Preschoolers: Reflections on Nighttime Parenting

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If you'd asked me when I first gave birth what kind of night-time parenting my child would need when he was three, I would have guffawed.  Three seemed so far away, so hypothetical.  And besides, don't all three year olds fall asleep on their own, and sleep all night?  The kids I babysat did.  Surely it will be bath, book, and to bed, lickity split.  More to the point, I really would have had no interest at all in speculating on the sleep of a three year old --I had a newborn baby to contend with!!

Fast-forward eight years and three babies later, and my view on preschool sleep needs has evolved quite a bit.  We're at the tail end of our 'official real time learning' about infant and preschool sleep, and we've had three very different teachers along the way!

Currently, my youngest is three and a half, and I've had a bit to reflect on how sleep needs have shifted for him in the last several months.  In the spirit of sharing experiences, I've written down a few observations that I have had around night-time parenting my youngest. 

We bed-share with our three and a half year old.  With a few bumps in the road, my son has generally slept through the night since two and a half years old, if we are there when he stirs.  When he sleeps with us, he likely stirs and falls back to sleep without me being fully aware that he has woken up.  When he sleeps alone he tends to wake up some time in the middle of the night, upset and looking for us, settling quickly when I join him. 

However, there are times when I am up far too late (past midnight!), forgetting all about my OWN sleep needs in my attempt for some quiet 'me time'.  Staying up as late as that has had one wee benefit: it has allowed me to see a bit of a trend this spring: at midnight, nearly without fail, my preschooler was waking up enough to call out for me, and would not settle till I am settled in next to him.  I knew that this would not happen forever, and I knew that he slept well with me there.  I figured, however, that until that happens, midnight is obviously a time that he has been aware of being separate and alone, and has not felt safe or relaxed enough to fall asleep on his own.  

Most recently, however, as we move towards summer,I have slept in my own bed (at a decent time!), or stayed up past midnight (oops!), and have expected to move into his bed around midnight when my son wakes up.  This has led to the discovery of another new trend: in the past month or so he generally sleeps through the night with no support or night-time parenting from me at all!  As the sun comes up, he wakes, crawls into my bed, and falls asleep: and we get some nice slumber, lots of cuddling, and even a book or two, before we both wake up fully.  It is progress like this that gives me confidence that nurturing the need, even when it doesn't fit with my own "Dr. Spock" upbringing, is the way to peaceful sleep.

Seeing these changes emerge gradually, I am reminded that independent sleep develops at a pace that is much slower than the frantic pace of our lives in general.  It reminds me that no matter how hectic the world is around us, infant and child needs have not changed much at all.  They are still the same as in pre-history!  If I keep this idea in mind, I can be the parent my child needs me to be, and I feel good about meeting that need.

The following ideas may be helpful for those who night-time parent their preschooler:

  1. Generally, three and four year olds have stopped napping (but not always, and not consistently!), and are sleeping 11-12 hours per night.  This is 'average', which means that many three and four year olds will sleep more or sleep less than the average, and that it is still OK!
  2. Flexibility, especially for those  who still occasionally nap, or who fall asleep in the car late in the day, is key.  Adjusting bedtime to fit their readiness can be more enjoyable and less frustrating than trying to put a preschooler to bed who is simply not tired.
  3. No matter what is going on, routines can help.  Having a flow of activities, turning off screens, and keeping noise and activity level lower can help everyone wind down into bedtime readiness.
  4. Your chatty, reflective, observant, and aware preschooler may use conversation to wind down at night.  Lean into this connection: fighting their nature and their need to wind down can be more frustrating than taking a deep breath and listening to what they are sharing.  You might discover some very interesting things about how your three year old thinks!
  5. During times of change in sleep needs/timing, it can be helpful to have a partner or other caregiver to help keep older siblings engaged in play outside the sleep space, or to take care of the bedtime routines of older siblings when your preschooler is up later because they napped.  There are ways to roll with these changes without a partner, too --it may take more creativity, patience, and flexibility, as well as a reminder of what the long term goals are.  Support in one way or another (including chatting to someone who listens and understands) can make a big difference. 
  6.  What works for your family may be entirely unique, even if the values and parenting goals are the same as other families who believe in night-time parenting.
  7. If it doesn't work, change it.  If you are resentful, over-tired, and frustrated, come up with a new plan.  Although any new parenting approach or routine takes a bit to 'try out', do not continue with a failed experiment.
  8. Stubborn habits that cannot seem to be changed may actually be needs.  True habits are more malleable.  If you're hitting a lot of resistance, re-evaluate, and consider changing your approach.
  9. Trust your instincts: if you feel sleep may be being interrupted by a health or medical issue, speak with a knowledgeable Health Care Provider.
  10. If in doubt, let love rule.  Preserve the relationship, even if it means taking time to figure out a bedtime routine that works for everyone.
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