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How I Finally Got My Toddler to Sleep Through the Night in 3 Days

Photograph by Twenty20

The other day, I reached out to a friend I hadn't spoken to in two years. "Where have you been, Jennifer? What have you been up to?" she asked. I thought about these questions long and hard. Physically, I had been in Colorado, and I had been working on my own business, but I couldn't tell her what I'd been doing. The truth was, the last year had been total, sleep-deprived blur.

I had tried everything to get my baby, and then my toddler, to sleep through the night. Literally everything.

I tried upping his calories at bedtime, singing to him in German, Chinese and English, essential oils, vibrating mattress pads, acupressure, white noise, an ample dose of white wine through my breast milk (ok, that was for me!), moving my chair closer to the door every night, doing a puppet show and I even went so far as to spend $50 on all natural and baby-safe sleep drops from New Zealand.

None of it worked, and my little angel would turn into a gremlin at bath time and wake me every one to three hours every single night for a miserable year and a half.

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And then, my kid got really sick, and I thank my lucky stars that he did.

His usual pediatrician wasn't available, and so we saw a colleague who was the polar opposite of our regular cheerful and easy going doc—he was serious, stern and down to business.

After my son was diagnosed with an ear infection, I casually mentioned his sleeping problem in the hopes that this doctor had some novel approach I hadn't tried yet. He looked me square in the face, and said: "You have two options here: Either you go in right away when he cries, or you never go in again."

He must have seen my horrified expression, and so he went on to explain: "You see, around a year, kids master object permanence, so they understand you exist even when you leave the room. It's best to get sleep sorted before then. Afterwards, they start learning patterns. Right now, you're teaching your kid that you will always come back to him, whether it is with song, a lovey, a pat on the back or whatever other method you're using. He's learning those patterns, and he's clearly proven that he's determined, so he's just going to keep on doing whatever it takes to get you to come back, even if it means crying for an hour."

On the fourth night, I gave him a kiss, put him in the crib, and he smiled at me before curling up with his little stuffed mouse and going straight to sleep. It was a miracle.

This made sense: Hugo had been learning that I would no longer come immediately, and so he had to cry for however long it took to get me back into his room, making both of us completely miserable.

I asked the doctor if this always worked, and he told me yes. So far, all of his worst sleepers had started sleeping through the night. He also reassured me that while it's hard (gut-wrenchingly awful, I found out), it goes quickly. His very worst sleeper patient cried five hours the first night, four-and-a-half the second, three the third, one hour the fourth night, and has been sleeping 12 solid hours without complaint ever since, but the average cry outs were all under an hour, at most, he assured me.

It took me a few days to work up the courage to start, and here's how it went. After our usual bedtime routine, I put him down in his crib and told him I'd see him tomorrow morning. The crying commenced. I anxiously folded my laundry and my husband brought me a glass of wine. I cried, perhaps as much as the baby, and after 45 minutes of angry screaming there was silence.

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The next night, I sat on the couch with one eye on the stairs as my husband and I talked about work. Our son angrily complained and whined for 30 minutes, then silence. The next night, 15 minutes of whining, then silence. On the fourth night, I gave him a kiss, put him in the crib, and he smiled at me before curling up with his little stuffed mouse and going straight to sleep.

It felt like a miracle.

There were a few nights where he woke up at night. It was hard to stay put, but he would go back down after ten minutes, then five, then one. Now when he wakes he may call out "MA!" and when I don't come rushing in, he just puts himself back to sleep.

Problem solved. Or so I thought.

It turned out that after he'd learned to sleep through the night, I had to sleep train as well. I didn't realize how anxious I was until I lay wide-awake at night with nothing to do. It took two weeks of not picking up my phone, meditation, melatonin, and some Valerian to finally get me back to sleep—and it felt amazing.

My dreams came back, and one by one, the neurons that had been overloaded by toxic fatigue came back online. I remembered that I was once a smart, funny vivacious creature, and now I finally had enough energy to share that part of me with my son, and, to me, that's priceless.

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