It’s no secret that Thomas has never been a great sleeper. He’s always fought naps, only learning to have them in his cot mere months before he gave them up completely, he didn’t sleep reliably through the night until well past the age of one, and he has always been an early riser. This isn’t a woe-is-me type of post, and there is no competition in these statements. I’m not really interested in comparing my toddler’s sleeping habits with others, or competing for whose is worst, as I know that they’re all unique, and what is hard for one person can be straightforward for another. I’m just stating facts, in the interests of recording the aspects of parenting that right now I may believe impossible to forget, but in future might become lost to the mists of time.
Sleep is, and always has been, a potential battleground in this house.
We’ve tried a lot of different things on our journey through sleeplessness varying from total acceptance and going-with-the-flow through full on co-sleeping to slightly forceful night weaning at around a year old. Most recently we tried a Gro-clock to attempt to encourage Thomas to delay the time at which he yelled to us to “Wake up, Mummy and Daddy” each morning.
The Gro-clock, if you’re not familiar with it, has a jolly sun for a face, which changes to a big star at bedtime. This is surrounded by smaller stars that “go out” one by one throughout the night, and eventually the star is replaced by the sun at a time the parents deem suitable for getting up (or more likely the absolutely latest time they can get away with, which in our case is still not really a “suitable” time!)
I’d heard lots of reports of success with these clocks, so we ended up buying one. The very first night it almost seemed to work. He was quite excited about having a clock of his own and the next morning stayed in bed until one of the latest times that he ever has. But Thomas is a smart kid. The next morning he evidently took a look at the clock before yelling with gusto “The sun is not up, but Thomas is. Wake uuuuuuuup!”
So finally we decided to complete a job that we’d been putting off for a while: the move to the big boy bed. I hoped that being able to get himself out of bed, and to roam around his room, meant that he would be happier to occupy himself for a while after waking up and less likely to yell for us.
The reasons we had put it off were mainly related to child-proofing issues. Chief amongst these was finding a way to stop him straying up to the top floor of our house – a staircase on which none of the many stair gates we looked at would fit. We weren’t keen on the idea of a gate across his bedroom door, not least because that would also be challenging to fit, and would mean that the door couldn’t be closed. And I hate the idea of locking or holding the door, as I think that would just induce panic in Thomas who is used to being able to open doors by himself.
In the end we realised that putting a gate across the middle of our landing, attached to the wall and the newel post of the stairs to the top floor, would serve the dual purpose of blocking off those stairs and stopping him wandering straight in to our bedroom, the door of which is beside the staircase.
So we were set. The side of the cot came off.
To begin with, it was exciting. I loved being able to sit on the bed and snuggle with Thomas whilst reading his bedtime stories. I could finally kiss him after tucking him in – something I couldn’t manage in the cot due to the high side. And I’ve been super impressed that so far, more than a month in, he’s only fallen out once. (We heard a “thud” and when I went in to investigate he was pushing his duvet back on the bed. I asked him if he had fallen out and he looked at me all sheepish and forlorn with a little nod and a “yes”. Heartbreakingly cute!)
But the change has not been without problems.
I’ve heard from lots of friends that their little ones have taken weeks to figure out that suddenly they can climb out of bed all by themselves. We have friends whose three year old still asks to be lifted out of bed in the morning. Not so Thomas. Within a day he had it all figured out. And it’s turned bedtime into a absolute circus.
The second we close the door, he’s out of bed and running around, usually in the space on the landing between the two stair gates. If we try a super-nanny approach and lead him back to bed, it’s still too much interaction and he turns it in to a game, giggling merrily. He’ll bring his soft toys out on to the landing and toss them one by one over the banisters before calling for them all back. He then gets increasingly frustrated at our refusal to “play” and it all descends into frayed tempers all round and lots of screaming on his part.
So, since he’s perfectly happy and well contained, we’ve taken to ignoring his running around. Oh, and the singing. At the top of his voice. And occasional demands to “Come up here NOW Mummy. Now, now, now.”
