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  • Annika Brindley

Overcoming a toddler sleep regression: Annika interviews a client who did it



My client, Sarina, is the mother of a wonderful toddler named Tessa. After sleep training with me at 16 weeks, Tessa was a brilliant little sleeper, but at 20 months, she hit the dreaded toddler sleep regression and things started to fall apart. Read my interview below to learn more and see how together we solved the problem and got Tessa back on track.



Annika:

Hi Sarina, thank you so much for being here with me today. I thought interviewing you would be so helpful for my readers. I wanted them to hear a real story about a toddler sleep regression and, of course, one with a solution and great outcome!


I hope to ask you some questions today about your twenty-month-old daughter's sleep regression so parents can understand that this can happen, even with the best of sleepers, and can be solved.


Sarina:

Yes, I am happy to share!


Annika:


It is important to remember that sleep training is not a one-time deal. Of course, we as parents do our best to remain consistent to avoid a derailment of sleep, but things happen that challenge sleep like sickness, travel, and developmental leaps! And just like a beautiful garden needs upkeep and weeding, so does your child's sleep. Thank you for sharing your story about this important topic, Sarina. I'm just going to jump right in. You had a fantastic sleeper after working with me when Tessa was 16 weeks, correct?


Sarina:

The best sleeper ever.


Annika:

The best sleeper ever. Yes, I love it. I agree; Tessa learned to be a fantastic sleeper. You put in the time and effort needed to teach her how to be a great sleeper. You maintained that "best sleeper ever" status over the next year and a half, even with the arrival of baby number two – that is challenging! Then, Tessa's sleep started to break down. It almost felt out of the blue, correct?


Sarina:

It felt that way, but when I think about it, even though we thought we did everything you said, I think we got a little complacent, which might have contributed to her regression.


Annika:

It happens. Often when things are going well, we can get a little laxer about stuff because it feels easy.


Sarina:


So, we did the snail lamp (the Little Sleepers’ wake-up light system). We were completely psychos about her schedule, which is a sacrifice. We never strayed from it. She didn't nap in the car. She didn't sleep in the stroller. The only time she was ever not in the crib was like when we were traveling one day. So we were really, really strict about the schedule and sleeping in the crib because we valued her sleep and our own! And if we wanted to go out later than seven, we got a babysitter. So, we stuck to her schedule. And that, I think, made a huge difference in maintaining her good sleep habits over a year and a half. But the one thing that I wish we did a little better was that we got a little casual about the Snail lamp. We started to talk about it more casually instead of sticking to the script. So I think that she began to ignore it, maybe.


Annika:

So, we're talking about a time frame from sixteen weeks to about twenty months or twenty-one months?


Sarina:

Twenty months. Yes. She had her regression at twenty months.


Annika:

. And you also had a baby when she was sixteen months and that didn't even derail her, right?


Sarina:

Yes. Right. She had been wonderful that entire time.


Annika:

What was the first sign of the regression? What did you notice?


Sarina:

So the first thing that happened was she woke up in the middle of the night and she was screaming and crying. We actually thought maybe she was sick or had an ear infection. We thought something was wrong because she never, ever does that. So that very first night in the middle of the night and the second that we walked in the door, she was totally fine, which is weird. Well, thank goodness we called you soon after because I think we made the mistake of telling her, oh, we'll come to get you and pick you up. So then she tried it again and again and again and it felt like everything was falling apart.


Annika:

It is a slippery slope.


Sarina:

She screamed so loud. Another thing I wondered was, does she have an ear infection? Does she have a fever? And then I checked her diaper for poop . No fever, no poop. We gave her Tylenol in case it was an ear infection but nothing was wrong with her.


Annika:

Right, but that is hard to know. If you have had a brilliant sleeper, a child that sleeps through the night and has since 16 weeks old and she starts crying in the middle of the night, it's absolutely appropriate to go in because you think something must be wrong. Waking is not the norm, sleeping is. It’s right to ask yourself, what's going on and it is completely appropriate to assess the situation. You covered all the right sleep derailers -poop, ear infection, fever, and teething.


Sometimes it takes one to three nights of this happening for a parent to know that they might need to go to the pediatrician and get their child’s ears checked and get a clean bill of health. You cannot move ahead and get on track if you do not know if it’s a medical issue or a behavioral one.


So once you realized that she was totally fine, what happened? The issue began at night, but did she start to protest naps?


Sarina:

Yes. So then anytime we put her down, whether it was for naps or at night, she would scream and yell in protest and just stand up and not even try to sleep. She was falling asleep standing up!


Annika:

It seemed as if she had completely forgotten how to sleep.


Sarina:

Yes. Like we were back to square one.


Annika:

As if you had never done sleep training before.


Sarina:

Yes.


Annika:

It is important to know that this can happen. I think this interview is important because I really do believe consistency is the number one factor for success. However, even if you really stick to your child’s sleep program, and you have had an amazing sleeper for forever, it does not mean you will not have speed bumps along the way. I always say that kids do not punch the clock at 7:00 PM and say “O.K, I am not going to be two anymore until morning.” Sleep is a great place for a budding two-year-old to test boundaries.


Sarina:

Yes, actually, she started testing more boundaries during the day as well.


Annika:

But you guys were completely consistent around sleep.


