This post was underwritten by Real Traditions: natural products, traditionally made and contains affiliate links. All experiences and opinions are my own.
If you’ve greeted my husband or I with a polite, “How are you?” anytime within the last two and a half years, I can almost guarantee the one word answer we gave.
It wasn’t a generic “fine,” or “good,” but something much more specific: “TIRED.”
From the time we had our son in 2011, we’ve been absolutely exhausted.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about the ongoing saga of sleep issues we’ve had with our oldest. Quite frankly, it’s because I had pretty much given up. I started telling myself, surely he’ll sleep through the night by the time he’s 5. (Depressing I know.)
But every once in a while I would hear of some natural remedy or gentle sleep strategy that would give me a hope.
The lack of sleep wasn’t just hard on us. Our poor boy was chronically overtired. He wanted to sleep. He tried to sleep.
He’d happily stay in bed, but falling asleep frequently took two hours. Then he’d be up several times a night, sometimes for an hour or more, unable to sleep or keep still.
Finally, he’d be up for the day at 4:30 or 5 am!
I am happy to say that he finally started sleeping through the night on a fairly consistent basis starting at about 30 months, sooner than I ever thought possible.
This has been a long journey, and this post is going to get quite long. If you’re struggling with total exhaustion, desperate to help your toddler sleep, I don’t want to leave any details out that might help you on your own quest to help your toddler sleep through the night.
So without further ado, here’s what finally worked (along with some things that didn’t) to help my toddler sleep through the night…(This post contains affiliate links to a few books and resources we found helped our toddler finally sleep through the night.)
The Baby Days
At first, it was the expected newborn stage. Babies need to be fed a couple times in the middle of the night. It’s totally normal up to a year or more.
Sometimes, they have gas or are teething. But this went way beyond that.
At about four months, I finally had the light bulb go on: he exhibited all the characteristics of a high need baby: nursing constantly, almost never napping, up every two hours or more at night, needing to be held all. the.time.
I love my high need baby of course. I was thankful to be his mommy and to be willing and able to provide him the comfort he clearly needed. Still, a person can only go without sleep for so long.
By the time he was seven months old, (I thought) I was at my breaking point. I could do little more than sit and stare into space while holding the baby during the day after being up all night. You can see from my thin blogging archives that any personal time or hobbies was just about zero in those months.
No Cry Sleep Solution
My baby’s doctor loaned me a copy of the No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley at his 9 month check up. It sounded like the promised land.
It’s a book by a mom of four that helps teach baby to sleep using gentle methods. You can still co-sleep, and you don’t have to let them cry!
Thus, we embarked on Operation Mama Needs Sleep. I thoroughly documented everything about my baby’s sleep as Pantely suggests, even jotting down notes in the dark at 2 am.
I created a detailed bedtime plan. I tried the famous Pantely-pull-off. I made him a lovely and wore it around in my blouse to get my smell on it.
And we did have some success. At about 9-months of age, he went from waking up more than six times a night to about five.
The biggest improvement was in naps. Instead of taking several 20-40 minute naps a day on me, I was able to get him to sleep in bed for up to an hour at a time without having to hold him the whole time.
Dr. Sears Weighs In
I made my baby an organic cotton sleep sack and avoided synthetic fabrics that might cause allergies or irritation.
I put a thermometer in the bedroom to make sure it was the ideal 70 degrees.
I attempted to do a breastfeeding elimination diet to rule out food allergies and sensitivities, specifically dairy. However, I was so exhausted at that time that I kept forgetting and eating dairy! I suspect that this is a strategy that would have worked for us if I would have had the capacity at that time.
If you have a fussy baby who has frequent and severe spit up and explosive diapers or who is sick frequently, you might consider trying an elimination diet if you’re feeling up to it. (Don’t let these symptoms be overlooked like I did.)
This is a diet in which you as the breastfeeding mom eliminate foods from your diet that may be causing your baby digestive issues through your milk. Dr. Sears has a thorough list of foods that could cause irritation in The Baby Book with instructions on how to do the diet. The New Childhood Epidemics book also has a great list.
A new doctor, a boatload of supplements
By his 18 month check up we had moved to eastern Washington, and I had sought out a naturally-minded pediatrician who had done a lot of research into natural supplements and homeopathic remedies.
With this perfect cocktail, she had taken her son from frequent hospital stays for his asthma, to not even needing meds.
For the first time ever, he started sleeping through the night about two out of every seven nights. Progress!
When he was 20 months old (and I was pregnant with my baby girl) we decided to start potty training.
Because getting breastmilk right before bed and throughout the night was going to make nighttime potty training difficult, we also decided to night wean.
My husband started putting him to bed and getting up with him throughout the night. There were some tears, but after about a week they had their own bedtime routine worked out without Mama’s help.
If you’ve spent much time searching for sleep solutions for your little ones, it’s likely you’ve come across the advice that their constant waking is because they just want to nurse all night, and if you would only night wean them (or wean them completely), they would sleep through.
It seems to me that breastfeeding is blamed all too often for any number of childhood issues.
