Teaching Toddler to Sleep Before New Baby Arrives

Dr. Laura,
First of all, know how much I appreciate and admire you and your wisdom and your work. Our only son and daughter-in-love have a 21 month old (as of today) who is not sleeping through the night and I'd love to impart your thoughts to them. They are pregnant and due April 1 with another son and would love to have this resolved sooner than later and are open to suggestions. They say he has trained them to get up and soothe him in the middle of the night with a bottle or simply holding him and cuddling for a while. So now they are letting him cry hoping he'll learn to soothe, figure it out for himself. I hate to keep asking how it's going and I am concerned about the two of them getting enough sleep. They both work full time and he's in a loving home daycare. Thnx! M.

M,
Thanks for writing. Many 21 month olds still wake up at night. There are no easy answers, and your son's choice to have another child so soon when he and his partner are both working outside the home fulltime has added to the complexity of solving this problem, because the solution will not be immediate, while the job pressures are and the new baby will add stress to everyone in the family, especially the toddler. I will tell you my opinion, and I hope it will help.

A 21 month old is still a baby, and in my view needs parenting at night just as much as during the day. The idea that little ones learn to self-soothe by being left to "figure it out for themselves" is wish-fulfillment. Humans learn to self-soothe by being soothed. That's simply how brain development works. When a baby or young child cries and is soothed, he experiences soothing biochemicals and begins to develop the neural pathways to deliver those soothing neurotransmitters to himself for the rest of his life. His neurology organizes itself so that he does learn, eventually, to soothe himself. But if he cries and no one responds, it triggers his survival panic. That's because nature has designed us for survival, and a 21 month old left without parents nearby is indeed in danger of his life. Naturally, he panics.

If this happens once in the context of a secure and loving relationship with both of his parents, I would hope that it would have little effect, although this is not a question science has yet answered. However, science has made great progress in the past decade in mapping infant brain development and forming credible hypotheses on the effects of various parenting practices on babies. I think most researchers in the field would agree that repeatedly leaving a 21 month old to cry will certainly have an effect on the child's neural development. All the brain research I have read suggests that leaving a little one alone to cry will make this human more likely to panic in challenging emotional situations, especially ones that threaten abandonment. (That means that he would have a harder time than usual dealing with a romantic breakup or a death, or even the rejection of being fired or not chosen for something.) His tendency to get upset about little things will be heightened and his ability to soothe himself will be compromised, which could make for a more "dramatic" and "difficult" personality.

We know that with children who are preverbal, there is less continuity in their feeling states, and memories are stored differently. That means that while a baby who has been left to cry may seem fine the next morning, he is storing up those experiences of having been terrified, and they are still affecting him. We don't know exactly how, but we certainly know that children who are slightly older who have experiences of feeling abandoned remember those experiences as traumatic throughout their lives. We also know that fear is at the root of much of the acting out that children do, including, often, their angry and obstinate behavior.

So while leaving children to cry alone at night may teach them to give up on calling for us, everything I have learned has convinced me that the cost is just too high.

In addition, it has been my observation (and I do not have research to support this, but I am convinced from hearing this from parents) that when both parents work fulltime, the little one often needs more parenting at night to feel secure. Kids whose parents both work full time outside the home do tend to go to bed later and wake up more often. Many women who go back to work after time at home report that their child begins to wake up at night even when he had previously been a good sleeper. Connection is a critical need to a toddler, and he may be making sure he gets enough of it.

Does that mean that your son can't help his little one sleep better night? No. Many toddlers wake at night, but there are certainly ways to help them sleep better. Here's what I'd suggest.

1. Realize that all humans go through various stages of sleep during the night. As we transition from one to the next, we awaken slightly. The eventual goal is to help your grandson find his way from the light sleep stage back into deeper sleep without needing an outside crutch to make the transition. Outside crutches are anything that is outside the child's control, such as a a bottle or rocking. It is true that little ones can get used to a specific "crutch" and need it every time they awaken slightly so that they can go back to sleep. For that reason, it is my opinion that it is a good idea to stop giving toddlers over the age of about 15-18 months milk at night. That does indeed train the child to awaken, and it is also bad for his teeth.

2. Go gradual. A child who is used to having a bottle at night will be hungry for it at night, just the way we are hungry at lunch. The best way I know to help him get used to doing without a bottle is to gradually dilute the milk with water so he gets less and less milk at night. He will probably begin eating more during the day to make up for the lost calories, which is desirable. Within a few weeks, he will probably not be waking at night looking for the bottle, because he is not counting on it to meet his caloric needs.

3. Help him process feelings during the day.
What if the toddler still awakens, and cries to be held and cuddled, during the night? It is possible that this child -- like most toddlers -- has some big feelings he needs to get out. It's a big world full of new and often scary things that we don't even notice, from barking dogs to other toddlers grabbing his toys to separating all day from his special people. He tries all day to be a big boy and hold those feelings in. At night, he is delighted to see Mom and Dad. There is dinner and bathtime and bedtime, and it all goes so fast. Then, in the middle of the night, he dreams and all of his fears and worries come up. When he wakes slightly, they swamp him. So he DOES need comforting to cry those feelings out. Of course, he doesn't necessarily have to do that at night. Any time the parent sets a reasonable limit is an opportunity for him to tap into that backlog of feelings and let them out. Parents who understand this phenomenon and give their child a safe, supportive, empathic place to express his feelings by crying or raging in their arms during the day are often rewarded by a child who sleeps better at night.

