Helping Your Toddler to Sleep

Every parent will agree that just when things are ticking along nicely in life and everyone is getting enough sleep, a sick baby or child will throw everything out again. We had my parents come to stay last week and of course that coincided perfectly with Walter and I coming down with something – this happens every time we have my parents come to stay or stay with them! We suspect Walter has inherited my asthma, so every time he gets sick he almost immediately develops a nasty wet cough and wakes himself up all night coughing.

Last week we had a whole new thing – he was waking up SCREAMING like he was being murdered, inconsolable for hours. We tried bottles, we tried singing, we tried rocking and eventually ignoring him. Nothing worked. Eventually a few puffs of ventolin and some paracetamol at least broke him out of his screaming cycle and he’d drift back to sleep. Only to repeat the whole thing the following night. This made for a very tired little boy during the day and two very tired parents. It’s amazing how quickly you forget how much a lack of sleep effects every aspect of life – Justus and I were snapping at each other and the kids, forgetting things and drinking way too much coffee.

The Invalid
The Invalid

Anyway, we got through it – at least, Walter got better. But after a week of being rocked, held and coddled to sleep, he had our number. You want me to read stories and go to bed? Ha! Sorry Mum. I think I’ll stand at the end of my cot and scream until you come cuddle me.

Now that Walter’s been a pretty good sleeper for six months or so, I realised I’d completely forgotten what techniques I used to get him to sleep. I had to really think about what to do…he’s crying, and there’s nothing wrong with him…where to from here? But the last few nights have been okay – I seem to have cracked him without too many tears from either of us, and thought I’d share why.

  • Make sure they have a sleep routine and are following every step – Both my kids love a good routine, but when life is travelling along normally it’s no big deal if we skip it for a night or two here and there. Going out for a late dinner, missing a bath, forgetting to brush teeth – all fine every now and then. But when they’ve gotten into the habit of sleeping badly again, I find it’s really important to stick to a strict routine. Ours is dinner at 5.30pm, bath at 6, stories at 6.30 then brushing teeth, saying goodnight to big sister and toys (I know, I know, it’s sadly elaborate) and then songs before turning out the light.
  • Communicate firmly – I have to remember that Walter is 18 months old now and understands everything I say. It’s easy to forget this because he’s still my baby and doesn’t really talk. But he’s a cluey one! I find it’s effective to place him in his cot and lay a hand on his chest before saying “Goodnight” quite firmly and explaining that I’m leaving and it’s time to go to sleep.
  • Don’t run straight back in – I never leave my babies to cry if they’re upset but I also think it’s important not to run back in the moment they cry out. If he cries out, I’ll usually wait to see if he’s really crying or just “Mama….Mamaaaaaa…” type protesting. If it’s protesting, I’ll leave him until it either resolves (he often goes quiet after a few minutes) or escalates into a proper cry.
  • If you go back in, don’t leave – Once I go back into the room I’m there for good. I find going in and out only distresses him more and takes longer. When I go back in I lay Walter down in the cot and repeat that it’s time to sleep. I then pat him until he goes to sleep. I really try not to pick him up – whenever I do, I can guarantee he will call out again the next night. Sometimes it takes 10-15 minutes of patting to get him to sleep but it is so worth it!
  • Don’t undo all your hard work at nap time – I find if I then rock him to sleep or give him a bottle at nap time the following day, it renders the previous night’s drama useless. It’s important to stick to the same routines day and night.

When I write it down like that it sounds pretty simple, but of course it isn’t in practice – it’s hard to know what to do with an older baby who is smart and determined, and willing to stand at the end of his crib and scream for just about as long as it takes! I find being calm and firm the best approach – if you’re going through the same thing, I hope you and your toddler are back to uninterrupted nights in no time!


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