Dear Family Whisperer: The New Baby Sleeps Through the Night, but My Toddler Doesn’t!

Dear Family Whisperer,

Our 2½ year old, who has always been a good sleeper, has started waking several times at night. No matter how much we comfort her, she won’t go back to sleep unless my husband sleeps in her room. When I was pregnant, we prepared her for the baby and told her what a “good big sister” she’d be. When her little brother came along in May, she didn’t pay much attention at first but then wanted to give him back. She hasn’t expressed anger lately and sometimes offers to help with his care, but the sleep issue is wreaking havoc on our household. It seems as if she has separation anxiety, but her teachers say she’s “fine” at school.

Exhausted Mom

Dear Exhausted Mom

Your daughter is a bit old for separation anxiety. The fact that her teachers report no school issues, it’s a pretty safe bet that she is suffering from new-baby blues, a common problem for toddlers. It can get worse as her little brother becomes more interesting and interactive. And your “solution” – so far – is a classic case of accidental parenting. No good will come of Dad’s sleeping in her room! Here’s a 9-step plan that could help restore balance in your household.

1. Understand how your older child feels. A 2½-year-old can’t comprehend changes in the household the way an adult can, but she understands that everything is very different – and she doesn’t like it. Can you blame her? As my late collaborator Tracy Hogg would ask, “How would you feel if your husband brought home a second wife?”

2. Stop telling her she’s a “good big sister.” This bit of advice flies in the face of what most of us actually do, but what young child wants to be a caretaker? Imagine how puzzling – and annoying – it is for a 2½ year old to suddenly have to share Mom and Dad with an interloper. Other adults oooh and aaah over him. And on top of that, she has to be good to him and take care of him?

3. Both of you should care for the baby and his older sister. In many new-baby households, it’s common for Mom to do baby duty and Dad to handle older-child responsibilities – do breakfast, take the older one to day care or school. Mix it up a little. For example, let Dad feed the baby and you eat breakfast with the older one. Encourage her to prepare it with you.

4. Give her a special “busy bag” to help her tolerate your spending time with the baby. It could be a small suitcase, a draw-string bag, or a backpack. Encourage her to leave her favorite toys in it or “pack” it anew every morning. Then, when Mommy is occupied with the baby brother, big sister can keep herself busy while she’s waiting. (“It will help you be patient.”)

5. Talk about sleeping. During the day, don’t pretend that her waking up at night didn’t happen or is normal. Use books, like Goodnight Moon, to have a conversation about how everything goes to sleep at night. Remind her that we all wake up in the middle of the night and have to learn how to put ourselves back to sleep. Reminisce about how she learned to do it when she was only [fill in number] months old and what a good sleeper she has always been. Point out that her little brother is just learning. Go over what she already knows about putting herself back to sleep (“You roll over, your eyes open, the room is dark, so you ....”).

6. Reintroduce old sleep aids or offer her new ones. Right now, your husband has become her “prop” – Dad sleeping in her room helps her get back to sleep but then her sleep depends on his being there. She needs instead to practice her sleep skills. If she already has a “lovey” (comfort object), talk about how good it feels to cuddle with it. If she doesn’t have one, take her shopping to pick out a “sleep buddy” that will keep her company in her own room. If she says she’s scared when she wakes up, use a night light.

7. Carve out special, but simple, Mom time. Say out loud, “Let’s have some Mommy and [Her Name] time.” It could be planned or spontaneous — anything helps her see that you still do things together. Take a walk around the block or a bike ride with her in the back seat. Ask her to help sort socks when you’re doing laundry or to grab an item off the shelf in the grocery store. (You might also point out that these are things her baby brother can’t do.)

8. Pick a day for dad to STOP sleeping in her bedroom. While you’re doing steps 1 to 7, keep an end date in mind. On that day, on the way to or from school, while having a snack or a meal, have multiple conversations, so she’s prepared for what’s about to happen. Explain that Daddy can no longer sleep in her room. Encourage her to talk about it and to ask questions. Listen; don’t argue with her feelings. During your usual bedtime ritual (bath, story, cuddling), stress that her (old or new) “lovey” is there to keep her company. Make up a story about a brave little girl and her special pal who helps her sleep and keep her safe at night.

9. Keep your eyes on the prize. If she wakes up, don’t leave her screaming. Comfort her, but be firm. Explain to her that she has her room, the baby has his, and Mommy and Daddy have theirs. You may have a bad night or two, but the next-day fatigue will be worth it. She will regain the gift of independent sleep, and you two will get back your nights.

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