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Toddler Tips

Maintaining a Bedtime Routine That Doesn't Take All Night

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 2, March -- April 2007, pp. 84-87

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My daughter is 18 months old and nurses to sleep. I feel tired and frustrated when this takes a long time. I don't consider the "cry it out" method a solution to the problem. How do other mothers handle this situation and maintain a schedule or regular bedtime for their toddlers?

Mother's Response

My four children all nursed to sleep well into their second year. Eventually, you will notice your baby nursing, then falling asleep -- that's a big development for a toddler. Until they reach this big milestone, I think of that last nursing session as my time. I catch up on my reading, watch a quiet show, listen to music using headphones, chat with my mother on the phone or with my husband there in the room with me. Some babies have a low tolerance for mother doing "extracurriculars" while nursing. You can nurse your child into sleepiness, almost asleep, then take out a magazine -- use one of those nice book-lights that shine right onto the reading material. I'm never in a big hurry to have my reading time come to an end!

Jamie Baugh
Chicago IL US

Mother's Response

I breastfed my children to sleep and handled it in a few different ways. I told myself that this stage would pass. My husband cleaned up downstairs while I was getting the children to sleep. We didn't watch much TV, so I didn't get irritated at missing shows. I listened to the radio while I was upstairs with my children.

I looked at my time upstairs as extra time with my children, as well as extra rest for me (my husband often had to come and wake me up!). When they were little, I would let my children fall asleep in my arms downstairs and then take them up to bed. I told myself that methods used for dealing with problems can be as difficult as waiting for the problem to pass in its own time.

When bedtime took only a few minutes, I came to miss my extra time upstairs. We now use babysitters and go out together in the evenings sometimes. It has taken a long time, but, in the scheme of things, I don't think we are any worse off than our friends whose children could be put to bed without fuss at an early age. Our attitude to bedtimes helped us deal with the situation more than anything else.

Barbara Childs
Devon UK

Mother's Response

My son nursed to sleep for the first two-and-a-half years of his life. He also woke every hour all night to nurse, even at two-and-a-half years old. I could not keep this up any more and I was newly pregnant with our second child, making me even more exhausted.

My husband and I read The No Cry Sleep Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley, and The Baby Sleep Book, by William Sears, both of which offered many alternatives to "crying it out." Ultimately, we saw a sleep specialist for a specific sleep plan for our son. What worked for us was getting my husband more involved at bedtime. I would nurse our son for a set length of time (three lullabies on the CD player) and then my husband would come in and finish by lying down with him and singing to him some more until our son fell asleep.

Of course, our son was not happy with this change and did cry, but he never cried alone -- my husband always stayed with him.

My son is now three years old and our bedtime routine goes like this: bath, books, nurse for two songs, brush teeth, and mom or dad lies with him until he is asleep. He also sleeps through the night (most nights), which is something we never thought would happen. And there is no crying!

Robin Rubin
Beverly MA USA

Mother's Response

When my son was 18 months old (and I was six months pregnant), he weaned. I was devastated by his weaning. I sought a solution to the reduction in our quality time in the evening. We already read stories and poems, which I continued to do, with cuddles in bed in the dark. Even though I memorized stories to read in the dark, this wasn't enough, so I started singing songs and nursery rhymes.

I (and sometimes his daddy or other family members) sang traditional nursery rhymes over and over again. His favorite ones involved the insertion of his name into the song. This is good for the imagination and for word recognition.

I sing many songs and rhymes these days, many of them adapted from originals, and my children don't mind that I am not a professional singer! Singing has enriched all our lives and, while there are no guaranteed solutions in parenting, this one has worked on many levels for our family.

My son is now three and both he and his younger sister love this part of the day. And they both love to sing, too! I hope that you find as satisfying a solution to your dilemma as I found from what started out for me as an unwanted experience.

Kajsa Cowne
Bradford UK

Mother's Response

I started by introducing a story into our bedtime routine. After my son had nursed for a while, I distracted him with the idea that he could choose a story. At first he wasn't keen on the idea and I didn't force it, but after a while he began to love his stories so much that he would stop nursing when I mentioned story time.

He likes buttons, so I would sometimes distract him with turning off the light switch, which again meant we would break away from nursing. By the time we'd returned to the chair, he was contented with a cuddle.

