. Then the screaming started again.
Ultimately, I’d hold her for 30-45 minutes, until she was well into la-la land, and then put her down. There would be minor fussing, but ultimately she couldn’t fight the tired.
We thought this would all resolve itself when we got home.
What fools we were.
The trip back was bad enough. She fell asleep around 7:30 PM, as we were driving, but then woke up again at 11 PM when we got home. Wonderfully refreshed, she was ready to run around. All motions towards sleep were met with screams, and we finally got her to pass out around 1 AM.
Then again at 3, 4 and 5. At which point I just brought her in bed with Kara and me.
We figured the next night would be better.
But we got home late from performing a vehicle exchange with my parents, and she got to bed at 10. And she REALLY didn’t want to go to bed. There was more screaming.
Then came the next day – Tuesday. Back to the routine, finally. Only she didn’t want to sleep.
She finally gave in and passed out around 10.
Wednesday. Out at a gathering, slapped her into some jammies and drove home, and tried to get her to bed with a minimum of fuss. She finally gave in around 10.
Then I went to my old friend The Internet.
Thursday, we set her in bed, but didn’t walk out right away. We took turns rubbing her back, and in Kara’s case, singing to her. Finally, we got “permission” to leave after nearly an hour of this.
Which was still too long, but showed some improvement.
Only it got worse on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as bedtime again stretched to an hour and a half or two hours.
I think I’ve found the formula now, though to be honest, I thought that I had it last week, and I’m putting it here in hope that it might help some other suffering parent to deal with the toddler who will not sleep, or is afraid of sleeping, or is perhaps just a little crab-monster.
I should note, first of all, that bedtime is still taking MUCH longer than I’d like it to, even as we’ve started the routine earlier. Last night, after a late start (about 7:15-ish) it took about an hour to complete the entire routine. But it’s better than three hours.
Second note: The “secret,” such as it is, seems to revolve around calming the little one into submission.
Here’s what we’re doing.
First, we moved the start of bedtime back. Or rather, we’ve been trying to, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks and our time frame has been a bit off. Regardless, instead of starting at 7, we’ve been trying to get going around 6:45.
Run the bath. Take the bath. Allow some time for playing.
Take little one out of the bath after about 10-15 minutes. Dry child, put on new diaper, put on lotion and jammies.
Planet Bed. For a while, we were trying to do, say, one book, and then have Mihret look at her “Ethiopia Book,” which has pictures of Ethiopia and her birth family in it. But her interest, which was high for a few weeks, has now scaled way back.
So now we’re doing two books, and reading them once or twice depending on interest level.
Then we do prayers, and mama gives hugs and kisses.
Then I take Mihret into her bedroom, shut the door, and grab one of her blankets off her crib. We rock in the rocker for a while.
The rocker seems to be the major key. When we were setting her in the crib, she would either ask for rocking or ask us to rub her back for a long, long, long time. And when you’re bent over a crib, it’s even longer.
Plus, the minute we thought she was down, she would suddenly pop up, making the continued rubbing process even more painful.
But rocking is low-key and pretty easy.
After five minutes, I tell Mihret that we’re going to her “pillow.” Because we put a pillow in her crib, because she’s old enough, and sleeping without a pillow is no fun. Plus it gives her a nice, soft focus point for sleep.
At this point, she usually lies down on her pillow in a kind of crouch, with her legs tucked under her. I put the blanket(s) over her, and rub her back firmly.
The “firmly” is key to the process, I think. Whether it’s because it feels better or is more reassuring or because it feels like she’s getting some time at a spa, I don’t know. But I do know that if I don’t rub all that convincingly, she’ll sit up and either say, “Hi, daddy!” or “Daddy, rub back!” and that means she’s not sleeping.
After a while, she will un-tuck her legs and lay flat on the mattress. Which means that she’s really getting down to the business of sleeping.
Then, more firm rubbing. Another three or four minutes.
Then, slightly softer rubbing for a minute or two.
Then I stand in her room for another two minutes without moving. This is sort of boring, yes, but having spent several nights thinking I was in the clear, then walking towards the door, only to have Mihret pop up and get upset, which meant I had to start the process ALL OVER AGAIN… it’s worth the two minutes.
Then I walk out.
So far, this has worked three nights in a row. Let us hope this trend continues.