Sleep Training Your Toddler (is not as easy as it sounds…)

It’s time to break down and have some confession time.  Parenting is hard, guys.  Really hard.  I’ve been thinking recently about services or products that I would like in my life to make my job as a mom easier, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is this:  There is no substitute for good parenting.  It’s just hard work, and we need to accept that.  So on that hopeless, sleep-deprived note, let’s talk about the hard work that goes into teaching a youngling to sleep through the night when they don’t want to.

Toddler | Sleep training | Night weaning | Tired baby!

My Experiences with Sleep Training

I’ll be honest, I’m in the throes of sleep training right now, which is why I wanted to write this.  I want you to know, mama, that while you’re sitting here reading this article at 3:00 in the morning, and your baby just won’t sleep without you, and your husband is mad because he has to work in the morning, and your life is crumbling around you…I feel you.  Right this second, girl, I feel you.

I’ve been through the hell of teaching my baby to sleep through the night about three times now.  First, when she was about six months old and I felt guilty that my husband kept coming back to bed (he comes to bed WAY later than me…one of those freakish people who only needs like eight minutes of sleep each day) and finding our child sprawled in his spot because I’d gotten her up to nurse.  We went through the night weaning ritual/method that I’ll talk about in a minute, and by the end of the week she was sleeping from 8:00-4:30.  Pretty good, right?

Well, then, enter some teeth.  Poor little thing couldn’t sleep because her teeth hurt, and the quickest and easiest way to help her get a little rest (along with baby Tylenol), was to nurse her back to sleep.  So I did.  So we got caught back in the cycle of 2-3 times a night, waking and needing to nurse.

Soooooo, then at about 9 months, we went through it all again.  The doctor shamed me into night weaning and sleep training once more, and my husband and I put on our grown up pants and sacrificed 2-3 nights of sleep to help little one learn that I wasn’t going to come get her and nurse her, and sleeping through the night is the way.  Back to sleeping from 8:00-4:30/5:00.  Hooray!

Well, then, we went on a trip to New York to visit my family when she was about 13 months old.  It was an awesome trip, and we caught up with all kinds of relations that I hadn’t seen in a LONG time.  Baby slept through the night beautifully there, but when we flew back to Texas, she needed a little bit of help getting back to sleep again.  So I nursed her in the night, and we sort of oozed back into a pattern of nursing 2-3 times during the night (that’s not counting the going to bed milk, and the waking up milk. So really, it’s about 5 times from start to finish).  I kept telling myself that we had to go through it again, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make her upset like that.

Where We Are Now…

Toddler | Nap time | Sleep Training

Three days ago, I was just done, though.  I wake up at 12:30 in the morning to my toddler standing up in her crib going “Daaaaaaaa-ba daaaaaaa!” (Drink of milk…).  Not really crying.  Quite chipper, really.  So I drag myself out of bed, gather her up, and lay down with her again to nurse.  And she drinks for about a minute and a half, kicks me in the stomach, rolls over, and goes back to sleep.  And I just thought to myself, “She could have done that in her own bed…”

So I had the talk with my husband again.

“We need to get her sleeping through the night.  I’m exhausted.  I’m done.  I can’t do it anymore.”

“Well, yeah,” he says.  “She’s doing it for comfort.  She doesn’t actually need milk to get comfort.”

“I’ll need your help,” I say.  “You need to cuddle with her.”

“Let’s do this.”

So here we are, after two nights of our sleep training method, all three of us exhausted, but it’s starting to work.  Let me share what we’re doing.

Our Sleep Training Method

So, maybe I shouldn’t call this sleep training.  We’re just teaching her that she’s not going to get up and nurse a thousand times every night, so maybe it’s night weaning.  I don’t know.  I’m tired.

The biggest thing to get across to baby is that milk isn’t an option, but snuggles to get back to sleep are.  That’s where her daddy comes into play.  When a 15 month old sees her mother, who has milk, but tells her she can’t have that milk, there’s just a whole lot of rage, and a whole lot of not sleeping.  So, when she wakes up in the night, I give her a kiss and a hug, tell her that it’s time to sleep, and I leave the room (where I sit on the couch and listen anxiously to my husband soothing her).  Her daddy comes in, sings, snuggles, hugs, gives her favorite blanket, rubs her back, and so on, to help her get back to sleep.

The first night, it was a whole lot of angry screaming.

