Sleep training

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.


By the way, sleep training never ends

A friend dropped in for a visit recently, ten minutes after Michael had gone down for his afternoon nap. I was hovering around the front door, ready to pounce on my friend. Not for the purpose of giving a warm welcoming hug, but to loudly whisper “Shhhh! Baby sleeping!

After some excessively hushed chatter, she asked with some incredulity, “Does he have to sleep in total silence?” I don’t remember how I answered, because this has no easy answer. Empirical evidence suggests no, but sometimes yes. Its the yes part that freaks me out – that 5% chance that my baby might wake up from a loud hello in the living room while in a bedroom with the door closed. And what I couldn’t adequately explain was the context of it all: you see, for half of his short life, Michael was one heck of a lousy napper, and that has scarred my neurotic mommy brain for life.

If you’ve been reading this blog from the start, you know that Michael was plagued with the 30 Minute Intruder from 8 weeks to 5 months. That was a long, hard, really dreadful time. The awfulness was probably mostly my fault, for insisting that things be different when I really had no control over any of it. In any case, a significant amount of trauma has remained. Naps are something which I don’t take for granted. I can’t, not with this particular baby who still strictly sleeps 30 minutes in the afternoon about 40% of the time – a percentage which becomes 100 if we are out with his stroller. (By the way, he has recently developed the unfortunate ability to detect “fake” strolling while apparently fast asleep. While on holiday last month in Tahiti, I found myself marching up and down the supermarket aisles, unable to stop for more than 5 seconds or pace forward and backward, because he would start awake and whine. So if I wanted to so much as look at an item, I would have to take it off the shelf without breaking stride, and continue marching with it in hand, examining it as I rounded the corner to the other aisle and then back to return the item to its place on the shelf.)

So. Naps are absurdly precious, and I defend them with my life. I’ve been known to run into his room to cover his ears with a pillow if things appear to be getting too loud. Every time Michael goes up to 45 minutes, I shrug and accept it as an okay performance. If he makes it to one hour, I’m a little more than satisfied. Anything more than one hour, I give him a bright smile and crow “Champion!” when I go in to get him (pronounced “Shom-pyon” in French, which is just more satisfying somehow). Two hours or more gets a standing ovation and lots of frenetic gamboling in joy.

This ridiculous obsession with naps is something that I don’t expect everybody to understand, unless they have themselves gone through relentless lousy napping for a significant period. Months. The kind of lousy napping that responds to nothing – to CIO, to changes of location, to white noise, to black-out, to no black-out, to changes of awake timing, to everything that every book and internet forum suggests. My father, in typical old generation gruffness, used to snort and say dismissively, “Just leave him in the room and he will learn.” Um, no.

Coincidentally, at the very same time that this visit was going on (and I was learning that my friend’s 10 week old baby sleeps 3-4 hours in the afternoons, bless him) I was communicating with another friend about her 25 Minute baby, who is also a nap fighter to beat all nap fighters, it appears. It’s been a long battle for her, and a harder one than I ever had with Michael. She’s earned many stripes. Here she was, sharing that her baby had finally conked out for 20 whole minutes in the stroller, after fighting and missing his earlier nap. Victory, she said.

Amen, sister, amen.

Before I became a mother, I was the judgiest judger. I had some book knowledge, but I thought I knew everything, actually. I thought toddlers only had tantrums because their parents couldn’t shut them up. I thought babies who were rocked to sleep all the time were spoiled. I thought babies who didn’t sleep well just weren’t trained well. I thought every baby was a project, and project failure meant parental mismanagement.

And then I got a baby who was chronically lousy at something (heck, at many things) and I realised with deep horror that children are not problems which one can troubleshoot. We all try our hardest in our own clouded, inexperienced way – endlessly fiddling with different white noise soundtracks in the hopes that our baby will enjoy “Extreme Rain” if he didn’t like “Moving Train”, giving him pillow after soft toy after blanket after pacifier hoping he will find some kind of sleep association that doesn’t involve us and our tired arms, letting him cry it out alone in his room in varied shades of darkness and to different timings – 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one hour.

Sometimes, nothing works. For now.

