Sleep Training a 21 Month Old Toddler?

(Spoiler alert: It’s not at all like sleep training a 4 or 6 month old.)

We first sleep trained Michael when he was 4 months old. It was a deeply horrifying but ultimately successful process which I’ve previously documented on this blog. We left our baby to cry overnight a few times until he figured out how to put himself back to sleep without us having to feed him, rock him or offer our fingers for him to suck on. He (and we) learned that he would survive without us. The longest he fought at any point was about 50 minutes. Which, let’s face it, were the longest 50 minutes of our lives, during which our souls (and our marriage) may or may not have died and then resurrected but only just. The key that kept us going, however, was the fact that young babies have a pretty standard awake time, and at some point exhaustion would kick in and down he would go. Thank you God.

At the ripe old age of 21 months, however…!

But first, let’s go back to 4-5 months ago. We were all suffering from a particularly bad night wakening, possibly teething induced, and Ralph made the fatal mistake of taking Michael out of his bedroom and playing with him in an effort to calm and tire the little guy out and put him back to sleep. Previously, this would have taken an absolute maximum of 2.5 hours, thanks again to natural awake times. This time round, we found ourselves playing with plastic toys in semi darkness for four hours, with nary a yawn nor sleepy eye-rub in sight. FOUR HOURS. Apparently, Ralph hadn’t gotten the memo that Michael was now down to two naps and could basically go on for…four hours before getting tired. That fiasco culminated in a desperate circling of the condo premises at 3am, with my little toddler blinking in bemusement at the streetlamps from his stroller as I desperately attempted to jiggle him back into sleep. I marched round and round the pool like an angry, deranged zombie. And it didn’t even work. (I’m getting hives just recounting this.)

Suffice to say, Take Baby Out of Bedroom to Play in the Middle of the Night was conclusively eliminated from our menu of options.

This ability to just stay *#$&*@* awake makes sleep training increasingly difficult. At some point, it means that your toddler can effectively cry it out (or rather, just CRY) for an indefinite period of time. I have no idea what Michael’s current limit is. I hit my own limit on Monday night, after one hour of hysterical yelling. He was showing no signs of giving in, and I was cramping up, lying partially hidden under some bedding which he’d thrown from his crib in a fury.

The sleeping difficulties had started about a week after our move, when Ralph had rocked him to sleep just once, thanks to a bit of fussiness (brought on by adjustment issues, probably). That was all it took, apparently, for our little man to decide that sleeping in our arms was the loveliest thing in the world, and that he could request for such conditions to be repeated by screaming his head off if his toe so much as touched his mattress. After a couple of days of holding my 100 kilo toddler (may as well be) on my pregnant stomach to nap, I decided I’d had enough, and sleep training would officially commence. No biggie. We’d done this multiple times to various degrees for the past year. However, I was horrified to discover that 1) as mentioned, a 21 month old has no reasonable limit, 2) a 21 month old knows exactly what he wants and has an elephant memory, and therefore is a lot more challenging to reprogram than a young baby, and 3) a 21 month old has the shrieking power of a herd (troupe?) of banshees.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Previously, I’d just let my kid cry it out until he conked out in his crib. This time, there was no such conking in sight.

It quickly became clear that I would just have to do what parents do, all the time, whenever things get tiresome: Be more stubborn than your kid, keep communicating the rule, and consistency should eventually win you the war. In this case, the rule was that under no circumstances would he be sleeping on any of us, ever.

So the first day I let him yell for a good one hour, then took him out of his crib without comment (okay, maybe I said something like “NO HUGS maman is not happy with you right now”) and strolled him downstairs for a quick cat nap. I’m not sure who won that battle, but I figured I’d made a small point – that screaming wasn’t going to get him cuddles in the arm chair from now on.

That night, the bedtime fight (historically, the easiest to win, thanks to the biological clock being on your side) lasted maybe 45 minutes. Which was painful, but such a relief that he went down at all, on his own. I may have smirked. Maman 1, Toddler 0.

The next day I was hopeful that nap time would go better. I don’t think it did. At one hour, I had to pull him out again. However! Bedtime got much better – 30 minutes, which is a moderate but clear success in sleep training land. My husband and I smirked.

Starting the next day, naps finally got better, and rapidly so – 40 minutes, 13 minutes, 5 minutes. We are now down to a couple of minutes of protest at every naptime and bedtime, which is basically negligible.

We are incredibly relieved. Especially since Michael’s also been sleeping through the night again. I know that parents are always obsessed about sleep, but there’s a reason for it – there is nothing quite as incomprehensible as a child’s sleep, and also nothing quite as overwhelmingly annoying as when it goes awry. If I could describe it to a non-parent, I would compare it to having a malfunctioning alarm clock which goes off randomly in the night AND DOES NOT SHUT OFF until you have done ten push ups and sung the national anthem backwards. And then sometimes it rings again half an hour later, just as you’re about to finally go back to sleep again, and now you have to do twenty push ups and squeeze yourself into a slightly too-small box that leaves you all cramped and with a backache that only becomes evident the next day. Suffice to say, there is no romance in this.

Anyhow. We win this round! Heh heh heh. Meanwhile, many other battles rage on elsewhere, but at least we are now all resting our weary bodies in our own beds again.

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