Single mom's sleep saga

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 14, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi, my name is Nicole. I am a single mother who works and goes to school. I have a two-year-old son and when it's bedtime he never wants to sleep alone. I lay in the bed with him until he falls asleep, and it works, but I never can get anything done. When it's time for me to go to bed, he wakes up and wants to sleep with me and leaves me with no sleep. I need help. What do I do - just let him cry or go and comfort him back to sleep? If I do get him back to sleep and he wakes up again and cries, do I let him cry?

Thank You so much,
From: Nicole, Hughesville

Hi Nicole,

Do you have a bedtime routine -- story time, cuddle time -- that stays the same every night? I'm guessing this is as much about him just wanting to be with you as it is an inability to fall asleep. So you might also want to create time when you are not feeling pressured to do your school work or house work that you can devote just to him. It doesn't need to be a lot of time, just the sense for him that you are giving him undivided attention. It can go a long way and will reward you in many ways, not just easier bedtime (and not necessarily in obvious ways).

There's also this: When young children have awakenings in the middle of the night (perfectly normal), they expect to find their circumstances exactly what they were when they fell asleep. So if he falls asleep with you lying next to him and he wakes up with you gone, it's like a surprise; he doesn't know how to fall back to sleep without you there. Here's my advice: don't lie down with him. Instead, sit next to him on the bed, rubbing his back or talking to him, or  just sitting there, until he falls asleep. If he wakes up in the middle of the night, sit next to him again, but DON"T lie down with him or bring him into your bed. The idea is to re-create the same conditions under which he fell asleep the first time.

You may have a few (more) difficult nights of this. But be consistent, calm, and confident; tell him, "I know you can fall asleep like this, and I'm going to stay here next to you, to help you." Once he gets used to having you sitting next to him, sit on a chair next to the bed where you reach over now and then. Then move the chair a few inches away, with the same consistent, calming message. If you have to go into him at night, have the chair the same few inches away. Gradually,  over a period of time, weeks, not days, you will be able to move the chair further and further away from the bed, until eventually you are out the door of the room. At that point, it will take less and less time in the middle of the night for him to get back to sleep because he will understand that you are there to help him and that you have confidence in his ability to manage.

This is not a fast fix, as you can tell, and it means you will still have some less-than-ideal nights. It's hard as a single parent not to have anyone who can help you. But if you can stay with it, it will pay off in the end.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



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6 comments so far...
  1. Sleep is always so hard: at the end of the day, you just want some time to yourself. In the middle of the night, you just want to sleep. It's easy to develop bad habits in pursuit of these wishes. And there seem to be so many theories to break bad habits. My own sleep troubles with my son have led me to the belief that you can't be any harsher with your sleeptime adjustments than your heart will let you, and as long as everyone in the house is getting what they need (in terms of personal time and sleep), then your method is working.

    Just want to throw out a couple of ideas that I've heard, and some that I've tried with my son, now 2 yrs 10 mos and sleeping 10-12 hours every night. I confess that I do still sit in a chair in my son's room while he falls asleep - will be working my way out of the room soon. When he had periods of night-waking, I would lay on the floor or on an air mattress (sometimes with earplugs in my ears) until he fell back to sleep (after sometimes screaming it out first). It tells him that I'm there for him, but it's sleeping time. I've read that one way to work on moving a child out of your bed is to create a special place for them in your room: a sleeping bag or a futon. Again, you're there for him, but not to share the bed with him. In time, he'll move beyond the sleep disturbances and won't need you so much.

    Posted by matthew'smom January 14, 10 11:20 AM
  1. I have to sit with my daughter until she falls asleep. She's three months away from turning 3. She's never been able to fall asleep on her own and needs comforting and the reassuring knowledge that Mom or Dad is very near. We rock together in the rocking chair, she moves to the bed, and I rub her back. Sometimes we sing, or talk a little. I tried the highly attentive bedtime routine thing--snuggle time/reading/playing--just before bedtime, but it didn't make her go to sleep any faster. It just meant I had to devote yet another hour to bedtime. With another child to help with homework and get into bed, dishes to wash, laundry to put away, and other household chores that needed doing, it was impossible. So now our bedtime routine IS the time we spend together while my daughter falls asleep. But, unfortunately, if she wakes up in the night, I again have to sit near her. I try to catch up on sleep on the weekends during her naptime.

