She won’t stay in her bed

If your toddler’s bedtime has become a second playtime, follow our expert’s advice to restore peace at night

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Helen Stuart, 30, from Huddersfield is a full-time mum to daughter Delaney, 2. She is currently separated from her partner, although the couple remain good friends. Helen hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep since Delaney was born.

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By day, my daughter Delaney is an absolute delight. She’s happy, wonderfully behaved and she never throws tantrums. But I pay the price at night – and I’m at my wits’ end.

‘Until two months ago, the only way of getting Delaney to sleep at night was by rocking her in the living room, while she drank a bottle of milk. If I put her into bed straight away, she would scream until she was physically sick.

‘Finally, two months ago, she started to go to sleep in her own bed. I really hoped she’d turned a corner, but there’s another problem – she wakes frequently in the night and insists on climbing into bed with me. I’m longing to have a full night’s sleep and to have my bed back to myself.

‘Delaney normally falls asleep at 7.30pm, then she wakes three hours later and cries until I give her another bottle of milk. I’ve tried ignoring the crying, but she gets so upset she starts being sick. I’ve also tried sitting with her and simply stroking her head, but she won’t settle until she gets that milk bottle. My health visitor suggested that I give her water instead,but that doesn’t always work.

‘She wakes at 1.30am and again around 4am, when she comes into my bed and stays until she wakes up properly at 5.30am. This pattern happens every night, without fail.

‘On a bad night, she wakes every hour, but there have been some nights when she’s woken up 16 times. Two weeks ago, I ran out of milk – I was up all night with her! I’m a walking zombie. I really need help.

‘During the day, Delaney is a lovely girl, so well behaved, and she always has a nap around 10.30am. But at night she’s a different child. Lately, I’ve been so exhausted that I’ve been losing my temper and shouting at her, and I’ve been allowing her to come into my bed because I can’t face the fight. Sometimes, I’ve been so tired that she’s crept into my bed and I haven’t even noticed.

‘All the mums at the various toddler groups I go to say their children sleep all the way through the night. It makes me feel like a failure. How have I got it so wrong when they’ve got it so right?’

Our expert says…

Claire Halsey, 47, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, is a consultant clinical psychologist with 25 years experience. She specialises in parenting, child development and sleep problems, and has three children.

‘Sleep issues are one of the most common problems raised with health visitors, and research shows 15-25% of pre-schoolers wake in the night. So don’t assume your child is the only one not sleeping through the night. Also, other mums may offer advice on the matter, but remember, what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another. Don’t take advice from anyone whose child has not had a sleep problem.

‘Helen has done remarkably well by moving Delaney from a cot to a bed, and stopping the habit of rocking her to sleep in the front room. Now, with a little extra work and time, she will crack the problem completely. It is also vital that Delaney’s dad, her grandparents or any other person who babysits, knows the new programme. Consistency is the key to success, particularly with sleep training.’

1. Stick with it

You must stick to any changes you make for at least a fortnight. So don’t give up, even if you think the new regime isn’t working. And remember, the first couple of days will be bad. It’s like starting a diet – the change is tough to begin with but becomes easier with time.

2. Ask her why she’s waking

Helen says Delaney has no tantrums at all during the day. Instead, she’s having them at night, but that’s not as odd as it might at first sound. By day, Delaney has lots of stimulation and attention. That could be part of the reason why she is so demanding when she wakes at night.

3. Have playtime before bed

As Delaney seems to want attention at night, Helen must strike a balance between the constant stimulation of the day and the calm bedtime routine at night. She should start a 15 to 20-minute playtime while Delaney prepares for bed. This should be quiet play, decided by Delaney.

4. Create another soother

Delaney will only go to sleep with a bottle and wakes when she realises it’s not there, which means it’s acting as a dummy. Helen must find some other way to help Delaney go to sleep. Step one is to wean her off her daytime bottle and onto a beaker. Then Helen can introduce the beaker at night. The final step is to let her have milk in her bedroom but not in her bed.

5. Cut down the fluids at night

Delaney is drinking fluids so often at night that she’s likely to be waking up because she has a full bladder or is wetting herself. Instead, give her a small drink of water just before bedtime, but before her milk. This will satisfy her thirst and will stop her drinking a large amount of milk.

6. Be boring at bedtime

Your job is to settle Delaney at night, not to be entertaining. So be calm and soothing and put her into bed saying ‘Nighty night.’ Repeat these words again if she tries to talk, or if she gets up and comes into the lounge. Lead her back to bed, and just say ‘Nighty night’. Don’t reward her with conversation or a cuddle. A pat on the arm, or a hand on her shoulder, is as much comfort as she needs. If she gets into your bed, lead her back to her own repeating those same words.

7. Do a disappearing act

Your aim is to settle Delaney, then gradually move further out of the room. Start by sitting beside her as she drops off to sleep. The next night, move a foot away. Continue until you are literally sitting in the doorway. Eventually she will settle herself.

8. Grab 40 winks

Helen needs all the strength she can muster. But at the moment, she’s totally sleep deprived. She must nap whenever Delaney does or is at the local crèche. Just 10 or 20 minutes will boost her energy levels and make success more achievable.

9. Let her nap

Make sure Delaney sleeps during the day, but not after 4pm. It’s tempting to cut the daytime naps, in the hope your child will drop off to sleep more easily at bedtime. But if she doesn’t nap in the day, she’ll have less opportunity to practise going to sleep. Also, being overtired can make falling asleep harder.

10. Don’t go to your child

If you can hear your child is restless in bed, don’t go to her straight away or get her out of bed. It will wake her and she’ll get into a habit of doing it. Give her a chance to resettle. Go to your child if she is really distressed, but simply say ‘Nighty night’.

The result

Helen gets her bed back at last

‘First, Claire helped me to relax. I was so tired that I wasn’t in a fit state to cope with Delaney at night. But after Claire reassured me how common this problem is, I felt a lot better.

‘Claire’s suggestion about me taking a nap made sense, too. Sleeping in the day means I’m far better able to cope with Delaney at night. Claire told me I must not give in, so during the first week I heard her words ringing in my ears as I repeatedly took Delaney back to her bed and said ‘Nighty night.’ I said it so often I even bored myself! Before, I would have given up, but this time I stuck to it.

‘It took about four days to wean Delaney off her daytime bottle. For the first few nights without her bottle, Delaney screamed and repeatedly got up. One night, I put her back into bed about 20 times. But incredibly, after just a week Delaney got the message that she must stay in bed.

‘Over the last few nights, she’s only woken a couple of times – I feel like a totally new woman. She’s had the odd bad night, but as Claire warned me this would happen, it hasn’t affected my determination.

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‘I’m sleeping at night for the first time since Delaney was born – and I have my bed to myself at last. Plus, I’m not too tired to enjoy myself in the day. I’m so glad I have my life back.’

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