Fatherly Advice: Toddler Sleep Regression is the Worst, but Relatives Suck Too

This too shall pass. You might be insane by the time it does.

“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly parenting advice column by the experts at Fatherly. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email advice@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. We’re far too busy for that nonsense.

 

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Hi, Fatherly

I need help because my toddler won’t sleep. She just transitioned into her big girl bed and her favorite part about it is that she can just get out of it and come into our room. Every night is a struggle to get her to sleep and an even bigger struggle to get her to stay in bed. My wife and I are losing our minds. Any suggestions?

Neil
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

***

Ah, yes, the good old toddler-bed sleep regression. Of all the sleep issues parents face, it’s the most aggravating because it feels like a step backward. And that’s precisely what it is — albeit a very predictable one. Luckily, with a bit of focus and discipline, you can make sure that this miserable episode ends quickly. The key? Stop thinking of bedtime as the single moment every day when a child gets into bed and snuggles down. Bedtime is a process. Trust the process.

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Hopefully, you already have some sort of bedtime routine or ritual in place. If you don’t, you should develop one. An ideal routine will include a series of cascading cues that help a kid orient themselves to the fact that sleep is on the way. First, turn off all screens and mobile devices. This eliminates stimulating noise and blue light. Next, dim the lights if you have the capability. After that, it’s time for pajamas and hygiene and some good old snuggle time with books and quiet songs. To turn the routine into a ritual, you can add a moment of prayer, meditation, or a gentle game, phrase or story that is the final cue it’s time to lay down. All of this acts as a mental corridor leading your kid to one place only: sleep.

But even with the most solid ritual, some kids will fight sleep and get out of bed. If your kid is having trouble staying in bed from the outset, try a fading technique. Put a chair next to her bed and sit as she falls asleep. Make sure that you keep interaction and your own frustration to a minimum. Direct her towards sleep, no matter what she says. As she becomes used to this, move your chair further away for a few nights, and further still until you are outside her doorway in the hall.

If she is coming into your room in the middle of the night, be as quiet and gentle as possible and walk her back to her bed. Again, try not to engage in questions or requests. Try to develop a phrase that you can repeat to her like a mantra. Something like “Uh oh! It’s not morning yet. Time to go back to bed.” Tell her you love her and then leave. You may have to do this many times. Eventually, she’ll get the picture and stay put.

Then it will be smooth sailing until she has the flu or you go on a vacation to another time zone or daylight savings comes and you have to do it all again. But at least you’ll have a foundation. It does get easier. Keep that in your mind and try not to lose it.

 

Fatherly,

I have a one-year-old girl that I obviously adore. I’m of the mindset that there’s nothing I won’t do for her. I’m always there for her. I hold her when she cries. But my mother-in-law keeps telling me that I’m going to spoil my daughter by giving her too much attention. Is that true?

Kevin
Oahu, Hawaii

***

Kevin, your mother-in-law is wrong (and maybe kind of a jerk). There is no such thing as spoiling a baby. Withholding attention or cuddles or kisses will not somehow make her more resilient and self-sufficient in the future. Babies thrive when they experience a connection and bond with their parents. So, please, don’t worry about it. Also, prepare to stand your ground going forward. Being responsive to children doesn’t spoil them. You can be responsive to your daughter forever and, if you don’t model bad behavior, she’ll likely grow up to be a well-adjusted woman.

I get your mother-in-law’s anxiety. The world does not need another entitled, needy whiner. I agree with that sentiment even if it wreaks of the “uphill both ways” egotism of the aged. Let’s assume that your mother-in-law has read one too many trend pieces about Millenials — and, for whatever reason, found them credible. That’s fine. Talk to her about how you want to make your daughter a hard worker and plan to demonstrate that virtue for her daily.

That said, you don’t want to toughen your kid up and you shouldn’t give into that sort of language. You want to instill in your child prosocial behaviors like sharing by showing those qualities in yourself. That requires listening and being present. The truth is that a lot of kids with parents who are hard on them become self-sufficient in bad ways and emotionally brittle. Successful people are generally good at dealing with others (or totally psychopathic, but that’s a different issue).

Children learn by watching their parents. If you don’t want your daughter to be a selfish, materialistic, entitled person, then you should work on banishing those qualities from your own life. Ask Grandma to do the same. The old grump will probably be all for it.

 

Hey Fatherly,

I’m going to a small family reunion this summer and I’ll be forced to spend some time with a couple of rough, tatted-up cousins. One has done some jail time for possession. Last time we went they got drunk and started using the N-word. I have two kids under 8. How do I talk about these guys with them?

Concerned Dad
Asheville, North Carolina

***

I feel you. At a family reunion a few years ago I sat on a distant relative’s cooler and he was so pissed that he threw a water bottle at me. Luckily, my kids were super young and playing with cousins so I didn’t have to explain that someone had peed in their genetic pool. That said, since that reunion, we’ve made it our policy to frontload the kids as much as possible about the family troublemakers that we might encounter. We also give them permission and plenty of leeway to bug out if things are getting hairy.

Happily, having kids offers a fine excuse to create distance. Nothing works better than a “we need to go back to the hotel for nap time.” If it’s bad, just leave. Life is too short to spend any time hanging out with racists.

Whether or not it makes sense to start talking about the historical and social implications of the N-word depends on your kids’ emotional maturity and, frankly, your race. That’s a hard script to write for someone else. I will say this though, you don’t want your kids to listen to you have a conversation with someone dropping the N-word and not calling them on it. So, if you’re going to hang out with some racist relatives, you are also going to have to speak up. Will this lead to unpleasantness? Quite possibly. Should that dissuade you from modeling good behavior for your children? Of course not. Your kids likely listen to what you tell them, but they also listen to what you say to others.

Show restraint. Show empathy. Show toughness. If all else fails, show yourself out.

Finally, help your kids understand that people change. Don’t go in believing conflict is a foregone conclusion. Time has passed and maybe these cousins have changed their ways. It’s good to show your kids that you approach the family with kindness and empathy — just like Dom Toretto from the Fast and Furious films. After all, they’re family. For better or worse.

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