A Gentle Parent’s Guide to Sleep

My son is the dreaded non sleeper.  The child that acts like a warm milk is a Red Bull, and bed time is the perfect opportunity to try out every toy in his room.  The boy who sees sleep as a challenge.  We used to co-sleep until he would sneak out of our bed and play or turn the tv on at 3am.  Every parent hits that wall where lack of sleep becomes torture.  When friends and family act sympathetic, but they really can’t know the horror of another 3 hour bed time argument with a toddler.

This week was my wall.  I wish I could do as many do; let my child simply go to sleep later and then sleep in the morning.  This doesn’t work for us.  First, like many pareIMG_2072nts that follow us here at APW, we work or go to study, so it’s important we can wake around 7am and have had a good night’s rest.  Second, my son is one of the many toddlers that laughs in the face of late to bed, late to rise.  It’s still a 6am wake up either way.  We have other children too. We must ensure that our home is calm and sleep-friendly for all of them, without my toddler keeping the others awake. I needed a gentle way to help him rest.  I didn’t want to do any crying or any ‘training’ as such.  I spent a long time wondering, is this even possible?  I spent hours trawling through blogs and sleep help books, all telling me to be gentle and not let him cry-it-out (CIO), but none actually gave me solutions.

I went along to the health team at the local doctors and an angel appeared in the form of a Health Visitor (HV) that was trained as a sleep coach.  Now HVs have bad rap here in the UK.  I would implore you to get to know yours and if it’s not a good fit, change.  This Mary Poppins in a floaty dress, armed with a calm voice and a clip board swept into my home with an air of tranquility.  The opposite of what I was expecting (possibly a Supernanny doppelgänger, and don’t get me started on her).  She surprised me!  She gave me some of the most gentle and sensible sleep advice I have ever heard.  It reassured my gut feeling that being an attached parent didn’t mean I had to be a permissive parent. That I needed to help my son form a good relationship with sleep.  We all have to balance the need to set boundaries, encourage great home habits while still respecting them as people.


This blog is to share my journey with my husband and our toddler “F” in our new routine and way of sleeping.

Our main issues:
  1. “F” does not have a good relationship with bed time.  He does not calm or wind down enough in the evening.
  2. I put him back into his bed over 20 times, often over 1 to 2 hours in the evening, before he ‘gives in’ and falls asleep.
  3. “F” is not a ‘good eater’ and wants lots of bottled milk to fall asleep.  His lack of sleep and food combined makes for a very cross and emotional boy at times.
  4. He wakes in the night crying, until we give him a milk or get into bed with him.
  5. He refuses to nap in the day, resulting in some 24 hour periods when he gets only 7 hours of sleep; not enough for a two year old.  This is affecting behaviour and learning.
Our goals:
  1. Help “F” sleep wellScreen Shot 2015-05-24 at 5.52.24 PM
  2. Fall asleep calmly and by himself, if possible.
  3. Have 11 hours sleep in a day/night.
  4. Be able to settle himself when he wakes at night (unless, ofcourse, a nightmare or feeling poorly).

Maybe yours are similar, and if so I hope you may find some help from this too.  And here is how we are going to do it…

You do it together.

If you are lucky enough to have a partner in crime, in my case a husband, you have to be in it together.  You have to both be ready to have a night of even worse night’s sleep in order to get to the good stuff.  If you’re both not on board you, need to address why.  If it’s sleep, perhaps one does the staying up at night, but they get to sleep a little in the day?

No more bottles.

This broke my heart when I first realized it needed to happen.  If I was breastfeeding, perhaps the scenario would be different.  But very simply I need to help him learn to be ok with sleeping without the sucking motion or liquid of a bottle.  He is very wet at night because of the liquid in his nappy.  It’s filling his tummy so he is not eating enough solids.  So no more.  Instead, before we start the bedtime routine he can have some warm milk in a cup with a snack.

Short, calm and clear bedtime routine.

