Dear David Coleman: My baby's sleep has been really disturbed recently. Nothing that we do soothes him
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I am really worried about my 20-month-old toddler. He has a baby brother aged seven months. His sleep has been disturbed for the last five months. He wakes up at night and cries loudly, asking for milk, but when we offer it to him he doesn't drink. Nothing that we do soothes him. It can take an hour to get him back to sleep again. This happens a few nights a week. He does sleep for up to two hours during the day, but he can resist being put down for this nap. It's hard to manage the two children while one is so disrupted at night.
David replies: Since you talk about your son's sleep disruption only having been present for about five months, I take it that for the first 15 months of his life, your older boy had a relatively settled sleep routine.
This is reassuring, since it suggests that he does have the capacity to soothe himself and settle himself, should he wake. It is simply a skill that he has lost in the last while.
I wonder if you have noticed the correlation between the arrival of his baby brother and your older boy's disrupted sleep? I could imagine that your older son's world has been changed irrevocably by becoming a big brother.
Even though it's a very normal occurrence, we can still underestimate the impact that a new baby will have on its older sibling.
Think about it from your older boy's perspective; he had two parents who were very available to him and him alone. Any needs that he had, for food, warmth, comfort and security were, probably, quickly responded to by one or other of you. He may not have had to wait long, or protest very loudly, to get those needs met. He was the centre of his known universe.
Now, however, he does have to wait sometimes. Now his brother's needs do compete with his own and so he may feel like he is getting "less" from you. He may resent this. Even though he may not properly understand it, he will probably feel it quite keenly.
So, given that he too is still very young (he was only just over a year old when his brother was born), he may have regressed in his behaviour as an unconscious, or instinctive, attempt to re-establish his sense of security and primacy.
Becoming more needy at night time, or at sleeping times, may be his way of seeking some focused attention, to fill his emotional cup so to speak, that he may be missing at other times of the day.
With this in mind, I think it will help him if you can try to increase his sense of security, and give him one-to-one focused attention whenever you have opportunity. So, if you can have cuddle-time, story-time or play-time with him, exclusively, during the day that will help. Including him, where possible, while you are caring for his baby brother, might also help.
Then, when it comes to sleeping time, try to either maintain his current bedtime routine (if it is effective) or re-establish a really consistent routine for him, that involves plenty of winding-down from the busyness of the day.
The calls for milk, at night, sound like they are a call for reassurance and nurturing. So, rather than offering him milk (which you say he doesn't then seem to want anyway) invest heavily in offering that nurturing, by being with him, soothing him and supporting him to fall asleep.
It is very important that whatever response you give him, if he wakes, is consistent night to night. If it is the case that some nights (if your energy levels are good for example) he gets lots of soothing support, and other nights (if you are tired for example) he gets a more frustrated or annoyed response from you, then it will be hard for him to experience a sense of security.
While the demands of caring for two babies are a challenge (even when they are all sleeping well), it might help you to garner your patience for your older boy if you can recognise that his disruption at night is probably just a temporary response to all the changes in his life.
With your general support and understanding of this dynamic, as well as a warm, consistent response to his night time wakefulness, I think he will settle again.
Health & Living