When they just don’t sleep…

photo-127As the time logs come in for Mosaic, I’m seeing a variety of family situations and time (and life) challenges. Most women get enough sleep, which is why I found “June’s” situation poignant. I wasn’t pleased with my response to her biggest challenge, so I thought I’d put it out here for better ideas.

June is a single, custodial mother of 3 young kids. June earns good money working for a tech company, and has a reasonable amount of control of her schedule. The kids go to daycare while she’s working. Their father can take them for a few hours at a time, and does for a bit on weekends, but for various reasons, isn’t going to be much of a resource for helping her on her biggest issue.  

Which is this: The kids don’t sleep. The two littlest ones (2-year-old twins), that is. She was in bed from about 10:30-6 or so most nights, which in theory should be adequate, but she was always up at least once with one of the kids, and one night she was up 4 times with them. The twins don’t wake each other up, it’s just that they both wake up at least once during the night and since there are two of them, this starts to add up. They go to bed all right (she invested a lot of time and effort in getting them to go down regularly at 8/8:30), but they do not stay asleep.

This constant sleep interruption is obviously taking its toll on her. She would like to work a few more hours, but the normal approach — split shifts, and work from 9-10:30 pm after the kids go to bed — doesn’t work when she’s so exhausted. So she spends this time in front of the TV or surfing the web instead until she falls asleep.

When we talked, she was starting to do a couple of smart things to manage her energy. She hired a housekeeper for about 9 hours a week to do the cleaning, laundry, lunch-packing, etc. She’s taking a yoga class twice a week during the times the children’s father has them. She normally eats lunch at her desk, so I suggested she force herself to take a 20-minute walk instead. A little bit of fresh air and exercise can perk you up during the day. She can move brainless emails from this lunchtime slot to her TV time at night (just answer a few on the smart phone during commercials). She has enough time to grab an hour-long nap in addition to her yoga class when the kids are with their dad. She did this once during the weekend she logged, and I suggested she make it a regular thing. That’s not the time for paying bills, puttering around the house, etc.

She can also try to go to bed earlier. When it’s impossible to sleep in, you can “sleep in” by getting to bed earlier. She spent 90 minutes to 3 hours on TV or internet at night. Trying to hold it to an hour or so would give her decompression time but also let her log a few more hours in bed before the wake-ups started.

Hopefully, the wake-ups are not a permanent thing. Her 4-year-old was only up once during the week, so presumably the twins will grow out of it too. There will be light at the end of the tunnel. But I spent some time on the phone with June trying to brainstorm ways she could get, say, 1 night every 2 weeks on her own, uninterrupted. She currently doesn’t have to travel for work, but this is something that could happen eventually, so she should be thinking about it anyway.

One option is calling in extended family chits. Again, we’re just trying to get through the next year. While asking people to visit mostly because you want them to lose a night or two of sleep may seem like a big ask, people may be more willing to help than you think. At least a few nights over the next year might be doable. She also has a number of friends, and while, again, it seems like a big ask, people might be willing to do one night.

She could also hire an overnight sitter once every few weeks. June had prioritized outsourcing housework, and with three children in daycare, she already felt like a lot of money was going out the door. But this could be an option every few weeks.

Obviously the big win would be if the 2-year-olds learned to get themselves back to sleep. The problem here is that when you’re so exhausted, lying awake listening to them call for Mommy for an uncertain amount of time is tough. It seems easier to get up, shush them back to sleep, and then go back to bed yourself.

I’m curious if others have suggestions for June on how to cope with this situation, and hopefully start getting more rest. I know I have readers who are single parents, and also readers whose kids don’t sleep well  (and some Venn diagram overlap between the two). What can June do to claw out from exhaustion?

Photo: My 6-year-old snapped this shot while playing with my iPhone while I was out shoveling snow.



