Getting our 3-Year-Old Back to Good Sleep… In 9 (Not Easy) Steps
Yesterday, I wrote about how we found ourselves struggling with sleep with Cee. We knew it was time to make a change, and we knew this meant asking Cee to fall asleep on her own at night, without one of us sitting in her room with her. This was not exactly a new thing for her; until the last 6 months, she’d been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby. Still, given how things had gone lately, this was a big change for all of us.
I want to share how we approached this transition, but I don’t believe this is a magic formula by any means. I don’t think there are easy answers to parenting challenges like these, and what works well in one family might be a flop in another. I am proud of how we thought this through and put a plan into action, and it has seriously given our entire family (Cee included) more happiness around bedtime. Here’s what we did.
1. Husband and I did this together. All of this would have been much harder without his help. He is great at staying calm in stressful situations, which has a calming effect on Cee, and he is thoughtful and empathetic. We also recognize that our relationships with Cee are different. He’s the more fun parent; he’s more lenient with Cee in many ways but is also very good at setting rock solid boundaries when it is important. I’m still the parent that she turns to when she needs comfort. This often means a sweet hug or snuggle session, but it can also mean being on the receiving end of a bunch of messy emotions. Cee and I also tend to end up in power struggles more often, something I’m working on. Because of these differences, Husband was the parent who initially sat down to talk with Cee about bedtime changes. We also made sure he’d be around at bedtime for the first few days (he often works evenings and nights, so this isn’t always the case), so that we could take turns and he could take over if needed.
The importance of a strong parenting partnership has been shown in the research. A recent study from Doug Teti’s Penn State lab found that one of the greatest predictors of high maternal emotional availability at bedtime (discussed in my last post) was the quality of coparenting, even when dads weren’t directly involved with bedtime.
2. We told Cee about the change. We told Cee that it was time for her to start falling asleep on her own again and that we wouldn’t be sitting in her chair anymore. We didn’t dwell on trying to explain why, because we didn’t want her to feel like this change was a punishment for previous bedtime behavior. We didn’t emphasize that big girls go to sleep on their own, because that might have made her wonder if being a big girl was really such a great thing. We simply told her that she used to fall asleep on her own, and we were going to help her do that again.
3. We asked Cee to help us make a new plan for bedtime. “How do you think we can help you with bedtime now that we won’t be sitting in your chair?” Husband asked. She replied, “You can sit in my chair.” And so he offered some ideas. Would it help if we checked on her after we said goodnight? Yes, she thought that would help. We also talked about giving Cee a few minutes of solo reading time in her bed after we said goodnight. I thought this would help her enjoy time alone in her room before we turned out the lights. She said she liked that idea, too. Otherwise, her bedtime routine stayed the same: potty, pajamas, teeth, book, snuggle and “busy day,” and then 4 kisses (cheek, butterfly, nosey, cheek) goodnight. (The reading plan only lasted for a few days. On the third day, Cee said she was just ready to go to sleep. Still, I think having it as an option helped; it was novel and built a little positive excitement around saying goodnight.)
4. We took a couple of days to prepare for the change. On a Monday, we told Cee that we would sit in her chair for two more nights (and naps), and then it would be time for her to fall asleep on her own. Over these two days, we reminded Cee several times that this change was coming and talked through her new routine.
5. We followed through. On Wednesday morning, Cee was sent home from daycare with a fever. As soon as I felt her forehead, I thought to myself that we’d probably need to postpone our sleep changes. Sleep experts always advise not to make big changes when a child is sick, and I think this is generally really good advice. But as I settled myself in her chair at nap time that afternoon, Cee said sleepily from her bed, “Is tonight the night that I will fall asleep on my own?”
She was telling me that she was ready. “That’s right,” I said, “this is the last time I will sit in your chair.”
“Hmmm…” Cee replied, and then she fell asleep.
By the evening, her fever was down, and she was comfortable. She fell asleep on her own that night within minutes and with no protest. The next morning, we congratulated her on her restful night of sleep. She protested more on the 2nd and 3rd nights, but I think that first night gave us all a little more confidence. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that you plan to make changes to your sleep routine when your child is sick, but in this case, Cee was clearly ready, and postponing it might have made the whole thing seem open to negotiation.
