Q: My 23-month-old used to be a great sleeper. But since we had a new baby, she has been getting up multiple times a night. This is driving me crazy. What can I do?
A: While a sibling is a gift to your older child, she likely doesn’t appreciate this quite yet. Sharing your attention, your lap, and your love doesn’t seem like much of a gift. Since children this age don’t have the ability yet to reflect on and talk about their feelings, they “act out,” expressing their feelings through their behavior. Toddlers who are adjusting to a new baby in the family often act out by regressing in one area or another, be it sleep, potty-training, or by returning to more “baby-ish” behaviors like using a pacifier or bottle again, or wanting to be held and carried. Waking at night provides the attention they miss during the day and the reassurance that they’re still loved and cared for.
To let your toddler know she is still important, make sure both you and your husband each have some one-on-one time with her every day, even if only a short period is possible. Make her feel needed and included. Ask her to get the diaper when it’s time to change the baby or pick out baby’s clothing. When you feed the baby, ask your daughter to pick out a book and turn the pages while you read to her.
At bedtime, establish a consistent routine for your older child so she doesn’t become overtired and find it even harder to fall and stay asleep. While it’s difficult, avoid postponing bedtime, which often happens as a family adjusts to having a newborn in the house again. When your child wakes at night, keep her in her room and gradually decrease the amount of support she needs to fall back asleep. Peek your head in, tell her everything is okay, and that it’s time to go back to sleep. After the second or third waking, call to her from the hallway—Mommy’s here. Everything’s okay. I love you. Time to go back to sleep. Decide how many times you will repeat this, then let your daughter know you are going back to sleep yourself and stop responding. Another strategy is to sit in her room with her until she falls asleep, but without talking, singing, or cuddling. Each night, move your chair further from her bed until you are completely out of the room. The idea is to let her know she is safe and loved but not to make waking up at night a rewarding, fun experience.