Children, especially toddlers, need to know ‘what’s next’.  They relish repetition and routine because it creates an air of security and safety.  Bedtime should mirror these needs.  It should be no more than 30 minutes for bath and bed.  Any longer and it becomes part of their normal day as they cannot differentiate it as a separate time.  Bedtime wind-down is important.  Imagine if someone shouted “right, bedtime lady!” as you were happily emailing and watching your TV show.  So…

  1. No TV after dinner and before bed.
    The light simulates day and TVs do not create a quieter household (Happy to admit I’m nervous about this one).  Curtains drawn in the main rooms as well as their bedroom. Signal the change to evening visually in your house.
  2. After dinner activities: reading or quiet one-on-one play in the lounge.  You need to help the bedroom be the calm, sleepy place your child associates with sleep.  A puzzle or The Gruffalo is going to be a favourite in our house, I think.
  3. No more than 10-15 mins in the bath.  Any more than this and it becomes a play time instead of a wind-down. A calm, soothing warm bath means that when a child gets out the cold will help prepare the body for sleep.  The temperate drop is similar to what happens to our bodies when we fall asleep.  If your child likes a noisy play bath, swap it to the morning.  Blow bubbles or play with a couple of toy cars.  Something expected and not too stimulating.
  4. Once the bath is done you don’t return to the lounge or any other part of the home. We signal bedroom is bedtime.
  5. If you have a non verbal child, introduce some flash cards or pictures you can make together.  A bed, a bath and a picture of the moon would do well.  Pop them on the wall and point to them when you are about to do each step.  Again, repetition is your friend here.
  6. Sleep!  Right, so here is the bit you have to nail.  The actual head to the pillow; snoring is the aim here.  I don’t believe in allowing a child to cry themselves to sleep alone, have you ever done it?  It’s pretty horrible.  I needed a gentle way.  A firm way that involves no shouting or in any way leaving them to scream.You may have heard the method below in other techniques.
“The Boring Mum”
  1. The first few nights, lie or sit next to your babe until s/he falls asleep.  This may take two minutes (yeah, right) or two hours.  Doesn’t matter.  If you have a child that gets upset, comfort them, but don’t engage in play.  You’re going to just say “shush, sleep” and close your eyes or read a book.  Most people will agree this is a sure way to get them to sleep.  My American friend Amy calls this “The Boring Mom” method.
  2. Then, every three nights, you start slowly moving yourself further from them.  Perhaps you start sitting on a chair in the room.  Then a few nights later by the door.  Then the hall.  Eventually you will be sitting on your sofa with a big glass of wine and a smile (that’s the aim anyway).
  3. If they wake in the night, you repeat the same steps above.  You reassure, check they don’t need a drink or a change, and then sit.
  4. As for naps, if you can establish a calm and gentle way of them falling asleep, the naps will come.  I will still do “The Boring Mum” method as often as I can in the day for naps.  It’s hard when you have other children.  I am hopeful that if he enjoys the sensation of falling quietly to sleep, he will not resist the naps.
  5. If they have a good night, lavish on the praise.  If not, you don’t talk about it and you move on to the next night.
  6. Keep a sleep diary.  Note the times and hours.  It may seem like your not making little progress until you look back and reflect.

Emillie ArmstrongAll of the above is going to be hard work.  And I believe you have to be in the right mindset for all of this.  I don’t believe you can skip a step either.  You need the routine before you can help them fall asleep.  But the prize at the end is a rested, calm, and sleepy child who wakes up with a grin.  I expect this to take at least a couple of weeks.

It’s also really important to note that at first, your child may react well to this.  Until night three or four when they go “Whoa, this is serious.  She is genuinely serious about this.  I think not mum!” and they have to take some time to process the change.

Some of this may work.  Some of it may not.  Some of this may have to be changed.  My sleep coach is coming back in two weeks to review.

So lets do this!  I will keep you posted and track our progress, not just counting the hours but the change in our family too.

Emma x

One Comment on “A Gentle Parent’s Guide to Sleep

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