Left: Elisabeth Protopapas starts her night on the couch before Mom tucks her in bed.
At the worst of her son Jack’s sleep problems, Deb Popa rocked in a chair for more than three hours straight, with her newborn crying on her chest and Treehouse TV breaking the room’s darkness. By a few months old, he grew accustomed to falling asleep while Popa fed him a bottle, but he never stayed asleep longer than 2½ hours. “He kept waking up screaming and crying,” she says. “It was so hard to get him to relax and go back to sleep.”
She and her husband, Claudiu, tried everything — music, gripe water, new bottles, walking him around, driving in the car, rocking in the chair, drops of Tylenol — and each night, something different settled him. So when Jack was later diagnosed and treated for infant reflux but would still wake screaming three or four times a night, Popa and her husband tried a new trick: installing a 46-inch TV in his room.
Nights of broken sleep make for a rough parenting ride. There are the no, you get up with him arguments that breed resentment into the next day. There’s the caffeine-fuelled struggle to stay awake behind a computer. “Helping children learn to sleep independently may require a lot of time and effort from parents, who are already managing the rest of life’s demands,” says Graham Reid, an associate professor in psychology and family medicine at the University of Western Ontario in London.
It’s a good thing that parents are determined to get their kids (and themselves) to sleep: Kids need it for healthy development. But when sleep doesn’t come easily despite how-to books and doctor’s visits, we parents get creative, which could mean anything from playing movies to playing musical beds. At the end of the day, everyone needs some shut-eye — and we’ll do just about anything to get it. Meet three families who’ve made peace with their unorthodox methods and find out how they make it through the night.
In his first few months, Jack barely slept more than 2½ hours at a time. It seemed like he was always in pain — his cries were sharp and incessant, unlike his usual cries, which were quick and easy to alleviate. So when he was four months old, we talked to our paediatrician and she bluntly concluded we hadn’t sleep-trained him. We tried Ferberizing for about a week; it was an admittedly feeble attempt because I went in to get him after about 20 minutes. It felt like we were devastating him by not helping when he was clearly asking us to. Plus, we were exhausted and totally miserable.
When he was five months, our family physician diagnosed Jack with infant reflux. He was screaming from the pain of acid coming up his throat. Medication helped his night sleep stretch to four hours by the time he was six months. But out of habit, he’d still wake up crying about twice a night.
We felt like we needed to teach him that his crib was a happy place when he did wake up. My mom suggested I make his bed fun for him because we didn’t want him to associate waking up in his crib with screaming. So while he was in his crib, Claudiu and I played peekaboo with him or played music by Raffi or Sharon, Lois & Bram.
And then Claudiu — and I thought he was a bit nuts for doing this — bought a 46-inch flat-screen TV for Jack’s room. Jack loved watching videos once in a while. So at bedtime, we’d give him a sippy cup of milk and pop in Baby Einstein, and he’d fall asleep watching the DVD instead of screaming when we left his room. If he woke in the night, one of us popped in another movie for him to watch as he fell back asleep.
Today, he’s sleeping up to 10 hours, straight through the night, with two-plus-hour naps in the afternoon. And when I tell other moms what we do, they’re shocked. Especially old-school people, they keep saying that he’ll have language problems and other things.
To me, though, a healthy night’s sleep is way more important. And if we didn’t sleep, there would be no way we could be good parents the next day. So I don’t really take other people’s criticisms seriously. There’s a lot of well-meant advice out there, but if others are not in the house with you — dealing with no sleep for months at a time — they don’t understand.
A little help? Jodi Mindell, a professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the author of Sleep Deprived No More: From Pregnancy to Early Motherhood — Helping You and Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, suggests removing the milk from Jack’s cup by an ounce per night, or at least swap it out for water. (The Canadian Dental Association warns that bedtime bottles or sippy cups can put kids at risk for tooth decay.) “As far as the videos, he’s doing well putting himself to sleep on his own as part of his bedtime routine, but you could maybe give him five minutes of the video and then set it so it’ll shut off automatically,” Mindell says. “That gets him away from the crutch, be it music or a video.”
As a full-time shift-working single mom with two young girls, I need sleep to stay sane. Sometimes my shifts as an emergency-room-ward clerk end at 11 p.m., when I pick up the girls from their babysitter. So with all the odd hours and being by myself, I give both my daughters bottles to get to sleep. I only recently found out how bad it was for their teeth, but the bottles are now such a habit for them.
With Aurora, it started after her dad left, which was a week before Danica was born. Aurora quickly developed some separation anxiety — she wouldn’t nap because she thought I’d leave. Before her sister was born, she on occasion drank a bottle to put herself to sleep. But after my ex left, she resisted sleeping — instead she’d just scream until she passed out on her floor.
Then Danica was born. And along with having a newborn, I had a toddler who just cried forever before going to sleep. I couldn’t just keep going in to comfort her, even though I wanted to. Some nights she’d scream for two hours. Then when it was my turn to go to bed, I couldn’t sleep because I felt horrible. I’d put Danica down to sleep and Aurora would wake up. It was constantly broken sleep for me. I was doing everything on my own. I felt helpless.