21 Responses to When they just don’t sleep…


  1. usha says:

    My daughter was a very bad sleeper. She would be up many times in the night giving me no chance to sleep well. This is what I did – I had her on my bed. I know this is not “accepted” in the West, but that is what helped me. All she wanted to feel my presence at night. Even if she woke up, I did not not have to get up and/or go into another room. Just patting her or feeding her if she was hungry would do the job. Kids will eventually move out of our beds, so having them in until they are 3 or 4 and can communicate/entertain themselves better is a good trade-off.

  2. I don’t want to sound unnecessarily harsh, because I don’t exactly know the situation and all the factors, but it seems that barring unusual circumstances, kids who are 2 should be able to stay in their beds at night. I mean, it’s not like they need to be fed, and I assume they’re not potty-trained, so they don’t need to go to the bathroom.

    I guess it would be helpful to know what she’s doing with them when they wake up and what they’re asking for.

    I think coping strategies for stages of poor sleep are a great idea, of course, but I also am wondering if it’s possible to do something about the poor sleep habits at the age of 2 (When you have a newborn, it’s totally different, and all you can do is use coping strategies! I lived that quite a few times over.)

    • Laura says:

      @The Frugal Girl – yes, most 2-year-olds can stay in their beds and sleep through the night. I’ve had some people email me telling June to look into sleep coaches. I guess sleep is something some kids really have to learn and practice!

  3. Chelsea says:

    My son is also not a great sleeper – he’s always up at least once during the night – and we do a combination of things. I sleep when he sleeps. That means I do not do any mindless TV/internet in the evening after he goes to bed (we’ve had the Olympics on in the evenings before he goes down). I bring him into our bed after his first wake-up. That way both of us get back to sleep ASAP. When I’m home with him, I nap when he naps. That way I can get enough sleep to deal with the wake-ups and get up at 5am to exercise before work. One of the WORST things about long-term disrupted sleep is that – at least in my case – it can cause insomnia even though you are totally exhausted. This is somewhat controversial, but I give myself 15 minutes to fall asleep, and if I’m not out, I take ZzzzQuil because I don’t want to waste any time tossing and turning.

  4. Why are they waking up?

    Because they want mommy? Cosleep. And be boring.

    Teething? Allergies? Ear infections? Motrin.

    They’re hungry? Tank them up right before bedtime as part of the bedtime routine.

    They have to go potty? Make it as easy as possible for you to get them to the potty. If they can sleep pee, then have them do that on your time rather than on their time.

    Need diaper changing? Make it as easy as possible for you to change their diapers (cosleeping may also help here). And be boring.

    They don’t need that much sleep? Hire someone to help you out in the evenings or early morning and let them sleep less.

  5. gwinne says:

    Well, as you probably know from a number of my comments, this is quite similar to my situation: I’m a single mother of two kids, and my toddler doesn’t sleep well. I also have insomnia (related but separate from his sleep issues) so sleep is a major concern in my household.

    I think there are a number of good ideas here, actually. And sleep training may or may not be one of them. Just flat out didn’t work in my house… But most moms of twins I know swear by it. Ditto co-sleeping; it’s been a life-saver at moments with both my kids, and it’s been the bane of my existence at others. I think Nicoleandmaggie is right to start thinking about the particular issues involved. With both my kids not having enough daytime calories is a MAJOR issue for night sleep.

    I think prioritizing mom’s sleep, NOT WORK or anything else, is the way to go here. And once she’s rested some of the other issues can sort themselves out. Napping might work, but generally sleep specialists advise against it. It’s not the same as night sleep and in many cases detracts from it…

  6. gwinne says:

    I’d add, too, if she can she should just flat go to bed earlier–not watch TV, etc– particularly if the kids are waking more toward morning. (My son often wakes 3-4 times per night, but most of those wake ups are after 2:00 am. Getting an uninterrupted 4 hrs of sleep makes a huge difference.)

    Someone else mentioned sleep meds…Benadryl (for me, not kid) helps enormously.

