Sleep Training A Toddler - 18 months: I was doing it wrong!


Photo by Laura Lee Moreau on Unsplash.


After a lot of really difficult nights and long weeks of crying and sleeplessness, things started to improve for us. I was trying to sleep train my 18 month old toddler and followed different programs and methods. I discovered a lot of things that I was doing wrong and that there are a few simple rules I should follow. I would not call this just a success story because things might change as my child grows but at least there was an improvement.

At first, we didn't have many problems when my daughter was very young. She would just sleep and wake to feed then back to sleep again and so on. She was always a light sleeper but this started to become a big issue around 12 months. In fact, it was the single most difficult aspect in parenting for us. I was back to work at this time and I needed my sleep. My daughter is extremely loud and her crying is really disturbing. The next day she would lose her voice and sound rough.


The crying it out loud myth

We tried it for a few days. It just didn't work. My daughter would just keep crying until she turns red, becomes all sweaty and starts kicking and shouting. She might stop for a few minutes but then goes back to screaming her lungs out. She was fed, cleaned and changed and we made sure she was not in pain before sleep. The result: we didn't sleep, she didn't sleep. We had to stop this and find something else. Something effective and more gentle.

This method is known as the Ferber's method among some parents. A lot of people think that it means just leaving your child to cry for as long as it takes (some leave their children for half an hour or even an hour) until they become tired and fall asleep. Guess what, even Ferber himself never said that and he actually later had to publicly explain this. There is no sleep training method that includes leaving a baby or toddler to cry for prolonged periods of time.

 

 Gradual withdrawal/retreat

This is similar to the concept of gentle sleep training. We found that this method initially worked for us. What it entails is the following:

  • Follow a sleep routine but don't feed your child (if they are breastfeeding) to sleep. You can still feed them before sleep but they have to go in the cot awake or a bit drowsy. They will cry.
  • Leave the room.
  • If the child continues to cry for 1 minute, go back to soothe them. You can pat their back, smile, sing, touch but do not carry or feed. Do this for about 20 seconds then leave again.
  • This time wait 3 minutes then repeat the above.
  • After 3 minutes, you move up to 5, then 7 then 10 minutes, etc. You get the idea. You can vary it as you wish (for example every 3 or 5 minutes).
This actually worked for a few weeks (my daughter would sleep by the 10 minute interval). However, it failed after a while.



The Reasons It Failed: My Mistakes

I discovered it was not just us but many parents do this. The 2 main common problems in sleep training are : a) not sticking to a routine and b) lack of boundaries.

The routine

Our routine usually included a bath, a feed and reading a story then putting her in her cot. Almost every night, there was a new reason to disturb the routine:
  • She was still not sleepy yet.
  • She is teething.
  • Runny nose.
  • Hunger.
  • We were outside and came back late.
  • She is in a bad mood.
And so on. The result was chaos. She would expect dinner at sleep time, we would take her to take a bath but she would run away wanting to play more. If I picked her up and fed her a few times in a night, she would expect the same the next night and becomes really upset when I didn't. Why did I pick her up and feed her? See the list above!

I am not saying you should have a rigid schedule and try to force because this too is not going to work! What I am saying is that common mild problems should not interfere with the routine. You will skip the bath some nights. You will feed her some nights. If they are ill, not just the usual baby cold that never ends (nursery parents know what I am talking about!).

blurred image of a sleeping baby
 

The -sometimes literal- boundaries

At around 12-13 months something strange happened. Every time my daughter noticed I'm approaching the cot while I was carrying her, she would cry hysterically. She would hit and kicked and grabbed me with all her strength. If I put he in the cot this will become worse. She would try to leave, hit the cot sides. Any toys or books I gave to her, she threw away.

Instead of trying to gradually get her used to the cot, I gave in. I thought she is developing some phobia to the cot or something and I started getting her to sleep with me first then I would transfer her to the cot. Still this did not solve the problem. As soon as she realized she was in the cot, we had to start all over again.

I then started thinking about another solution. We had a sturdy cot and I always hoped that in the future, I would remove the sides and convert it to a bed. I was not sure when to take the sides off the cot bed or at what age? So I gave it a try and removed the side (one side as the other was to the wall).

In the beginning, things were better, she still would not sleep in the bloody cot though! I put a few pillow next to the cot in case she fell off it. So, when I left her, she would go and sleep on these!

But that only lasted a couple of weeks...

Because she was able to open doors and walk but this time, and, she also understood that we were just outside, she would not sleep in the room!

I locked the door.


The hysterical crying started again. Things were even more chaotic. She would come to the door and keep banging and crying. She now has access to other things in the room, drawers and clothes, etc. Even though I baby-proofed everything I could baby-proof, she still found things to destroy. It was mayhem.

Sometimes she slept on the pillow, sometimes on the floor or next to the door. But the solution to sleep training my toddler was simple: clear boundaries. I asked a relative for advice and she said it before I even finished my sentence: put the cot sides back up again! And so I did. And I noticed an immediate improvement. Things were not perfect but because of the struggle, any improvement was a welcomed change.

So, why did it happen?

Your child needs boundaries. It is a psychological necessity and it applied to morals and behavior. Having the boundaries creates a sense of security and stability. When she did not have the cot side, she was not sure where she is supposed to sleep, or if she was even going to sleep in this room.

The other reason for this might be what is referred to as sleep training regression. I actually think it happens more with some sleep training methods that are rigid or lead to a lot of crying. It happens multiple times with different developmental stages.

 

 Sleep Training At 18 Months - The Progress


In contrast to what I expected, my daughter slept quicker after putting the cot sides up again. It looks like she actually missed sleeping in her cot. For a period, I tried something a bit different. I would stay with her after putting her in the cot, without carrying or feeding. I would talk to her and sing, try to soothe her in general, until she lay down.

When I returned (after 3, 5 then 7 minutes, etc). It was not just for 20 seconds but until she stopped crying or lay down. This worked for sometime but then stopped working so I had to revert back to only going in for a few seconds to calm her down, tell her to go back to sleep and maybe give her a book or a toy, then I would say "bye" and leave. This is working so far for the last few months.

A Helpful Tip

One thing I found useful was to teach my child the word sleep, even though she was not able to say it. We had a book called "baby faces" which showed a sleeping child. I taught her a sign for "sleep". I would sign it and tell her it is sleep time every night and keep repeating this. Now, she knows when it is sleep time and makes the sign after the bath. Giving her this as a tool helped improve the communication and made the routine predictable.

 

 Sleep Training And Waking Up At Night A Few Times

I was a bit relieved to know it was not just me. At first, my toddler would wake up about 4-5 times every night. Specially around midnight, at 3 am and (very persistently) around 4-5 am. There is no magic wand when it comes to this. I just carried on the same as before. She gradually reduced the number of times she woke up but now still wakes up at least 2-3 times every night. However, they are much shorter and easier to go back to sleep again.

I was having to feed her twice every night and now this is only once at 5 am. In the first month, she would not go back to sleep after waking up at 5 am. With time and some persistence, she is now able to go back to sleep for another hour or so.

Summary

There is no one method that will suit every toddler and every parent. The main general rules to remember is to make sure they are comfortable and fed before sleep, to stick to a routine and to maintain boundaries. Your child needs the routine in their sleep training at 18 months. At this age (and even before), they are learning fast. They need to know what to expect and when. After a while they will be asking you to put them to bed! When the sleep regression hits, you just start from the beginning. Some flexibility is needed for when they are struggling or unusual circumstances.

Do you have a success story or sleep training tips? Please share them with us in the comments section below and share this post if you like it.

Thanks.

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