So I rely on bottles. Danica wakes up around midnight for one, and then Aurora might wake up around 1 a.m., and then again at 4 a.m. Danica also might wake up again, so altogether I make between two and six bottles a night. With a bottle, they go back to sleep almost instantly, which means I can go back to sleep too.
Now I worry about taking the bottles away. I tried once and Aurora cried for more than 45 minutes before falling asleep. Plus, when it’s at night that I’m exhausted and they’re both constantly getting up, I am already frustrated and sometimes even angry. This is just what I have to do for now and, eventually, it will get better, I hope.
A little help? As with the Popas, Mindell first recommends reducing the bottles by an ounce of liquid every night to start weaning kids off. After the fourth or fifth night, Mindell suggests, have the “bottle fairy” take the bottles away and leave a small present, such as a doll, for the girls, then another present three or four nights later (with a note this time, just to quash expectations of more gifts).
Reid suggests making this change over a vacation, when Colbey has more time and energy to help the girls learn to sleep on their own. She could even recruit a friend or family member to help. “If parents aren’t confident that what they are doing is right, they’ll likely fail because they give up just before things take a turn for the best,” he says. “You need to be prepared to keep at it for a couple of weeks. One or two nights is often not enough. Things generally get a bit worse before they get better.” If problems persist, Reid suggests Colbey consult a professional.
Katerina has never been a great sleeper. Up until she was in junior kindergarten, she’d have bouts when she’d wake up screaming. We never went to a sleep expert; a paediatrician told us it was something she’d grow out of around six. But when she turned five, she started having terrible spells. I remember one night, she’d gotten up really upset, and she was yelling and crying and thrashing about. We tried to calm her down by holding her and rubbing her back, and we even tried wetting her face with a washcloth, but that just agitated her more.
And then she started wandering. At first she’d go into the guest room to sleep, which was fine. But then one night she opened the upstairs baby gate and tried to come down. What if she’d fallen down the stairs? What if she’d got outside? Our house is right next to a main street. I said to Gus that I was going to start sleeping with her. He worried Katerina would become dependent on it, but I worried more about her wandering around alone at night.
Now it’s been six months and I’m still sleeping most nights with Katerina in her queen-size bed. She falls asleep by herself around 8 p.m., and sometimes I go to my bed first to fall asleep around 10 or 11 p.m. But sometimes I’m so tired, I just go to sleep in Katerina’s room to avoid the musical beds when the first spell happens, maybe a few hours in. These spells are only minor wake-ups because I’m there; I can comfort her back to sleep fast, and she never remembers them the next day. They seem to have lessened too, and are happening only once or twice a week now, rather than almost every night. And me being there also helps stop the wandering. Our paediatrician told me to stop sleeping with her. I said, “OK, but you tell me then how to stop the screaming and thrashing and, at the same time, not wake up my 3½-year-old!”
Meanwhile, Elisabeth refuses to fall asleep in her bed. She has given us lots of reasons why — her room’s not pretty enough, it’s not pink enough, that kind of thing. Gus has tried painting her room pink, decorating it with princess decals and giving her a princess blanket for Christmas. But she insists on falling asleep on the family-room couch every night. She used to fall asleep around 8 p.m., but now, since she’s still taking afternoon naps at daycare, her bedtimes are getting later — up to 10 p.m.
Gus speaks: Sometimes Elisabeth insists on watching a TV show. So I PVR some show on the Hubble Space Telescope, which is the digital equivalent of a sedative to her. Once she falls asleep, we’ll carry her up to bed. It’s exasperating for me because when the girls are upset, they just want their mom. I try to go to them, and they freak out. I’d like to help, but when I try, it makes things worse. That’s one of the most frustrating parts.
Maria speaks: It’s all just survival. It’s frustrating and not great for the marriage, that’s for sure. But I can’t stop thinking about what could have happened if Katerina had fallen down the stairs or, worse, wandered out the door.
A little help? For Katerina’s night terrors, which are common (see Decoding Kids’ Nightmares), Mindell suggests that they could hook up a bell to Katerina’s door. Being on her own could help Katerina start to sleep better — sleep deprivation actually contributes to the terrors, notes Mindell. And Maria may be inadvertently waking her daughter by tossing and turning when they’re together.
As for the reluctant bed sleeper, Mindell suggests not changing everything at once: Eventually, Elisabeth can start going to sleep in her bed. And when the time is right, a good first step might be turning off the volume on the TV. Then Gus could move to lying down with her in her room, rather than the family room.
Getting Gus involved in Katerina’s bedtime routine — even if it’s with Maria to start — could help the girls become more accepting of his involvement during the night.
Lose the guilt
Deb Popa knew that movies and sippy cups weren’t exactly expert-approved, but she was desperate. “Some nights it would take three hours to get Jack back to sleep. I was losing my mind. I had trouble making simple decisions at the grocery store, and there were many nights I cried,” she says.
The only thing worse than chronic exhaustion is guilt. When we lure our kids to sleep using not-so-stellar habits, we often feel conflicted. And nothing adds to the misery of exhaustion like guilt.
But it’s time to ditch those feelings. “It seems like each of these families has responded the logical, loving way,” says Reid. That means these parents can feel good that they’re doing their best to help their kids.