Monday 21 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: I'm a single working mum and am exhausted by my toddler who wakes at night

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My four-year-old daughter is a really disrupted sleeper. When I go in to comfort her she shouts that she doesn't want to sleep in her room. Sometimes I raise my voice and shout because I'm exhausted and stressed. I'm a single working mum and I don't know how long more I can do this. My daughter's behaviour is good in preschool, for the childminder, and when she's with family. But with me she has loads of tantrums and her form is very difficult. She asks for her dad a lot even though he has never been around. I don't know what to do.

A. It sounds like you are under huge pressure. Being a working parent can be hard enough, but being a single working parent usually means that you never have time off, other than when your daughter is asleep. No wonder, then, if her sleep is disrupted and interrupts your own sleep, that you are exhausted and stressed.

I would guess, too, that when she asks, relentlessly, about her dad that it adds a further layer of hurt, frustration and distress onto your shoulders, given that he hasn't been an active part of her life, ever. I could imagine that you might really resent the extra workload that you have to bear in his absence.

You may be experiencing a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Her sleep may be disrupted because you and her have been having lots of conflict, in the evenings. She may go to bed upset that her relationship with you is fractured in some way, and this may interrupt her sleep. Equally, her disrupted sleep might be leading to the higher levels of tantrums, since you are both probably tired and a bit cranky after a disrupted night's sleep and a long day at work and with the preschool/childminder.

If you were able to help your daughter sleep more soundly, it might go a long way to giving you more rest and recuperation, adding that all important energy you might need to deal with the other issues that arise in the evenings and typically lead to the tantrums.

It's interesting that she always tells you, when she wakes, that she doesn't want to be sleeping in her room. Because she is only four, she may not be able to articulate why that is. Also, if she is just crying out about it at night (when you desperately need her to be asleep!), it is hardly the best time to be exploring the issue with her.

That said, it would really help to be able to get some insight into what the problem with her room is. Perhaps she feels lonely or scared in the room on her own? Perhaps she wants to be closer to you, to feel like she can repair any rupture between you that the rows and tantrums may have created.

Have you ever considered moving her into your room, either into your bed, with you, or onto a small mattress on the floor? Many parents are reluctant to co-sleep with their children, but often the added security and comfort of being able to sleep with a parent is such a welcome reassurance for the child that they sleep soundly, developing a really solid and deep sleep pattern.

Even creating a solid bedtime routine for her, that begins earlier in the evening with lots of shared playtime will help. As you get closer to bedtime you can wind things down with more nurturing activities, like bath-time, story-time, cuddle-time and so on.

If you manage to recover some of your energy, from getting better sleep yourself, you might then be able to address the dynamic of the interaction between you in the evenings. Given her age, you will have to be the one to instigate any change, knowing that if you can positively change how you approach her, she will inevitably change positively in response.

Practically, it sounds like she needs lots of understanding, empathy and patience. Your willingness to acknowledge that she is probably just tired, and maybe cranky, after her long day, will go a long way to helping you to avoid getting wound up yourself when she throws a strop.

Given the level of stress and pressure you are under, it will also help you to feel a bit minded yourself. You will be much better able to care for her, when your own needs to be minded are met, so do look for and take any offers of social support from your extended family or friends.

If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence

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