Sleep Clinic 6 - reassurance and bad habits in the middle of the night

Two toddlers are driving their parents mad with their bad sleep habits. Can Mandy Gurney from the Millpond Sleep Clinic help?

Q: I have a three-year-old son who refuses to sleep through the night. He sleeps in his own bedroom and I can leave him awake in his room after a story and he will fall asleep alone. However, he will wake up at least twice in one night. He doesn't really ask for anything when he does wake up. Sometimes he may ask for his bottle, but he falls back to sleep when I remind him that he doesn't have a bottle in bed. He is only allowed his dummy at bedtime.

Every time he wakes up I walk into his bedroom, ask him what's wrong and he tells me “nothing”. Then he falls back asleep. I have tried leaving him but this doesn't work as he keeps crying until I go into his room. I am now growing very tired as he hasn't really slept properly since he was born and I am in desperate need of some help.

Mandy says

It sounds as if your son needs a quick bit of reassurance that you are there in the night when he wakes. These are difficult sleep problems to resolve because you need to stop these “reassuring visits “ to enable the calling out to disappear.

As he is three years old you could try using a reward system – for example telling him that he will get a reward each morning from the Sleep Fairy for not calling out to you during the night.

The reward must be significant to him because it has to outweigh the importance of seeing you during the night. Focus the reward around what your son enjoys such as a favourite character or activity. Explain the rules to him in a simple and clear way so you know he understands what he has to do to receive his treat.

However if this does not work I would suggest using a technique called Door Shutting.This is a very effective technique for children of this age who either call out or get out of bed at bedtime and during the night.

Each time he calls out, shut the bedroom door. Only close the door for up to one minute. Once he remains quiet in bed, praise him from the door and leave the door open. This process is not to frighten him, but to act as a deterrent to the behaviour you want to stop. This way he understand his choice is that to have his door open he must remain quiet during the night.

This technique works quickly!

A 20-month-old who has developed some very bad habits

Q: From about six months onwards, Alex slept through the night but we always rocked him to sleep - for naptime and bedtime. Each night at 8pm we would rock him with his sippy cup, blankie, and dummy. Once he was fast asleep I would carry him up and wouldn't hear a peep from him until sometime between 6-7am. Naps would usually be about two to three and a half hours long - he was a champion napper!

But this winter he had multiple ear infections and other problems with being sick. He was sick for so long that he developed bad sleeping habits of waking at night and us rocking him for hours or just putting him in bed to snuggle with us. He recently had tubes put in his ears and he is a totally different child. He feels so much better and has so much more energy and is just getting along fantastically, except for sleeping! It has got much worse.

At first he would wake around 3 or 4 am and we would rock him back to sleep (one to two hours) or just put him in bed with us. He gradually has started waking earlier in the evening and more often. It has got to the point where our only chance at getting sleep is to bring him to bed with us when he wakes up. It's a horrible habit but after a few nights of only four hours of sleep a night we are EXHAUSTED!

This weekend we tried letting him cry it out. He cried for over an hour on Saturday afternoon without letting up at all. Finally I got him rocked him right to sleep. His nap was only about an hour before he was again awake and crying.

At bedtime my husband rocked him to sleep and put him to bed. He woke up right away when he went to lay him down. My husband left him in his room to cry. We thought eventually he would cry it out and fall asleep. After two hours of crying I couldn't take it anymore and rocked him to sleep.

We are at our wits end and are not getting any sleep and just want a full peaceful night’s sleep again. Please help!

Mandy says

The key here is to be consistent. You also need to understand that any sleep problem will get worse once you start making changes. Children do not like change.

Part of the problem at the moment is that he’s learning that if he cries long and hard enough, he will be “rewarded” with rocking or coming into your bed.

As you are exhausted I think that controlled crying would be the best approach for you. It will give you quick and long lasting results, but you must be consistent and expect the first three or four nights to be even more difficult than usual.

Before you start anything, you must make sure that you’ve followed a quiet and relaxing bedtime routine which takes no longer than 30 minutes. Then place him in the cot, kiss him goodnight and leave. Return to briefly check on him every 5, 10 or 15 minutes. This way you are teaching him to settle to sleep by himself, but also reassuring him that you are still there.

Do not rock him or bring him into your bed.

It may also be sensible to look at how long he is napping for. At his age, it shouldn’t really be more than around one and a half hours each day.

Good luck!

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Millpond Sleep Clinic was the first private clinic to specialise in babies' and children's sleep problems. It now has a reputation as the UK's leading children's sleep clinic

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