Getting up throughout the night with an infant can really wear you out, but there’s a special suckiness to having an older child who slept well for a while, then started waking up multiple times a night. It’s like your brain and body get calibrated to sleeping all night, and getting wrenched out of that routine makes the effects of sleep deprivation all the worse. Or maybe you just get soft. Or perhaps it’s the unfairness of it that makes it seem more bitter – “I thought we were done with this!”
Sadly though, lots of children seem to go through this. Getting a baby to the point of sleeping through the night isn’t a one-time achievement, but actually the first in a series of parenting challenges regarding sleep. Preschoolers can be delightful and amazing as they start to really become individual people who understand how the world works, but all that independence and knowledge can also lead to night time waking and fears about going to bed.
In our case, we’re facing the aftermath of a nasty illness that broke up our kid’s sleep for many nights in a row. One night when she was coughing every minute or so, I finally just brought her downstairs and we watched TV for a while. As you can imagine, she has extremely fond and vivid memories of this occasion. It would be awfully tempting for her to just wake all the way up when she has a brief awakening in the middle of the night, and call me to see if we can do it again. In addition, it can just become a habit to have a parent come when the child wakes, and they begin to rely on intervention to get back to sleep, and continue to do so even when they’re well again.
So, what can be done? Sure, some people will tell you that the answer is to shut the door and let ‘em cry, however long it takes. Y’all know that I don’t really buy the hysteria over possible brain damage and permanent, severe psychological problems allegedly caused by leaving children to cry to sleep. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good, go-to idea. The good news when it comes to preschoolers is that you can reason with them to a certain degree – an option unavailable with infants.
Elizabeth Pantley pursued this course most sensibly in writing her excellent book The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. She interviewed children and asked them what approaches would inspire them to sleep all night and not call on their parents. I’ve taken one of the top answers and put my own spin on it to solve our preschool sleep problems.
What answer is that? Brazen, unapologetic bribery. Most kids said they’d roll over and go back to sleep on their own quite happily if they got a small toy in return once morning came. So here’s what we do at our house. At bedtime, the child gets a ticket (I use Avery printable business cards that I bought for some other purpose long ago). The two sides represent the two options the child can “spend” the ticket on. She can call me in the middle of the night, and turn in her ticket then (that side is shown at the top of this post). Or she can keep it all night and turn it in for an item from the prize bucket:
If she’s actually sick, or the power goes out, or something like that, a visit from Mom is free.
I like the ticket plan because it gives the child something they have to give up to get a visit, which gives it a bit more oomph (we tend to value things we’re asked to give up more highly than things of equal value we have an opportunity to obtain). At the same time, I frame it as spending the ticket, a value-free description. Losing the ticket isn’t a punishment, but the child opting to trade the potential toy for a parental visit, if she decides that’s worth more to her. It keeps everything very positive and fun.
For the record, we had great success with this idea with Chloe, and we decided to introduce it with Claire as she began recovering from her cough. It has worked like a charm, and she’s been sleeping all night without intervention ever since her cough calmed down! Once our current prize bucket is empty, we’ll switch to turning in the ticket to get a sticker on a chart, which will eventually lead to getting a toy, and then once that toy is earned, let the system go. There might be some complaining, but by then she’ll be in such a rhythm of good sleep, it should hold. And I’m not afraid to drop $10 at the Dollar Tree again if she has troubles again in the future!