Madeleine and Riley just turned two last week. We had a wonderful celebration with family and friends at a local water park. By all accounts, M&R are happy, healthy, and gorgeous, and I’m thrilled and amazed that we have made it to the ripe old age of two with so few battle scars. Heck, we haven’t even had to take a trip to the ER yet! No stitches ever! (Do you hear the rapid-fire sound of me knocking on wood?)
Maddie and Riley can sing the ABCs, name all of their colors, and string together impressively long complete sentences. They tell jokes and invent games. They love their family and friends, being outdoors, blowing bubbles, and eating grapes. They go down slides, ride trikes, and splash in water.
Here’s what they don’t do: sleep through the night.
I had planned to write a post on toddler discipline today, but other people have done a great job of that already. Instead, my recent experience compels me to talk about the Dirty Little Secret of Toddlerhood. I hate to break it to you, but many of these delightful little imps don’t like to sleep. And there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot you can do about it but suck it up and ride it out.
When Maddie and Riley were six months old—almost to the day—we “Ferberized.” Yes, yes, we did, and with nary a regret. And it worked great. Just like the books said it would, it took three nights for the kiddos to start sleeping from about 7:30 in the evening to sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 the next morning. Oh, sure, we had an occasional streak of early wakings and an occasional need for middle-of-the-night intervention, but for the most part, six months to eighteen months marked a blissful Golden Era of Sleep at our house.
Then all hell broke loose.
Starting at eighteen months—almost to the day—Riley’s sleep began to deteriorate. First he cried when he was put to bed. Then he cried in the middle of the night. Then he cried when he woke up. For the most part, none of this was a tragedy in that he was easily soothed by a quick pop-in and pat on the back. It was irritating and disruptful, but hardly tragic.
Now at the age of two—almost to the day—we have entered the era of Tragic. The screaming at bedtime has subsided thanks to a realization that Riley doesn’t want the door closed, he wants it cracked. Fine. No problem. What the open door does not solve is the middle of the night wakings. Riley wakes two to three times a night these days. When he wakes, he screams and cries at full bore. He doesn’t want me to touch him. He doesn’t want to lie down. He sounds scared and panicked. He is fully awake, so he is not having a night terror (although he could be having a bad dream). The only thing that gets him to go back to sleep is to have me lie down on the floor next to his bed and sleep there myself.
I’ve tried taking him into bed with me; that works OK, but between the fact that he kicks me, wiggles around, strokes my hair, and gets distracted by my close presence, it works better if I lie on the floor. Also, if I have Riley in bed with me and Maddie (who has remained a Toddler Sleep Gold Medalist, thank goodness) wakes up and sees that he is gone, she has a Total Freak Out, and then I’m Screwed. So I stay in their room. It takes Riley anywhere from five minutes to two hours to go back to sleep. Needless to say, it takes me about the same amount of time.
I have tried on a couple of occasions to do a repeat Ferberization, but it’s different this time. Riley’s not fussing, like he was when he was a baby. He’s screaming. He sounds desperate. I do not thing sleep training is child abuse, not by a long shot. Hell, I did it! But to hear your child screaming frantically and throwing himself at the bars of his crib (!) does start to feel like torture.
Eighteen months is a common time for toddlers to have sleep problems. (Read here about the eighteen-month sleep regression.) I thought things would be better, not worse, at age two. I know I’m still an optimist because every night I think, “This is the night we’ll turn the corner.” So far, no dice. But, as has been pointed out to me before, no kids go off to college sleeping with their parents, so at some point, this behavior will change, right? Right? Please say yes, because I’m coming apart at the seams.
I feel like I spend all my waking hours (correction: my ZOMBIE-LIKE waking hours) thinking about this. I turn the problem around and around in my head. I feel like I’m being soft by not sleep training. I feel like I’m being a monster when I do. I find a host of reasons that Riley could be having so much trouble sleeping: bad dreams, a developmental leap, fructose malabsorption, gas, you name it. I feel like I’ve tried every possible solution to get him to soothe himself, then I feel like the reason nothing works is because I’ve been inconsistent.
Ultimately, here’s what I’ve decided based on a lot of reading and asking for advice from friends, colleagues, and other HDYDI moms: Riley misses me. My sweet, sensitive boy is having separation anxiety. His longest sentence to date, uttered a few weeks ago, around the time all of this started, is “Riley no like it Mama go away friends.” Maddie and Riley spent the day with my mom and stepdad yesterday as our daycare is closed for a week’s vacation this week. Riley was sad to see me leave in the morning, and never have I been showered with more kisses and hugs than I have when I returned yesterday afternoon. “Mama came back!” he triumphantly announced multiple times. He’s been extra-needy during the day, so there’s no reason that he would not be extra needy at night. And if, in fact, separation anxiety is what’s at play, then the best thing I can do is give him the reassurance and love he needs. Which means that I need to get an aerobed for the floor.
It’s so hard, especially as a single parent, to give and give and give all day and then suddenly be called upon to give and give and give all night. Night used to be my time. Suddenly, I have to share that time with Riley. I love the fact that I can soothe my boy, but I wish that I could share that duty with someone else, and I wish that sometimes there was someone soothing me, too. Conventional wisdom in my situation with Riley would be that if it’s me who Riley wants to see, send in my partner instead. After a few times of that, Riley might give up and decide that sleep is better than not getting who he wants to see. But I don’t have anyone else to send in. So I go in myself, reminding myself as I go that this is just a phase. It’s all just a phase.
Evidently, co-sleeping peaks worldwide between the ages of two and five because co-sleeping is easier than fighting with your toddler all night long. And according to Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution, approximately 50% of kids wake up at least once a night even after the age of two. So I know I’m not alone. But it sure feels like I’m alone a lot of the time as I think that many parents are embarrassed to admit that their toddler has sleep issues.
For those of you whose toddlers sleep well, I am grateful but envious. For those of you who are struggling with sleepless toddlers, you have all of my empathy. For those of you looking for solutions—I am supposed to tell you how I do it, after all!—I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer this time around except a safe place to talk about what your kids’ sleep issues are, what’s worked for you, and what hasn’t. Today, that’s how I do it: by sharing with you and hopefully learning from you as well.