toddler sleep

Saying Bye-Bye to the Bottle

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You’ve reached that point when you know your toddler doesn’t need a bottle anymore: you’ve heard paediatricians recommend children switch from a bottle to a sippy cup around age one; your dentist has told you it’s a bad idea for her teeth if she falls asleep with it; you know it’s probably the only reason she’s still waking up at night; and your mother-in-law is on your case about it.

Whatever your reason, you want to quit bottle feeding in the night but you can’t imagine how your child ever going to manage (or sleep through the night) without it.

One strategy that works well for a lot of kids is to package up all the bottles and “send them to a new baby” (you can secretly keep them in storage if you need).  If you know a new baby your child can visit, even better.

Prepare for this by talking to your child ahead of time about how he’s so big now that he doesn’t need a bottle anymore and that it’s time to pass them on to “a new little baby who really needs them.”

He can still have his milk before brushing his teeth, but he should have it in a cup. You can warm it up and call it “special coffee” or something fun. And, more preparation: tell him no more milk until the sun comes up.

Now for the hard part: what to do when your child cries out in the night for it? This is one of those unavoidable tough-love parenting moments.

First, you wait a few minutes to see if she will drift back to sleep on her own when she isn’t met with the instant gratification of Mom or Dad sleepily handing over a bottle full of warm milk. If she is not taking this change lying down (pardon the pun), then it’s all about your poker face: go in her room and calmly, quietly remind your little one that there is no more milk until the sun comes up, give her a little rub on the back for comfort and then leave again.

If your child is old enough to be in a big-kid bed and is coming to you with the milk request, then you have to lead her back quietly and matter-of-factly with very little interaction, tuck her in and do the same remind-and-leave routine as above.

You may have to repeat this a lot on the first few nights, so be patient; best to start on a weekend when you can trade naps with your spouse the next day.

It might seem like a losing battle the first night or two, but if you are absolutely clear and consistent with your child, your night-shift work will pay off in spades and full nights’ sleeps for everyone are just around the corner.

Trading Nap Time for Quiet Time

Quiet time

A lot of parents I know see nap time as the most sacred part of their day; it's that break that keeps them sane in the unrelenting job of parenting.

So when your 3-year-old suddenly announces, "I don't want to nap!" and happily makes it through the entire day (with maybe a bit more fuss at supper time), it can bring a full-on state of mourning.

Look at it another way and it can also be freeing - no more rushing home for nap time, trying to keep your child awake in the carseat before you make it home.

How to know it's time to drop the nap
Starting around 3 years old, it's common for kids to no longer need a nap. Some toddlers make the switch a little earlier - they're usually the ones who sleep 12 hours a night and are on the bigger side of the growth curve. On the other end of the spectrum, some kids keep napping well into their fourth year.

You'll know your child is ready when you see signs like:

  • not being able to fall asleep at nap time, even when you push it later; or

  • taking for-EVER to fall asleep at bedtime on days when they had a nap.

(Just to be clear, I'm talking about kids who have solid sleep skills and had a regular routine of napping and sleeping through the night.)

Transitioning to no-nap days
If your child is showing one or both of those signs, then I'm sorry to say, your nap-break days are likely over.

Or at least shorter; you can start this transition by capping your child's nap at an hour (ie. wake her up!) if she normally knocks off 2+ hours in the middle of the day. (You may find that when your child first stops napping, he will still fall asleep in the car if you're driving later in the day - when this happens, I would cap the carseat nap at 30 minutes and just push bedtime a half hour later.)

When it's really time to drop the nap altogether, I strongly recommend making Quiet Time the next great thing in your house.

In the beginning, most children struggle to get the concept entirely and, depending on temperament, may even fight it. So you have to make it sound, well... awesome.
How to get your child to love Quiet Time
Tell your child ahead of time that instead of a nap, she can have Quiet Time. Then at lunch time, remind her about the plan:

Start with some dedicated one-on-one time: let your child choose a toy / activity and then spend the next 10 minutes sitting beside her, pretty much doing a play-by-play of her activity. Say things like "You're making the car go round and round!" or "You're making a really tall block tower!"  No praise, no direction, no questions. This is the idea behind a miraculous behavioural strategy called "attending". It's kind of like a B12-shot of Mom/Dad attention that can curb your child's need to act out for attention in negative ways (see below for more information on this).
Then read a book (just one!) with your child, have a snuggle, and get him excited about Quiet Time.

  • Have a few toys / figurines and books in a box that is designated only for Quiet Time. You may have to switch it up or add to this regularly.

  • Make a simple fort with two chairs and a blanket draped over it with a blanket to sit / lie on inside while he plays. A flashlight can be pretty exciting for a 3- or 4-year-old.

  • Keep it short in the beginning: about 20 minutes. You want to avoid making your child feel like he’s been banished. You will want a longer break, but you have to take the long view on this: I’m setting you up for years of quiet times!

