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Home » 3. The Toddler, Authentic Parenting with Naomi Aldort

Cosleeping Reality: Your Toddler’s Bedtime May Be Yours, Too

Submitted by on Wednesday, August 15 201221 Comments

By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, www.naomialdort.com

Q: Every night, I put my 13-month-old daughter to sleep in our family bed, but shortly afterward, she wakes up and I have to start all over – breastfeeding her and helping her fall asleep. This keeps happening, and I cannot stay up with my husband so we can have a bit of time for ourselves. She also wakes up a lot at night. How can I help my toddler to stay asleep?

A: Some babies and toddlers sleep deeply even after you leave the room, while others become anxious sleepers unless you stay with them at all times. When you leave your toddler in the family bed by herself, her experience is the same as sleeping in a crib because you are not there. Your daughter is obviously not able to sleep away from you even for a short time.

Using sleep as a “babysitter” to provide couple time works well for some families, but not for everyone. Even babies who are able to stay asleep in another room often stop being so accommodating as they grow older.

Why Your Toddler Wakes Up

Once your baby wakes up to discover that you are gone, she can develop anxiety about falling asleep and become a light sleeper. If she has always been a light sleeper, then finding herself alone intensifies her difficulty in staying asleep. She is scared of finding herself alone and therefore wakes up to make sure that you are with her. Once you are in bed, she keeps waking up because she doesn’t trust that you will stay.

Although there may be other causes for a toddler to wake up frequently, there is a need for consistency and it has a connection to waking up frequently. Always consider other possible issues: nightmares, health, emotions, hunger, etc. If all other issues are taken care of, your child’s need for your presence is the most likely cause of her wakefulness.

When babies are left alone in a crib for whole nights, they eventually resign themselves to the situation and learn not to expect Mommy or Daddy to return, which is extremely painful and harmful to the child’s development and emotional well-being. In contrast, your securely attached toddler does not give up. She counts on your consistent presence. In fact, she is so sure of the rightness of her need that she keeps waking up to ensure that you are there, knowing that you will respond and return when she calls you.

Securely attached babies who seem content to be left to sleep for a couple of hours without their parents could be either unaware of the parents’ absence or just more mellow by nature. However, as they grow older, almost all children develop a dislike to going to bed ahead of their parents and to being in bed alone. When securely attached, children expect our consistent presence and they need it. Children’s need for parental presence is especially important when they sleep because sleep is scary for young ones. It is a primal need of the child to know that he is not left alone while unconscious. When our children are young, it is the security of our physical closeness that allows them to relax and sleep well.

Still, many parents create a long and wonderful bedtime ritual that the children enjoy, and, as a result, the children do fall asleep and stay in bed peacefully. There is not one right way to achieve this, and in time, you will find your own family’s joyful path to retiring at the end of the day.

Helping the Light/Anxious Sleeper

Your daughter is more likely to accept an early bedtime in the future if she has no anxiety associated with sleep. To help her develop good sleeping habits, you must eliminate the discomfort she now associates with sleep. If she is never left to sleep alone, she can most likely regain her trust in your consistent presence and over time develop a calm, uninterrupted sleep.

Let your toddler stay with you. She may fall asleep in your or her father’s arms or on the couch right beside you. If she wakes up, she will find that you never left. If she is not directly on you, make sure to put your hand on her body any time she seems to be waking up. This way, sensing your presence, she may drift back to sleep without waking up.

When she does fall asleep, it is crucial that you don’t put her in bed without you. You don’t want her to wake up and feel cheated out of your presence. Keep her with you and enjoy your cozy time with your partner or other children.

What If She Doesn’t Fall Asleep Unless in Bed?

It is likely that a toddler who needs your presence is also one who would stay awake as long as you are, especially when she isn’t sure you will stay with her once she is asleep. It is also possible that your daughter has gotten used to sleeping in bed and lost her ability to drift off elsewhere.

If she is very willful and stays up, my suggestion is to celebrate this wonderful time together. Play, read, eat, laugh, and have a good time. Play with her, even though she may be tired and cranky. When toddlers fight sleep, our attempt to put them to sleep only ignites their resistance and creates mistrust and struggle. She will be much less cranky, despite her sleepiness, if you play with her. Even crying and loss of control are better than anxious sleep; validate her feelings, hold her, and let her run her own inner life.

