The Three-Kid Family Sleep Circus
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!!!
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.Published November 11, 2013. Last updated March 12, 2018.