The second night, it was angry screaming, and then cooing, and then sleeping.

Who knows what this third night will bring?

I want to get across here, we are NOT DOING CRY IT OUT!  I don’t believe in letting little people sob themselves into exhaustion without support from their loved ones, so that is not what this is.  This is getting comfort from the less preferred parent (simply because he doesn’t have mammary glands…it’s not his fault), and being ticked about a change in routine and structure.

What I Told Baby About all of This

I’m pretty proud of this part, so I’m going to share with you what I told my little one about what’s going on.  I don’t spring things on her, just because she’s young.  I still talk to her, explain things, and support her through learning what those things mean.  So we had this conversation:

(Before bedtime nursing) “Tonight, it’s time to sleep all the way through the night.  When you go to bed tonight, milk is going to bed too.  Milk won’t wake up until the morning.”

I got out my phone, switched to the alarm clock, and showed it to her.  “Milk won’t wake up until the music plays.”

We chose a jaunty little tune for milk to wake up to.

“When the music plays, Baby and milk can wake up!”

She seemed totally on board until 2:00 in the morning, when milk was not awake and she had to snuggle with daddy for awhile.  But, when my alarm went off at 4:15, she popped up and said, “Da-ba Da!” (drink of milk).

Last night, I set the alarm for 4:15.  Tonight, I will set it for 4:30.  After that, I’ll try to push it all the way up to 5:00 and see if we can actually sleep until our goal!

I really like the idea of the alarm, though, for a couple of reasons.

  1. It gives Baby a concrete thing to wait for, look forward to, and judge whether it’s time to get up or not.
  2. It keeps me from hedging about whether she’s been asleep for long enough.  Rather than, “It’s 3:47…that’s aaaaalmost 4…” I can say, “Nope, the alarm hasn’t gone off.  It’s not time for milk yet.”  It keeps me accountable, just like it does her.

Overall Sleep Training Impressions

  • What the doctor told me back in the day was correct…this was a whole lot easier the first two times we did it, when she was younger.  Her awareness of everything around her was not as honed, and her expectations were not as rigid.  She was quicker to accept change in her routine.  Now, at 15 months, she’s actively looking for me after I leave.  Her daddy had to pull the covers off of our bed last night to prove that I wasn’t lurking there.  She appears to be taking it as a personal affront that she cannot nurse through the night.  So, if I had to do it again, I’d stick with it at an earlier age.
  • This time, even if she gets sick or another tooth comes in, I’m going to do my best to not bring milk back into the picture.  Instead, I’ll try to use other soothing methods to help her feel better, even if they’re not quite as easy as nursing.  I’m going to be firm (I tell myself now, on my third cup of coffee) and let milk keep sleeping through the night.
  • The alarm seems to be helping, and I think it will make a lot of sense to Baby as she figures it out.  Giving little ones a concrete thing to focus on, rather than a blurry abstract of “in the morning” is always a helpful thing.
  • We are human.  Parenting is hard.  We can do this.

If you’re going through the hell of trying to help your little one sleep through the night, I’ll tell you the same thing:

You can do this!!!

Also…more coffee.


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4 thoughts on “Sleep Training Your Toddler (is not as easy as it sounds…)”

  1. I used the HWL method from ‘how to teach a baby to fall asleep alone’ guide by Susan Urban. It took me 3 days to teach my LO to fall asleep on his own after 7 months of rocking to sleep. This was recommended to me by my sister and cousin and I will recommend it to everybody else as well. Sleep training works and what is more, it makes parents and a baby much happier! I always thought that sleep training is a long process and apparently I was wrong. You just need to do it right!

    1. This is awesome! Thanks so much for this resource. Last night was so much better – Baby only woke up once and went right back to sleep by herself, and she’s much more rested today (compared to the months and months of waking several times at night). Fingers crossed that it keeps going well!

    2. Susan Urban’s guide is AMAZING! Finally some clear and fast instructions that make sense. We succeed after only 3 days. Much MUCH faster than we expected. Big thanks for sharing

    3. Melinda, I’m so glad I picked this guide up. There is so mant books available on the market but this one really works! I love that it’s short so I didn’t have to go through all thick book to get started! A few days and my daughter can fall asleep on her own and she sleeps all night long without waking up to eat! This guide is exactly what I needed! Thanks so much for sharing. Love it 🙂

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