Night weaning worked splendidly for potty training. However, night weaning did not improve BabyE’s sleep.
It did however improve my sleep, as his daddy got up with him in the middle of the night, and I got to stay in bed. It was perfect timing, as I was so exhausted at the beginning of my pregnancy.
My son had been gluten free and mostly dairy free for quite some time. However, I was (and still am) concerned about him getting enough Calcium, so I continued to give him yogurt. Plus he loved it.
When he was about 28 months old, I finally cut dairy completely out of his diet.
Some of his chronic tummy issues subsided immediately.
He began sleeping through about three times a week and went back to sleep more easily when he did wake up.
He went from getting sick every two weeks (pretty much constantly) to once every couple of months.
At around 30 months, we sat down one night and developed this rigorous bedtime routine to help our “baby” (now a toddler quickly growing into a preschooler) wind down and get ready to sleep.
Here are complete details of our bedtime routine, with information about a few different supplements we use.
1. Get Ready.
Be sure to put PJs and potty in the bathroom ahead of time so he didn’t get wound up running around the house while we were trying to find these items later.
2. Offer 1 tsp of coconut oil on a spoon.
This idea came from Bulletproof Executive that recommends eating protein and fat such as coconut oil at dinner or before bed to improve sleep. (Alternatively they suggest honey and krill oil. We tried the honey without the krill oil, but didn’t have any luck.)
We started by offering a mix of peanut butter and coconut oil, but E found he preferred just the coconut oil alone, and it worked just as well. We always have protein with dinner, so that part of the equation was already taken care of.
It makes sense to me why this works. Over the past year or so, when E would take a long time to fall asleep or would wake up in the middle of the night, he would communicate to us that he was hungry.
And most of the time, he convinced us that this (which many would deem toddler manipulation) was authentic by eating a full meal in the middle of the night, even if he’d eaten plenty at every meal during the day. He was like the Very Hungry Caterpillar! It was almost shocking to see how much he put away.
The protein and coconut oil provided fuel to last him through the night and helped to stabilize blood sugar, so he didn’t feel hungry anymore.
3. Make time for bath time.
I add about 1/2 cup epsom salt in a warm bath and let him soak and play in it for at least 20 minutes before bed. Much thanks to Angela at Grassfed Mama for her series on sleep that mentioned this trick.
4. More Magnesium.
Get out of the bath and rub about 1/2 teaspoon magnesium oil lotion on his belly before putting on pajamas, going potty, and brushing teeth.
I started doing this back when I did my review of magnesium lotion for Creative Christian Mama (now Real Traditions), but I was sporadic about remembering. Now it is a regular part of our routine because it works.
There’s magnesium in both the Epsom salt and magnesium lotion which helps the muscles relax and the body get restful sleep, among many other benefits. You can take a magnesium supplement orally, but it is generally thought to be absorbed best through the skin.
These two sleep strategies work for moms too!
When I was experiencing pregnancy induced insomnia with my second pregnancy, I would get up and rub magnesium lotion all over my belly. I’d get back in bed and almost immediately fall deeply asleep.
Then the other night, I decided to try an Epsom salt bath for myself to help with achy muscles. Oh me oh my! Shortly afterward, I was knitting and having a conversation with my husband, and I was literally falling asleep mid-stitch and mid-sentence!
5. Lights out.
Then E goes and gets in bed (usually jumps thanks to taking our suggestion to “jump in bed” literally). We turn on a loud box fan for white noise.
Then we read him three stories. He gets up to potty one last time and turns out the lights.
Finally, we sing 3 songs (Twinkle, twinkle, little star seems to do the trick the best) and then we sit by his bed and sneak out once he’s asleep.
We’ve been doing this for long enough now that we occasionally leave before he’s fully asleep and he actually stays in there, yawns and talks to himself, and FALLS ASLEEP. BY. HIM. SELF! I seriously never dreamed this day would come!
Sleeping through the Night
For so many months we had prayed (along with our friends and family) for the wisdom to help our boy sleep through the night. I am so thankful that this prayer has been answered!
I don’t believe it was just a matter of age, him growing up, that made this drastic improvement. This change happened over night as soon as we implemented the last of these gentle sleep strategies.
As you can tell by the length of this post, baby and toddler sleep problems are a really complex issue. If you and your toddler are struggling with sleep issues, I want to encourage you to hang in there.
Every kid is different, and what works for one will certainly be different than what works for another. If these ideas don’t work for you, keep searching.
I pray you too will find a restful night’s sleep soon!
11 Ways to Help Your Toddler Sleep Through the Night
So, assuming you’re an exhausted sleep deprived mama like I was, here’s a recap of the 11 gentle sleep techniques I mentioned in the ridiculously long post above:
- No Cry Sleep Solution
- The Baby Book and The Baby Sleep Book
- Organic cotton sleepwear
- Breastfeeding Elimination Diet
- Support a healthy immune system: multivitamin, fish oil, and vitamin D
- Take care of food allergies and sensetivities
- Protein and coconut oil
- Epsom salt baths
- Magnesium oil lotion
- White Noise (box fan)
- Predictable bedtime routine