I’m stealthily typing this article in my notes app on my phone while my 3 year old sleeps next to me, her face squished exactly in my armpit.
This sweet kid was an excellent sleeper from the age of 10 months until basically her third birthday. And then the combination of threenager brain development, endless cycles of preschool germs, and moving out of the crib after moving to a new house … yeah, she’s no longer a great sleeper.
My hope here is to save you the endless searching on google, all of which leaves you with fairly high priced courses on toddler sleep, which each promise you’ll be enjoying adult time by 8pm every night without a fuss.
Instead, I’m here to share with you what I learned from the true experts, the MommaStrong community, when I posted a question detailing my ordeals at bedtime every night. I can’t even begin to explain how useful, insightful, and calming their responses were. Here’s what I learned:
This is normal
Brains develop in amazing ways at this age, a lot of which leads to what we know as the threenager year. Their imagination, independence, curiosity, and FOMO are at an all time high right now. They also understand that nighttime means shutting down and turning off the day. This can be hard for even us adults. So, the community taught me that routine is so helpful. Stick to a really solid bedtime routine at this age and keep gently moving through it even when they resist. Many members also referred to Dr. Becky Kennedy, who explains her take on something she calls “sturdy leadership” as a parent, which she defines this as the ability to let your kids know all feelings are ok while also not falling down a rabbit hole with them. It means reflecting and listening, while also guiding and lifeguarding.
Let go of control
Just like everything else in parenting, trying to control your child’s basic functions (eating, sleeping, pottying) never ever works. As Dr. Craig Canapari (director of the Yale pediatric sleep program) instructs, you can’t make them fall asleep, you can only create a suitable environment that encourages them to fall asleep. The MommaStrong community suggested I turn on a dim lamp and let her read, play with soft toys, or color after books and lights out. And to let her know that this is her quiet time and she can fall asleep when she’s ready. This bit of advice has been life changing for me and for her! It doesn’t always result in her falling asleep independently, but it often does. The beautiful part is that it has relaxed my dread of bedtime, relieving me from the emotional labor that I felt so intensely before.
The MommaStrong community suggested that perhaps she isn’t tired and to try dropping her nap. I kid you not, when I tried this after this advice, she fell asleep on her own in ten minutes, before 8pm! This is compared to the sometimes 2 hour bedtime nightmare prior to that. With this said, however, the issue is that she’s not entirely ready to drop her nap. She’s still, most days, needing the midday snooze and I can’t control what happens at preschool. But, I skip it when I can and when I know I can get her to bed early. Additionally, it’s been a big reminder that she’s transitioning in so many ways right now and this will change, soon. So, for now, just get through as best I can and know I’m not alone.
The MommaStrong community was all very much in agreement that sleep stuff is so connected to our sense of safety. And three year olds are definitely on the throes of securing safety and investigating their environments for what is safe and what is not. The community then recommended Dr. Becky’s online resource, Good Inside. After jumping on that referral, I learned a ton about framing these struggles as seeking safety. And my job as a parent is to be safe in every way I can and to repair when things haven’t been safe. This then led me to prioritize routine at bedtime and to also be kind to myself during this journey, so that my kiddo felt I was ok. It also helped me to communicate with her verbally and non-verbally that I understood she needed more comfort right now and that that was good and ok and essential.
Take my own breaks and naps
I made a decision recently that I was going to properly view myself as a person doing a rather elite level mental and physical athletic event. That toddler stuff is hard and I may not be able to expect the same amount of sleep right now that I really want. But, I can definitely add in moments of rest and sleep without apology. And, so, I’ve been stopping work 30 minutes before afternoon pickup and taking a quick nap. I’ve also been finding small ways to take care of myself, like eating enough food throughout the day, pausing in the presence of stressors, saying no to extra things that don’t absolutely need me, and finding small silly outlets for entertainment and human connection.
I’ll end by saying that this period may be short and may be “just a season of your life”, but when you’re in it, it feels like forever and it feels like you may not survive it. So, instead of long gaming this, I have been really being with me and really acknowledging how incredibly hard this time is. And that I deserve care that meets me where I am right now.
Also, one more important thing to note is that if you have a child who is neurodivergent, this advice may not be applicable or helpful. My oldest child is neurodivergent and sometimes this sort of advice only left me spinning out more, because the tools for these amazing kids are different and this advice never ever worked for her. It is worth it to get an individualized assessment and nuanced help in that case. And, if this is you, I see you. It’s not your fault. You are not doing anything wrong and I’m sending you all the strength and fortitude.
We will get through this. Maybe, haha. Yes, yes we will.