Toddlers are fascinating creatures, aren’t they? Watching them develop into thinking, creative little people is such a fascinating time, and one that parents often wish would last a little longer.
Of course, they usually wish that AFTER baby has grown out of the toddler stage, because along with that creativity and new found intelligence, we usually see a lot of boundary-testing, which can be incredibly frustrating.
When I have my initial consultations with the parents of a toddler, there’s usually some kind of amusing story surrounding bedtime. They’ll tell me about how their little one gets three or four stories a night, sometimes five, and then they usually ask for a glass of milk that they’ll only drink a few sips of, then they want to say goodnight in a very specific, drawn-out way, and the parents will end up looking at each other wondering how on earth they got to this point.
And it always happens the same way... a little bit at a time.
Toddlers love to test boundaries, and they know that the one thing you want from them at bedtime is for them to go to sleep, so they’ll use that to their advantage. I know it sounds a little diabolical, but it’s their way of seeing where your boundaries lie and how much authority they actually have.
So one night they ask for a glass of milk, and the parents think, “What’s the harm?” The next night, they ask for a glass of milk and an extra story. A week later, they want a glass of milk, an extra story, and three hugs and two goodnight kisses. Little by little, these crazy bedtime routines get established, all according to what the toddler wants.
So there’s a simple, two step solution to this issue.
That’s it. It’s that simple. I won’t lie, sticking to the rules can be a challenge, because they’re going to ask, test and complain. But if you stick to your guns, they’ll understand sooner rather than later that the bedtime routine is not up for debate.
This benefits both of you, in spite of the fact that your little one might not agree. Toddlers take a great amount of comfort in knowing that you, the parent, are firmly in charge and are confident in your decisions. It gives them a sense of security. If you start allowing them to make the decisions, they actually start to feel like they’re in charge, and that feeling that Mom knows what she’s doing starts to fade.
Additionally, a predictable, repetitive bedtime routine is greatly conducive to a good night’s sleep. It signals the brain to start secreting melatonin and signals the body to start relaxing muscles in preparation for a restful, relaxing slumber.
And, finally, you’ll never have to explain to your friends how you have to have to make your little guy pancakes at ten at night in order for him to go to bed.
When parents ask me this, I know they’re looking for a quick answer.
“Three nights from now,” or “Six months old,” are the kind of responses you’re hoping for, and the kind I wish I could give you, but it’s not that simple.
The first thing I need you to understand is this...
Your baby will never sleep through the night.
That’s right I said it! They won’t sleep through the night when they’re babies, or when they’re toddlers, or when they’re teenagers, or when they’re grown-ups… because nobody ever does.
We sleep in cycles. These cycles vary from light sleep to deep sleep and back again. Sometimes, when we get into a light sleep stage of our cycle, something happens that wakes us up. It could be the dog growling, the spouse snoring, or a crazy dream where you think you’re falling! But whatever that thing is… it wakes us.
As adults, we have experienced this thousands of times, so we just shake it off and go back to sleep. Most of the time, the wake-up is so short that we don’t even remember it the next day.
But for babies who are used to being rocked, shushed, bounced, or nursed to sleep, waking up in the night requires external help to get back into another sleep cycle.
So that’s the reason why your baby is never going to sleep through the night, but then again, that’s not what you are really asking.
What you really want to know is, “When will my baby be able to get back to sleep on their own?”
Now THAT is a much easier question to answer. Quite simply, this will happen when they learn how!
When you teach your little one to go to sleep on their own, they’ll be able to utilize that skill multiple times a night, every night, for the rest of their lives.
Now, there’s more to it than just leaving your baby alone in their crib and letting them figure it out for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, that approach has worked for a lot of people, but it’s not one that everybody is comfortable using, and it’s not the most gentle or effective way of teaching your baby great sleep skills.
The traditional Cry-It-Out approach is a lot like leaving your child in front of a piano with some sheet music and saying, “Figure it out.” Eventually, they just might, and you might just have the Elton John of sleeping on your hands. But assuming your child isn’t gifted in the sleep department, (and I’m just assuming they’re not, since you’re reading this) they could probably benefit with some lessons.
And as with any skill that a child needs to learn, practice is essential, so let them give it a shot. There’s probably going to be a bit of crying, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go in and encourage, comfort and reassure them.
What you shouldn’t do, however, is sit down at the piano and play it for them. Obviously, that doesn’t teach them anything. So whatever it is that you’ve traditionally done to get your child to go to sleep in the evening, or in the middle of the night (whether it’s giving them a pacifier, rocking them back to sleep, nursing them, whatever) can be defined as a “sleep prop”. These “sleep props” are the equivalent of teaching your child how to play the piano by playing it for him.
They may get frustrated, they may get upset, but they’ll learn with a little time and practice.
So although I can’t give an exact date or age when your baby will go through the night without crying and demanding help to get back to sleep, I can tell you that it will be much, much sooner if you stop doing it for them.
As for teaching your little one to play piano, you’re on your own with that one.
My name is Ericka Cooley and I'm a mom of two young ones, Taylor and Matthew.