Most likely, at this stage in your family’s life, you will all go to bed at the same time. This may not seem ideal, but consider the benefits: Your husband gets one more opportunity to bond with his daughter; you may get a longer night’s sleep; you won’t have to spend time putting her to bed. And cuddling together is so much more fun than uninterrupted sleep.

When I suggest this possibility, parents often resist and say, “But she is tired” and “We need couple time.”  Trust nature. Within a couple of weeks, she will settle into a new pattern. She will get the amount of sleep she needs. However, you can also consider a different solution: Instead of your child going to sleep later, you and your husband can go to bed with her earlier. Go to bed as a family and have a wonderful cuddling, laughing, singing, and loving time. Then, since it is early for you, you may have some couple time after your child drifts off; just don’t leave the bed.

When we resist reality, we may become blind to many peaceful solutions. If, in reality, your toddler won’t sleep on her own in the evening, then that couple time is not happening anyway, at least not regularly or peacefully. Why keep struggling to get something in a way that is not working? Freed of preconceived ideas about when and how bedtime and couple time should happen, you can find much better times and ways to be together as a couple.  You may even find that being with your husband and your toddler together is rather romantic, that it nourishes your connection with him in a different way, and that you can even be affectionate.

Instead of trying so hard to make your child fit your fixed plans, plan around her way of being. Parenting is a path of surrender and of letting go of control. The less you try to control, the more peace you will have. The more peaceful you are, the less anxious your child will be.

21 Comments »

  • Melonie says:

    Great article

  • Mags says:

    Oh my! Exactly the journey I have been on with my 9 month old daughter. I am just in the process of regaining her trust and helping her feel secure in her sleep. That trust was broken and her sleep shattered by a week-long cot training effort when I got to the end of my tether with bedtimes. A most misguided and regretful effort. I’m regretful and sad I did this and am hoping I can repair the damage with my consistent presence at night. I am grateful for Naomi validating what I have intuited as I felt confused that my baby grew increasingly anxious and more wakeful when it seemed all my friends’ babies were making the transition well. She needs me all evening and night. End of story. It feels good to accept this, go with it and we have adapted our evenings accordingly, either enjoying playing as a family until 10pm, which as Naomi says is great for daddy to spend some quality time with us; or we go to bed altogether, which is also lovely. This is instead of me lying in the dark with her alone, counting the minutes until I can extricate myself to have an evening,except she wakes every 40 minutes and takes 20 to resettle so what’s the point. So thank you for this wonderful article Naomi, it has been so helpful and reassuring.

  • Elena says:

    Thank you for this article. I needed to read it tonight!!!

  • Kayeza St Felix says:

    Thank you especially for the part about resisting reality. “We” (as humans, as Westerners, whatever) have a strong sense of how things should be and of how to get them the way we want them. Except it’s mostly easier, less costly in terms of energy, more peaceful and rewarding to go with the flow of life.
    There’s this quote saying: “When I fight reality, I lose. But only every time.” :)

  • LaKeshia McBride says:

    I needed that reminder. Thank You for the sound advice.

  • D in NY says:

    Naomi – all of this rings true but what about having time to accomplish things like washing dishes and writing papers for grad school? How do I balance these with being consistently present for my child even after bedtime? Thanks for any suggestions!!

  • Fox mum says:

    I have co-slept with all of my babies. My husband and I love the family bed and are greatf for the bonding and cherished memories. We can’t imagine night time parenting any other way. My youngest is 14 months old. For the past month or she has been waking frequently (5-7 times) and is automatically grumpy. I offer for her to nurse and she usually accepts. At first I thought it was because of teething discomfort. But it continues without fail she wakes fusses and just seems angry(no crying). it doesn’t last long but it obviously disturbs our sleep. he has never spent a night away from me. I have never given her reason to fear my absence. Any tips or tricks You could suggest to get back on a peaceful path? I am beginning to think just taking the time to settle her and soothe her and reassure her that everything is fine should get her back into peaceful rest.