  • Give your child choice: “Which of these two toys would you like in your quiet-time fort?” “Would you like the cars or the figurines today?” “You choose three books from this pile.”  You have to keep this part quick though.

  • Give your child a simple kitchen timer, or set the oven timer for 20 minutes; tell him that when it goes off, quiet time is over.

  • Work up to longer quiet times as your child starts to enjoy it and not protest it.

  • As soon as your child is contently playing in his Quiet Time spot, go lie down and take your break!  It will be over before you know it.

The Attending strategy can be a real miracle for parents struggling with their child's behavioural issues, or just to help build a more positive parent-child relationship. For more information on how to practice Attending, read Parenting the Strong-Willed Child by Rex Forehand and Nicholas Long.

Is Mommy Brain Real?

As my Mom would say, “You bet your sweet bippy it is!” My Mom was born in the ‘40s. And I have no idea what a bippy is. But it basically means an emphatic yes!

Mommy brain - that fog of not being able to remember simple things or speak clearly or make decisions - isn’t just in your head. Okay, it’s happening in your head, but rest assured, it is a very real, physiological thing with a very real cause:

Sleep deprivation.

Now, just because you don’t feel like you’re in a World War II interrogation with a bright light directed at your face 24-7 doesn’t mean you’re not sleep deprived. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night (I tend to need closer to the higher end of this range). And they need those hours to be uninterrupted.

Enter baby.

Interrupted sleep is a fact of life with a new baby that needs to feed every 3-4 hours. Somehow, with the help of grandparents and friends dropping off the odd meal we can manage to get through those first few months. But if your baby gets into some funny sleep habits and doesn’t start stretching his night sleep out longer, you can find yourself six months later waking up every 2 or 3 hours to feed or rock or bounce him back to sleep. Or pop that soother back in for the 27th time.

So what does interrupted sleep do to a Mom’s brain? When we sleep, our brains don’t shut off; they get very active doing some pretty important jobs that only happen during our nightly snooze.

When we don’t get “consolidated sleep” (7-9 hours straight), we miss out on some sleep phases that help us take in new information and store it in a place where we can retrieve it later (so, we end up forgetting stuff all the time).

We also miss the parts of sleep when our brains do their nightly “clean up” - getting rid of all the fluff and information we don’t need anymore, making room for new, useful information. During this deep, restorative sleep, our brains are also busy doing a literal clean up; the lymphatic system actually flushes away waste products that our brain cells produce when they’re doing normal tasks throughout the day. So that “foggy feeling” is probably an accurate description of what’s going on in there!

By the way, this could be Daddy brain too. If Dad is just as involved in those nightly wake ups and bedtime struggles to get baby to sleep, his brain is missing out on the nightly storage and clean-up action too. As one sleep-reformed Dad put it after his 2-year-old went from waking 5 times a night to sleeping 12 hours straight, “I'm not even sure I knew what a wreck I was until things started improving.”

So how do we get rid of Mommy brain? You guessed it - get enough sleep. Every night. It’s actually not enough to have a catch-up nap once a week when Grandma can take baby out with a couple of bottles for a nice, long walk. We need to be getting that restorative, cleaning-up sleep every night.

And if Mommy (or Daddy) is feeling sluggish, how is baby feeling? Our little ones need that memory-storing and brain-cleaning sleep too. There are countless research studies showing the effects of sleep on a baby or young child’s ability to learn and retain information. And not enough sleep for a young child has also been linked to an increased risk of childhood obesity, poor attention and hyperactivity (the kid version of Mommy brain?).

Why some babies start knocking off 12-hour nights at 3 months old and others still wake 4 times a night a year later is usually (if not always) a result of how they’re falling asleep. If your baby needs a “prop” - something outside of herself to help her fall asleep, like a soother, breastfeeding or Mom or Dad’s shoulder to lie on - then she’s likely going to wake up several times a night looking for that thing that got her to sleep in the first place.

So, get rid of the prop, and baby will develop his or her own, internal method for falling asleep, just like we learned when we were babies. But it’s obviously not as simple as it sounds (or you would have done it already); your baby isn’t going to be too thrilled with this major shake-up in routine (and kids love routine). So it’s important to use a proven method that supports your baby through the process, with or without help from a sleep coach to guide you through the ups and downs of what is usually just a two-week process. (Think about that - in just two weeks you could get your brain back!)

Sounds too good to be true? Don’t believe your child has it in him? Can’t quite get around to making the big move? Of course you can’t - you’ve got Mommy brain! It’s hard to make change and take in new information when you’re just not getting the sleep your brain and body needs.

My advice: be easy on yourself; value your sleep; honour your baby’s need for sleep; and, if you don’t feel like winging it or going it alone, call in some help.