Sarina:

We thought we were, but when I look back I see that we got a little bit loosey-goosey and the lines got a little bit blurred because of that. We always used your light system. We always turned it on and off, but we would say, “oh, this snail light is on, time to wake up,” but we were not focused on it. Paul would kind of just turn it on and not talk about it. And my mom was doing something different altogether. And our nanny, probably did things another way too. So it was just kind of like we were all doing our own things with it.


Annika:

Anytime somebody comes to me and says they're having a toddler regression- and I'm not talking about somebody who didn't have a good sleeper and needed to teach their two-year-old how to sleep - I mean somebody who had a great sleeper and it went south, fast. I begin by asking if they are being consistent about the wake-up light? Most say yes, but when I dig deeper, I find the slightest discrepancies. Behavioral work cannot afford deviations or variations. Can you tell me about the standing part?


Sarina:

I think it was an hour and a half that first night.


Annika

I think it may have been longer.


Sarina:

I think I blacked out.


Annika:

OMG, haha. I think it may have been a tiny bit longer. And I was watching in real-time with you through the monitor, and it was a full-blown, epic protest. If you went in and got her out, which we saw your mom had done a couple of times, she was totally fine.


Sarina:

Totally fine.


Annika:

Happy as a clam.


Sarina:

Yes.


Annika:

Love that girl. Okay. So how did we fix this problem?


Sarina:

You fixed it.


Annika:

You fixed it.


Sarina:

No, I actually wanted to quit. That was harder than the first time that we went through sleep training. That was the first time I actually wanted to quit because it was so different and harder during the sleep regression because she was a little person who could say, “Mama, Mama, no more, Mama, no more.” With your little baby crying, you feel it is so hard and may feel bad. This time was hard because she was a person who could say things!


Annika:

It is never lost on me how challenging parenting can be. The sleep part of boundary setting is particularly hard because we all have our own sensitivities around sleep. It's really hard when a child gets older and they can say things like, “Mommy, I need you or I want you or hold me, hold me, hold me” that kind of thing. It really pulls at your heartstrings, but you know that picking her up and holding her or bringing her into your bed is a bandaid and may fix your problem at the moment but create more of an issue long-term. Often a quick fix adds fuel to the fire and then it's really hard for a child to go back to sleep if she knows that getting attention and being held is an option. How long do you think it took to get back on track?


Sarina:

So nighttime sleeping only took a few days, a few nights; they were intense and she fell asleep standing and sitting! It was the ultimate protest! Naps took two weeks.


Annika:

That is important for everyone to hear because they think something they are doing is not working. It is working, but naps just take more time. How are things now?


Sarina:

In such a good place! Plus, I feel more empowered to handle toddler issues. She will now sleep for a minimum of an hour and a half nap. She sleeps from seven PM to seven AM every night. And when she goes into her crib, she waves at the Snail lamp. She says, nail lamp, which is Snail lamp in her toddler speak, and she, waves to it backward to say “good night”.


Annika:

Oh, my gosh. That is so cute. And most importantly, she still loves you and nothing bad happened setting an appropriate boundary to get her sleep back on track.


Sarina:

Yes! She actually gets really excited now. Like, when we go towards her crib, she's happy. One time I was taking too long, I guess, and she climbed on the side of her crib and said, “Get in, get in!” So she's back to our good little sleeper. Thank goodness.


Annika:

That's an incredible turnaround. I think the big takeaway here is that consistency is everything. You guys stuck to it. You did the same thing every night and that ultimately creates trust. Everyone thinks, this is so hard, I don't know if I can do it, but really, what you're establishing is trust and stability. A child pushing back and testing boundaries is a normal part of growth and child development. She is trying to figure out who she is separate from you and how much control she has in any situation, not just sleep.


Two-year-olds can protest sleep, even if they're the best of sleepers, because most protest where the boundary is the strongest. She tested but really needed you guys to be stronger than her.


Sarina:

There was a moment when I was wondering if she was stronger than I was in terms of her will because she knows what she wants.


Annika:

She's got an awesome personality. She was falling asleep standing up, holding Elmo. And who else is she holding?

Sarina:

Elmo, Bunny, and lion. She was dedicated.


Annika:

She took the crew with her. We also lowered the mattress on the crib even lower than it was so that she couldn't just hang and hinge herself on the side and prop herself up. It actually took away the ability for her to stand for a long period of time because her arms were raised more.


Sarina:

Yes.


Annika:

Parents often feel they can’t sleep train at this age, but of course, you can!


Sarina:

Yes, we now know we can. I think consistency, but also your support was everything. So knowing we could talk to you and have your support instead of just my brain saying she doesn't have an ear infection, she's not hungry, she's not sick was so helpful. This is a temper tantrum treat it like a temper tantrum. I think having the support of you and also, Paul is like, “It's okay, she's okay. This is the best thing for her. She's learning a new skill.” That was also really important too.


Annika:

Thank you for your kind words. It’s easier for me because I know what's on the other side of the mountain, right? So, I'm telling you to climb it because I have complete faith in what she and you can do. I know what it's going to look like, but while you're in it, it’s so hard. You can't see that this too, shall pass.


Sarina:

Yes. I feel so much more confident now. I do not feel as scared to handle a sleep regression.


Annika:

You did an amazing job. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and I know so many parents will benefit from what you shared today. Thank you.