Whatever gets you through the night

Parents who survived night waking tell it like it was

Nancy Phillips got the first migraine of her life when Andrew was 10 months old. Before long, she was getting two a week, something she attributes to fatigue: Andrew had never really moved beyond his infant pattern of waking every two hours or so. The wake-ups were seldom prolonged; it was the sheer number that was the problem. “At times, I was crushed by exhaustion,” says the mother of two from Thornhill, Ont. Phillips relied on her husband who, at the end of his workday, held down the fort for a couple of hours. “All I could do was take my medication and go to bed.” Fortunately, if Phillips could cop an hour or two of sleep, she’d be OK. Good thing — her wee hours would be rather eventful for another two-plus years. Few parents of night-waking children get migraines, but many will tell you that the yearning for a good night’s sleep can dominate their thoughts — often for a year or two. “I talk to moms about this all the time,” says Phillips. “I tell them it’s really hard — believe me, I know — but you’ll survive. Just do what you need to do to get through the night, grab some rest however you can, and it will all end someday.” Most articles about night waking focus on prevention and solutions — that is, how to teach your baby to sleep through the night. We hear little about the families for whom those solutions don’t work. This story is about the survivors. Some of these parents found a way to help their child sleep through, often when the child was two or three. In other cases, the night waking dwindled on its own. Regardless of how and when it ended, however, many parents agreed that the breakthrough came when they stopped trying to fix their child’s sleep and switched their focus to coping with it.

Like most parents of enduring wakers, Phillips and her husband, Stuart, explored various tactics that might get Andrew out of the habit. They tried the Ferber method: teaching a baby to sleep through the night on his own by leaving him awake (and often crying) for gradually increasing amounts of time. They tried it several times, in fact. “I felt so defeated,” Phillips says. “We listened to all that crying. It didn’t work, and I still wasn’t going to get any sleep.” She managed to wean Andrew at night, but all that meant was that, instead of nursing him back to sleep, Phillips was standing at his bedside, rubbing his back and murmuring sleepy phrases: “It’s dark. The birds are asleep. The animals are asleep. The sun is sleeping…”

Phillips’ attempts to program her little boy’s subconscious even extended to creating a sleep book — Mom wrote the text and her wakeful tot drew the pictures. The main character was a boy named, ahem, Andrew who woke up one night and, finding that everyone and everything was asleep, decided to go back to sleep himself. Then he woke up in the morning, and the sun was shining, and he had a happy mommy. Andrew loved the book. But he didn’t take the hint.

Finally, not long after Andrew’s third birthday, Phillips stumbled on the magic button when they bought Andrew his own digital clock. “We put a big number 7 on his wall and told him that when the first number on his clock said 7, he could get up.” Exactly why this worked, Phillips can’t say for sure. Her theory (parents of night wakers have lots of theories) is that Andrew was ready and the clock was just the motivation he needed to become more self- sufficient in the middle of the night.

Other parents have had similar experiences of “overnight” success, often after many months or even a couple of years of frustration. Teagan’s turnaround still amazes Heather Drewett. “In the space of a week, shortly after her second birthday, Teagan went from waking four times a night to sleeping 12 hours,” says the Burlington, Ont., mother of two. This miraculous change coincided with Drewett’s fifth attempt at nighttime weaning. “The first four times were disastrous, but this time was different. She was angry with me for the first two nights. I was offering her crackers and water instead of the breast.” But perhaps Teagan was ready for the change. On the third night, she actually wanted a drink of water instead of asking to nurse when she woke up.

Karen and Mark Julien of St. Catharines, Ont., got help from — wait for it — a fish tank. They bought the aquarium because Adam, two at the time, had expressed interest in having a pet. “The tank had an automatic light that could be set to come on at a certain time,” Karen explains. “We set it to come on at 7 a.m. and told Adam he could get out of bed if the light was on.” At that point, Adam’s night waking was down to a dull roar — twice a night — and the gimmick seemed to help him get over the hump, though not instantly. “The first few nights, he would come in and I would say, ‘Is the light on?’” Mark remembers. “When he’d say no, I’d say, ‘Well then, go back to bed.’” Adam eventually accepted this arrangement and before long he was staying in bed. “I think the key was that he had the cognitive skills to understand what we wanted,” Karen says. “He also stopped napping around that time, which seemed to make a difference.”