Can I share with you my pride before I fell? From 4 months to 6 months, Michael was a dream to put down for a nap. He would only sleep a short nap usually, but he would go down without a peep. I would carry him into the darkened bedroom, and he would be sucking his thumb and closing his eyes before I even got to the crib. I gave myself high fives for good training and having an easy baby to put to nap. Then month 6 rolled round and well. That ended. Regression, progression, regression. The endless circles of training and educating that we now trek with blistered feet and weary hearts. There are mysterious wakings and mysterious not sleepings and we all scramble to find answers but most of the time it’s just the baby asserting his right to be totally inconsistent.

I try not to judge anymore, about anything. It’s hard to anyway, when so many times, my little project has abjectly failed to perform as he should. My kid has pretty much done everything your “naughty” kid is doing right now. Screaming tantrum because I didn’t let him crawl into the busy aisle? Check. Diaper war in the public changing room? Check. Not going to sleep when he should? Oh, absolutely. We all try to get our kids to hit particular milestones and be potty trained before they are ready and to give up their bottles and do this and do that but sometimes it’s just not happening right now. Which, I realise, doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Do what works, guys, do what works.

To the friend of the 25 Minute baby: you are doing everything right, mama. May our next children be born without alarm clocks in their heads.


Travel Aftermath

I spoke too soon – we are deep into jet lag / travel trauma right now. Last night (fourth night home) I found myself marching up and down through my kitchen and living room, in the dark grey of 4am, trying to put a baby to sleep like it was one year ago, except it is not one year ago and my baby is now 12 kg, with the ability to stay up for hours and hours and hours if he so likes, and the willpower to fight me minute by screaming minute. I had to rock him to sleep six times last night, and each time I put him down in his crib apparently fast asleep, he popped right up yelling. The final time it happened, I leaned over his crib and hissed at him, knowing full well that nobody in the history of the world has ever been successfully scolded to sleep, that he would just get more upset, and that I was yelling solely for my cathartic benefit. Sure enough, he clutched his little pillow and sobbed and sobbed, which didn’t make me less angry. You should know better. What are you crying about anyway?

I grabbed him roughly from his crib without a word, and plonked him down on my living room floor. There we both sat, me staring at the carpet in stony silence, him giggling at absolutely nothing. Relieved to be out of his room, his crib, and whatever terrors they held for him. Relieved to see my face in the soft light, and the outline of all his toys, which he didn’t want to play with. Instead, he played with my foot, pushing it back and forth and round and round. I checked the clock and told myself, this too shall pass. It always does. We yawned together, and at the seventh yawn, I scooped him up, did the sleepy march around the house, and then rocked him to sleep by the side of his crib while fantasizing about a tall chair that I could rest myself against. It’s amazing how much longer you can hold on even when you can’t hold on any longer, when there’s a sleeping baby in your arms.

I know it’s not just jet lag that we are up against – it is him frenetic with excitement that he’s back home. In the day, he is happier than I remember him ever being (Wonder Week just over too), giggling at silly nothings and cooing happily while he snuggles and hugs and touches our faces. He’s remembering his favourite spots and things and there’s not enough time in the day to do it all.

Tonight, it will be better. So we mothers and fathers all around the world tell ourselves. Tonight will be the night that it will all turn around. Tonight, we will push through and make it out the other side, emotions in place and bodies rested. Settled.

By the way, I owe you this:


Fourth Month Sleep Regression…or Not

Baby with bolster

We happened to sleep train Michael on the night that he turned 4 months, and I believe it happened not a moment too soon. Because immediately after the dust settled, things went a little bit crazy.

For the next few weeks, he went from one or two predictable night wakings to waking up four to five random times a night. Sometimes because he would roll onto his tummy and get stuck, and other times he would just wake for no discernible reason. However, each time he woke, we would just adjust his position if necessary and he would put himself back to sleep without crying, which I’m pretty sure would not have happened without sleep training. So if that was the fourth month sleep regression, I absolutely credit sleep training for helping us breeze through.

