What to do When Your Child Won’t Sleep and What They Really Need
Inside: What to do when your young child has trouble falling asleep at night that you probably haven’t tried. And what they really need from you and how to give it to them.
My daughter was born not needing much sleep. I realize this isn’t possible, but it sure seemed like it.
On the second day of her life, she stayed up all day for all the visitors at the hospital then stayed up all night.
We took her home, and she continued to be a late sleeper. Everyone said it was a phase.
By the time she was a toddler, I had a newborn to balance along with her. She still wasn’t falling asleep until closer to 11 pm.
The pediatrician gave us a list of things to do to help her sleep.
- Establish a solid bedtime routine. Check.
- Read before bed. Check.
- Wake up early at the same time every morning. Check.
- No screens an hour before bed.
- Longer baths right before hitting the hay.
- Less activity and a full but not too full of a belly before sleeping.
Check, check, and check.
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Finally, the doctor began to prescribe melatonin. But even that didn’t make a dent.
From the time she was old enough to talk, she would begin yelling for me to come into her room to tuck her in again, for one more book, for another glass of water. When she could walk, she would come into my room for all the requests.
I can still remember her with her long blond hair and pink princess gown calling to me, “Mommy, I can’t sleep, can you talk to me?”
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I couldn’t see how she just wanted more of me. I was so tired I didn’t have any more of “me” to give. I just saw my bed and sleep. I couldn’t imagine talking. My options looked like yelling (which I did plenty of) or telling her to come into my bed.
I tried everything to get her sleep.
First up: bribing with food.
Her favorite treat was maraschino cherries. So I told her if she didn’t come out of her room at all, she could have three maraschino cherries in the morning first thing. Every time she came out, she’d lose one. This worked for a couple of weeks.
Then we moved to M&Ms. When M&Ms no longer worked, we moved to mini-candy bars. Finally, we gave up on bribing with food.
Many nights I gave up and let her sleep in my bed.
Admittedly, I yelled for lots of nights. Exhausted with a newborn, I couldn’t see that yelling would only make a young child and certainly not force them to sleep.
Related: 11 Strategies on How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids
Finally, I had a breakthrough and realized what she was craving most of all. More time with me.
So I devised a way to give it to her.
Talk Cards: How I got my Toddler to Fall Asleep
I created three fun little cards with her picture on the front and the back and labeled them “Talk Card.”
The Talk Cards were her tickets to getting me to lay in bed with her for an extra 5 minutes before each night. Every time she got out of bed, she had to hand over a Talk Card.
So on Monday night, if she got out of bed two times, she had to give me 2 of her talk cards. That meant on Tuesday night, I’d only lay in bed and talk with her for 5 minutes since there’d only be one Talk Card left under her pillow from the night before.
On Tuesday night, before I said goodnight, she would get all three cards and get to start again for the next night.
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It took a little bit to get going because kids have a hard time understanding the consequences when they are so far away.
So the first few nights, I would lay in bed for 5 minutes anyway, even if she didn’t earn it so she would see what she was missing. She loved it so much.
After about a week, the talk cards began to work so well that she would bring them to grandma’s house and use them there when she spent the night.
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What My Little One Really Needed From Me
As a working mom who is so exhausted at the end of the night and picks the kids up from daycare, then makes dinner and has more than one child, the oldest just wanted mom all to herself.
It made me realize I needed to spend more one-on-one time with her and not hold it all back to get her to do what I wanted her to do.
And while I made a vow to do that, late at night wasn’t going to be my best self to give to her. So we used the Talk Cards at night and during the days after work and school, I set aside just 10 minutes each day to fully devote myself to her.
Yes, there were 1,000 other things screaming for my attention. And sometimes literally as I’d have to put her younger brother in his crib. But she didn’t hear or see any of that. She just needed my undivided attention.
Ten minutes a day sounds so simply why even try. But it is a game changer. No phones, no other kids, nothing.
I used the same technique for years for my other child who I thought was “just too strong willed for me.” Turns out our kids just need our undivided attention.