Hi Dr Justin
My name is SB and I have a 13 month old son who just won’t settle. He won’t sleep in his own cot. If I do get him down I am lucky to get a hour. I made the mistake of nursing him before bed and now he won’t go down with out it but worse now he just won’t sleep at all in his cot. Day time sleep he refuses to go in his cot so he sleeps on me. Since we moved in our new house it’s gotten worse. I don’t know what to do? I have tried settling techniques but they don’t work and I have gone to a place called possum cottage and all they gave me was the same settling techniques. Every night I try and it’s the same thing.
Babies and toddlers who won’t sleep drive parents crazy, and it’s an issue that everyone faces at some point in their lives. When babies are tired they become stressed and cry. Their appetite can often be reduced. And their health can suffer.
My 13-month-old won’t sleep
Mums (and some dads) end up exhausted, stressed, and cranky. As parents we become highly reactive, and struggle to be at our best. When we’re tired, research shows we are more likely to be punitive towards our children.
In short – and as you already know – kids need sleep for their wellbeing and for our sanity.
So what can you do?
There are two basic considerations I’ll mention before getting into some specifics that may be helpful:
My first recommendation is always to check with a GP for medical concerns. Sometimes babies won’t sleep because they’re sick, or because of allergies, or some other health reason. It may be unlikely, but it’s worth being sure.
Second, you have tried various settling techniques. I have a personal dislike for things like controlled crying – it just doesn’t sit well with me and when I’ve tried it with some of my five kids, I’ve felt sick to my stomach going through it. Some research tells us it’s not doing them any harm, but I have some concerns with that research. I’m not convinced they’ve measured the right things, and I’m not satisfied that we have enough research anyway. Tracey from Evolutionary Parenting has posted a great review of this research, and I recommend you check it out for a better understanding. Obviously at this point, these techniques haven’t worked for you anyway.
What babies and toddlers need
In your email you’ve indicated that you have just moved house. I suspect that this is playing, at the very least, some role in your baby’s unhappiness.
When it comes to sleeping, babies do best with predictability.
Now that you’re established in your new environment, I recommend you try the following things:
- Establish a routine: this may include dinner, bath, teeth, toilet, stories, songs, cuddles, lights out.
- Use white noise (like a fan directed away from the baby) to minimise distractions from other places in the house.
- Continue laying with your baby in the short term until the routine is bedding in. Then slowly (over a period of a month or so) move away bit by bit. Perhaps instead of lying with your baby you might sit on the floor and pat him off. A week later you may sit in a chair a metre from the bed. A week later (or two) you may move closer to the door.
- Make sure that your little boy is tired, but not over-tired when he goes to bed. If he’s not tired at all, you’re fighting a losing battle. If he is too tired, he’ll fight and be irritable.
- As impossible (and patronising) as this sounds, you also need to somehow be calm and rested when he goes down. If you are anxious and stressed, he’ll feed off that. Emotions are contagious, and if he feels pressure from you, he’ll be less likely to comfortably settle.
Ultimately, all kids need sleep, and they will get it. It’s just a question of when, and how it impacts on us.
I love the work from Jo Ryan, founder of Baby Bliss. She has some terrific ideas for getting toddlers to sleep. You may wish to check out her books and seminars and you may find some useful information there.
Finally, go slowly. Reduce pressure on him and on yourself. You’ll likely find that it will be a case of two steps forward and one step backward. Some days it will be four steps back and no steps forward. But with patience he will grow out of it (and you’ll grow through it – or because of it).
At the risk of being repetitive, I can’t emphasise enough that this might be something you simply accept for the time being. In so doing, you will feel less stress and anxiety and pressure. This means he will sense that you’re ok with things. And ironically, when there is less pressure and stress about him going to sleep, he’ll start to settle and sleep better.