  • Naomi Aldort says:

    Dear Fox mum,

    It sounds like you are doing everything you can on the affectional and emotional side. Continue with your loving presence and care. Your baby could be having bad dreams or other fear images or hallucinations. Some babies are too hot at night or, at some point start being annoyed by the physical arrangements, the feel of the diaper, the material of the pajama, the blanket, digestive disturbances etc.
    Obviously I cannot figure out what is disturbing your baby’s sleep without speaking with you in person. I also cannot know what you see as “angry.” It could be just a normal phase of waking up a lot to breastfeed as in growth spurts periods.
    If something needs care and change, I can perhaps provide some possible directions to explore: After checking the above possibilities, the other main culprit I can think of is food. Even if you have not changed your own (and your baby if she eats) food choices, some agitations that result from food take time to build up a reaction. The most typical culprit are of course coffee, sugar (ever fruit) wheat and soy in your diet. Next are nuts and seeds. If you eat a lot of those, specially without soaking them first, your daughter may react by waking up frequently and could simply be annoyed with the fact that she wakes up. Other things to check are physical comfort, temperature, what she is exposed to during the day (any scary faces, voices, images…) or events and experiences during the day.
    No matter how well a baby/child sleeps, I highly recommend to spend bedtime unleashing emotions and energy before settling down to breastfeed and calm down.

    With care,
    Naomi Aldort

  • Naomi Aldort says:

    Dear D in NY,

    We do need to arrange time to take care of things and of ourselves. We must arrange such time not at the cost of the child’s best. Sleep is simply not the best “baby sitter” and putting a child to bed takes a long time… I do not know your life possibilities, if you have a husband/partner, relatives, friends or the ability to hire help during the day. I also don’t know your child/ren’s age/s and needs.

    I personally considered time with the children a full time parenting and bedtime together was perhaps the greatest joy of my life. Chores got done mostly when my husband and I were both at home, one being with the children, the other doing the dishes/dinner etc. I did sometimes accomplish things while the kids played, but I didn’t count on being able to do that.

    The only time children’s sleep provided the break for me is, very occasionally, in the morning. I would get up earlier, and accomplish some writing while staying close by to the children, ready to join them in bed when they start waking up. If you are a single mother, and if your child doesn’t wake up when you leave the bed, this could be one window of opportunity on a non regular basis.

    There were periods that we hired a student or a homeschooling teenager to come daily to play with the youngest (mostly) and do kitchen chores. Whatever we did, we did not consider sleep to be a “baby sitter” to give us time. This forced us to find other solutions. It was not easy, but clearly incredibly satisfying for all, and the only way I would do it again. Of course, if you are a single mother, weigh your priorities carefully and find solutions that nurture you and your child/ren. If your child is actually ready for sleep early, maybe she can fall asleep next to you in the living room and you can study (or other creative solutions.)

    I admire your ability to study while being a mother. I could not do it. I think it is possible with the right kind of support and clear planning of your time to study while someone else cares for the children as well as flexibility; jump on the opportunity when it arrises, and be willing to let go when a plan falls apart.

    Last but not least: From what I learn repeatedly from parents who use night sleep to gain time for themselves, I learned that it takes a very long to put a child to bed. Going to bed together is so much easier that it takes hardly any time. (Not to mention the emotional wellbeing that spares you time spent on difficult behaviors.) That time gained can be used for your needs while another cares for the children. It can even be the same evening time, while your husband (or another) gets to spend more time with the children.

    Parenting is not easy, especially not in the nuclear family. We are just trying to find solutions that are as optimal as possible for the child. I hope you find a path that is kind to you and to your child/ren.

    Warmly,
    Naomi Aldort

  • Naomi Aldort says:

    An important addition:

    Nothing should be turned into a dogma. Some children are put in bed and stay asleep peacefully while parents stay up and use the time well. Some parents prefer that on family time in bed and if the child seems content and sleeps well, there is no problem. My article addresses the issue when it causes difficulties (as reported by many parents) and points to a choice that is not equally fit for everyone. Read all advice with your heart open and connected to yourself and to your child and choose the kindest way for all involved.

    With care,
    Naomi Aldort

  • Natalee says:

    Wow! I am in awe! Thank you so much for writing this article! Most poignantly, thank you for giving me permission to keep my 8 mo daughter with me at night and let her fall asleep where she may. I was having such a hard time when I would put her down in the family bed and then sneak away just to have her wake up 15 minutes later because I wasn’t there. We would do this song and dance at least a few times a night until I would finally give up and just stay in bed for the night (huffing and puffing because I was missing out while hubby got to stay up). This is now the best of both worlds! I get to be with my daughter (and she with me) AND I get to stay up! We have tried this a few nights now and she doesn’t mind sleeping wherever as long as we are together. Naomi you are brilliant!!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!!

