My toddler doesn’t sleep through the night and that’s okay

At two years old my daughter doesn’t sleep through the night. She takes more than thirty minutes to fall sleep**, cries at least once a night (and doesn’t stop until she gets my attention or my husband’s), and wakes up before 7AM. Every day. I never imagined that would be my reality when she was born.

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My pregnancy was stressful and uncomplicated. My delivery painful and tranquil. Both experiences gave me lots of practice in accepting the complexity of life.

As soon as childbirth was over, I began to think about breastfeeding and sleep. Two years later, I’m still thinking about sleep.

Life remains complex.

This complexity has taught me a lot of things, mostly that I don’t know what I’m doing and that’s the best I have to offer.

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Shortly after my daughter’s birth, during the first consultation with the pediatrician, he advised me make an effort to teacher her the difference between night and day. Newborns aren’t born with this distinction. When she was a few days old I would open the window, greet the sun and explain to her what the day was.

I understood the importance of routine—I had been a middle school teacher. Plus, every early childhood professionals spoke of the importance of a routine. I put her to sleep at the same time, with the same routine, every day, from the very beginning. At night I would do shantala massage (from the time she was six weeks), close the window, spray lavender, leave the room dark. Every single night.

I was sure that this effort, teaching her to differentiate day from night and implementing a routine, would result in a daughter without sleep problems.

I was wrong.

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At three months, in January 2015, my daughter slept all night. For one night. I was hopeful that it would be the beginning of the process of sleeping well. The next day she woke up several times. I was frustrated, but she was only 3 months old. I did not lose hope.

It was at this time that people began to give me advice. My best friend in the US advised me to give her baby formula at night to make sure she did not wake up hungry (research proves that formula fed babies wake up less). Several ladies on the bus (without me asking) advised me that she shouldn’t take a nap during the day. I ignored these people because I knew I didn’t want to give her formula• and I’d read so much about the importance of daytime napping.

When she was six months old, we introduced solid food and put her in a crib in the other room. I was sure she was going to start sleeping all night. She did not.

In June (at eight months) she slept all night, for three nights in a row. These seventy-two hours gave me incredible hope. I was sure that from that point on on our problems would be solved. They were not.

By the end of October 2015 (around her first birthday), we moved. The first night she slept all night. And every subsequent night, for three weeks. I loved my new home. I was a different person: smiling, happy, eating less, meditating every day. I realized just how much a lack of sleep had affected me.

We traveled in late November 2015, and when we got back my daughter was very sick. She stopped breastfeeding at this time (which was a huge relief for me, I never enjoyed breastfeeding) and …she stopped sleeping all night. Additionally, she would cry hysterically when we left the room so we started to stay with her until she fell asleep.

In my mind, I kept thinking she was going to sleep all night for external reasons, like when she started school (1 year and 3 months), or when she started walking (1 year and 4 months). I figured she would get so sleepy from physical activity that she would sleep. But she never did. When she started school full time in September 2016 I thought, this is it. It didn’t and I stopped believing in magical solutions.

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It felt like all my friends, acquaintances, people I follow on the Instagram, had children the same age who slept all night. I felt like a failure in comparison. Once I realized there were no magical solutions, I took a deep breath and resolved to accept my situation.

My daughter is perfect: affectionate, courageous, thoughtful (if you say ouch, she asks if you are hurt and makes a sad face). And she doesn’t sleep for more than three hours without waking up. I decided that I could accept that.

Each child brings his/her unique challenge; some parents have to navigate having a child who is more aggressive, for others it is a child who is a super picky eater, for others it is a frightened and insecure child. For me, it was a girl who slept badly. I can handle that, I told myself.

Until in November 2016, when she had a throat infection. “Sleeping poorly” (waking up once or twice a night to ask for water or a hug) went from bad to unbearable. She took more time to fall asleep, woke up more times during the night, and stayed awake for much longer, asking to leave the room, to play, insisting that someone stay with her.

I decided it was time to get professional help and I hired Denise Gurgel, a physiotherapist who specializes in newborn development and sleep issues. She asked me to down three days/nights of our routine and we made an appointment to discuss her observations.

During our conversation the first thing Denise said to me was that my daughter was in control of her routine. The second thing she noted was that my daughter didn’t have sleep autonomy.

This may seem obvious to other people, but I was shocked. I had no clue. I thought my husband and I were in control. We determine when she sleeps. We follow the same routine every day. We never let her eat sweets at night or watch television. Weren’t we in control?

Nope.

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My daughter, with her requests, diversions and tantrums, was controlling us. Partly because that is what kids try to do and partly because she didn’t know how to soothe herself. She was waking up for us to give her water because we hadn’t taught her to do it herself.

I was shocked to realize that I hadn’t taught my daughter to have the confidence to wake up and go back to sleep without help. Me?! Someone who makes a huge effort (or so I thought) for her to be independent! (She has a Montessori bed, never took a bottle, drinks and eats alone, bathes with little help).

I understood the importance of routine and consistency, but I hadn’t applied that knowledge in an effective way in real life.

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I’m frustrated that I only now I asked for help. Changing your habits and customs at two years old is not easy. I’m still comparing myself to others. What I failed to do—teach my daughter to fall and stay asleep without help—many people do without any difficulty. What’s wrong with me?

Despite my failure with her sleep, my daughter is very healthy, happy, presents no problems at school or with other children, treats our cat with kindness and sensitivity. She is a great pleasure in our lives and in the lives of the people who know her.

Once again I’ve had to acknowledge that life is complex and my best sometimes isn’t good enough…AND most of the time it’s more than enough.

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This is what it is like to raise a child—you do your best, things don’t go at all how you hoped, and you realize there were tons of other more effective/appropriate ways to achieve your goal. Childrearing is one doubt, wild shot in the dark, and failure after another.

Despite many people offering unsolicited advice and insisting what they know the right way, there is NO right way. All we have is what we cobble together in that moment of our lives.

My daughter doesn’t sleep all night. I’m miserable. I want to sleep. At the same time, I’m grateful. She brings me so much joy. That’s life; it’s complex.

That was true during my pregnancy, during the birth experience and every day of her wonderful life. It was true before too, but never as true as it is today.

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If you have your own difficulties (with food, biting, temper tantrums, etc.) don’t forget this—life is complicated. You, like me, are doing your best right now, period. This is your best, no matter how bad it feels, how other people would do it or the outcome. If you could do better or different, you would. Have patience with yourself and the complexity of life. And hopefully get some sleep, for you and me both.

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**This is no longer true. Since implementing our new routine, she falls asleep by herself. Woohoo!

•I didn’t give my daughter formula but that in no way means I judge those who do/did. I fully recognize that many women do not have the support and resources necessary to exclusively breastfeed.