Gentle Sleep Training for Toddler (18 - 20 Months Old)
Since Birdy was born, I always operated on a basis of she “should be” doing this, or sleeping like this, or adjusting this way, should, should, should, should...it never ever ended. If she wasn’t falling asleep when we followed the “sleep training rules”, my response was always something along the lines of “well this just doesn’t make any sense, she should be catching on quicker/she should be falling asleep by now”.
If you’ve been following along with my pregnancy and parenting journey with Birdy up until this point, than you’ll know that this is an incredibly multi-layered journey for me; underneath the more common parenting struggles or questions are layers and layers of other personal lessons and PPD trauma that I still have to wade my way through--with certain weeks being harder than others. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt some piece of myself shift in the world of how I see Birdy, as well as how I see myself as a parent. My feelings of being trapped under this title turned into a deep unrecognizable sense of pride. My feelings of being hindered whenever having to spend time with her alone moved to this deep joy that I had never before felt.
I started trying to shift and begin operating within my sense of intuition, which although this was something that I’ve usually done for a good part of my own life, when it came to parenting it just hadn’t crossed my mind that I could use intuition as my approach as well.
How we felt it was time for a shift:
For what felt like months, Birdy was increasingly becoming more and more clingy with Mark. The two of them spent the majority of the weekdays together, and basically since birth--minus a few weeks here or there--Mark had been the one putting Birdy down for her naps and bedtime. Bed times were incredibly hard for me. My patience always started practically at zero, and if she didn’t respond how I again told myself that she “should” be to my trying really hard at putting her down, then I would find myself in a frustration spiral begging for Mark to come and help me. I also have found more recently that these moments of what felt like my inability as a parent would send me into a sense of PTSD episode, flashing back to the dark and early months of being unable to console her.
Long story short, the clinginess just really felt to me like a shift needed to happen, and although it was coupled with her eye teeth growing in simultaneously, I can’t describe it any better than just intuitively knew that we needed to make a few changes. Just to break down how things were looking for us at this point **also keep in mind that for us, and especially during the summer/fall season, that Mark was/is the primary caregiver for Birdy and that although I do work from home, the two of them are together almost all of the time
Birdy would want Mark to pick her up as soon as we woke up in the morning and she would scream or cry if he ever put her down, even if it was to use the washroom or get dressed
She refused to eat (or eat more than one or two bites) and would abandon her meals and ask Mark to pick her up
Mark couldn’t read, write, or use a computer around her, without her wanting him to stop or wanting him to put anything down and just sit while she played nearby
She wouldn’t come to me to be consoled or wouldn’t want me to feed her or put her to sleep
Mark would have to rock or hold her to sleep (usually for 20-30 minutes, but also sometimes up to an hour). Most of the time, he also couldn’t lay her down or lay next to her without her crying for him to pick her up.
Naps were unbelievably inconsistent (lasting usually around 45-60 minutes)
Things were obviously becoming increasingly exhausting for Mark, so I just knew that there was something that we had to do to make a shift. Although he loves spending his days with Birdy, this stretch of weeks/months was wearing him down, and for me as the other parent wanting to help while simultaneously being unable to, it was hard to watch him grow increasingly worn out and uninspired by daily life.
I had noticed that when left with just me, and sending Mark somewhere where Birdy could no longer see or hear him, that after a few minutes of crying and calling for him, she settled into a different sort of toddler. Right off the bat, she wasn’t really clingy with me, nor continually asked to be lifted up, and I found that she would respond better when I would try and feed her. Obviously, I think this worked for the simple reason that as the “secondary” caregiver who she wasn’t as “attached” to or that she spent the majority of her time with; it felt as though she was just content with going about her daily business as long as I was nearby.
We even tried a handful of times with introducing Mark back into the scene just to test my theory, only to find that the minute he walked back into the room, she would run to his leg, start whining, and ask him to lift her up; even though she hadn’t once whined or cried in the hours before when it was just the two of us.
I joked that she just seemed to be in need of a mini detox from Mark, but honestly, that’s kind of what we ended up doing as the first step in being able to put her down to sleep in a new way. It started with just that one day of having him be away from us all day long--taking a break for himself, as well as giving Birdy a break--and then it transitioned into having him step out for a few of her meal times so that she would actually eat, and then finally moved into me becoming the one to put her down for her naps and her bedtimes.
