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Can This Bedtime Be Saved?

By Amalah

Hi Amalah! Big fan here. I am hoping you can solve this bedtime mess that I’ve gotten myself into.

I have a beautiful 18-month-old daughter that runs the roost around here, especially at bedtime. We do not go to bed until she does, usually around 9:00 if we are lucky. (I have to wake up before dawn because of a long commute, so this is late for me.) She has no bedtime routine, except that when she is tired, she crawls into my husband’s lap and stays there until she is good and asleep. Then he transfers her to the crib. Any attempt to rock her to sleep or put her in the crib while still awake results in a tantrum.

Overall, though, getting her to sleep is the easy part. What is slowly driving us crazy is the night wakings. Five to six nights a week, she wakes up and cries until one of us picks her up and puts her in our bed. I know that is the wrong thing to do, but she can not be calmed any other way. Back rubs just upset her more because WHY WON’T YOU PICK ME UP, MOMMY? and no matter how long you hold her and rock her (standing up, because she hates the glider), she will cry as soon as her head touches the crib mattress.

It wasn’t always like this. The first twelve months of her life she had a solid bedtime routine that ended with her falling asleep (quickly, peacefully) in my arms as I rocked her to sleep. I never succeeded at putting her into the crib “drowsy, but awake” as everyone suggests. But she slept through the night every night, unless a tooth or illness cropped up. The chaos started when I eliminated her bedtime bottle. She would not let me rock her to sleep without it, and she sleepily turned to her dad for comfort from the mean mama trying to make her go to bed.

So I guess my questions are:

1) Can this bedtime situation be saved?
2) Do you have any theories on why she is waking up so frequently at night? And what should I do about it?

Thanks in advance!

Ay yi yi, y’all. Is this not pretty much everyone’s worst nightmare? Sorry, OP.

So. You’ve got a bunch of nighttime problems here, but they’re all pretty much stemming from a singular source: That bedtime “routine.”

1) She’s going to bed too late, basically at her point of exhaustion from the sounds of it, whenever she decides she’s too tired to fight it any longer. Honestly, 9 pm is on the late side for an 18-month-old, even if she was sleeping through the night. Which she is not. Overtired kids are more prone to night wakings.

2) She’s never learned to put herself to sleep on her own. Even before things went completely bonkers, she was dependent on you to basically wait it out and put her down after she’s sound asleep. She still is. The problem is now even more obvious because a) she’s older, and these sleep disturbances SHOULD be a thing of the past, barring illness or the occasional growth spurt, b) she’s overtired and it’s taking a toll on her, and c) well, she continues to basically get what she wants at night, every night, as you guys blearily head to her room and retrieve her. Why mess with what works, yo?

Except obviously, it’s not really working. This is not a sustainable situation, for ANY of you. (Especially since I’m assuming long-term co-sleeping probably isn’t your bag, and you’d like her to sleep in her own room. Word to that.)

I had a come-to-Jesus moment when my third son, Ike, was eight months old and pretty much doing everything your daughter is — the endless bedtime, the wakings at 2…then 3…then 4 — when I suddenly found myself behind the wheel of the car, in the parking lot at my second son, Ezra’s, preschool, with absolutely no recollection of how I got there. I was so tired and I had NO business driving anywhere, much less through an elementary school crossing zone with multiple children in my car. And you’re commuting at dawn! Trust me, as awful and daunting as sleep training can seem before and during…I’d personally gladly trade some tantrums at home for a car wreck on the highway. Or a ton of missed days at work because you’re run down and sick. Or just generally unhappy all the time because your lack of sleep is robbing you of everything. Having a baby does not change the fact that you and your husband are still human beings who need sleep.

I would definitely recommend you at least check out Richard Ferber’s book (Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems). I think a lot of people have incorrect preconceptions about “the Ferber method” — preconceptions he frankly addresses in the latest edition, which I really liked. Ferber is NOT “let ’em scream for hours at bedtime and don’t go in if they wake up.” Ferber is not hardcore Cry-It-Out (CIO), but more of the “gradual extinction” method, in which you (gradually) remove yourself from your daughter’s falling-asleep process. The theory is that once she’s putting herself to sleep initially, she’ll also learn to control those night-wakings before they actually, fully wake her up. And the fact that she won’t be so tired anymore will mean fewer night-wakings anyway.

However, even if you are anti-ANY AND ALL CRYING/TANTRUMS/DISTRESS, I’d still recommend reading Ferber’s book, because he lays out a logical, compelling case on why a good night’s sleep is crucially, vitally important to your daughter, as well. This isn’t a good situation for her, either.  I’ve struggled with bouts of insomnia my whole life — I can get to sleep just fine, but the minute I’m a bit stressed (HINT: ALWAYS) I start waking up at night for no reason, and am completely unable to fall back asleep. It sucks. Over the years I’ve found self-soothing techniques and mental relaxation exercises that allow me to shut off my brain and get back to sleep, but UGH. I hate it. So I’m super-sympathetic to your daughter here, because I know exactly the pissed-off, oh-no-not-again, MOM GET IN HERE AND HELP state she’s waking up to at night.

I think the Ferber book will lay out the right plan for you to move bedtime off Daddy’s lap at 9 pm and back to 8 pm in the crib. If you’re not sure, there’s also The Happiest Toddler on the Block and The No-Cry Sleep Solution For Toddlers. Both of which are highly respected systems that I know have worked for a lot of families. (No-Cry did not work for us, for Ike, but I admit it’s all about consistent, long-term execution and we were all over the place for awhile, especially since we had two OTHER children to deal with at bedtime. Ferber got us back on track in two nights. TWO NIGHTS.) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is another one you could check out.

Basically, I don’t necessarily care WHAT approach you go with, just that I want you to get serious, pick an approach and then STAY WITH IT. Stay strong and consistent. Your daughter is of course the most precious being in the world, but she is Not The Boss Of Bedtime Or You. Nor should she, because babies are ridiculous and make no sense, because YOU NEED TO SLEEP GAH WHY WON’T YOU SLEEP.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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