  7. Cloud says:

    We partial night cosleep and I swear by it. I am not a good fit for most sleep training methods (note I said *I* am not- my second kid might have been) so those were not a real option for us. We fought the idea for a long time with my first, but started partial night cosleeping at about 18-20 months with her. She transitioned herself to sleeping through the night in her own bed somewhere around 2 years old. My second is 4 and still comes in and joins us in our bed most nights, but she brings herself down the hall and if she is coming in the middle of the night, usually goes back to sleep and lets me sleep, too. This morning she came in at 5:45, and that was essentially the end of my sleep, but at least I got some nice snuggles out of it.
    ——–
    Anyway, I agree with @gwinne- the thing to do is prioritize the mother’s sleep and problem solve around how to get more, without worrying about the scare stories about various options.

  8. Mary says:

    I second (or third) the partial co-sleep. Both my kids were terrible sleepers and after trying many things the one that worked the best was to put them to bed in their beds and when they woke they came into our bed. Every one was asleep again within 5 mins. But I should note that this only works well for people that can fall back asleep easily after being woken.

    Now at almost three, the youngest usually only comes in after 6am which is when I need to be up anyways.

  9. Ana says:

    I’m a huge advocate of sleep training, worked a charm with our first. Just DID NOT work with our 2nd (though it got him to learn to FALL asleep easily, he wakes 90% of nights and will not go back to sleep without a parent)…and he’s two, also. So as soon as he wakes up, which varies from 11pm to 5am, its co-sleeping time. As soon as he is next to one of us, barring pain/fever/sickness, he falls immediately asleep and sleeps until morning, often after we have gotten up and started getting ready for the day.
    So that’s an option, but I gather its harder with twins…if they BOTH get up, will they sleep quietly together with mom in bed, or will it be too exciting and feel like play time?
    I agree 100% with going to bed earlier. If she’s too tired to do anything useful at 9pm, just go to sleep. I know how much she may want some “me time” to unwind, watch TV, etc… but for the next year or so, and at least 3-4 night a week, she could get that extra 1.5 hours of sleep and I bet it’d do WONDERS. I’ve made a similar compromise—its tough to completely give up time to read/watch TV or hang out with my husband altogether, but a few nights a week, I make myself go to bed at 9, right after the kids do, and that is enough to keep me from being too tired to focus.

  10. Cindy says:

    What about putting the twins down 30-45 minutes later? Could be that they would be more tired and stay asleep.

  11. Emily says:

    I would actually recommend trying to put the twins down earlier. There is no mention of what time they get up in the morning, but two year olds could easily be getting 11 1/2 to 12 hours of sleep per night, and I think one potential problem could be that they are not getting to bed early enough.

    • ARC says:

      I was just going to suggest this. I was at my wits end with the 16 month old and her night waking, and lo and behold, putting her to bed 30 minutes earlier eliminated it on most nights. She goes to bed ridiculously early (6:30pm) but if we slack and put her down at 7-7:30 like we used to, she’s up 2-4x a night. She sleeps until about 7am no matter what time she goes down at night.

  12. oldmdgirl says:

    My friend used a clock with a light that turns on when it’s time to get up to help with her toddler who wouldn’t stay in bed. For some reason, her daughter would obey the clock, but not mommy.

    I second the suggestions to be boring.

    I also might suggest waiting a bit before going in there to see if they self settle. Not sure how long she waits now though, and if she’s conditioned them to calling for her for 30 min already, it may not work.

    We had friends who used a sleep coach for their 2 year old (Jodi Mindell!) who were very happy with the results.

    And, you can go to bed earlier. When we had sleep problems, that was what enabled me to survive hose tough nights.

    I hate cosleeping, but some people love it. Just make sure the kids can’t get wedged between the bed and the wall/fall out of bed. I think if I did it, I’d put a big mattress (or two) on the floor. We never went down this road though, and now my toddler doesn’t understand that my bed is used for anything other than jumping.