  • A says:

    Great article, and very reassuring… I only wish you had written it 22 months ago :)

  • Nessa.Kelsmommie says:

    Thank you!!! I needed to read this tonight! I have been struggling with my co-sleeping 14month old son and his bedtime… wondering how he can sleep so soundly for however long, but the minute i leave he is awake and screaming. THANK YOU! I didnt know i was feeding his anxiety and crushing his trust but after reading this, it all makes complete sense. No more. If he needs to see me, smell me, feel me to feel secure in his slumber – than by God thats where i will be!!

  • KazzyMama says:

    This article is great regarding nights – recently my 9month old son had been waking every hour and this is why…but my question is what about naps? My son sleeps maybe 15 min if he is not in my arms and in our bed…I can’t spend 4-6 hours in bed with him during the day :(. I don’t know why he has such a hard time, I spend ALL my time with him and even stay in my bedroom while he sleeps. I am worried about how little sleep he gets and I am worried cosleeping isn’t the best for him but I want him securely attached and I love snuggling and nursing him in bed. He still nurses 2-3 times a night too! I want to do what is best for him but I am not sure I am.

  • Naomi Aldort says:

    I suggest you keep your baby on your body, in a snugly, and don’t count how much of the time he sleeps; just go on with your life and attend to him as he needs your care. Naps will occur on their own. Some babies sleep many five minutes naps, others fall asleep for a while. You don’t need to “orchestrate” his naps. You can sit and read, do gardening, take a walk or make a meal… and junior will alternate awake time with sleep as his body needs. Trust nature. It is all about letting go of control and enjoying the ride.

    I don’t mean that you carry him all the time. Obviously there will be crawl time and other time off your body. I am just suggesting to let go of designing a nap for him and instead let him have plenty of time on your body, letting naps happen or not as they will.

  • Julie N says:

    Hi Naomi,
    What you’re saying makes a lot of sense. Just going through this now with my 15 month old. Though I do have a dilemma for nap times. I’d like to just lay with him, but I have a 4 year old daughter at home with us too. I really don’t like leaving her to entertain herself while I’m laying with the baby twice a day for an hour. She deserves mommy time too and I feel like that’s cheating her out of it. Plus I don’t want her to feel like I’m choosing her brother over her. She does not take naps anymore, so it’s not really an option to nap with all of us. Any suggestions for this situation? Thanks!

  • Naomi Aldort says:

    Dear Julie N.,

    You are absolutely right and I actually often advice mothers to devote the little one’s nap time to the older child/ren.

    The best way to do that is to keep your 15 months old sleeping on your body or right next to you on the floor, couch or other comfortable setup right where you are with your daughter.

    Modern society’s idea that a person needs to sleep in a separate room on a bed… (and having these extra rooms which did not even exist for most people)… is neither logical nor needed. If your baby got used to sleep in a separate space in quiet, he may initially wake up sooner and have two short naps or be tired. Eventually he will get used to sleep without the unnaturally arranged solitude.

    Enjoy.
    Naomi Aldort

  • Claudia says:

    Hi Naomi, great article. My daughter is almost five and she still needs me to sleep. I can’t leave the bed at all. And it’s a shame because I could get some much done as I spend hours awake in bed.
    You mentioned toddlers in your article, but what about young children?
    How can I help her get over her anxiety? She is a light sleeper and is always making physical contact to check I am still in bed.
    Thanks for your help.

  • Alyssa says:

    This article is just what I needed to hear. It’s amazing the results a google search of “cosleeping baby wakes frequently” can bring a person. I feel so much more at peace and relieved to try these suggestions. Thank you thank you!

  • Tracey,Chuck&Samantha says:

    wow,
    This is such a great help. We do however have a problem just recent,Our little one
    has developed a screaming fit(16months and a lot of teeth plus still teething) anytime my husband even gets upe even to use the restroom.He
    and god bless him is the one who gets her down every night even though both of us are with her , he is just better at it so when he gets up after she is fast asleep even for a minute or two & she feels his movement (I try to place my hand on heror anything I can to comfort ) but it sparks something and no matter how hard I try to calm and comfort her she goes into hysterics almost like she is still asleep.
    please any suggestions so she can maintain her full sleep?
    thank you this site is wonderful

  • Tracey,

    The author of this article is on extended business travel at present, so she may not be able to comment on your question immediately. In the meantime, you may wish to post your question on the API Neighborhood (API Forum), where you will be in touch with an experienced API Leader and other parents who may have experiences similar to your own. In order to post your question, you will need to register for a user name and password, which you can do via the link in the top right corner of the Forum homepage. I hope you find the Forum helpful.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

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