Before getting into the actual sleep training routine, there were a few changes outside of the actual going-to-bed part that we felt might help make her sleep better.
1 -- First of all, we got her a sleep sack. She had had one in the past when she was under 9 months old, but we hadn’t really gotten her a bigger/current one for this stage of life. Birdy cannot stand to be under a blanket, and then not only that, but she obviously always ends up being uncovered after rolling around a time or two once she’s asleep. We found this really nice thick one at Winners by Piper & Posie. I tried to find our exact one online but it almost seems like the brand doesn’t even exist? It’s a a thicker tog (not actually sure of the number), which makes it nice and heavy for the cooler months (and I think really helps with keeping her asleep), and it has detachable sleeves for added warmth if need be.
2 -- We then switched up her meal time schedule and started feeding her lunch before she goes down for her nap. She always gets a bottle before going to sleep, but we weren’t giving her lunch until afterwards, which meant that she might’ve been getting hungry during her nap, which I started to feel was a cause of her waking up prematurely.
3 -- We stopped holding her while giving her her pre-naptime bottle, and instead removed it entirely as being a “bedtime activity” by giving it to her downstairs on the couch, and having her drink it herself while we either sat nearby, or cleaned up lunch dishes, etc.
4 -- We also started using her “fox” that she’s had since before she was born, as another reason for her to have a nap or go to bed. She’s always slept with fox, but we would now tell her that fox is tired or that fox is waiting for her to fall asleep, which I feel has given her a sense of wanting to help fox out and she does that by falling asleep.
5 -- We also put a thin regular-sized pillow in her bed for no particular reason, but she always falls asleep with her head on the pillow (on her front, bum in the air, cheek down on the pillow).
6 -- We pushed her naptime back (since she only has one nap a day), regardless of how tired she was seeming to be before naptime rolled around. It only took her days to adjust to a consistent time, which I think really made a big difference. Up until this point, her nap time varied depending on whenever she seemed tired, which made for often really early in the day nap times (anywhere from between 9:30-11:00 am), which not only made the rest of the day feel super long, but also made any sort of consistency possible. If she was ever seeming tired before her new nap time rolled around, we would try and distract her with a new activity, or taking her outside to play/run around always seemed to do the trick and keep her awake until it was time to sleep.
A huge part of the reason as to why I know that how we went about doing things worked really well for us, is because Birdy was old enough to actually be able to converse with us, or to give me reasons as to why she was/wasn’t going to sleep, or what she needed before doing so.
After her bottle when I tell her that fox is tired or that fox is calling “Birdy where are you?” she always taps her chest and shouts back “here me am!” before we climb the stairs to her bed. When she’s laying in bed with me next to it, she’ll tell me if she’s itchy, or if she needs her sleeves rolled up, or what song she prefers that I sing; whatever she apparently needs to get out of her system before falling asleep. She also listens when I tell her “lay back down and mommy will sing Baby Beluga”, or “please lay back down otherwise I won’t be able to sit here while you fall asleep”. She’s always been really receptive to phrases like that and almost always abides by whatever I ask her to do.
There have been times—especially at the start, but do still happen now as well—where she’ll whine or sit up and cry when we first go into the room. As hard as it can be sometimes, I’ve found that for her it seems to just be a little test to see if we can forget about naptime and go back out of the room to play. I’ll usually just repeat to her a few times to lay down and that it’s time for sleep while she whines or cries, until she eventually (after 2-3 minutes) will lay back down and ask me to sing to her. Some days it is just a waiting game, which can feel so exhausting, but eventually she complies.
I knew the only “rule” that I wanted to give myself when it came to putting her to sleep, was to not physically touch her in any way to help her to fall asleep (i.e tapping her bum or rubbing her back). For whatever reason, I felt that it was important that she didn’t associate falling asleep with being patted, because I knew that if she woke up in the middle of a sleep and I was no longer there patting her back or bum, that she would then have a harder time putting herself back to sleep.
I think maybe the easiest way for me to breakdown and explain the process, is to put it into a little timeline of what a typical day at home looks like for Birdy; that way there won’t be anything that I’m missing out throughout the rest of her day that might contribute to the success of her sleeping well.