I did attempt a few times to breastfeed him while he was standing in his crib! (Not to be attempted if you have a bad back.) This may sound crazy but it satisfied his need to nurse and also helped him to be happy in his crib and, because he was tired, he made the decision to break off from nursing and lie down.

My son is now 22 months old and is contented for his daddy to put him to bed. He toddles off quite happily to choose his bedtime stories and turn the light off when it's time for sleep.

Sheila Bottomley

Mother's Response

At 18 months old, a child has made great strides in development: often walking and talking, she has become a little individual as opposed to the helpless infant she was only a short time ago. On the other hand, in spite of her newly acquired skills and character, she often needs the familiarity and comfort that she knows at your breast to help ground her in this world of expanding experiences.

It can be frustrating to feel you are tied to nursing your child to sleep, but once this time has passed (and it does!) and she sleeps soundly on her own without the need for your presence, you may be glad that you invested the time and effort into making her feel secure.

Try to unwind with her and use this as an opportunity to slow down, rather than fretting about the other things you might be doing. They will always be there to do, whereas your child won't be a baby for much longer.

Barbara Higham
Ilkley Yorkshire UK

Mother's Response

Toddler sleep delays are a challenge, especially for a mom. Naptime or bedtime for baby is free time for you. When your child takes longer than usual to fall asleep, you think of hundreds of things you could be doing while your baby sleeps. You long to get started on a project as soon as possible. It's a treat to be an off-duty parent for an hour or two.

A naptime or bedtime routine might help your toddler go to sleep more quickly. Aim for an approximate time each day, but watch your child's cues. She might be ready to sleep earlier than expected, or she may need to play for another half hour until she is sleepy. For naptime, you can read a story, sing a song, and nurse. Bedtime might include a walk, followed by a bath, book, lullaby and breastfeeding. The routine signals to the child that sleep is on the way. It's a gentle method of welcoming needed rest.

If your child doesn't fall asleep right away, perhaps your partner can take over. Some babies love to snuggle with Dad. Toddlers who have older siblings may enjoy cuddling with a brother or sister.

Another option might be changing your perspective of sleep. Even adults have trouble falling asleep sometimes, and some of us don't keep consistent bedtime schedules. My daughter's sleep delays irritated me until I learned to treasure the quiet moments we spent together. You will be the center of your toddler's world for a few years. Instead of wishing time would speed up, how about savoring the warmth of your child's body in your arms, or memorizing the soft lines of her face? It's tough to give up your free time, but you may look back at your toddler's childhood and be grateful that you invested so much of yourself in her well-being.

Camille Sommer

Mother's Response

I can empathize with your frustration because I have been there, enduring endless bedtimes and wondering if things would ever change. Here are a few things that worked for our family.

First, I learned to choose carefully the people I complained to. While it's normal to feel irritated with your children's developmental stages, a lot of people hear venting as a request for advice. You may get suggestions that will just confuse you and shake your confidence. Try talking to a La Leche League Leader, to women you meet at LLL meetings, or to older women who nursed their toddlers. If you want to wean your toddler, that's one thing, but don't let people pressure you into doing it before the two of you are ready.

I found that whenever I was going through a difficult stage of toddlerhood, re-reading MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER by Norma Jane Bumgarner would help me regain perspective. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, and if you have, I still highly recommend it!

Remind yourself that toddlers can be difficult little people. If you weren't having the issue you're having, there would be other things you'd be dealing with. This is a stage when children are learning new things every moment, experimenting with independence, and figuring out how the world works. It's not just because you're breastfeeding that your child is challenging! Many women seem to think that weaning will solve all their problems, only to end up dealing with some of the same problems without the quick fix that nursing often provides.

Gradually, the other parts of the bedtime ritual may even replace nursing completely; that's the way it has worked for us. Another little trick I learned (though your daughter is still a bit young for this one) was needing to be somewhere else for a few minutes in the middle of the bedtime nursing: "I'll be right back in just a second," I'd say, when my child was drowsy but not quite asleep. I always came back as promised, and after a while I would often find a sleeping child when I did.

I wish you many happy bedtimes with your daughter. I know it's the biggest cliché of motherhood, but these days -- and nights -- do really pass quickly, so try to enjoy them!

Ruth Hersey
Port-au-Prince Haiti

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