Adventures in Toddler Sleep Training

While many quick to think parents tackle the feat of sleep training their baby when they’re a few months old, we had the awesome idea of waiting until our baby was a full-blown toddler.

It went nothing like we expected.

As much as I wanted it to, our sleep training journey did not fit into a One-Size-Fits-All-Get-Your-Baby-to Sleep-in-Three-Days box. It turns out, our sleep training journey has been as unique as our child is. Anyways, I’m pretty sure most of our kids don’t fit in a box. 

This story goes back almost nine years when my oldest was a newborn. By nature, I loosely subscribe to an attachment parenting style. So, out of desire and response to my baby’s personality and needs, we embraced co-sleeping. This worked really well for us. In addition to it working well for my baby, I was a single mom and had no need to consult with a partner on the issue, and I had plenty of room in my bed to safely bed-share. It was a perfect situation. Baby slept. I slept. If he woke up, I held his hand and he fell right back to sleep. He may not have fully slept through the night until age five, but we managed well. 

Adventures in Toddler Sleep Training | Twin Cities Mom Collective

Fast forward seven years and there was a new infant in my arms. A new infant with a different personality and needs than my firstborn. And a partner with an opinion, sometimes different than mine (but that’s okay, as you’ll see, he ultimately saved our nighttimes). Our newest addition was an otherwise healthy infant, who was upset whether he was laying on my chest or in his own bassinet. An infant who fought us for space and comfort and time and energy all night long. I’m talking baby-style WWE wrestling moves on us. He was one of those babies who would wake up and stay awake for hours at night, just to finally fall asleep a half hour before my 5:45 alarm went off for work. He was a crier. A hard, hard crier. He was healthy and amazing, but a challenge at night. 

While I believe night-time parenting is an important part of parenting, this was some sort of extreme I never expected. 

Adventures in Toddler Sleep Training | Twin Cities Mom Collective

So, the day came when my husband and I had a real talk about how our nights were going, and most importantly, the impact the lack of sleep was having on our overtired 17 month old (and let’s be real – us). So, we took our pediatrician’s advice and came up with a plan and decided to stick with it. Thankfully this was the only advice we were given because it was the best advice we needed. We set aside the books and other “methods” we had read about, and created a plan that felt right for us. 

My husband held my hand through the fearful, “But what if he cries for hours?” conversations. We decided we wouldn’t let him cry for more than 10 minutes, maybe 20 if we saw good results, but that was scary for me. Let me be clear: I do not like sleep training and I do not like letting my babies cry. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t what needed to happen. 

We also decided that the “gentle methods” of going in and calming him occasionally would not work for our extremely social child. My husband reminded me that we would only be teasing him by reentering the room and not picking him up. He was right. 

It was time for me to let go of some of my instincts and trust some of my husband’s. This was not easy. It was scary. In many ways, I feel this is looked down upon in our society, but it was an important step for us all and my husband’s instincts were worthy of trusting. We created a plan that was geared towards our son’s unique personality and needs. I couldn’t have done this without my husband’s help. After all, he naturally shares a similar personality with our toddler (though he sleeps much, much better than him!). 

The first night was shockingly easy. Since we decided I would still rock him to sleep (remember, we created our own plan), our bedtime routine was pretty normal. When I laid him down he whimpered a bit but stayed asleep. He then woke, as usual, a couple of hours later crying. He cried for less than 10 minutes. The next couple of days were similar. Sometimes there were more tears than others and eventually we allowed the tears to go a bit past the 10 minute mark, but he started sleeping through the night that first week. He was a much happier toddler. 

Adventures in Toddler Sleep Training | Twin Cities Mom Collective

All in all it took us just a few days of sticking to our plan for all of us to learn that this worked best. 

Then, we went to China as a family. Throw in jet lag, late night train rides, family meals around the table with great-NaiNai and changes in routine, we knew we’d need to start over from the beginning when we returned home. I was nervous.

Turns out I had every right to be. 

When we returned from China our son was 18 months old and struggled a bit more with the sleep routine that we had previously established. I think it was most likely because he was at a new stage of development and his feistiness and big-toddler-feelings were at an all time high. The tears lasted longer, but we stuck with the plan because we knew that the plan gave our social little night owl the sleep he desperately needed. We knew if we went in there and picked him up, he’d be awake for hours and then the cycle of over-tiredness would reemerge.

So, we started again and embraced the tears in a new way, this time understanding that we could get there. During the first night of long cries I thought our little one would defy all sleep training methods and stay awake forever. I honestly didn’t know if sleep would ever happen. I was glued to the baby monitor with a heavy heart. That night he fell asleep eventually, though, I kid you not, he fell asleep standing up. The second night he cried just as hard and fell asleep sitting up. He was a sleep-sitter for a few nights and he cried longer and harder than I ever thought I could bear, but we eventually got there. My husband whispering dark truths of sleepless nights in my ear as a reminder of our purpose. 

Adventures in Toddler Sleep Training | Twin Cities Mom Collective

Those hardest days lasted a couple of weeks. I believe this is longer than it takes for most.

Now, while we still have our nights of fevers and teething and normal baby sleep struggles, our little one typically just lets out a whimper or short cry when I lay him down and falls right to sleep. His cries are usually tired, sleepy cries and not standing up and screaming for us cries – though we still have those nights at times. 

The most important thing is he is sleeping. It was never about needing him to sleep through the night for us, it was about giving our little one the gift of sleep that he so desperately needed. Our little socialite didn’t want to miss out on anything – and sleep training him was the best way to help him find rest at night and more happiness during the day. 

In the end, our toddler hasn’t fit the books. But that’s okay, he is unique and perfect and we’ll do all we can to help find ways of parenting him that work best for him. I used to have an idea of how I’d parent my children. I made the assumption that I’d pick a style and stick to it. However, I’ve discovered that sometimes adjusting my expectations can mean we try a parenting style that we didn’t expect to try… that is, until we met the little person we’d actually be parenting. 

Maureen Zhao
Maureen is an educator and a mom to a sweet and wild seven year old named Leo and newborn named Remy. She and her family can be found digging in the dirt, seeking adventures outside, traveling, hunting down thrifty deals, visiting local museums and parks, discovering new global flavors at local restaurants, and looking for resourceful ways to be involved in their community together. Maureen is eager to connect with those around her regardless of where they come from and is passionate about raising a son who cares for the world around him. Both her and her family have a strong desire to be where the action is, yet yearn for the solace that is found when they're surrounded by nature. When not in the city where home and work is, they can often be found venturing north and setting up camp where the only thing they need to worry about is where to bike that day and where to find the best view of the sunset. You can follow Maureen and her family's daily adventures on Instagram {@maureenshealer}.


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