Unless, of course, that wasn’t actually the fourth month sleep regression. Because right after that, things got worse. We went into a week of multiple wakings with loud crying. The crying freaked us out, because our little fella hadn’t cried at night since we’d sleep trained him, so we figured that something was really bothering him. The first few nights that it happened, we flew into his room and picked him up, sang his favourite songs, dosed him with paracetamol, gave him a tour of the living room… we did whatever we needed to do to get him to stop crying and go back to sleep. We were suspecting teething, and/or a mild cold. I’d come down with a pretty bad virus around the same time, and he sounded a little congested at night.

But it wasn’t obvious what was going on, because the symptoms weren’t conclusive, and he would be absolutely fine in the day. So we covered our bases by dosing him with paracetamol before bed and again in the middle of the night. We sprayed Sterimar up his nose, nasal aspirator-ed him, and dripped in Iliadin for good measure. We slipped a cushion under his head to help with the congestion. I checked his gums five times a day.

And we kept picking him up at night.

After about five nights of this, all of us (Lyn, Ralph and I) started to come to the same suspicion: maybe Michael was getting used to us appearing every time he cried, and that was encouraging him to continue waking and crying. I remembered that it generally takes about three days for a baby to start a habit, and three days to break one. So that night, we dialed down our intervention back to zero. Coincidentally or not, he cried only twice that night, and only for a few minutes. Same for the next night. On the third or fourth night, he slept through without waking at all, almost 11 hours straight.

Now, things are back to normal. He still stirs once or twice a night, but goes back to sleep on his own.

While all of that was happening, you can bet that I was googling like a house afire. Four month sleep regression. Five and half month regression. Teething. Cold. Six month regression. Growth spurt. Wonder week 26. The wonderful thing about babies and sleep is that there is always some sort of regression / spurt / wonder week / developmental phase that could be the culprit. It could be anything, everything, nothing. We just hang on and ride it all through, hopefully on the back of some good sleep fundamentals.

If I didn’t already say it, thank God for sleep training.

Moving out

Having graduated sleep training with a grade A- (well done, but with room for improvement), we rewarded Michael by booting him out of the master bedroom last weekend. We surreptitiously moved all his baby furniture out while my parents distracted the little guy with books as tall as himself.

baby reading book

With his crib gone, I felt a little lost and sad, as if the bedroom next door were really a college dorm far away, and my baby no longer loved me as much as he loved his girlfriend, and only came home for dinner on Sundays if I really nagged him into it, and he would sit at the dining table kind of sullen and whatsapping his friends on his phone and I would ask “So, how’s things?” and he would answer monosyllabically.

But I swiftly forgot my sorrows when it sank in that our bedroom was no longer Camp Newborn. I no longer had to don my infrared goggles and grope my way through the murky glow of an Ikea lamp covered with several towels. (The lamp, not myself.) I could walk in a straight line to the bathroom, instead of having to awkwardly hop over the squeaky floorboards that lie scattered around my room like hidden mines. I could actually use the bathroom. My dressing table was no longer blocked by the crib. The nursing chair was replaced by a computer, and Ralph was sitting in front of it, informing me that Takuya Kimura was acting in a sequel to Hero, and he’d just loaded Part One of the first episode.

Michael’s military occupation was over.

But he’s still in my head. I find myself waking throughout the graveyard hours to listen out for him with my bionic mommy ears – 2am, 4am, 6am. It doesn’t matter if I’m wearing earplugs. If he cries, I can hear him through the wall, through the plugs, in my semi-sleep, and I’m able to teleport myself next door in a nanosecond. My body and mind are incapable of shutting down for more than a few hours at one go, and even in sleep I’m like an athlete poised at the start line, arms and legs quivering, ready to leap into action at any moment. It’s a mommy thing. While clearly, the daddy thing is to sleep through everything. Actually, I just think that Ralph has been trained since the early months to sleep through the most heinous cacophony of weird baby noises sans earplugs. As Bon Jovi would say (or sing), he sleeps on a bed of roses, while I’m sleeping on a bed of nails.

There have been a couple of nights where I’ve found myself missing my old bedtime routine: low crawling military-style across my bed to reach the edge of Michael’s crib, and then peering over the bars to observe him cocooned in the soft darkness, his arms wide open, mouth slightly agape, dreaming his little baby dreams of milk, songs, and tree leaves patterning the sky.