Sunday 18 March 2018

How can I get my two-year-old son back to his sleep routine?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman gives advice on how to establish a good sleep routine for your child and parenting teenagers in a blended family.

Question: Until recently, my two-year-old son was a dream to put to bed. He used to settle very quickly, in his own bed, and sleep through the night. We stayed with family for a week recently and we ended up sharing a room, and a bed. Since we have come back home, he is fussing when I say "bedtime" and wants to go into my bed. I keep him in his own bed, but now I have to sit in the dark with him, until he falls asleep. But, he also wakes during the night and I end up bringing him into my bed. How can I get him back to his pre-holiday routine?

David replies: Your query shows just how fickle children can be. A small bit of disruption to a well-established routine and it seems like the whole thing has been thrown out of the window.

I do think that the week away, where he got used to sleeping with you, gave him a 'taste' for the comfort and security that young children can get from snuggling up to parents at night.

I would imagine that he has simply been trying to continue this experience of co-sleeping since your return. After the pleasure of sleeping with you, he is probably reluctant to give it up.

Your responses to his demands for that comfort may also be confusing for him. He is currently getting some mixed messages from you. On the one hand, you are being firm in settling him into his own bed at the start of the night. Then, in the middle of the night, that resolve crumbles a bit (probably due to exhaustion on your part) and you do let him come to sleep with you.

Naturally, he may be learning that if he protests enough, when he wakes in the night, that he will get this extra comfort of sleeping in beside you.

There is nothing wrong with co-sleeping, where you have your toddler in the bed or in the room with you. However, from the nature and tone of your query, my assumption is that you would prefer to have your own room to yourself and have him back sleeping soundly in his own bed.

To do so, you need to adopt the same rigour as you used when you initially established this habit.

Start by following all the steps of your original bedtime routine. So revert to the same timetable of getting changed for bed, brushing teeth, washing faces, story-time, and so on, that you used before the holiday.

These little transitions, from one stage to the next, of getting ready for bed, give children plenty of notice that bedtime is upon them. This predictability is reassuring and creates that sense of security that all is well in your child's world.

Then, when it comes to actually putting him into his bed, you need to be warm and understanding, but really firm that he must stay in his own bed.

Rather than staying in the room with him (which is the circumstance that he will expect to find again later if he wakes) establish a habit of "checking visits". This means that you come in and out to check on him.

At first, you may have to do this as often as every two minutes. The reliability and dependability that you show, by turning up to check on him so regularly will inspire his confidence that you continue to mind him, and be mindful of him, even when he is in bed. As he gets accustomed to your "checking visits" he will settle to sleep quicker and you can slowly extend the length of time between visits.

In due course, over a few months, you should get to a point where you can just check him once after he goes to bed.

If he wakes in the night, you need to be prepared to follow the same process of visiting him regularly, until he falls back asleep. Don't be tempted to cave in to letting him into your bed, even if the visiting is exhausting you.

By occasionally giving him a "treat" of co-sleeping, you may strengthen his desire for it, rather than weaning him off it. Best that he learns that you won't take him into your bed, no matter how he protests.

Throughout this process of weaning him off your presence, while he settles himself to sleep, you need to be warm and understanding.

The more relaxed and confident that you appear to be, in responding to him, the easier it will be for him to fall asleep.

I have taken on the task of step-parenting my  partner's 14-year-old. How firm can I be with him?

Question: I live alone with my two young children. My partner lives and works abroad only returning for visits every so often. My partner's son, aged 14, also recently came to live with me following the breakdown of his relationship with his mum. With his parents' agreement, I have full legal guardianship of him. But he pushes the limits. For example, he wants to stay out at weekends until 10.30pm, hanging around parks in a large group of teenagers. I disagree with this but am unsure how strongly to push for what I believe is good?

David replies: When it comes to blended families, I thought I had come across most family living arrangements. However, I was surprised by your situation.

The fact that you are step-parent to your partner's son is not unusual, but, as you describe it, I understand that your partner isn't even there to shoulder the task of rearing his son, leaving it entirely up to you. That is the bit that seemed unusual to me.

I can only assume that you and this boy have developed a good and close relationship over the years, to the point that both you and he agreed, with his parents, that these living arrangements would be the best fit.

Your stepson is lucky that you have taken on the job of parenting him. It sounds like he had few other options. But what is also clear from your query, is that you have fully taken on this job. You are the only "parent" he has on a day-to-day basis.

You are the person who must care for him, guide him, limit him, encourage him, love him, praise him, direct him and send him on the best path in life that you can establish.

It sounds like you are unsure about how much authority you should wield with your step-son to achieve this.

I would suggest that you need to take on full authority. Neither of his parents are actually around to be authoritative with him. Hopefully, you have made it clear, with his father (and mother if you have contact), that they too see that you have to have full authority to make decisions on behalf of their son.

You cannot afford to be undermined by them. More importantly, you cannot care for their son if he believes that you don't have the authority to tell him what to do. If he believes, for example, that he can complain about you to either parent and that they will then overturn your decision, or correct you, you will be powerless.

Parenting teenagers requires power. Not power in the sense of a huge controlling force, but power in terms of influencing strength.

In parenting terms, that power comes from the quality of your relationship with your children. From when they are small, we need to show ourselves to be decisive, fair, loving, demanding, warm, unambiguous, expectant and understanding.

When these qualities continue into our relationships with our teenagers, we stand the best chance of continuing to influence them positively. We stand the best chance of being seen as authoritative.

Your stepson is 14 and at that age, he doesn't get to make all his own decisions. He needs you, in your parenting role, to be involved in lots of the decisions he takes. In some cases, you will also need to take the decision out of his hands, because the outcome may be too risky or dangerous for him.

Going out, and dealing with the behaviour of their peers, are exactly the kind of situation that teenagers want to be fully in charge of. But, equally, parents do often have to step in to say "no", that certain times, or certain behaviours are not okay.

So, own the authority that you have been given by your stepson and his parents. Be brave in saying what you believe to be right and good for your stepson. Be assertive about how you are keeping him safe and healthy.

I would imagine that with two parents essentially abandoning him, he needs a firm, loving, kind and strong adult to guide him and support him.

You have taken on the task of being that adult, and now all you need to do is to live it out in your interactions with him.


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