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Troubleshooting Toddler Sleep

Toddlers hate going to bed because life is endlessly fun in the living room and — well, let’s face it — pretty darn boring in the bedroom!

So some tots vault over the side of the crib like little commandos and emerge, bleary-eyed, into the festival of light and activity just outside their door. Others keep reappearing after lights-out, like an actor taking extra bows at the end of a play, saying, “I’m thirsty,” “I’m scared,” “I have to pee-pee,” and “I need Daddy to kiss me.”

If your little artiste refuses to leave the stage, it’s time to get your sleepy-time routine back on track … quickly and lovingly. Here’s how. First, remember that nighttime success starts with daytime encouragement.

Then, try out one of the following sleep-training tricks:

“Twinkle Interruptus”

Bedtime was frustration time for Aaron because two-year-old Emma would make him sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over and over for an hour, until she fell asleep.

To save Aaron’s sanity, I taught him a simple trick based on patience-stretching. For a week, I had Aaron do two things to prepare Emma for success:

1. Use rough, rumbly white noise for all Emma’s naps and night sleep.
2. Practice patience-stretching five times a day. Soon Emma was able to wait a whole minute without complaining.

Now Aaron was ready to start the “twinkle interruptus” strategy.

That first night, Aaron put on the white noise, snuggled with Emma, and sang her song for a few minutes. Then he shot his finger up into the air — as if he’d suddenly remembered something important — and announced, “Wait! Wait! I forgot to kiss Mommy. Here, hold teddy. I’ll be RIGHT back.” He hurried out for five seconds.

Emma’s practice with patience-stretching during the week gave her the confidence to wait those few seconds. She remembered that when Daddy said, “Wait! Wait!” and left, he would be right back.

Soon Aaron slid back into the room whispering, “Good waiting! Good waiting!” He immediately cuddled up with his little girl and started singing again. After another few minutes, he repeated the same “Wait! Wait!” routine, but this time he disappeared for fifteen seconds. Again, Emma tolerated it fine, and when he returned, he repeated, “Good waiting! Good waiting!” and sang to her until she fell asleep.

The next night, Aaron repeated the same actions — but his first exit lasted for thirty seconds and his second lasted for a full minute. When he tiptoed in at the end of the second time, Emma was fast asleep. And she stayed asleep for the night!

If your tot cries when you leave, immediately return to comfort her — she may be experiencing some special stress, anxiety, or fear. Over the next few days, keep doing patience-stretching during the day and white noise for all sleeping times, and make sure she has a lovey to hold when you go away. Next, when you try “twinkle interruptus” again, don’t leave the room. After saying, “Wait! Wait!” simply go across the room and pretend to be searching for something. Then return to the bed again and say, “Good waiting!”

Gradually increase the amount of time you spend on the other side of the room. If she tolerates that well after a couple of days, try leaving the room for a short period again. Please don’t think of this as devious. Everyone is tired and has low frustration tolerance at bedtime, so this is a better time to be a little tricky than to enter into a battle of wills.

Putting Demands “On Hold” (for Kids over Eighteen Months)

If your tot runs over your rules like a steamroller, try this technique (another twist on patience-stretching) to put her unreasonable demands “on hold.”

First, spend a week practicing patience-stretching five times a day and using white noise for all sleep. Once your tot gets used to all this, you’re ready to put her unreasonable demands “on hold.”

When your sleepy tyke toddles up to the night gate in her PJs and pleads for water, come immediately and say, “Okay, sweetheart, Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here.” Listen to her request and say, “Sure, honey, sure.” But then raise one finger (as if you just remembered something important) and exclaim, “Wait! Wait! I forgot something! I’ll be back … really fast!” And tell her to cuddle her lovey until you come back.

Hurry out of view for five seconds. Then, return and innocently ask, “Honey, I’m so sorry I forgot — what do you want?” Or say, “Oh darn! Silly Mommy! I forgot the water! I’m sorry, honey. I’ll be back in just a sec!” Then leave for ten seconds, but this time actually get it for her.

The next time she summons you, do the “Wait! Wait!” routine again, but this time disappear for fifteen seconds. When you return, ask what she wants, but then do the routine again and return thirty seconds later with the water.

Over a few days, you can build the waiting period up to one and then two minutes. Eventually your tot will discover that asking for things has turned into a pretty boring, no-fun game.

