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The Three-Kid Family Sleep Circus

Nov11

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Hey there,

First off, huge fan over here. I practically have your pregnancy guide memorized and have been following your blog for years now. Your words have made me laugh, cry and provided such support over the years.

I have an almost five-year old son, a just turned 2 year old son and a 4.5 month old daughter. We had some pretty solid sleeping routines down with the boys until the baby was born. We’ve also had our share of sleep struggles and I feel as though I’m pretty well versed in infant sleep literature. Being a bit less confident with our first born we even hired a sleep consultant (was more of a cheer leader than anything else). But the point here is that everyone was sleeping through the night until the baby was born.

So now there are two problems:

1. We moved our two-year old into his big brother’s room so his sister who is now co-sleeping with me would eventually have a room and her own space. Since doing this, our two-year old’s sleep is off the rails. He likes for us to sing him to sleep which we’ve obliged during this transition. But now how do we stop when his brother is sleeping soundly just across the room? I’m particularly concerned about protecting our five-year old’s sleep as he just started school and doesn’t get to sleep in as long as he would like. We’ve tried leaving them to work it out on their own but our five year old always calls us back when his little brother starts crying. To make matters worse, the two-year old isn’t falling asleep at bedtime until between 9-10pm with usually my husband in the room singing off and on to settle him. He goes down for his nap OK (1 – 3ish) with a couple of songs and then I usually stay and nurse the baby to sleep. So either he isn’t tired at bedtime (8:00) or we are keeping him awake at bedtime by being in his room. I’m guessing the latter. Strange that it works at nap time though?

2. Our beautiful perfect daughter is a TERRIBLE sleeper. Like the worst of our three and the other two weren’t so good! She has never fallen asleep on her own. Will go from out cold asleep to eyes wide open if you even make a move to put her down. Nurses on and off all night. Is either held for naps or in carriers with me during the day while I take care of her older brothers. This is exhausting. The cuddles are sweet, but this is not sustainable. I plan to sleep train at some point, but I question whether she is even sleep trainable. She hates the car and has literally screamed for over an hour after being fed and sleepy. She has only fallen asleep in the car 2-3 times and never any way else either than being nursed or being rocked. How do we get her ready for sleep training? And what approach do you think would work best given her personality?

Please, please help us with a Family Sleep Make Over!!!

Signed,
All I Want for Christmas is a Family Sleep Makeover

Whoa. Did I just get an email from myself, from the past? From when I had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old and a brand-new baby? I know you said your baby was a girl but maybe I wrote this letter when I was really, really tired and hallucinating a little bit.

In other words, YEAH. To ALLLLL this. A new sibling means trying to juggle alls kinds of new schedules, transitions and competing sleep priorities. And no matter how many times you’ve done the new-baby sleep rodeo, you always reach a point where you’re like, WAIT. WHO CHANGED THE RULES. WHY DO I SUCK AT THIS.

Step One: Help Toddler

Let’s start with that toddler. I would suggest moving his bedtime forward by about an hour, for two reasons:

First, if he’s waking up from his nap at 3 p.m., it’s possible that a five-hour stretch until bedtime is too long for him and he’s getting overtired. And you know the hellish irony that is an overtired baby or toddler. They are more prone to fight sleep even longer (like until 9/10 p.m., as you’re describing) and be even MORE irrational about it. And if your three-kid household atmosphere during the nap-to-bedtime stretch is anything like ours — Daddy’s home! Big brother’s home! Dinner! Dessert! Cartoon! Running around naked after the bath wheeeeeeeeee! — he’s getting SUPER CRAZY STIMULATED to boot.

Second, giving him his own, dedicated bedtime will potentially solve a couple issues at once: Your oldest won’t be disturbed by listening to a singing routine he doesn’t need or care about. Plus, your newly-minted (and maybe not thrilled about it) middle child will get some bonus dedicated one-on-one time and might not feel like he HAS to demand one of you stay in his room for ages afterwards. Make a deal that one of you will stay with him until it’s time for his brother’s bedtime, but no longer. Full stop. No more bedtime routine that never ends, because he knows what he’s doing. Your presence in his room is giving a reason to stay AWAKE, not to go to sleep. But getting one of you to agree to sing and sing and pat and rock or whatever, there’s absolutely no real motivation to give in and sleep, but hey! There’s a GREAT reason to keep fighting the good stay-awake-for-hours fight. So let’s do that! Yay!