The problem is, it can go on for hours. The average time of falling asleep lately has been close to 10pm. From a 7.30pm bedtime. For a TWO YEAR OLD!
And, worse, the most usual place that he has fallen asleep is not his bed, or even his bedroom. It’s the landing floor. We find him there, prostrate on his tummy, snoring away. It certainly doesn’t look comfortable, although he always whinges when we move him to bed.
Mornings are no better. He gets out of bed as soon as he wakes, totally disregarding the clock. He stands by the gate outside our room, rattling the bars like a caged prisoner and shouting at us to wake up. Long forgotten are my hopes that he might play by himself in his room.
During the intervening hours he often wakes once or twice. Sometimes he settles back to sleep without intervention. Sometimes he wants help with his covers, or finding his drink. Often he wants to come in to our bed, communicated by pointing and wailing “Mummy and Daddy’s bed” but once there he usually sits between us for a couple of minutes before happily going back to his own room.
There have been notable deviations from this, like the run of nights broken up by wild, inconsolable screaming fits. Some of these seem like the night terrors he has experienced before, but at other times he seems more with it, just unable to be broken from whatever is distressing him. On these occasions we… ahem… may have had to resort to showing him videos of trains just to calm him down enough to contemplate more sleep.
I’m not really sure where to go from here, to be honest. Thomas hasn’t napped during the day at home for a long time, so he should definitely be tired enough to go to sleep at 7.30pm. I’d considered that he may be over tired, but recently, presumably under the influence of peer pressure, he has had some daytime naps at nursery. On those days he clearly wasn’t tired enough, for he was even worse to get to sleep, wound up like a spring and bouncing off the walls.
In desperation – because surely it can’t be healthy for a two year old to sleep only 10pm until 5 am – I’ve begun reading some parenting books, including the one which seems to be a bit of a hit amongst some of my local parent friends – Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s Toddler Calm. There is a lot I could say about the book, which really deserves a post of its own, and my views are quite mixed. But I read with interest the part about television having the potential to raise cortisol levels in children and so fuel wakefulness. Whilst I’m sceptical about a lot of this kind of “research” looking further, beyond the book, it seemed to make some sense. Thomas doesn’t watch a huge amount of television, but I was in the habit of letting him watch a episode or two of Thomas and Friends just before bedtime, because it kept him safely occupied and gave me time to get everything sorted for bath and bedtime.
It seemed simple enough to try cutting out, just to see if it made a difference. And the first night we tried, it did seem to. He went to sleep much more quickly and seemed less unsettled. But on that occasion, both of us were home, so Ian was able to play a calm game with him and keep him occupied whilst I ran the bath. The next evening, I was on my own. We’d come in from nursery, which the book notes also seems to raise cortisol levels. But no amount of television or time at nursery could have raised his cortisol levels as high as the full on melt down that arose when Thomas (the television programme) was not turned on. The tantrum spiralled in to protests about absolutely everything from taking clothes off to brushing teeth and the bedtime routine dragged out 30 minutes longer than normal, which was then followed by two hours of running around.
So for now, at least, I think I’m resigned to evenings punctuated by the sound of feet pattering around upstairs. I remain thankful that the actual disruption to our evenings is minimal, since he isn’t crying or distressed, even when we ignore his requests to “come and play”. When he wakes in the night, he’s usually fairly easily settled. And I’ve just had to adjust my expectations on the time that I start my day. I can deal with that. I don’t have to like it, but I can do it.
I just can’t help but feel, though, that I’m not really doing enough. That I’m not helping him establish a better routine or learn what he really should be doing at bedtime, because all the ways I’ve tried so far have failed. That I’m just giving in when I let him watch YouTube at 2am when he’s distraught and nothing else works.
I suppose I’m letting him do as he pleases, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t believe he is “being naughty” when he doesn’t go to sleep, for he is not capable of that much calculation and even if he were, he’s not really getting anything out of it whilst we refuse to interact. Reiterating what we expect of him doesn’t get the desired result any faster, and leads to an awful lot more upset all round.
I suppose I need to have faith that he’ll figure it all out eventually. Unless anyone has any other wise words for me.