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Toddler Tips

Dreaming of Sleep

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22, No. 6 November-December 2005 pp. 266-268

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My 17-month-old slept great when she was an infant. Now I feel as though I'm up with her constantly. She goes to sleep in her own bed, but wakes up at least three times every night and takes a long time to fall back asleep. It's beginning to affect me! What have other mothers done to help toddlers sleep better?

Mother's Response

Is your child napping a lot? Sometimes, waking up a lot at night can mean a toddler is sleeping too much during the day. That's happened to my children on long trips in particular, when a vehicle motor lulls them to sleep for much longer than they normally would.

One thing I've done to help my toddlers sleep well at night is to make sure that they get a lot of exercise during the day. Every day we go for walks, play with balls, or take a trip to the park, which makes them ready to go to bed and sleep well at night.

It's possible, though, to get so busy that your toddler isn't getting as much breastfeeding as she needs. Then, she'll wake up more at night to get it.

I suggest a lot of active play and a lot of offers to breastfeed during the day. I hope that helps your little one (and you) sleep better!

Kathleen Whitfield
Culver City CA USA

Mother's Response

It is quite rare for children to be permanently good sleepers. Sleep-training has become a massive industry on the basis of this little-acknowledged fact. I feel for you; in many ways it is harder to manage a good sleeper who starts waking at a later age than one who never sleeps from the start!

There are all kinds of reasons why a child of this age might wake up. It can be due to teething or being more aware of toilet needs, or perhaps she is having bad dreams or feeling lonely and wanting you close.

It will also help you to review her days. Is she so busy exploring that she misses out on time with you that she's making up for it during the night? Are her days so hectic that she is still wound up at bedtime? Is it possible that she is lacking in opportunities for physical activity that might make her more tired? Are her diapers comfortable? Does she need something to chew on or to cool her gums?

Human beings are social animals who thrive on contact—a fact that our culture has lost touch with. You might consider various ways in which your daughter can benefit from your presence. The easiest is by having her in bed with you (between you and your partner or between you and the wall). If this suits your family, why not give it a try? If you have room, try turning your bed sideways and adding a single bed at the bottom; that way you get a king- size bed! It may take a while for you all to adjust. I know we found that sleeping with our children from birth enabled us all to adapt more easily to each other's movements and sounds. Starting with an older child was more of a challenge.

If full cosleeping isn't an option that appeals to you, there are many ways to sleep with your daughter close by. Place her bed near yours, add some sort of side-car arrangement to your bed, or put a mattress on the floor. A little creativity generally brings up some new ideas. A friend of mine set up family sleeping in her children's room with two double mattresses on the floor and a separate duvet for everyone. She and her husband occasionally retired to the parental bedroom for some couple time but this worked for them for a few years. Another friend has a motto that the right solution is the one that provides "the maximum amount of sleep for the maximum number of people."

We were "traditional" parents with a first baby who slept alone and a second with whom we tried all the usual sleep training solutions. Once we'd given up our expectation that they would sleep alone at night, our change of attitude allowed us to explore ways that worked for our family and we eventually learned to enjoy having little bodies snuggled up with us. Of course, we were also happy when they no longer needed us and moved on to their own sleeping space. It happens eventually, I promise!

Eileen Harrison
Rennes France

Mother's Response

You have a right to be concerned about your family's sleep situation. Children need enough sleep to grow and develop and parents need sleep to cope patiently during the day. I recall going through a similar situation when our third child was about the same age as yours. I once heard a wise mother say, "Wherever everyone gets the most sleep is the best place for everyone to sleep."

For a while I just went to bed with my toddler. Then we transitioned to my lying down with him to help him sleep, and getting back up for some grown-up time and then returning to his bed to sleep. It really drove me crazy to lie there while he fell asleep. It seemed as though I could be doing more productive things. My husband, however, didn't mind lying down with him to help him get to sleep. So for several months my husband lay down with him while I spent some time with our two older children and put them to bed. Then we had some time together as a couple each evening. Then I would crawl into bed with our toddler. We finally reached a point where I started my night in my own bed, and he would come and get me and I spent the rest of the night in his bed.

We tried to handle it very casually and not make a big issue of it or fight his need for closeness. He seemed to sleep better just knowing I was near him. Looking back, I really cannot recall how long each phase lasted or how old he was during each phase. We reached a point where I was tired of going back and forth from bed to bed and we just gently encouraged him to sleep "until Mr. Sun wakes up."

I encourage you to try some creative solutions so that everyone can get the sleep they need. It can be a catch- 22 trying to be creative when you are feeling sleep-deprived! May you find a solution that works for everyone. Keep in mind your routines will probably change as your child grows.

Jan Branham
Houston TX USA

Mother's Response

I'm the mother of 13 children, ages 16 to 44 years old. Many of my children slept well at night until they reached the stage were they became more mobile. Once they started to walk, their little worlds expanded. I felt they woke at night and needed comforting because they may have had bad dreams. As adults, if we have a nightmare or a dream that causes us some anxiety, we reach for our partner in bed. The presence of another body gives us comfort.

I do remember feeling that this phase was never going to end. I thought that I'd never have a decent night's sleep. Now that my babies are all grown, I miss the smell of a freshly bathed, shampooed little body next to me in bed. It's over all too soon.

Barbara Sobey
Lynbrook NY USA

Mother's Response

My personal experience is that this stage occurred when my children's sleep was disturbed for many different reasons (i.e., teething, nightmares, or muscle pains). It became easier for me to accept when I reasoned with myself. I did have a choice! I could leave my children to cope alone, however upset they were, or I could find ways to be there for them. I decided that I wanted to be a responsive parent.

I really feel that my change in mind-set made more difference than the plans to get extra sleep. Accepting it as a stage gave me confidence that they would outgrow it without my needing to be dynamic at nighttime. I also think I was less tired because I wasn't worried about it being a problem.

Eventually, my children did sleep through the night. Now the hardest part is lying awake waiting for a teenager to come home. At least when they're babies, you know where they are and what they are doing!

Jill Unwin
Berkshire Great Britain

Mother's Response

I can understand how difficult your situation is. I breastfed my toddler and my baby, rarely sleeping more than two hours at a time.

The turning point for me was reading Baby Wisdom: The World's Best-kept Secrets for the First Year of Parenting, by Deborah Jackson. Jackson talks of the Western idea of "monophasic" sleep patterns (hitting the pillow for eight hours) and contrasts this with other cultures, where people regularly wake during the night, stoke the fire, share a joke, or move around. This concept helped me enormously.

I always went to bed by 9 pm, woke about six or seven times through the night, but by the morning had slept for eight hours or so and felt good.

Sandra Thomson
Scotland UK

Mother's Response

When my son was around that age, sometimes he wouldn't sleep as well at night if he was overtired, had missed his nap, or we had had a particularly stressful day. Perhaps if you set aside a quiet time during the day for both of you to nap, you might feel more rested.

Another thing to consider is the possibility of allergies. My daughter was allergy tested after showing a touch of eczema, and I cut the items identified out of our diets. I realized that she was sleeping better, so I had my son tested and modified his diet. He started sleeping better, too. They both still woke, and both still came into our bed, but it made things easier.

Helen Butler
Bedfordshire Great Britain

Last updated Thursday, October 19, 2006 by njb.
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