These last two and a half years have been some of the most challenging of my life. Bursting at the seams with joy and excitement but also filled with chaos and desperation. Children do that to a person. The joy of raising them is wonderful but the sleeplessness and the selflessness that also comes with them is unimaginable. It’s one of those things I can safely say you have to live through to fully appreciate. I feel like I have had to literally stop living for myself and instead live my life for the sole purpose of raising a happy, balanced and healthy child.
It’s only now, two years on, that I feel like I can open a window or two, let some air in and breathe with confidence that Pumpkinella is doing ok.. I’m sure many women reading this will have managed to regain their pre-pregnancy bodies, friends, and lifestyle much sooner than it’s taking me. I, on the other hand seem to find everyday is a challenge and getting through it is a relief each night.
One of the very positive things that has recently happened is my husband and I’s decision to sleep train our daughter. I spoke at length with my husband and we agreed that the constant sub 2 hour-long bedtime routine we were going through most nights was unmanageable. The result was of constant arguments which seemed to centre around our lack of sleep and having an inconsistent routine. My daughter would wake up at least twice during the night and we would need to get into bed with her to settle her off again. Sometimes she would fidget for over an hour meaning no one could get any sleep. Other times she would be thirsty for milk and it had to be just the right temperature too otherwise we’d be sorry. On rare occasions, she would run around the room for an hour or two in the middle of the night. For a couple working full-time and out of the house usually over 9 hours of the day, it was impossible to sustain this kind of nightly routine. We fought like cats and dogs.
Fast forward to the point where we decided we couldn’t do it any longer. A new plan was needed that would help us all get a good nights sleep. My husband and I’s parents offered lots of advice, good/ great ideas but we just couldn’t manage to stick to anything consistently and for long enough to see if it would really work. I thought I wanted a baby-led routine but what I needed was a more parent led one with enough structure as to be easy to follow but lenient enough that didn’t result in constant tears.
I bought several books that described how to encourage healthy sleep patterns with children. I was a massive fan of Supernanny the TV series so I also bought Jo Frost’s books on parenting a toddler. Armed with all the wisdom gained through real experiences from these authors I felt brave enough to try some of their techniques out. The first technique I tried was thanks to a book called The gentle sleep book. It said that co-sleeping wasnt s bad thing and was acceptable if that’s what my child wanted. So, when Pumpkinella would wake up in the middle of the night, we would bring her into our room to sleep by us. It was awesome at first as she would cuddle into me and fondle with my wobbly belly and jiggly bits. However the success of this technique was short-lived because rather than the fondling being cute, I found it unsettling and I was mildly irritated as I couldn’t settle well as a result. While it was a joy waking up to her gorgeousness each morning, I was generally always exhausted and found it hard to function having been semi-awake throughout the previous night.
I put the gentle sleep guide aside and got stuck in to Jo Frost’s book (well I at least read a chapter or two specifically talking about sleep). She described my experiences since giving birth to Pumpkinella through stories about her experiences with the thousands of families she helped and is still helping. There wasn’t a scenario she hasn’t seen. It was like she’d installed a camera in our home and was describing what we were doing and how to improve things.
Pumpkinella is an affectionate 2-year-old who loves cuddles and a warm body beside her whether they be asleep or awake. She is also an anxious child who has never ever liked to be alone. Jo recommended the stay in bed technique followed by gradual retreat. She’s never liked to be on her own and I’d almost given up on the idea that she would settle in her own room at any point before her teenage years; that is until I embraced these techniques in Jo’s book. My husband and I began to follow very regular and predictable bed time routines with Pumpkinella to help wind her down. I’d underestimated the importance of this before. Once in bed we read two or three short books. I realised many of her so-called bedtime books were actually quite exciting and not at all calming so they were relegated to the living room-come toy room. We would say a prayer with her, as we’ve done since the day she was born, and then the Mexican stand-off would begin. My husband and I would sit on the bed beside her (she has a king size bed) and each time she tried to get our attention or climb off the bed we would pick her up and put her back. The first two times we interacted with her firstly telling her it was bedtime and goodnight. The second time, it was just ‘it’s bedtime’. After that we didn’t talk to her any longer (well we tried not to) and looked away so she couldn’t see our faces. The first night took 90 minutes before she gave up and went to sleep (without a cuddle or a grope). She woke up about 4 hours later, as she normally did but I was too tired to practice our new technique and lay next to her allowing her to fondle my boobs and belly to sleep.