If your sweetie gets impatient and starts yelling, wait five seconds, then return and acknowledge her frustration (in your best Toddler-ese). Then repeat your “Wait! Wait!” routine and disappear for another fifteen seconds.

Taking It to the Next Level

If these simple approaches don’t work and your tot still demands your presence while she’s falling asleep, it might be time to consider a more direct method of sleep training.

There are two different approaches: pick up/put down and longer-and-longer (this is the old Ferber-style graduated extinction, or “cry it out,” method). Regardless of what you do, you should be prepared for extra friction from your tenacious little cave-kid if you choose to use the “cry it out” method. Here’s a look at both.

Pick Up/Put Down, Toddler Style

Play a strong white noise in the room and sit quietly next to the crib or bed, responding to your tot’s cries by picking him up and cuddling — but only until he calms. Stay in the room until he falls deeply asleep. Then, over the course of several days, as he gradually cries less and less, move your chair farther from the crib or bed and closer to the door.

And now you can add “twinkle interruptus” to this routine. Practice patience-stretching five times a day for a week. Then at night, once your lovebug seems to be doing better and falling asleep with less picking up, begin saying, “Wait! Wait! Hold your teddy! I’ll be right back!” and go to the other side of the room — or leave the room completely — for short periods.

If he’s already sleeping in his own bed, make a rule that you’ll stay in the room … but only if he stays in his bed. If he gets out of bed, have a family meeting with your tot to discuss it.

At this meeting, say something like this:
I know sometimes you want Mommy to come back and be with you after you go to bed, but the rule is that kids, pets, and mommies have to sleep so we can be happy and play the next day!

So let’s make a plan. When I tuck you into bed, I’ll give you two special passes. If you call me back to visit you for water or an extra kiss or for a back scratch or to pee-pee, or even for any reason, I’ll come fast — but you have to give me one of your special passes.

In the morning, if you still have your passes, you can exchange them for a special gift. What would you like? Stars? Special stickers? A shiny new quarter? A cookie?

“Longer-and- Longer” or Cry It Out, Toddler Style

If you’re at your wit’s end and need help fast, CIO may be appropriate. Be aware that toddlers and preschoolers can be tougher to train. Why? Because they’re much more tenacious. They can scream for an hour or more and vomit every time! And once they’re out of the crib, they can go right to the door.

To increase your odds of success, use white noise at bedtime for a week beforehand. Then follow this drill. Once you close the door, let your darling cry for three minutes and then pop your head in just to make sure she’s okay and let her see that you haven’t deserted the planet. Say, “I love you, sweetie, but it’s time to sleep … so night night, sleep tight.”

Some parents find that a longer visit works. However, this is more likely to give your child false hope that you’ll rescue her and thus encourage more shrieking. After you close the door again, wait five minutes and repeat step one. After that, wait ten minutes and do it again. Then peek in every fifteen minutes until she falls asleep. If she wakes in the middle of the night, you can do a feeding if you want — but then repeat the same longer-and-longer method.

The first night, stubborn little kids can cry for an hour or more — and the second night, they may go on for even longer. But don’t lose your determination. If you give in after an hour of crying and pick your angel up, you’ll end up teaching her exactly the wrong lesson: if you just yell long enough, you’ll get what you want.

So if you can, hold out. Usually the third night is much better, and by the fourth night, your tot should be falling asleep fast and sleeping through the night.

If things aren’t better by the fourth night, step back and think about whether your bedtime is too early or too late; if there’s some special stress in her life; or whether you’re sending mixed signals by talking to her too much or staying too long when you pop in.

Also, if you have a cautious, sensitive child, think about whether she may need a gentler approach, with more visits and a little patting and reassurance when you enter or one of the no-tears sleep techniques. If, on the other hand, you have a spirited, tenacious, defiant cave-kid, offering too much attention will just encourage her, so make your visits cheerful but brief. Hang in there!

If you do need to use CIO, try to keep some perspective (and a sense of humor) during this mini ordeal. Remember that while these scream-filled evenings seem endless, they’ll be over soon — and all of you will be sleeping better in just a few days. So stay focused on your goal, and do some magic breathing to help you relax. And keep telling yourself that millions of parents have survived this experience (they’re the ones who passed on the classic advice, “Put cotton in your ears and gin in your stomach”), and you’ll survive it, too!

Excerpt from THE HAPPIEST BABY GUIDE TO SLEEP: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to Five Years, by Dr. Harvey Karp. Copyright June 2012, William Morrow. Published with permission.

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