6:30 am - 7:15 am -- this is usually the timeframe in which Birdy gets up in the morning; she almost always asks for food in the first few moments that she wakes up, so after getting ourselves up, we all head downstairs for her “first breakfast” haha.
7:15 am -- she’ll have either some “dinosaur oatmeal”, a pouch, or “cheese toast” (which is whole grain toast with vegan butter and nutritional yeast - if you’ve never eaten this before, you’re welcome) first thing when she gets up, then she’ll be good to go for a while.
She helps Mark make coffee at this point, plays with her toys, read books, plays with playdoh, or do whatever else she feels like doing.
9:00 am -- she’ll eat her second breakfast, which will consist of whichever of the earlier options she didn’t choose that day and more often than not, a little bit of our breakfast too.
11:00 am -- this is when we’ll start feeding her her lunch (an hour before her nap time, because we all know how long it takes toddlers to eat haha). She usually asks to help me, or to sit on the counter so that she can see what I’m doing (which I think her helping to prepare her own lunch also contributes to her wanting to eat her meal), so she’ll help me and then I’ll feed her once it’s ready.
After she eats her lunch we’ll give her a bottle of almond milk (around 8oz or so right now) before she gets going up to bed for noon. We’re hoping by mid December to have her off of wanting bottles, but for now it’s a part of her routine.
Then by 12:00 pm -- she’s laying down in her bed and starting her naptime. She’ll normally chatt or sing for a while before eventually settling down and dozing off.
2:30/3:00 pm -- once up from her nap, she’ll have a snack, or multiple snacks over the next little period of time
5:00 pm -- dinner is usually happening or at least starting to happen around 5:00 every night, and here she’ll almost always have whatever it is that we’re having
7:00 pm -- bedtime snack happens around/a little before now and then it’ll be another bottle and then bedtime for her, following the same “sleep training” procedure.
The falling-asleep process:
For me it started with about two weeks of sitting next to her bed and helping to keep her on track with falling asleep. It usually started with taking around 20-25 minutes of sitting next to her bed before she fell asleep, but after sticking with the same routine and schedule, it shortened to her only needing 5-10 minutes before falling asleep, and then--things started feeling as if we were ready for the next step--so I tried asking her to climb up into bed to fall asleep and told her that “mommy is just going to step out for a minute, but I’ll be back to check on you soon”. I was so pleasantly surprised to wait in the next room while listening to the monitor, and peek back in after 10-15 minutes to find her fast asleep.
It honestly blew me away the first few times that I tried laying her down and walking out of the room and she didn’t even object; in fact, most of the time she just told me to close the door on my way out hahah this kid, I’m not even kidding.
Much like any form of “sleep training” or anything that includes babies and children, nothing lasts forever and everything changes quicker than it all began, so there are going to be days where this doesn’t work as well as it once did, or that our babes are just going to need something different. My mindset--with trying to work on a more intuitive parenting basis these days--is to not be too hard on myself or on Birdy when things don’t stay the same or need adjusting. Especially now with us travelling so much, I’ve found that she requires a little more affection when falling asleep since she’s been in so many different beds and new spaces while we’re away from home, but I’m optimistic that once we’re officially back home for a longer stretch of time that she’ll be able to get back into the groove of doing things on her own.
Thankfully, Birdy has always been a really great sleeper and has been sleeping through the night for 10-12 hours since she was 4-6 months old. She used to nap and sleep in her own bedroom and fall asleep on her own, but we went through a phase of time last year where we did a lot of travelling for a long period of time, which resulted in her no longer being able to fall asleep on her own since her surroundings were so unfamiliar. There also wasn’t any cribs where we had been travelling to, which resulted in her being in either our bed or another “big” bed while we were away. Once we got back home, we tried putting her back in her own room only to find that she would consistently cry and become inconsolable around 11pm every single night. Eventually the desire for full night’s sleep again trumped sleep training, so she went through a long phase of being in our bed with us, which has now transitioned into her being in her own big girl bed, but still in our bedroom. Once we get back from our trip this month, we plan to get her back into her bed first, followed soon after by moving her bed back into her own room.
Okay, soooo that’s a lot. I hope that some of it makes some sense for you, or that you’re able to resonate with bits and pieces that I’ve shared today. I’m sure you might still have some questions, so please don’t hesitate to leave those for me here and I’ll try and answer them the best that I can!