Sleep is scarce in Paul and Crystal Kelly’s South Holland home. Their 2-year-old son, Jordan, who a few months ago graduated from a crib to a bed and his own room, simply won’t stay there. Jordan eventually will go back to sleep, but that can take up to two hours. And by that time, his sleeplessness has ruined everyone’s night.
Things are so bad that Paul sent his wife away on her own vacation just so she could get some needed shut-eye.
“I can’t get up in the morning,” Paul says. “We’re just dragging.”
Paul’s words are familiar to many parents.
Fitful nights are a part of most parents’ lives, experts say. In fact, the phrase “sleeping through the night”—often marked as a significant developmental milestone—is misleading. All children naturally wake up during the night. “The issue is whether they can fall back to sleep on their own,” explains psychologist and author Jodi A. Mindell.
But it is possible to get toddlers into a regular routine and to fall asleep on their own—without disrupting everyone else’s night—Mindell and other experts agree. They say it takes consistency, flexibility, patience and creative thinking. And while it’s not an easy task, helping kids develop healthy sleeping habits will pay off in the end with more shut-eye for everyone.
Be consistent yet flexible
Dr. Stephen Sheldon, director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, says consistency is the most important aspect of coaxing kids into a healthy sleep routine. A set bedtime and nighttime routine go a long way toward getting kids into bed—and staying there. When that fails to keep kids in dreamland, he suggests blending consistency with a bit of flexibility. “Flexible things bend,” he says. “Rigid things break.”
For the Kellys, the marriage of consistency and flexibility may mean letting Jordan go back to his crib, says Mindell.
Sheldon’s and Mindell’s words ring true with the Kellys—consistency alone isn’t working, Paul says. When Jordan emerges from his room in the middle of the night, Paul and his wife always return him to his bed, but he’s undeterred. The Kellys considered putting a gate in his doorway or even locking his door to keep him in the room, but they say they’re afraid it would be traumatic.
“It seemed like when he was in his crib, he was doing pretty well,” Paul says, “which is why this is so frustrating.”
Mindell says Jordan simply doesn’t seem ready for the transition. “There are a number of children who go from great sleepers to a disaster if you move them too early,” Mindell explains. She says some children just can’t handle their new freedom and need the boundaries a crib provides. When that happens, she recommends moving the crib back into the room. Don’t make the child feel defeated, she cautions. Instead, make a big deal of the crib coming back.
Bite the bedtime bullet
Abby Maeir and her husband face similar troubles in their Lake View home. Their 3-year-old son won’t stay in the room he shares with his 16-month-old sister. And it’s not for the parents’ lack of trying.
The Maeirs know all the rules about setting a bedtime and having a regular routine. Each night either Abby or her husband, Jonathan, brings their son to “quiet city” and tries to ease him into a solid sleep. They tried rewarding him with stickers for each night he stayed in bed. He tired of that quickly.
The Maeirs want to be strict, but they’re also afraid to disturb their sleeping 16-month-old baby.
In cases like this, Mindell recommends biting the bullet. For five nights, stop treading on eggshells. If the baby wakes up while Mom or Dad is coaxing the toddler back into bed, so be it. While that might sound like a miserable (and sleepless) five nights, it will pay off in the end.
“You solve two problems,” Mindell says. “You deal with the 3-year-old being up, and the second thing is, fairly quickly, the other child gets used to the crying and sleeps through it.”
Mindell also advises using a night light with a timer in the bedroom so the child knows when it’s time to get up. Set the timer to turn out the light in the morning and tell the child that “quiet city” is over only when the night light goes off.
Sheldon agrees that establishing some routine in the morning—whether it’s a signal such as a night light that says it’s OK to get out of bed or a regular wake-up time—is key.
In some cases, the secret to getting your child to sleep might have less to do with when she goes to bed than when she wakes up. Sheldon says the biggest mistake parents make with sleep is focusing too much on bedtime and not enough on a morning routine.
Kids toddler-age and older reset their biological rhythm each morning when they wake up. “A consistent morning wake-up time will result in resetting that clock appropriately for the next 24-hour cycle,” he says. An uneven morning schedule makes it tougher for the child to develop a good nighttime routine.
Whatever you do, Mindell says, make sure your child is still awake when you put her in bed, and leave her alone before she falls asleep.
“It’s like tying her shoes,” Mindell says. “It’s so much easier for me to tie her shoes for her, but it means she’s never going to learn to do it herself. It’s the same with having them fall asleep alone. You go for the easy, quick way, which doesn’t teach them longer-term skills.”
That, Mindell says, is the secret to reclaiming restful nights.
“A child who can fall asleep on their own at bedtime is a child who is going to fall back asleep at 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” she says.
And if all goes well, the parents will never know.
Steve Bertrand is a writer living in Deerfield with his wife, Sharon, and children, Emma and Noah.