By day 3 of this technique we were in her room for around 2 hours each night and I was left in tears. It felt too hard. We were in the room with her but she’d play, shout-cry, sing, tell stories and finally beg us to ‘be nice’ to her.
What I hadn’t realised was that Pumpkinella had moved on from the crying and she was testing our resolve. A colleague from work saw my tired strained self at the point of tears. He talked to me about his experiences as dad to a little boy who tested the patience of a saint just like my daughter. He gave me some tips to try. The moral support and comradary felt so good; it was much-needed. From then on I felt like I had a fresh confidence and ambition to succeed in creating a calm and happy sleep routine for Pumpkinella as well as ourselves. My husband and I discussed how far we’d come in that over a few short days Pumpkinella had gone from not liking to be in her own room and bed to a happy and playful toddler, albeit while we were trying to settle her off to sleep. While this might have been a small victory in reality, it felt like we were seeing actual results with her.
Sure enough by day 5 of our new routine the tone of bed time had completely changed and was no longer combative nor full of angst. She was altogether a calmer toddler. She had given up on climbing out of her bed and was happy enough to look up at mummy and daddy every minute or so to check we were still in the room with her. She did however continued to wake up in the middle of the night calling out for me and her daddy. The routine encourages consistency in the approach no matter what time of day but I’m sorry to say two dog-tired parents couldn’t mange it at 1am. Instead one of us would jump into bed with her and more often than not would fall asleep by her side till morning. I still do this on occasion but it more to do with my laziness than Pumpkinella’s dependency on us as there are nights when I can walk in to her room and shush her softly then creep back out without hearing another peep from her till 6 am.
Once we conquered the stay-in-bed technique, we began to retreat half a metre a day towards the door until we were eventually out of the room. While doing this we were careful to continue reassuring her we were very close by. It probably took us about 2 weeks to actually get to the door as we didn’t want to leave her frightened and crying. Instead we retreated and came back repeated this over and over again until we were eventually out of the room. It was a shock to the system when we were finally able to say night-night to Pumpkinella, walk out of the room and sit downstairs in the living room. We purchased a video monitor to allow us to see how she was doing. She was fine; cuddling her Bing bunny toy and a doggy, we couldn’t believe how far we’d come.
Success! We did it! Now she’s even more of a happy little thing in the mornings.
One of the other lessons along this journey was to make sure to feed her well before bed as the middle of the night milk feedings was a massive challenge for daddy to continue; he would wake up to get the milk while I kept her calm after her cries for milk.
Bath time for us is as long or as short as Pumpkinella likes depending on how late we are in the evening with starting it. I love her bath times and although im not 100% sure they help her ca down before bed, I do know that they take her away from the television which can overstimulated her.
I have a top 10 list tips and advice to share, a couple of months on into our new and successful bedtime routine/ our exciting new stage in our lives. I’ll share these in a later blog post.
For any parents out there struggling with bed time with their children, I promise you it’s worth the perseverance to help your children learn t settle themselves better at night. We have never let Pumpkinella cry herself to sleep but by sure and confident steps, we’ve conquered ‘sleepy times’ and have provided a safe, happy and calm bed time for our daughter.
I’m not going to tell you that every day is easy. When Pumpkinella is unwell or one of us is unwell, we do regress somewhat. However, we have learnt how to get ourselves back on track and I’m pleased to report that it’s worth every single second.