  13. Zenmoo says:

    To take a slightly different tack – is the sleep deprivation leading to a loss of productivity during standard work hours? (Hence the wanting to work later in the evening?) if that’s the case, perhaps thinking of ways to manage work better while sleep deprived might help too? If you feel more relaxed about not working in the evening, the quality of the sleep you do get might be better (because you’re not going to bed feeling like the work you didn’t do is hanging over you)

  14. Colleen Fee says:

    My younger son was never a great sleeper. When he was a toddler, he would come into my room, join me in bed and keep me awake all night with his squirming and babbling. At the suggestion of my pediatrician, I put a blow up mattress in my room. I made a big deal of it being his special big boy bed in mommy’s room that he could sleep in any time he wanted. He did make use of it – I’d wake up in the morning and he’d be sleeping on the mattress next to my bed, and I would have slept all night without interruption. After two weeks, the novelty wore off and he stayed in his own bed.

  15. Alexicographer says:

    OK, so besides what others have suggested, I guess I have two thoughts. One is that while the twins may not be “waking each other up,” if they are sleeping in the same room as one another, they may, in fact, be, well, waking each other up. Our son slept in our room (only to 15 months, though, so not the same age) in his crib and by the end of that, was almost sleeping “through the night” except for one wake-up around 3 a.m. A friend expressed concern that his sleeping would get way worse once we finally moved him (long story but the issue was actually that we had stuff stored in what was to be his room and it took us a long time to move it!), anyway — just the opposite; we moved him, and he started sleeping through the night. My suspicion is that even though “he was waking us,” our presence nearby was disturbing his sleep in a way that also meant we were waking him. I wonder if the same could be happening here and if so, whether there is any way to separate the twins.

    My other thought is that rather than a night sitter, if June has flexibility in her schedule maybe she could have someone on call (even if only sometimes) to let her take a long nap on days when she’s missed sleep the night before. Arranging a night sitter seems like it could be a big hassle and expensive, but a few hours catch-up sleep the next day (when needed) could be very valuable — at least, I think that’s how I’d find it. And it seems easier (maybe) to arrange on as as-needed basis (and less expensive, I’d think). Also, I think introducing a new person at night would have reduced, not improved, my son’s likelihood of awakening in the night (which after the move to his own room thing he did go through occasional interludes of, though he is mostly a good sleeper, thank heavens).

    Regardless, good luck to June. That sounds like a tough situation (at least I would find it so), even knowing that, “This, too, shall pass.”

  16. Devon_buffalo says:

    Oh… I feel it. I have a similar situation. My son is nearly 3 1/2 so it is better, but my kids wake almost every night. Often they go back to sleep in moments but I don’t. I do all of the above, but mostly I have a bedtime. It is 9:30 (NoW!). I try really hard to just turn of the idiot stuff and go to sleep.

    And god help her (and us all) when they get sick…

  17. June says:

    Thanks for all the great responses!

    A few responses:
    - The girls have been out of cribs since they were 2 after starting to jump out; that probably didn’t help any of this
    - I have trouble falling back asleep after a wakening — just my biology, I guess, which exacerbates it all!
    - I did use sleep training support for going to bed, which was a problem 6 months ago. That is pretty smooth now after being terrible for a long time
    - The girls have generally ended up in my bed, but co-sleeping doesn’t work for me; they move too much.

    So what I’ve done over the last week:
    - I picked the easier twin (Twin A) and started taking her back to bed in the middle of the night. I’ve been firm about that.
    - I purchased one of those alarm clocks that turns green when they can get up and the last two nights Twin A has stayed in her bed (except for a poopy diaper change each night). The other twin still ends up in my bed for now because she screams if I put her back; once twin A is in a groove, I’ll try and tackle that
    - I’ve been forcing myself to go bed earlier; lights out by 9:30/10. If I have minimal interruptions, then I get up earlier and have some quiet time

    I appreciate all of your feedback on this!

    • Laura says:

      @June – so glad that some things are working out. If you can get one to stay put that at least cuts the time up in half!

      • June says:

        Thanks for sharing this!