I am not a sleep trainer – far from it – but I have learnt a few things about babies and sleep over the past two years. While there are no hard and fast rules, these are five things I’ve found to be true:
1. Sleep begets sleep
It’s true for me and it’s true for my kid. When I’m tired I get hyper, and it’s much harder for me to wind down for sleep. And then when I do manage to drift off, my sleep quality tends to be terrible.
Surprise surpise – babies and toddlers are people too! When GG goes to bed too late, he’s more likely to wake through the night, have trouble getting back to sleep, and get up for the day at some ungodly hour like 4am.
2. Boundaries are not punishments
This is a hard one for me, but it’s crucial. Firm boundaries on important issues (such as sleep, safety and violence) make kids feel safe. Of course when I put it like this it sounds like a no-brainer, but it doesn’t always feel so straightforward to me.
Take the last few weeks for example: there’s been a lot going on in our household. GG is about to turn two and going through like a billion developmental milestones all at one time and probably cutting four molars as well, plus we just moved him from a cot to a bed. His dad is finishing up one job and about to start a new one. I lost another pregnancy last month. The weather has turned decidedly wintery, it’s cold season at daycare… etc. There are a million and one reasons for GG’s sleep to suffer, and suffer it did. We’ve had a string of terrible nights, from serious bedtime resistance to three-hour wake ups in the middle of the night.
At first, to be honest, I mainly used my heart to deal with the issue. We cuddled in his bed, I sang whatever song he requested a million times, I let him sleep on my chest. I figured he was getting sick or teething or reacting to my emotional turmoil.
But it didn’t help. Instead, what I did was exacerbate the situation. And instead of a few days of bad sleep, we ended up with a couple of weeks.
No one is at their best after a couple of weeks of dodgy sleep.
After a few heated arguements on the topic and a chat with a wise friend, I realized something that I already knew but evidently needed to re-learn: toddlers need boundaries. Like, about as much as they need food and love and comfort. For whatever reason, GG was feeling out of control, and what he need was for me to help him reign in it.
So why was this hard for me? In my sleep-deprived mind, it felt like being more strict would be like punishing him for having a hard time – which is not my parenting style at all. In fact, the opposite was true. By reinstating his previous routine (set bedtime, falling asleep by himself with me sitting next to the bed, staying in bed if he wakes up during the night, set “morning” time etc), I was helping him find solid ground.
Which brings me to my next point…
3. Shit changes ALL THE TIME
This is an essential truth of life, a fact of our existence, but I feel like it’s especially true for kids. Just when we parents feel like we’ve got it all under control… bam! New phase.
And that’s okay – it’s a good thing. It means they’re learning and growing and developing. Our job as parents, as guides for these little people who are but new to earthly ways, is to stay consistent. To show them that yes, things change, but there’s always something you can hang on to. Me and your dad. We’ve got it under control (most of the time). So even though you’re feeling sick or you’re confused about something or you had a weird day, bedtime will still be the same.
4. You’re not gonna change the kid
This is really important. GG is very much his own person. He has personality traits that we noticed on Day One that are still strong today, and I’m guessing they’ll stay with him throughout his life. My job as his mama is to help him work with what he’s got, and find ways to be the best little dude he can possibly be.
So, when it comes to sleep – I’ve accepted that I’m not going to change him into the kid who runs to his bed at naptime, sleeps for 14 hours when he’s sick or drifts off while we’re reading a book. I’m not that person either, and though I’ve learnt to appreciate sleep, I’d still pretty much always rather be hanging out and having fun than “wasting time” sleeping.
What I can do for him is help implement good habits and positive associations around sleep. Ultimately, the rest is on him.
5. Lastly, every time I write a post about sleep, everything goes to shit
Seriously, it’s like this blog has super-powers. Every time we go through a rough patch and then I decide I’ve cracked the code and should share my infinite wisdom with you fine peoples, something changes and we’re back to Square One. At which point I’ll just need to come back and read point three above I suppose.