Question: My 17-month-old son, Cooper, sleeps in his own bed, but when I nurse him to sleep, I end up falling asleep with him. Whenever I get up to go back to my bed, he cries and will only go back to sleep when I nurse him again. I can’t bring him into my bed because my husband and I sleep in a loft area that wouldn’t be safe for my son. None of us is getting enough sleep. What can I do? —Blynda Barnett, Portland, Ore.
It sounds as if your son is eating more at night than during the day, so once his hunger is dealt with, he may have less reason to wake up at night. First, determine how often you want to nurse him, and then keep that schedule so he can learn what to expect. Maybe it’s twice—when he’s going to bed and then as the sun comes up. When he wakes up in the night, you can still go to him, but try not to nurse. At first he’s going to be frustrated and confused, so reassure him that you’re there. Eventually this will help him begin to eat more during the day.
This process may take two weeks or longer, but it has a better chance of working if you really believe it will help him gain the skill of sleeping independently and will make you able to be more present during the day. It will be hard work, and he will cry. It helps to set a time frame. When a child is screaming and frustrated, you might feel like it’s going to last 16 years! But you need to give him a chance to learn this new skill. Saying “I can do this for five days” can make the task feel doable. Talk to your son about the plan beforehand so he isn’t surprised when you start to execute it.
Even though he’s nonverbal, tell him, “If you wake up tonight, I’ll lie down with you, but we won’t nurse until morning.” When he cries, remember that your role is not to make him stop, but to be there with him as he figures this out. Try to be calm even when he’s upset. Your calmness can communicate that the world is not falling apart. You can also rub his back or offer him a cup of water. It’s a defining moment for every parent when they understand that there are certain things a child has to do for himself. He’s a separate person. You can give him the very best care, and you can say, “I think you can do it!” This is a huge milestone for parent and child.
Blynda’s feedback: These were helpful tips. I decided to draw a line at about 2 a.m. and go ahead and nurse him back to sleep if he woke up after that time. I told Cooper the plan. The fi rst night, I put him to sleep by nursing at 8:30. He woke only once that night at midnight— this in itself was a major improvement. It took 45 minutes for him to go back to sleep, which was a lot less than I anticipated.
He woke up again at 6 a.m. I nursed him back to sleep, and he slept until 9 a.m.! The next night was nearly a repeat. Unfortunately, the next day he hit his head hard, and the doctor recommended we sleep with Cooper for the next 48 hours. So, it was back to numerous night wakings and feedings. We’re taking a break from the routine again now, because we’re all fighting colds and need as much sleep as possible, but I’m very encouraged!
Janis Keyser is the coauthor of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books) and author of From Parents to Partners: Building a Family- Centered Early Childhood Program (Redleaf Press, redleafpress.org).
Nicole Gregory is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and mom.