6. We normalized Cee’s emotions. Even before implementing our new bedtime routine, I talked with Cee about how she was feeling about it, hoping that I could help her process some of her emotions ahead of time.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“I know it will feel different and that it might be hard for you at first, but I also know that you can do it,” I told her.
“Do you think you will cry when we aren’t sitting in your chair at night anymore?” I asked.
She thought about this and said she wasn’t sure. I let her know that it would be okay to cry, that we understood that she might be upset, but that it wouldn’t change the plan because this was normal and to be expected. When Cee did cry for a few minutes during that first week, Husband told her that she was doing a great job staying in her bed, that it was normal to be upset, and that he cried when he was frustrated and sad as a kid, too. That seemed to help Cee a lot.
7. We set firm boundaries, but we also stayed supportive. For a few nights, Cee got out of her bed and came out of her room after bedtime. We reminded her that she needed to stay in her bedroom, walked her back to bed, and told her that we’d check on her again in a few minutes. When she did this several times, I told her that if she was having a hard time staying in her room on her own, then I would have to hold her door shut to be sure that she did. This was the hard part, but I knew this had to be a firm boundary. Of course, she tested it, and when I held her door shut, she cried. I told her that I’d come check on her again when she was in her bed, and then I let her be mad about it for as long as she needed. After a few minutes, she climbed back into bed, and I came in to tuck her in again. I helped her wipe away her tears, acknowledged that she’d been really upset, and told her that it would feel good to rest now. This happened a few times with me, but it didn’t happen with Husband at all. We both stayed firm about the rule that Cee needed to stay in her room, and we followed through with checking on her, as promised. Ultimately, I think Cee feels safer having clear expectations about staying in her bed, and this allows her to shift gears towards accepting restful sleep rather than fighting it.
8. We kept it up. We went on vacation a week after making these changes (again something that sleep experts don’t recommend). Cee was doing great at home, but I worried about whether we would be able to keep our boundaries in a different place. But we carried on with this as the plan. We brought a night-light and Cee’s cozy travel tent so that we could set up a nice bedtime atmosphere. We told her we’d be in the next room and that we’d check on her while she fell asleep. And she did just great.
9. We created lots of opportunities for connection before, during, and after our change. I know that it is easier for Cee to cope with a change like this when she feels really secure in our relationship. Parenting educator Andrea Nair uses the term “attachment tank” to describe the strength of connection and attachment between a parent and child. This image is really helpful to me, because it recognizes that sometimes our tanks get low, and the answer to that is more connection, more one-on-one time together. I’ve been working on trying to find more moments of undivided attention with Cee throughout the day, but it also helps me to build this into routines. One that we’ve tried these last few weeks is a Pajama Walk. After Cee is ready for bed, with her pajamas on and teeth brushed, we take a little walk around the neighborhood or sometimes just down to the end of our longish driveway and back (a 10-minute adventure at Cee’s pace). This is a time for us to talk about our day, check to see if the wild blackberries are ripe yet, enjoy some fresh air, and wind down. When we’re walking together, the distractions melt away, and we can really listen to each other without time constraints or outside agendas. We haven’t pulled this off every night (sometimes, it’s just too late), but it’s really lovely when we do, and it sets the tone for an easy bedtime. (I can’t remember where I read about this idea – maybe here?)
After all of these changes, bedtime is going really well. The moments leading up to saying goodnight are sweeter, because we’re not bracing ourselves for a struggle. After the first few nights, Cee hasn’t protested falling asleep on her own. We still check on her every 5-10 minutes after we say goodnight, but she often falls asleep by the first or second check. Sometimes she lies in bed and talks or sings to herself for a while, and that’s fine. When I was sitting in her chair at night, I would often hush her in my impatience, but now she has the freedom to wind down in her own way, and I have the freedom to do something else during this time. She’s getting more sleep and seems to be better rested and more resilient during the day, and we’re seeing fewer meltdowns at bedtime. There will no doubt be more sleep challenges to come, but I have a renewed sense of confidence in Cee’s sleep and our family’s expectations around it.
Have you made big changes with sleep with your toddler or preschooler? How have you helped your child adapt to the change?
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