How My 3-Year-Old’s Sleep Fell Apart
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that after I finished my book, I needed a sort of parenting reset with Cee. One of the big areas that we needed to work on was sleep. Bedtime had become a battle, and it was taking Cee a long time to fall asleep. This was leaving us all frustrated at the end of the day, and Cee was waking up grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t have the energy and attention to work on it while I was trying to finish my book, although in hindsight I’m not sure why we waited this long. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made some big changes to get us back to happy bedtimes.
Let me back up and tell you how we got into trouble with sleep in the first place. Last August, we moved to a new house. By this time, Cee had been in a toddler bed for almost a year, but she had no problem staying in it at bedtime or through the night. We had a sweet bedtime routine that ended with kisses goodnight, turning off the light, and then good sleep for Cee. After we moved, Cee started talking about being afraid of things like the deer and turkeys that wandered through the yard of our new house. We talked about these fears, got her a night light, and spent a little more time with her before saying goodnight, singing a couple of rounds of Twinkle, Twinkle and rubbing her back for a few minutes. All of that was fine.
Then Cee started getting out of her bed after we left her room for the night. She’d pad into the living room or my office to find me. I’d walk her back to bed and tuck her in again, but some nights this happened over and over. I would be shocked to see her in my office door at 9:00 or 9:30 PM, long after her 8:00 bedtime. She was also waking up during the night, coming into our room, and patting my shoulder until I woke up. I would walk her back to her room, often lying down next to her until she went back to sleep. Alternatively, I’d pull her into bed with me, but neither of us slept very well this way. All of this was adding up to fewer hours and less restful sleep for both of us.
Things seemed to get worse around the holidays. Cee was getting out of bed more and more after bedtime, and she was having a hard time separating when we tucked her back in. She started asking us to sit with her while she fell asleep, and this actually seemed like a reasonable solution. At least if we sat in her room we could make sure that she stayed in her bed, and maybe she would fall asleep easier and get more rest this way. I reminded myself that she was just 3, and if she was asking for more support in her transition to sleep, why shouldn’t we give that to her? (Never mind that she had been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby.)
There was something else going on at this time, too. I thought that maybe Cee’s struggles with sleep were because I wasn’t there enough for her in the day. I was going through a really tough period, approaching the 1-year anniversary of our first miscarriage and beginning some fertility testing. I desperately wanted another baby, and the despair I felt that this might not ever happen cast a shadow over everything else. Meanwhile, I was afraid that I was failing the child that I already had. Cee was entering a more challenging stage where she was alternatively asserting more independence and being more clingy, but I felt so worn thin that I worried I couldn’t respond in the way that she needed me to. Maybe, I thought, what she needed was more physical closeness, which might give her more security and result in fewer struggles at bedtime.
And so, Husband and I started taking turns sitting in a chair in Cee’s room while she fell asleep at night and at nap time. At first, this seemed to work pretty well. I would usually read on my phone under a blanket while she fell asleep, and I didn’t mind this excuse to catch up on the happenings around the Internet. Cee still took a long time to fall asleep, but at least she wasn’t up and down out of her bed.
On their own, I don’t know if any of these changes were really problematic or what I might do differently. Lots of parents stay with their kids while they fall asleep. The problem, in our case, was this: Sitting with Cee at bedtime didn’t help her get more sleep, and it didn’t help our relationship. In fact, as time went on, I think both of these things got worse. Sometimes we’d have to sit in her chair for over an hour before she fell asleep. Worse, she used our presence as a way to delay sleep, trying her best to engage us in conversation, insisting that she needed another trip to the bathroom, that she was too hot or too cold, that she needed chap stick, a band-aid for yesterday’s scrape, or some nasal saline for her nose that was suddenly too stuffed up to sleep. Then, when I started saying no to these things, she would need a tissue to wipe away her tears of disappointment, plus a new pillowcase because this one was all wet, and then some help calming down. I felt like she was constantly pushing up against my boundaries, testing, testing, testing, until she fell asleep in exhaustion. Bedtime was no longer a relaxing preparation for sleep; it was a nightly power struggle that often ended with a frustrated mama snapping at an exhausted but determined Cee.
It was clear to me that we’d ended up in trouble with sleep in our house. My good intention of trying to be more supportive of Cee at bedtime had actually ended up undermining her confidence in her ability to fall asleep on her own, my confidence in my ability to set healthy boundaries that would support her in good sleep, and her confidence in me to be the gentle leader that she needed.
Around this time, I interviewed Dr. Douglas Teti of Penn State for my book. Dr. Teti is a developmental psychologist currently leading a large NIH-funded study of infant sleep and how it relates to child development, parenting, and family dynamics. It’s fascinating work, and I can’t wait to learn more about this study as the results are published. One of the things that Teti and his research team study is maternal emotional availability at bedtime. They collect video recordings of bedtime interactions between moms and babies, and they score them for the following components of emotional availability (definitions from this paper):
- Sensitivity – Parent’s ability to accurately and respond contingently to child signals with warmth and emotional connectedness.
- Structuring – Parent’s capacity for appropriate scaffolding of child activities and setting appropriate limits.
- Nonintrusiveness – Parent’s capacity to respect the child’s autonomy and personal space.
- Nonhostility – Parent’s ability to interact with the child without signs of covert or overt irritability or anger.
Teti’s research has shown that when parents have more emotional availability at bedtime, their babies sleep better, and they also show more secure attachment. (The finding about attachment has not yet been published, but Teti’s lab presented it at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, and he discussed it with me during our interview.) Bedtime practices, like where the baby sleeps and how much physical closeness is involved in the bedtime routine, don’t seem to be important to either sleep or attachment. What is important is finding sleep arrangements and routines that allow you to be an emotionally available parent at bedtime, so that your child feels safe and secure as she drifts off to sleep.
Teti’s research is about babies, and Cee is now 3. However, after talking with Teti, I found myself reflecting on my own emotional availability at bedtime. It was suffering. I had thought that staying with Cee at bedtime – being more physically available to her – would help her feel more secure and improve her sleep. Instead, my physical closeness was simply opening up opportunities for conflict and interfering with Cee’s ability to wind down to sleep on her own, which she’d previously been very good at doing. Meanwhile, it was wearing down my emotional availability, which meant that sometimes my last interaction of the day with Cee was one of “overt irritability and anger.” I knew this didn’t feel good to me, and it surely didn’t feel good to Cee. In fact, I think our bedtime struggles were compromising the quality of our relationship both day and night, bringing out the worst in both of us.
My husband and I agreed that we needed to make a change. Most importantly, Cee needed to start going to sleep on her own again. The next step was getting Cee on board with, or at least prepared for, that change. I’ll leave that story for tomorrow’s post.
It’s been humbling to find that we could fall out of good sleep habits so easily, but I’ve learned a lot about learned a lot about myself as a parent and about Cee by sorting through this problem and trying to find a solution. Have you run into surprising sleep challenges as your child grows?
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