Toddler Sleep: When It All Goes to Shit

This is one of the cruel surprises in the parenting journey.

Many babies don’t achieve that elusive ‘sleeping through the night’ magic until 12 months, 24 months- sometimes way longer.

I was lucky and persistent in my efforts to wean goblin off the breast after he was 1 and got him sleeping all night in his own bed. Whilst we’ve had the odd rough patch where bedtime has been a screaming match and night waking starts up again, we had a good solid six months or so of decent nights.

So when, around 2 weeks before Christmas, my good sleeper started sobbing hysterically every bedtime and then waking sometimes every hour or so during the night, everything I thought I knew about sleep patterns and routine went completely to shit. 

He’s an early riser – always has been- so I learned to adjust to that by just going to bed by 9pm every night in order to not be too exhausted by the 5am starts. However this new phase trashed all of that because he wasn’t falling asleep until 9 and then woke up at least 3 times before morning. Always crying, always unwilling to lie down again in his bed.

This went on for about 3 weeks – the whole of the Christmas holidays. It was tough.

Sleep does tend to go to shit when they are going through a developmental phase or ‘leap’ (see the Wonder Weeks to learn about this, it’s incredibly accurate!) as their brains are so busy learning new things and their bodies are so busy growing that it does affect their sleep.

Whether it’s a full blown sleep regression or just a little rough patch, it’s hard and it’s exhausting. Especially if you’ve gotten used to them sleeping well. If I’ve learned anything from parenting is that getting used to a certain phase and expecting it to stay the same is complete madness. The little buggers are changing constantly.

What I learned from this latest phase of doom:

It is a phase and does not last forever, though it feels like it at the time. 

When it’s been going on for a week, it feels like a month and it feels never-ending. It does get better and they will sleep again. You just need to grit your teeth and get through it, sleep when you can and try not to lose your mind.

Stay consistent

I made mistakes here as I tried something different every night to get through it. Sometimes I would bring him into my bed, sometimes I would sit in the chair with him and transfer him to the cot once asleep and sometimes I stayed up for over 2 hours settling him back and letting him cry a little in between (which is/was horrible).

It’s very tempting to just bring them in with you, especially if it means you both get some sleep then, however I found that the more I did this, the more he would wake up at exactly the same time every night expecting to come in with me and would scream bloody murder until this is what he got.

Once I was consistent and just comforted him without relenting and taking him into my room to sleep, he gradually woke up less. I am not suggesting this works for everyone, but it is one way. And consistency is key. However you decide to deal with it, be consistent and do the same thing at every wake-up.

Keep bedtime the same 

Keeping a consistent bedtime routine is key. I introduced the bath, massage, book, song, bed routine when goblin was about 3 months old and it’s been the same ever since. I do the same at naptime (minus the bath). He knows when it’s time to go to sleep and starts yawning as soon as I start to recite ‘Goodnight Moon’ to him. Aside from these rough patches of course.

Make sure there’s no other reason they are waking

They could be hungry, thirsty or unwell. They could be having bad dreams. So ensuring they have a full tummy at bedtime and have water nearby overnight and aren’t feverish is important.

One night amongst the bad bunch, I decided to see if my goblin was hungry and he ended up wolfing down banana and going straight back to sleep. I tried the same the next night however and the banana ended up squashed into my face and the screaming went on for another hour.

So, once you establish there is absolutely nothing physically wrong and they are just waking up for the hell of it, then find a way of dealing with it and as I mentioned before, be consistent.

Be prepared for a bunch of new skills at the end of it

Zac’s speech came on leaps and bounds pretty much overnight once this 3 week phase came to a gradual end. His coordination and social skills became far more advanced as well. It was a noticeable change, so I realised what the phase had been about and I was delighted we had both got through it reasonably unscathed and there was a plan all along.

Don’t bother trying to change up the routine until the phase is over

Going away with them overnight (unless absolutely necessary) is a bad idea. It will likely be a worse night than all the others…

 

Toddler sleep going to shit is almost worse that the wakeful nights when they’re babies because as babies they just cry and you console them and they sleep in your arms. Toddlers are more passionate and combative and know what makes you tick – so trying to get them back down when they don’t want to go back to sleep is like trying to wrestle a flailing angry chimpanzee who knows exactly which pitch of scream will send you running to them with panic stricken eyes.

Proper little buggers, to be honest.

Each phase ends though and another begins. Each feels worse than the last but it’s always changing. Keeps you on your toes!

Good luck out there. Drink coffee.

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