While I completely feel for your little middle dude here — so many transitions and changes and he just wants a little attention/babying — bedtime is NOT the time for it. Is there something he and his dad could do “on their own” with some regularity every week? Even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store or market or a Saturday morning coffee/bagel run? We’ve found that nighttime clinginess can often be a sign that somebody is feeling a little lost in the mix, and making a concentrated effort to give that child extra one-on-one time (during the more acceptable daylight hours) can help us dial back the bedtime routine to like, one song and one book.

If he continues to cry and disturb his brother, you could always move him back to the baby’s room every now and then, since she’s not using it yet. I admit Ezra spent a night or two back in the crib even well after we thought his move to the big-boy bed was complete. I think he missed it in theory, and then in reality realized that it wasn’t actually that great and he recommitted himself to the idea of being a big boy. Or maybe he just needed to go through the motions of making the move his own CHOICE, rather than us just unveiling the new bed and ushering him into it that same night? I dunno. For a last resort, there’s always an air mattress on the floor in the baby’s room so your oldest can sleep, but that might introduce more confusion than it’s worth. I will say that my boys NOW can successfully tune each other out to an enviable degree and can sleep soundly through the other one’s singing, reading, general-sleep-resisting, etc, so it’s possible your oldest isn’t losing out on as much sleep as you fear.

Step Two: Help Baby

Now, let’s talk about that baby:

1) Is she swaddled? If not, try swaddling. Even if you decided earlier on that she didn’t “like” swaddling. Miracle Blanket. Believe it. The whole “jerk awake the second we move her” thing is a tell that her little startle/movement reflexes are still running in high gear, and the fact that she likes naps in your arms or a carrier suggests that she’s craving that close, tight, womb-like sensation. I’d probably hate going right from that to being plopped on a hard crib mattress (with all my noodly, uncontrollable limbs flailing all over the place) too, so think of the swaddle as a step-down transitional approach.

2) Some people say four months old is a good time to introduce sleep training. I am not really one of those people. I think six months is better, though my second-born transitioned from co-sleeping to the crib right around your daughter’s age because I was starting to see through space and time from the lack of sleep and the cluster nursing all night…and I realized that — much like your middle son’s bedtime demands of an entire performance of The Pirates of Penzance — co-sleeping was not exactly giving him any reason to change his sleeping habits. Boobs! Right there! I believe I will haz some, yes.

Ezra made the transition pretty well thanks to the Miracle Blanket and some very disorganized, half-assed Ferber-like motions that weren’t really sleep “training” as much as they were us going in and out and in and out of his room every five/10 minutes for about an hour every night, for about a week. Your daughter sounds a little more difficult than Ezra and I’m guessing that a transition to the crib won’t go very well without a real, solid plan. So I recommend buying two different books that cover two very different plans, if you haven’t read them both already: The No-Cry Sleep Solution and Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. I think your daughter is far too young for anything that involves extended crying — and I can tell you already sort of “know” that isn’t a good fit for her scream-for-an-hour personality. The No-Cry Sleep Solution is probably the ideal one for her age and would be the one that I’d WANT to work for her…but I admit we tried a ton of that stuff early on with Ike (my 3rd child) and then ended up going Full Ferber a few months later anyway. And in the end, the Ferber approach of short, controlled blocks of crying and gradual parental extinction from the room is what really did solve his sleep issues FOR GOOD. (Bonus: Ferber’s book covers stuff that’s relevant to your 2-year-old’s regression and might give you additional ideas/insight there.)

Good luck! And May All Your Christmas Sleep Wishes Come True.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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13 Responses to “The Three-Kid Family Sleep Circus”

  1. Autumn Nov 11 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    My only 2 cents to add is with your daughter.  As you are going to comfort her in her new sleeping space, have Daddy take a couple of turns.  Daddy can’t make it all better with the mighty boob, so it will help her work on her self-soothing.  When we went through this (around a year but still) we agreed our daughter could have bed time nursing, and one “snack” overnight several hours after she was asleep if she woke.  