    We really missed the boat on Ferberizing. My friend did it with her son at 8 months old and never had a problem since! I was too much of a softie then and continue to pay for it. All I can say is, don't make the same mistake with the second! (My first was a better sleeper.)

    Posted by mom of two January 14, 10 12:20 PM
  1. I am a dad of 4 children at one point we had three under the age of three. My wife worked nights, So needless to say I didn't have a lot of time to spend lying down trying to get them to sleep. One book that was reccomended was that of Dr. Richard Ferber. It talks a lot about the need of teaching your "baby" how to go to sleep. A way to re-enforce that you are there for them but allows them to go from crying to calming themselfs down to go to sleep. Its a process but you will find if you stick with it, in no time your little one will know how to fall asleep without your help. You will be supprised they learn quickly.

    Posted by ProudDadof 4 January 14, 10 04:02 PM
  1. To mom of two, I had the same issues with my second child. But at age 3, your daughter is old enough to have a little conversation about how big girls go to sleep vs. how babies go to sleep. You could talk to her about your plans for getting her to sleep on her own in a timely fashion, like, "starting tomorrow night, we're going to [sing 2 songs] or [read 2 stories] and then Mommy's going to go downstairs. I'll come check on you in five minutes" or whatever you think she'll buy as a good first step. Maybe get her a new stuffie or doll or pj's to commemorate her willingness to be a big girl.

    Another thought, when she calls for you at night, tell her you'll be there in a minute, then wait, then the next time wait a little longer, and so on. She might fall back asleep waiting for you.

    I would not recommend letting a child sleep in your room except for the rare nightmare. You'll never get them out!

    Good luck--I know how hard it is to want sleep so badly!!

    Posted by chilly January 14, 10 07:57 PM
  1. Mom of two, bad habits can be broken - it's just harder than developing the good habits in the first place. Reading your post I'm struck by the fact that you are stating that you "HAVE to sit with her until she falls asleep" and "if she wakes up in the night, I again HAVE to sit near her". Actually, you choose to do that, and if it iss what works best for you then by all means go ahead and do it,

    Let's just call a spade a spade here - you are choosing not to sleep well, and you are choosing every day to not do something about her sleep habits.

    There is no missed boat - or to be more accurate, there is a boat every night that you choose not to take.

    I am not saying that dealing with this is easy or pleasant, especially after years of this routine - but it can be fixed at any time if you decide to do so.

    Posted by HBX January 14, 10 08:10 PM
  1. Hi Nicole, I can feel your pain. I have a 9 month old who started to wake up 2-3 times a night a couple of months ago-her Dr. said (ie. gave me the permission I needed) to let her cry as suggested by Dr. Richard Ferber (referenced above). I'm lucky enough to have my husband who would go and comfort her when she cried and then let her cry for 15 min and then return. After about 5 torturous nights she started to sleep through the night again! I think you NEED to get a good night's sleep, especially doing this on your own. Check out Dr. Ferber's book and I'm sure you can find similar advice for a two year old. Good luck!
    ps-this is the first time I've felt compelled to write on any blog

    Posted by new mother January 14, 10 09:29 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. Sleep is always so hard: at the end of the day, you just want some time to yourself. In the middle of the night, you just want to sleep. It's easy to develop bad habits in pursuit of these wishes. And there seem to be so many theories to break bad habits. My own sleep troubles with my son have led me to the belief that you can't be any harsher with your sleeptime adjustments than your heart will let you, and as long as everyone in the house is getting what they need (in terms of personal time and sleep), then your method is working.

    Just want to throw out a couple of ideas that I've heard, and some that I've tried with my son, now 2 yrs 10 mos and sleeping 10-12 hours every night. I confess that I do still sit in a chair in my son's room while he falls asleep - will be working my way out of the room soon. When he had periods of night-waking, I would lay on the floor or on an air mattress (sometimes with earplugs in my ears) until he fell back to sleep (after sometimes screaming it out first). It tells him that I'm there for him, but it's sleeping time. I've read that one way to work on moving a child out of your bed is to create a special place for them in your room: a sleeping bag or a futon. Again, you're there for him, but not to share the bed with him. In time, he'll move beyond the sleep disturbances and won't need you so much.