What if the toddler has plenty of other safe opportunities to cry, but still wakes up at night calling for his parents?

4. Look at how he falls asleep. It should be obvious that most little ones who are rocked to sleep will want to be rocked to sleep when they wake up at night. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with lying down with him and cuddling him to sleep, but naturally when he awakens slightly during the night he will look for the parent who has vanished. Gradually help him learn to fall asleep in his bed without you holding him. Being in the room is fine, incidentally, it is the physical contact that seems to serve as a sleep "crutch" to help the child to the next sleep cycle. Fair warning: this process takes a couple of months to do gently. It is, however, well worth it, because the child develops the ability to put himself back to sleep. All kids do develop this skill eventually, of course. Parents who do this are simply helping their children develop it sooner. Like any other time we push kids to do what we want rather than what they want, we have to understand their point of view and be patient as they get used to the idea.

In my view, a 21 month old is young for this lesson. It's a lot to ask of him, especially when he is about to have a new sibling. But as long as his Dad stays present, patient, and understanding, your grandson will learn to go to sleep in his own bed without sucking or rocking or being held. There's a whole article on my website about how to do this:

Helping Your Toddler Learn to Put Himself to Sleep

5. Consider the Family Bed.
Let's presume the child has learned to put himself to sleep without the parent holding him at night, and he has no other no physical "crutches" outside his control that he depends on to go back to sleep, such as a pacifier or bottle. If he continues to awaken at night, then he is asking for parenting. Parenting doesn't stop just because it is dark. Many parents solve this challenge by moving the child into the parents' room so that it is not a problem for them to parent him at night. He doesn't have to sleep in the same bed, if the bed is too crowded to allow everyone to sleep well, but most toddlers who sleep with their parents wake up LESS at night, because they feel the security of the parents' presence. When they waken slightly at night, they reach out and touch the parent, and go right into the next sleep cycle knowing all is right with the world. (This only pertains once the toddler is no longer waking to nurse or have a bottle; those kids awaken more because they depend on the sucking to put them back to sleep.) Even being close by on a mattress on the floor usually helps the toddler sleep better because he knows the parents are available, although he may want them within arm's reach.

6. Improvise to offer reassurance and still get some sleep. If there is some reason they can't have the child in their room, I would suggest that your son sleep in the room with his toddler for now. This allows the parent to respond before the child wakes fully so it is easier for the child to go back to sleep. It also eliminates the parent having to wake fully, so he gets a better night's sleep. Often knowing his dad is right next to him on a sleeping bag and a camping pad (or some other temporary, comfortable arrangement) is so reassuring to a little one that he sleeps much better. If his child does call out for him in the night, often a soothing word will be enough to reassure him. This is a temporary solution, but it might be all your grandchild needs to get over this hump of learning to sleep securely in his own bed all night.

7. Think Night-time Parenting. If, after all this, a child still wakes up and needs the parent to hold him, then he's expressing a real need. He isn't waking up because he's being difficult, or because he has been "trained to." He is a very small human who needs his special people to reassure him that they're still there. The more his parents can regard that nighttime parenting as just part of their job, the more they can handle it graciously. It doesn't last forever, and my opinion is that the reassurance we offer our little one in the dark of the night is an important part of the foundation for their trust in us throughout their childhoods. We all want our child to know in his bones by the time he's a teen that he can come to us any time, about anything.

I understand your concern about your son and his partner getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, we have done parents a disservice in this culture by letting them think it was normal for them to both work fulltime with small children in the home. I personally think it is very challenging, and there is no way that something is not sacrificed. Many people sacrifice their relationship, at least for a time; others sacrifice their sleep; or their children's needs, or they give up some money by one (or preferably both) working less. I personally vote for sacrificing housekeeping and money, but every family has different circumstances.

Spacing children closer together than two years is a risk factor for this reason; parents simply can't give enough to each child. Luckily your son has spaced his babies two years apart, but having two little ones is still a challenge for any family, and it is a much bigger challenge when both parents work outside the home. It's also "usual" for the older sib to regress and awaken more often. After all, he has to make sure his parents are still there for him now that they've brought in a replacement.

That's the bad news. The good news is that kids can learn to sleep better by following the advice above. The other good news is that your son is addressing this issue now, before everyone in the household is adjusting to a new baby. And the best news of all is that no stage of parenting lasts forever, but all the sacrifice of meeting our kids' needs in those tough sleep-deprived years when they're little pays off with children who feel loved and lovable, even in the darkest of nights.

I hope this is helpful to you and your son and his partner.
Warm regards,
Laura


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