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One of the most daunting moments in my four-plus years of parenting thus far was the first time I had to tackle bedtime alone, with both kids. (Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous to more experienced moms—don’t judge!) I’d been very lucky—my husband was almost always home before 7 p.m. to help with our then-three-year-old, while I was usually stuck on the couch nursing our newborn all evening. But eventually, one of you wants to go out at night, and you can’t find a sitter. Or someone has to work late unexpectedly. I needed to be able to manage double bedtime on my own.
I knew how to deal with the witching hours, how to defuse a raging threenager’s tantrums and how to function (albeit just barely) at 6 a.m. after a typical night of broken sleep, feeding an infant every two hours. And yet, I still couldn’t figure out an evening routine that worked for us. The baby usually needed to eat exactly when I should have been making dinner. Or I’d feed the baby, leave him snoozing in his bassinet, then hustle upstairs to put the three-year-old to bed, and inevitably, in the middle of bedtime stories, the baby would start wailing, interrupting us exactly when I wanted to give my older son some one-on-one attention. My attempts always seemed to end in meltdowns: two crying, tired kids and a teary, frustrated mom.
Logically, I knew this must be doable. Single parents manage it. Moms whose partners work night shifts probably have it down to a science. Why couldn’t I figure it out? So I canvassed my parent friends for suggestions and started trying a few different methods.
First of all, I learned the level of difficulty of double bedtime waxes and wanes—it really depends on the age of your youngest child, the number of kids and the age gap. It will get easier and it’ll also get harder. Then it will get easier again. For example, a cluster-feeding or inconsolable newborn who wants to nurse straight through your three-year-old’s dinner, bath and bedtime routine is really rough. But a sleepy infant who will happily snooze in a stretchy wrap on your chest while you make dinner or do bath and stories with your toddler is easy-peasy. (I mean, you’ll still feel exhausted and touched-out with multiple children taking up lap space, but you’ll survive!) Once your infant can sit up, and you can safely do a bath and stories with both kids at the same time, the whole evening routine gets a lot more predictable and less likely to go off the rails.
I’ve also noticed a huge improvement as my first-born gets older. At three years old, he really wasn’t patient enough to simply look at books quietly in his room while I dealt with the baby, as some other moms had not-so-helpfully suggested. But now that he’s four and has started school, he’s much more co-operative and amenable to making a bedtime game plan, like promising to play independently without barging into the nursery. (He often wants to help with the baby’s bedtime routine—which is another option—but I find it way too stimulating for the baby, who is transfixed by his older brother.) As my eldest matures and becomes a much more reasonable and delightful little human, I can trust him to amuse himself for longer periods of time, and being outnumbered by my own children isn’t as scary as it used to be. I’m no expert, but I have tried several different approaches and made many mistakes along the way. Here’s what I’ve learned.
If your baby isn’t overtired yet and is happy enough to just watch the evening’s proceedings, drag a bouncer chair or Exersaucer into the bathroom and bedroom while you do the toddler’s bath and bedtime, or wear the baby in a carrier or wrap, as mentioned previously. Also, I’m sure many a mom of two has nursed her newborn while sitting on the toilet, supervising an older kid’s bath. Multi-tasking at its finest! (You may need a bouncer chair or a safe, clean place to put the baby when it’s time to rinse shampoo and haul your eldest out of the tub—that’s a two-handed task.) Personally, I was still in the habit of snuggling with my three-year-old until he fell asleep, so we often had to arrive at a compromise after the stories were done: Instead of cuddles, I’d pull an armchair up to his bedside and nurse his little brother in the dark. This kept the baby quiet (ish) until my older son drifted off, and then I’d sneak out of the room with the baby.
For the first few months, my youngest didn’t really have an actual bedtime. Like many newborns, he just nursed and napped in two-hour intervals all day and all evening, and then came upstairs with me around 9:30 or 10 p.m. and slept in my room in a bassinet. But when he was around six months, we found more of a daytime nap rhythm and moved him into his own room and crib, and his bedtime naturally shifted to be earlier. (Translation: He started losing his shit around 6:45 p.m. every day, which told me he needed an earlier, consistent bedtime.) Sticking to a schedule helped a ton. I could nurse the baby at six, feed them both dinner at 6:30, and then rush the baby into his crib at sevenish (with no bath), before running my eldest’s bath at 7:30 and then doing his bedtime at eight. (If this sounds exhausting, I won’t lie—it is. But it gets better.)
If I really need to deal with the baby, but I want to be sure my older son is safe and not getting into trouble, I’ve decided it’s OK to let the TV play babysitter for 30 minutes. I don’t love using screen time for this, but since it doesn’t happen every night, I’m cool with it. I prefer to Google Chromecast a Netflix show to our living room TV, because I can control it with my phone from another room, and I know he’ll be glued to whatever he’s watching for at least 22 minutes. If I’m still stuck upstairs with the baby, I can authorize a second show to buy myself more time. (Pro tip: Floogals and Super Wings are great for their shorter episodes.) You could also set up your toddler in their bedroom with a tablet or laptop, if you want them to be upstairs or closer to wherever you are with the baby. Just be sure to disable the autoplay function, or they’ll start a new episode right when it’s time for lights out, and a screen time-related tantrum is inevitable.
Eventually, I decided to employ a sometimes controversial strategy: sleep training the baby to fall asleep independently in his crib, instead of staying with him until he drifted off. (Nursing to sleep and transferring him to the bassinet stopped working somewhere around the five-month mark—he always woke up the moment I put him down.) And I definitely couldn’t rock him to sleep in a quiet, dark room while also supervising a boisterous toddler who didn’t want to leave my side. I needed the baby to be able to go down on his own, somewhere safe. We started out with a fairly gentle, gradual sleep training method, helping him fall asleep in his bassinet by stroking his forehead and patting his tummy while he sucked on a soother and listened to a white noise machine. After about a week, we moved him to his crib (but kept the white noise and soother) and let him settle on his own—no staying in the room. We did a quick check-in every five minutes (lullaby and a back rub, but no picking up, even if he was crying or fussing). Now he knows that this consistent sequence signals bedtime: PJs, sleep sack, two books and then we wave “night night” to the backyard before I lower the blackout blind and turn on the noise machine. I sing the same lullaby before putting him into the crib awake. He might cry for a few minutes as he rolls around and gets comfy, but it’s usually for less than five or 10 minutes. Then I’m totally freed up to focus on my older son.
As a last resort, on a couple of occasions, the three of us would snuggle up in “the big bed” in my bedroom. My toddler thought it was fun and special, the baby would fall asleep in my arms after nursing, and I made sure I had my earbuds and phone, so I could watch something in the dark once the kids were asleep. When my husband got home, he’d carry our eldest back to his own room. It wasn’t the best bedtime routine, but it wasn’t the worst, either. It stopped working, however, once the baby got older and more alert. He now finds his big brother endlessly fascinating and hilarious, and there’s no way he can fall asleep in a family bed with all of us anymore. But in hindsight, it was kind of nice and cozy while it lasted. Many of these phases—both the ones that make you nostalgic for cuddles and the challenging ones that make you sweat and pull your hair out—don’t last long. I’m fully aware that our current, hard-won bedtime routine will be upended as soon as the baby, now 17 months, learns to climb out of the crib and can no longer be contained so easily. But I’ll wait to worry about this next phase until it happens.