‘My one-year-old won’t sleep in his cot and ends up in our bed’
‘There is no one right way to approach sleep problems and a lot depends on what you want as parents’
It helps if you alternate doing the sleep routine with your husband. File photograph: Getty
Question: I am five months pregnant and need to get my 12-month-old to sleep and stay in his cot before the new baby arrives.
Currently, he drifts off to sleep in my arms at about 7.30pm in his room and I place him in his cot, but then invariably he will wake up by about 1am at which point he comes into the bed with me and my husband. I have breastfed him until recently and now my milk has nearly dried up, he happily takes 2-3 bottles during the day instead. However, I still breastfeed him in the middle of the night as this is the only thing that settles him and gets him back to sleep.
We have been happy enough to let him stay in the bed with us, but now with the new baby arriving soon I know we have to change this habit. I can’t imagine having a newborn and a toddler in the same bed is safe or manageable. We have tried bringing him back to his cot in the night, but then he starts crying when we leave. We did try the “cry it out” method a few weeks ago and got to four nights with lots of tears but no change. Now, we are back at square one with me feeding him in our bed before he settles. We have tried giving him a soother, but he has never accepted it. Sometimes my husband tries to settle him, taking him into the spare bed and, sometimes, this works, but he often wakes up again looking to be fed.
How can I get him to self-sooth and sleep in the cot? I don’t want to leave him crying and want to find a better way.
We want to get things sorted before the new baby comes.
Answer: Sleep disruption is one of the most challenging parts of being a parent of infants and young children. And the prospect of having two young children awake during the night would fill most parents with dread.
You are right to plan ahead for the arrival of your newborn and to look at getting your toddler more settled. However, it is also important to realise that there is no one right way to approach sleep problems and a lot depends on what you want as parents. Whereas most parents wish for their babies to learn to self-soothe and settle in their own cots, many other parents practice co-sleeping whereby they allow their young children sleep in the bed with them as this is the best way for all to settle especially when breastfeeding etc. So far with your toddler you have practiced partial co-sleeping whereby your toddler starts the night in his cot and then settles in your bed at night and that is fine if it works for you. However, you know this will be disrupted with the arrival of a new sibling in four months.
It is important to point out that it is still possible to safely practice co-sleeping with an infant and toddler (see askdrsears.com). Usually this works by letting the toddler sleep in between the two parents and having the baby sleep in a nursery crib attached to the mother’s side of the bed. It usually requires you having an extra large double bed to ensure it is comfortable for all!
Gentle ways to encourage your son to sleep in his own bed
Alternatively, you may decide that you want to teach your son to sleep in his own cot and there are gentle and gradual ways to approach this. Usually the best place to start is during the day, and not when he wakes in the middle of the night (when everyone is tired and stressed.)
The goal is to teach your son how to self-soothe and fall asleep by himself during daytime naps and the bed-time routine. This means you avoid letting him fall asleep in your arms or using feeding to get him to sleep and instead patiently help him learn other sleep associations.
The aim is to place him in his cot when he is sleepy but not fully asleep so he learns to take the final step to fall asleep by himself. You might sit beside him and be there to coax him, but over time you try to gradually reduce the support you give. For example, you might start by stroking his tummy or holding his hand as he lies in the cot and the next night just use gentle words, and then later, just placing him the cot with a comfort teddy and withdraw outside the room. Patience is the key.
It helps if naptimes and bedtimes occur in his cot and follow a similar routine, but if this is not possible once the bedtime is relaxed and consistent this should work just as well. It also helps if you alternate doing the sleep routine with your husband so your son gets used to support from both of you so can alternate who is “on duty” during the night.
Once your son has got into the habit of falling asleep by himself in his cot at bedtimes, then night time waking will be much easier to handle. In those situations, you resort to the same ritual of how he falls asleep at bedtime. For example, you take him back to his cot and use the same soothing words, give him the same comfort teddy or blanket and place him in the same position in the cot. Unless there is a particular reason to break his sleep such as a cold or sore teeth, the routine he learned during the day should also work at night. As mentioned earlier, make sure to share the responsibility of managing night waking with your husband so he will be able to do it with the new baby arrives when you will be busy!