Jennifer Floris of London, Ont., seven months pregnant and contemplating the prospect of getting up with two little ones, bought her two-year-old daughter, Sophie, a night light and a soft doll named Patsy. “I told her that Patsy would go to bed with her and if Patsy woke up in the night, she should say, ‘It’s OK. It’s nighttime. You need to go back to sleep.’” This didn’t work like magic, but it seemed to set Sophie on a new road. She soon went from three wakings to two, which gave Floris a glimmer of hope. In two weeks, it was down to one. “I thought, ‘I can deal with one a night.’”

For parents who endure night waking until it stops on its own, two ideas are key. In the absence of an instant solution, they must find a way to cope. They also need to understand that part of the night-waking problem is agonizing about not being able to make it go away. Kristin Marshall’s turning point came during a visit to her grandmother’s house when her first child, Jesse, now 13, was about a year and a half old. “Apart from being tired because he was waking up several times a night, usually in distress, we were really struggling with the feeling that we should be able to fix what was going on,” says the mother of five from Nanoose Bay, BC. Jesse had been waking frequently and spending time in his parents’ bed. But Marshall and her husband weren’t sure they wanted Jesse in with them permanently, so there was a lot of back and forth between rooms. At Grandma’s summer cabin, there was only one guest bed and no crib, so mother and son slept together. “It was the best sleep I’d had in months,” Marshall says. “Jesse slept in our bed from then on.” Bed sharing didn’t stop Jesse’s night waking, which continued until he was three, but it became easier to deal with. “Having him stay in our bed completely removed my stress and took away the feeling that I had to fix this.”

Rock bottom for Matt James and his wife, Sandra, was when Bronwyn, now four, was between six and eight months of age and waking every 40 minutes. The Toronto couple also tried sleep training, and after a few tough nights it worked — Bronwyn discovered her thumb — but only for a month. “Then Bronwyn got sick, stopped sucking her thumb, and it was back to square one,” explains James. “We just could not see doing it all over again.”

Bronwyn would not sleep through regularly until she was three. The breakthrough came well before that, however, when Matt and Sandra accepted that they would have to find a way to live with Bronwyn’s sleeping pattern, rather than drive themselves crazy trying to change it. “One of the best pieces of advice we got was to get a mattress and put it on the floor beside her bed,” he says. “We spent a lot of nights there. She still woke up a lot, but it was much easier to deal with it. We could get her back to sleep more quickly with less effort.” The mattress on the floor was soon replaced by a big-girl bed, where Matt and Sandra would take turns crashing with Bronwyn. Someone else suggested taking the clock out of Bronwyn’s room. That kept them from watching the minutes tick by and thinking, “It’s been 45 minutes! When is she going to sleep?”

For the small number of parents whose kids continue night waking well into school age, being able to accept what they can’t change takes on long-term value. Eight-year-old Madison still isn’t really sleeping through the night, although it’s no longer a big issue for her parents. Madison’s mom, Cynthia Prelle of Newmarket, Ont., says she and her partner went through it all — multiple wakings, an abortive attempt at sleep training, having Madison come into their bed, sleeping in Madison’s room. When she turned six, they moved her into a room with her sister, “who could sleep through a freight train,” and stopped lying down with her at bedtime. “It helped in that she would go to sleep by herself,” says Prelle, but she continued to wake at night and come to her parents’ room. “About a year ago, there was a change. She would wake up, but not come in to us. We’ve just had to accept that she’s a light sleeper.” Prelle says that she hears her daughter get up some nights, often going to the bathroom, but about half the time Madison seems to sleep through. “At least, I don’t hear anything.”

Anthony,* nine, still sleeps on a duvet in his parents’ room some nights, says his mom, Rita Decarlo of Antigonish, NS. “It tends to happen in clusters. He’ll do it every night for a week and then nothing for three weeks.” Anthony, a long-term night waker, actually did sleep through the night, in his own room, from age six to eight, but then he started waking up again and coming into his parents’ room. That’s when the duvet came out. “We don’t consider it a problem. He won’t be doing this forever, I’m sure.”

That the end will come sooner or later is one of the few things parents of night wakers can count on. They can also rest assured that they are not alone. So if you’re up walking the floor or scrunching over to make room in your bed, know that, somewhere out there, other parents are doing the same thing.

* Names changed by request.