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Toddler Night Wakings: What We Should Be Doing Vs. What We Actually Do

Photograph by Twenty20

Every night, I pray it won’t happen.

"Not tonight," I whisper to the void. "Not tonight, please. Anything but that."

After wrestling with my husband’s oh-so-adorable snoring, I finally fall asleep. Only to wake up to a blurry blond blob right next to my face.

“Mommy …” my 2 1/2-year-old daughter whimpers. “Mommy, Mommy … Mommy’s bed … Mommy’s bed!”

I look at the clock: 2 a.m., like usual, only four hours after my daughter finally fell asleep at the foot of our bed watching TV. Her late bedtimes and middle-of-the-night wakings are now an every night torture. I offer her milk, a lullaby, lots of hugs and try to put her back down in her toddler bed. No dice.

“Mommy bed!” she begs.

OK, fine. I bring her back to our bedroom, where my husband snores away, oblivious. I slide my daughter onto my half of our queen-size bed. As I move to slide in next to her, she plants both feet firmly on my butt and kicks.

“Mommy out!” she orders.

Out of some sense of misguided loyalty to my husband, I shush her, in case she wakes him up. After a few more kicks, I grab a blanket and stomp out to the living room. Yes, my toddler kicked me out of my own bed. Literally. And this is the fifth night in a row.

The next morning, I wake up on the couch and put my head in my hands. Yep. It’s time to admit it: My daughter has a sleep problem, and like so many other sleep-deprived parents out there, I need to figure out what to do about it.

So, I did my homework and consulted the experts, as well as complained loudly and often to my friends and co-workers. It turns out the “right” thing to do is rarely what real people like me are doing in this situation.

The First Thing I SHOULD Do:

My daughter, and toddlers like her who invade their parents’ bed at night, need to be retrained to remain in their own beds. And it ain’t gonna be pretty. Like any training, it takes time. Many experts, including Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, suggest a method known as the “100 walks.”

Dr. Moorjani says, “You tuck your child in and walk out, and your child walks out too. You walk them back and tuck them in, and it can happen many times but if you maintain no reaction the child will realize, 'Well, Mom isn't here to play with me.'" So, no matter how tired you are, march your child back to bed every time until she gets the message.

“I’m too exhausted to fight at the end of the day, too,” I said.

What REAL Parents Are Doing:

As I yawned over my third cup of coffee, I whined about my problem with my co-worker, Anne. “What kind of bed does she have?” Anne asked. I thought maybe she had some kind of radical insight to the brand of toddler bed I bought or the sheets I was using—perhaps those were what was waking my daughter up!

“You should have bought her a queen size,” Anne told me after I described my daughter’s sleep gear. “Best thing we ever did for Cooper. If he climbs in bed with us, my husband or I will just go sleep in his room. Or if he can’t fall asleep, one of us will sleep with him.” Honestly, if I had it to do again, I would have taken her advice!

The Second Thing I Should Be Doing:

Confession: My daughter doesn’t have a bedtime routine. And yes, she really needs one. According to Dr. Moorjani, "We recommend that children need routine and structure. A calm bedtime routine, so they know what to expect every night. Whether that’s turning off any kind of screens, movies, video games and reading on their own or with a family member, bath time, brushing their teeth." Children need a routine at bedtime and to know what to expect. This is a commonly known way to train their brains for sleep and can even steer them off the path to teen obesity.

What REAL Parents Are Doing:

I was partnered up with a random stranger at a conference last week for a get-to-know-you activity. I apologized for yawning so much and told him about my struggles with my daughter’s nighttime habits. “Do you have any suggestions for a bedtime routine?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Watch TV with them until they fall asleep on the couch and then put them in their bed. That’s what I have to do with my son every night. He won’t read books and he won’t lay down on his own bed. EVER.” We shared a wry, sad little laugh. “I’m too exhausted to fight at the end of the day, too,” I said.

The Third Thing I Should Be Doing:

Another proven way to ensure that your child falls asleep better at night and has a more restful night sleep is to restrict or eliminate naps. According to a study conducted by Mark Mahone, a child neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins-affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute, restricting the naps of kids who were used to taking them resulted in earlier bedtimes, a better night’s sleep and better performance on cognitive tests.

What REAL Parents Are Doing:

Literally, right now, as I write this, my daughter is asleep for her two- or three-hour nap. How else am I supposed to get things done during the day? Doesn’t Mommy deserve a break? Oh God, I should probably go wake her up.