My son did not love being a stationary baby. We tried to stimulate him with all manner of dangling, dunking, squeaking, creaking, twisting, and turning toys, but he was not truly happy until he began to crawl. From that moment on, he was in his element — he even learned to climb before he could walk.
Once in preschool, at age two and a half, he was out in the preschool yard when he disappeared. “Ian!” they called, frantically. “I’m here!” his squeaky little voice called down.
The tree was enormous. The branches started at five feet. No child in the ten-year history of that preschool had ever climbed that tree. To this day, nobody is entirely sure how he did it.
Ian loved playing, crawling, building, and climbing; what he didn’t love was sleeping.
Since Ian was our first child, we read every book imaginable on the topic of sleep and pretty much did what they said. While he was in a crib, it wasn’t so bad. He’d fuss for a while then out of sheer boredom, he’d fall asleep.
But soon he figured out how to climb out of his crib, so we bought a tent for the top. Two days later, he wiggled his tiny fingers into the zipper head holder and unzipped the thing. When we foiled him with a special zipper, he dismantled the crib bar by bar. We had hoped to keep that crib for our next child, but all that was left was a pile of sticks.
Enter the big boy bed and then the real trouble began.
I’d love to tell you that it was never a battle of wills, but sometimes it was. Then one especially difficult night it occurred to me there were two parts of Ian — the part that was growing tired and the part that could not stop playing.
The next day I began writing Putting the Monkeys to Bed, which is a story about a boy named Sam whose rambunctious stuffed monkeys keep him awake at night with Ping-Pong games and silly Alphabet songs.
The monkeys helped me understand that this was Ian’s problem and not mine. Of course, as a mom, every problem your kid has is your problem too. Even so, the more I began to disengage, the better things got.
What always got me roped back in were the questions. I loved hearing what was cycling through his head as he tried to wind down, and I incorporated a few silly ones into the book.
And since I am perhaps too conscientious, I felt the need to explain it all to him right then and there. The night I told him I would answer his questions in the morning and he said: “What if I forget?” really got to me.
Of course, I reassured him that I would remember. But I wondered if he was really asking what if this moment doesn’t come again? That was the mystery of Ian. There was always more going on inside of him than met the eye.
Here are some of the things that helped Ian go to sleep.
- A short ritual. A bath. Get in your PJs. Brush your teeth. Read one calming book.
- Calm, firm limits. Stay in bed, even if you can’t sleep. Though we also tried stay in your room, even if you can’t sleep, which was an easier limit to enforce.
- Benign neglect. The key seemed to be not getting too vested in the results. Be consistent, but not hyper-vigilant. Wear the whole process like a loose suit of clothes.
- Start early. Try to start the process early enough in the evening that you still have your wits about you. It’s very difficult to have patience when you are so tired you’re ready to collapse.
- No electronics. Computer sites, apps, iPads, phones, laptops, whatever. Great armies of adults spend their entire careers trying to keep your child from powering down.
- A lot of exercise. This really helped. But he needed a lot of exercise — six or eight hours a day.
- A beloved book. A favorite book helps too! I hope Putting the Monkeys to Bed will be that book for kids.
What have been your secrets to sleep time success? We’d love to know! Share with us in the comments below.