    Posted by matthew'smom January 14, 10 11:20 AM
  1. I have to sit with my daughter until she falls asleep. She's three months away from turning 3. She's never been able to fall asleep on her own and needs comforting and the reassuring knowledge that Mom or Dad is very near. We rock together in the rocking chair, she moves to the bed, and I rub her back. Sometimes we sing, or talk a little. I tried the highly attentive bedtime routine thing--snuggle time/reading/playing--just before bedtime, but it didn't make her go to sleep any faster. It just meant I had to devote yet another hour to bedtime. With another child to help with homework and get into bed, dishes to wash, laundry to put away, and other household chores that needed doing, it was impossible. So now our bedtime routine IS the time we spend together while my daughter falls asleep. But, unfortunately, if she wakes up in the night, I again have to sit near her. I try to catch up on sleep on the weekends during her naptime.

    We really missed the boat on Ferberizing. My friend did it with her son at 8 months old and never had a problem since! I was too much of a softie then and continue to pay for it. All I can say is, don't make the same mistake with the second! (My first was a better sleeper.)

    Posted by mom of two January 14, 10 12:20 PM
  1. I am a dad of 4 children at one point we had three under the age of three. My wife worked nights, So needless to say I didn't have a lot of time to spend lying down trying to get them to sleep. One book that was reccomended was that of Dr. Richard Ferber. It talks a lot about the need of teaching your "baby" how to go to sleep. A way to re-enforce that you are there for them but allows them to go from crying to calming themselfs down to go to sleep. Its a process but you will find if you stick with it, in no time your little one will know how to fall asleep without your help. You will be supprised they learn quickly.

    Posted by ProudDadof 4 January 14, 10 04:02 PM
  1. To mom of two, I had the same issues with my second child. But at age 3, your daughter is old enough to have a little conversation about how big girls go to sleep vs. how babies go to sleep. You could talk to her about your plans for getting her to sleep on her own in a timely fashion, like, "starting tomorrow night, we're going to [sing 2 songs] or [read 2 stories] and then Mommy's going to go downstairs. I'll come check on you in five minutes" or whatever you think she'll buy as a good first step. Maybe get her a new stuffie or doll or pj's to commemorate her willingness to be a big girl.

    Another thought, when she calls for you at night, tell her you'll be there in a minute, then wait, then the next time wait a little longer, and so on. She might fall back asleep waiting for you.

    I would not recommend letting a child sleep in your room except for the rare nightmare. You'll never get them out!

    Good luck--I know how hard it is to want sleep so badly!!

    Posted by chilly January 14, 10 07:57 PM
  1. Mom of two, bad habits can be broken - it's just harder than developing the good habits in the first place. Reading your post I'm struck by the fact that you are stating that you "HAVE to sit with her until she falls asleep" and "if she wakes up in the night, I again HAVE to sit near her". Actually, you choose to do that, and if it iss what works best for you then by all means go ahead and do it,

    Let's just call a spade a spade here - you are choosing not to sleep well, and you are choosing every day to not do something about her sleep habits.

    There is no missed boat - or to be more accurate, there is a boat every night that you choose not to take.

    I am not saying that dealing with this is easy or pleasant, especially after years of this routine - but it can be fixed at any time if you decide to do so.

    Posted by HBX January 14, 10 08:10 PM
  1. Hi Nicole, I can feel your pain. I have a 9 month old who started to wake up 2-3 times a night a couple of months ago-her Dr. said (ie. gave me the permission I needed) to let her cry as suggested by Dr. Richard Ferber (referenced above). I'm lucky enough to have my husband who would go and comfort her when she cried and then let her cry for 15 min and then return. After about 5 torturous nights she started to sleep through the night again! I think you NEED to get a good night's sleep, especially doing this on your own. Check out Dr. Ferber's book and I'm sure you can find similar advice for a two year old. Good luck!
    ps-this is the first time I've felt compelled to write on any blog

    Posted by new mother January 14, 10 09:29 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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