    Maybe if you say she can have evening nursing, then 2 “overnight snacks” from you, with daddy covering the rest, it might help her learn that waking up isn’t always profitable and just settling down here in my nice bed is

  2. Kat Nov 11 at 5:27 pm Reply Reply

    Check out the Sleep Easy Solution – has great stuff for infants and toddlers (all the way up into school aged kids). We used it on the recommendation of my SIL, and were really pleased with the supportive way that it suggested we work through our boy’s sleep issues (he sounds a lot like your daughter, in that full on CIO was likely not going to work). It’s kind of a low cry method, in which you set baby up for success (with consistent routines and lots of opportunities to self-soothe) and then intervene minimally while baby works out how to get to sleep (or back to sleep) on his own. The same gentle approach is taken with the sleep issues covered for older kids – lots of great ideas on how to work through regression and other “affects bed time” issues.

  3. Leslie Nov 11 at 6:27 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you so much for this question and advice! I’m going though the same thing with my 5 yr, 2.5 ye and 6 monther. We just moved into my in-laws house temporarily and bedtime has been chaos for a while. Especially for the baby.I’m going to check out those books you recommended.Thanks again. 

  4. Tamara Nov 11 at 9:05 pm Reply Reply

    I suggest checking out The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight by Kim West. It literally changed our lives, and has a different chapter for each age.

  5. C Nov 11 at 11:02 pm Reply Reply

    See for us, I’d give the opposite advice for the toddler – shorten or cut the nap. Two full hours and then expecting him to sleep 12 hours overnight is too much. If you shorten or cut nap he will go down earlier

    • Kim Nov 12 at 2:30 pm Reply Reply

      I’ve been trying that for almost 2 years with my youngest (4 at the end of the year.) It has never worked.  She can go for a week with no nap, but if she needs it, she needs it, and waking her in the middle just makes her cranky and everyone else miserable.

  6. Theresa Nov 11 at 11:39 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, I have to strongly disagree with you,C. That toddler is overtired. He needs to have a good 2 hour nap and be back in bed by 7. Changed my life when I finally figured that out!!!

  7. susan Nov 12 at 12:28 am Reply Reply

    I strongly second Kat’s recommendation of The Sleep Easy Solution; it will also have some ideas for your two year old, is a gentle Ferber/CIO method, and has a pretty thorough planning process that I really liked. With charts :)

  8. Christina Nov 12 at 1:42 pm Reply Reply

    Instead of the Miracle Blanket, we’re using the Halo these days. Its easier to get our 4 month old into and its fleece so he has extra warmth in these colder months.

  9. amber Nov 12 at 3:21 pm Reply Reply

    GREAT!
    Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
    by Marc Weissbluth M.D. 

  10. sabrina Nov 14 at 1:14 pm Reply Reply

    Our 2 boys (almost 4 years apart) have always shared a room. They occasionally make a ruckus at bedtime and keep each other from being able to go to sleep. We have had great success with having one of them go to sleep in their own bed and the other go to sleep in the parents’ bed. When the grownups are ready to go to sleep for the night, we just carry the sleeping child to his own bed. I also second the recommendation for the Weissbluth book. It sounds like an earlier bedtime for the middle child is a good idea. Good luck!

  11. leslie Nov 14 at 5:18 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, yes, yes to the toddler being overtired and needing to go to bed earlier. Sleep begets sleep, and it sounds like he isn’t getting enough. Plus, getting him to sleep before his brother is in the room will solve the problem of his bedtime routine keeping the older brother up. I am still always amazed at how much easier it is to get my daughter (3 yo) to go to sleep at 7 than at 8 or 8:30. Once you’ve crossed the “overtired” line, it’s so hard to get them to sleep!!

  12. Lyn R Nov 26 at 6:38 pm Reply Reply

    Routine is so hard to tweek and get right isnt it. I wish I had my time over again with the kids, I made so many mistakes.  I remember as a child that we would be in real trouble if we didnt just go to sleep…we used to whisper and giggle but we soon dropped off!.  I think we set soft rules and pander to them far too easily and being kids they will always push the their luck!

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