The Diary of a Night Nanny – sleep training a 3 year old who has never slept through!

Diary of a Night Nanny

The story so far:  I spent last week teaching Jack, aged 10 months, to sleep through the night.  Mille is three years old and also struggles with disrupted sleep, ending up in her parents’ bed more often than not.  This week it is her turn.

Monday night (continued): Millie woke 32 times in 50 minutes between 10pm and 11pm before she fell asleep.  Joanna was exhausted and emotionally wrung out, but really pleased that it had finally worked.  However, Millie is likely to wake again during the night and we must reinforce the lesson she has begun to learn.  I always explain to mothers that babies and toddlers who wake more frequently will have more opportunities to learn the lesson than those who only wake once, consequently achieving success more quickly.

Millie stays asleep for just over three hours before waking again.  She cries out in her sleep and I leap to her bedroom door just in case she gets up.  “Mummy!” she calls out sleepily, so I go in to soothe her.  Her eyes flicker anxiously as she registers who I am.  She is sitting up in bed, looking as if she is about to get out, but I pre-empt her by putting my hands on her shoulders and gently easing her back down her bed so she doesn’t have any option except to lie down again.  I straighten her duvet, put my hand on her forehead and repeat the mantra she has heard so many times already tonight, “Sleep tight, see you in the morning.”  She looks a little uncertain and whimpers quietly before her eyes close and she falls back to sleep.  She obviously remembers the lesson she learnt earlier in the night.  I wait outside her bedroom door for a few minutes until I am certain she is dropping from REM sleep to non-REM sleep, then I return to my room.  Joanna hasn’t woken, nor does she need to.

There are three of us in this training process: me, Joanna, and Millie’s brain.  Millie’s brain has got into the habit of feeling that Millie cannot go to sleep without her mother’s intervention so whenever Millie completes a sleep cycle and comes to near-wakefulness, she needs Joanna to help her, and now that Millie is old enough, she will go straight to Joanna’s bed to find this intervention.  However, Millie’s brain also knows that Millie needs twelve hours’ uninterrupted sleep in order to function properly; if she doesn’t get it she will begin to lack concentration skills which will impact on her learning ability; she will become anti-social as she won’t have the patience to develop friendships, particularly with her peers at school who will not be as forgiving as her parents or teachers; and her brain needs to have its cycles of continuous REM and non-REM sleep in order to process the information Millie is taking on board every day of her life.  So Millie’s brain is also doing its part in this sleep training process and supporting the new behaviour that Joanna and I are teaching Millie.  This is why Millie falls asleep so easily in the middle of the night having had such a struggle to get to sleep earlier in the night.

There are only a couple of further disruptions during the course of the night, and each time I don’t need to do anything more than place a reassuring hand on Millie’s body through the duvet, before she falls back to sleep.  It is as if each time she completes a sleep cycle, moving from her deep non-REM sleep up through layers of consciousness to her lighter, REM sleep, she is less conscious each time, allowing her brain to draw her easily back down to deep sleep for the next sleep cycle.  Millie wakes up naturally at 7am the following morning.  I hear her moving around in her bed and put my head around the door with a big smile on my face.  “Look at you, you stayed in your own bed all night long.  You clever, clever girl!” I exclaim heartily.  Millie giggles.  She seems to have forgotten all about the previous night’s battle of wills and asks if she can go and see her Mummy.  We open Joanna’s door quietly but Joanna hears us and opens her eyes slowly.  As her eyes focus, I can see her remembering the effort of last night and then, quickly following on from that thought, the realisation that it is morning and Millie isn’t in her bed.  She sits up and opens her arms to Millie, who throws herself across the room into them.  “I slept in my bed, you slept in your bed and Jack slept in his bed all night long!” she announces to her delighted mother.

I go downstairs to make us both a cup of coffee and Joanna, Millie and Jack come to join me.  While the children are having breakfast, Joanna and I discuss the previous night’s events.  “I can’t believe it,” says Joanna.  “I got to the stage last night where I felt it was never going to end.”  She looks at me shamefacedly, “At one point, I hated you for making me go through this, and I hated myself for booking you – isn’t that dreadful?”  I laugh and remind her of the conversations we’d had before we started.  I had told her that it might be a long haul, but I had also explained that it wouldn’t traumatise Millie and would ultimately be for her benefit.  “Oh, yes,” agrees Joanna, “it’s just I was so tired, I felt like a zombie.  And yet, shortly after that, Millie fell asleep and pretty much stayed asleep for the rest of the night.  I was so close to giving up, and yet she was so close to getting it right – it would have been such a shame.”  I tell Joanna that it is quite likely Millie will try to get into her bed again tonight, since new habits take up to five nights to become permanent, but that it won’t be anything like as hard as last night.  Joanna smiles over her cup of coffee.  “I feel better than I have in ages – I can’t remember the last time that I had more than a few hours’ sleep in one stretch.”  I leave her with the Sleep Diary on the kitchen table, and ask her to note any changes in Millie’s behaviour.  The Sleep Diary has been a really useful resource during both Jack and Millie’s training and charts the development for the whole family to see.  On the previous page Millie has drawn a picture of herself sleeping beside her mother.  “Can you draw a picture for me today?”  I ask her.  “What shall I draw?” she replies.  “Draw me a picture of where you are all going to sleep tonight.”  I suggest.  Millie and I grin at each other conspiratorially and I leave the family in peace.

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