Q&A: How do I change the bedtime routine?

Laura writes:

"My 2.5 year old son has always co-slept with us.  (Except for 2weeks or so where he decided he wanted to sleep in his own bed, and then we would have to get up at least one or two times a night to get him back to sleep.  When he came back to our bed, it was so much easier that we didn't push it).

So the usual routine starts at 7:30 pm: pajamas, brush teeth, 3 books (less if they are long) and then lights out. If he has a bath, we start at 7 pm. We pat his back to get him to go to sleep, which is something we started when he was 2 because they do it in daycare.  He used to fall asleep by about 8 or a little after, but this has gotten progressively later and later.  Now he usually doesn't fall asleep until 9 or 9:30, and sometimes later!

The other problem is that for the past month, I have fallen asleep with him when i was putting him to bed (I lie down with him while I am patting him).

So I never get any me time, or any time with my husband while my son isn't there.  My husband has had primary care giver duties since I went back to work full-time last November (he works from home), and he is starting to feel really overwhelmed.

We used to have a 6 am wake up time for him, but that got progressively later and later.  My husband wants to let him sleep in,

I want to figure out how to change the routine so that my son doesn't need us there to fall asleep, so that I can have some "me time" back.  We would like to transition him to his own bed by the time he is 3, but I would be willing to start earlier if it meant that he would sleep on his own.

I would love some help with this - I feel like this is the root of a lot of other issues that are coming up lately, and I am hoping that if we can address this, other things will also improve."

Oh, I completely feel your pain. I remember waking up every night at 1 am on the floor next to my older son's crib, drooling. I think a huge part of the problem is that he's 2 1/2.

Remember the theory by Ames & Ilg (of the Gessel Institute of Human Development) about equilibrium and disequilibrium? They basically observed that toddlers/preschoolers would go through phases of equilibrium, when they're learning all the time, are realtively even-keeled, and are pleasant and cheerful and fluent both emotionaly and physically. This seems to last about 6 months, aand happens right around the year mark.

Then they'd go through a period of disequlibrium, when they were cranky and disorganized and uncordiated. These were the times kids tripped and fell a lot, started stuttering out of the blue, and developed sleep problems even if they hadn't had them before. This phase also seems to last around 6 months, and happens at the half year.

So I think that your idea that his going-to-sleep issues are at the root of his other problems may be somewhat on, but it may also be that all of the stuff going on is just symptomatic of his being 2 1/2. (If you meant you and your husband, not your son, were having issues because of the sleep stuff, then you're probably dead on about that.)

The bad news is that I don't think you're going to have enormous success in changing his sleep routine at this point. It's the same idea as not trying to change anything during the 4-month or 9-month or 18-month sleep regression. e's just got so much else going on right now, and is so off-kilter in general, that trying to change the sleep could completely blow up in your face. You'll probably have way more success if you wait until he's closer to 3. (I think many parents will agree that 3 is just far easier than 2 1/2 in general.) I think getting him to fall asleep on his own is kind of a pipe dream at this point.

But I think there's plenty of wiggle room in his schedule to give you and your husband a little ease so you're both not going nuts wth no time to yourselves. (Together alone I can't do much about, unfortunately.)

First, I would accept the fact that his sleep time is actually 9 or 9:30. And starting at 7 or 7:30 means you're spending two full hours getting him to sleep. I remember that phase, and it was unbearable. Just thinking about starting it made me want to cry. What would happen if you started at 8:30 instead? If he's not going to fall asleep until 9:30 anyway, then your keeping the consistent start time isn't doing anything, so at least give yourself a little less work by starting later.

Then, I would alternate who gets him to sleep. This means every other night one of you gets some alone time, and the other one gets the shaft. (Because the likelihood that you're going to fall asleep while getting him to sleep is pretty high.) But that means that you're sharing the load a little, so there's going to be less resentment. And resentment is the last thing you need at this point on top of the going-to-sleep stuff.

The other thing I might do is look at the the morning schedule your husband is working. I suspect that he's letting your son sleep in because your husband needs a little "him time" in the morning before your son wakes up, and that's totally valid. (Those sweet beautiful minutes of alone time are worth gold.) If he's not, and he just thinks your son deserves to sleep in, then maybe you guys want to rethink that. It's possible that waking him up earlier will make him go to sleep sooner (in which case you could start the bedtime routine at the same time and he'll fall asleep earlier). Of course, its also possible that waking him up earlier won't make him go to sleep earlier at all. So if you decide to go that route, give it a good 3-4 days and then assess what's going on.

Also, I'd check in with the dyacare to find out what the kids are doing all day. I think a lot of people who are at home with a 2 1/2-year-old feel like their main survival tool is making sure the kid gets tons and tons of exercise in the morning. So much that the kid is just flat worn out before naptime. It seems like that exercise in the morning helps work out some of the negative symptoms of the disequilibrium. So if your daycare could be giving him some more running-around time (or dancing or pogo-sticking or whatever they do) in the morning, encourage them to do it.

I would NOT try to get him into his own bed right now. I think that would put you in the same position as the questioner last week (who was pregnant and trying to switch beds and potty train at the same time) of getting into a really unstable situation. If you think about it, bedtime is pretty consistent right now. It sucks big time, but at least it's consistent.

I don't know what's making you want him in his own bed "by the time he is 3" (I'm guessing some externally-motivated timeline), but I think your life physically, emotionally, and logistically will be easier if you can adjust that to "when he's around 3." It's just going to be soooo much easier to get him to buy in to going to sleep on his own once he goes back into a phase of equilibrium. 

Also, if you guys have any ease financially at all, sit down and think about what you could outsource. If your husband's overwhelmed, and you're working full-time, and your son isn't going to sleep with ease, then finding some time or space by outsourcing is going to be worth it for you as a family. Cleaning, food prep, laundry, etc. can all be outsourced at various levels of expense, and will help you guys get through this tough phase.

Anyone else? Tales of bedtimes stretching out to 2+ hours? Night after night of waking up in the morning, still fully-clothed and in your child's bed? Hours of screaming and trying to keep your kid in his or her room because you tried to sleep-train at this age? Getting kicked in the kidneys when your kid was in your bed?