The Happiest Toddler on the Block has a unique perspective to bedtime sleep training: it starts right after breakfast. One of the cornerstones of THTOTB is Patience Stretching. In my post Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! I wrote about Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous technique, and how parents have to use a little creativity and positivity to get things started. At first, it’s hard to put on a smile and be agreeable at 3 pm when you have had a day of clingy, whiny toddler demands. But it pays off quickly, it really does. You will no longer dread 3 pm. Then you need to plan to use it at bedtime. It is like bringing a show up to Broadway. This is the big time. You don’t just put the backdrops in a truck and tell the actors where to stand. You make a plan.
Here is what you need to do to make the transition from daytime Patience Stretching to bedtime sleep training work:
- Perfect your daytime performances. Get your toddler so good at waiting when she is not exhausted, not ill and not totally overwhelmed that you would be willing to go on YouTube for a demo. Yes, that good. How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear “Wait” as “No”) That means that your child and you understand the how and why of this method. It is 10 times harder when you are both tired. Maybe 20 times harder.
- Now get this working well in unfamiliar places and/or when she is a little off her game. Night time is harder than any other situation. She is aware that she will be without you for hours, and the fun of the day is definitively over. She has to be able to handle that. Try improving transitioning skills, because this is the biggest transition she makes each day: totally away from you and away from interaction to fall asleep.
- That piece leads to this one: having a good day as defined by toddler terms is essential for a good night. Your version of a good day is not exactly hers. She has a good day if she has had enough physical activity, enough warm exchanges, and enough positive attention. If it has been a day stuck in a small space without face-to-face warmth and lots of redirection that she perceives as negative then bedtime is when she will make you pay big time. You know this is accurate, right? Make every effort to plan in some physical fun, create situations where you both can laugh and hug, and get good at redirection by saying what you want her to do instead of “no!” See my 2015 post Discipline and Toddlers: What Do You Say if You Don’t Want to Constantly Say “No”?for more details on how to accomplish this.
- Now you are ready to give this a try. Use a kind but convincing voice. Try very hard not to start with “It’s OK, it’s OK”, as your child will cry harder to convince you that it is not OK with them. Did you read my post on that topic yet? Your response should be brief and a little robotic: “Oh, you are awake. It is night time, time to sleep”. Some kids do better if you don’t look them in the eye. It excites them too much. It isn’t cruel to avoid eye contact when you know that doing so helps them sleep, and engaging with them will make it harder. Think about that one for a minute.
- Go to her at 3 am when she cries out. Yup, you don’t cry-it-out. She needs to know you are there for her, but remember the robotic and unengaged plan. Check for true distress and diaper issues and tell her firmly but warmly that it is time to sleep. Not a lot of eye contact and absolutely no bright lights. You could hold her for a few moments if you think it won’t be interpreted as coming out of bed, because you are going to put her down and do Patience Stretching in just a few seconds. You know… “oh….I have to go tell Daddy something and I will be right back….” and come back after 15 seconds. You could come back for a sleepy chorus of your bedtime song and then do it again…oh…I just have to go potty… and leave for 45 seconds. The excuses and her confidence that you return should be familiar from all that daytime stretching and the time gets longer and longer. You lie her down and then you do return. You have to. She might still be awake.
- But she might not! She might have dozed off without wailing. Everybody wins, no tears, no feeling abandoned or feeling like you are abandoning your child. You are giving her the chance to settle herself. She already believes you, because you always return it the daytime. This just gives her the chance to try relaxing into sleep while you are gone.
Good luck! If this works for you and your child, please comment and share your unique twist that made it a success for you. Other parents that read this blog are eager to hear your success story!