Being a single parent is no easy task. Whether it’s due to divorce, death, a spouse in the military, or that’s just how it is, handling the day-to-day tasks of raising a child alone can test even the most organized and composed person. Being a single parent and sleep training your baby? It sounds impossible, but it can be done successfully.
Single Parenting and Sleep Training
If you have just become a single parent, for whatever reason, you and your child may be dealing with stress and trauma. Often there is a move, or a period when your daily routine and way of life has drastically changed. It’s important to give yourself and your child plenty of time to adjust to whatever is “the new normal”.
Allow yourself to do what works until you’re settled. During the period of adjustment, it may be difficult or impossible to introduce yet another behavior or expectation, so now is probably not a good time to begin sleep training. Allow yourself to do “whatever it takes” to get everyone some sleep. Do you rock your child to sleep normally? Now isn’t the time to stop. If possible, avoid adding any new sleep crutches, but do continue comforting your little one at bedtime — it may be the one constant in their life at a difficult time.
Even if the situation isn’t permanent, such as a military deployment, a child may not understand. They will still need time to adapt.
Once you sense your child has adjusted to any new environments or routines, you can begin to plan your next step.
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Sleep Training with a Co-Parent
Many single parents share custody with another parent. If the situation is new, maintaining some level of consistency will go a long way to help a child adapt to a new situation while also feeling secure. If you have a relationship with their other parent that allows it, making a sleep coaching plan together would be ideal.
But don’t despair — if you have differing views or just don’t have the cooperation, kids may adjust to two sets of sleep rules and expectations better than you think! You can use The Shuffle on your own. What counts is consistency from each parent. For example, if Mommy lies down with them to fall asleep, but Daddy doesn’t do that at his house, they will come to expect it from Mommy on her days. So, if you are sleep training, they will come to expect certain routines with you. If you are consistent, it may take a little longer, but you’ll eventually get your child to sleep for you.
Some parents have trouble setting limits when newly separated. They feel guilty, and don’t want to ruin “their time” with their children by enforcing difficult rules. You can still create the supportive and loving environment your child needs without adding new sleep crutches you haven’t done before, such as lying down with them or cosleeping.
Remember that children find routine, structure, and boundaries comforting, especially in times of stress.
Loss of a Family Member
In the sad event that your family experiences a death, be gentle and offer extra reassurance, ideally without creating new sleep crutches. Make sure you don’t tell your child that Grandpa went to sleep and won’t wake up again. That only exacerbates children’s evening fears. Incorporate your own beliefs in explaining death to your child.
If your spouse has died, then you may want to seek grief counseling and discuss further strategies with the therapist on how to help your child. Some parents may decide to do whatever works and deal with the sleep fallout when they are feeling better themselves.
Once the trauma has diminished and new routines have been established, you can get back on track. However, it would be best to avoid any new sleep crutches, like beginning to cosleep or lying down with your child at night. Instead you can offer extra cuddles and reassurance before bedtime, without adding new habits that will be difficult to break.
Ready to Sleep Train? Set Yourself Up
If you’re in a new space, make sure you have established where your child or children will be sleeping. For infants, this might mean co-sleeping or sleeping in the same room as your child. Toddlers and older children in cribs or beds may be sharing with you, or each other, or be in their own room. Whatever your arrangement, make sure that it is set before starting to sleep train.
Begin with your child well-napped. You can get that nap any way possible — if it takes rocking, singing, walking, or driving, that’s ok. You can address naps after you have mastered The Shuffle at night.
If you haven’t established one, a bedtime routine is an excellent way to begin. Activities such as a bath, a story, kisses and cuddles, and going to bed, are a great bonding opportunity for you and your baby, as well as a routine they can expect.
Begin practicing The Shuffle. The first step to teaching a child to fall asleep on their own is making sure you are putting them to bed drowsy, but awake. Follow the steps, available in the book The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight. Reassure your child with gentle, intermittent touch and words that you are there for them.
For older children, have a family meeting and discuss the sleep changes you are implementing. Explain how you will be there to help your child or children learn how to put themselves to sleep in their own bed or without you laying down with them, rocking, or whatever you may have been doing through the transition to get them to sleep. Consider using a behavior chart, such as a Sleep Manners Chart to help you both focus on the desired behaviors.
Build your Dream Team
Ask for a little help! Recruit a friend, relative, or grandparent. In some cases, a generous helper might volunteer to come, in person, to help out. Be specific about what kind of help you need.
Perhaps your helper would be willing to come and help you overnight. Letting you sleep while they attend to night-wakings can make a huge difference, even if it’s just one night.
If that’s not in the cards, perhaps someone might be willing to come watch your child during the day so you can take a nap or run errands. Single parenting and sleep coaching is really hard work, and even just a few hours on a weekend afternoon can help.
For those with friends and family who don’t live in town, asking someone to “debrief” with you in the morning can give you very helpful feedback. Your buddy could be a deployed spouse, a grandparent, or a friend from high school. A quick call might reveal that you were breaking the rules a little bit at 3 am when you just went ahead and nursed, or patted her back until she fell asleep. Your call might also give you a lift when you feel discouraged about your progress. Having some accountability and support will make sleep coaching a little less stressful.
Allow Yourself a Re-Do
Tried it for a week and ready to pull out your hair? Let yourself hit the reset button. Go ahead and take a breather, do what works for you and your child, and get some rest. Just try not to introduce any new sleep crutches that will make your next try harder. You can begin again when everyone feels refreshed.
Celebrate your Success!
You just sleep trained your baby pretty much by yourself? You deserve a celebration! Ask someone on your Dream Team to spend an evening with your little one so you can go out with friends. Chances are, they will be so happy to see you well-rested, they’ll love to do it. Just make sure they know the bedtime routine, and relax, knowing your hard work has paid off.
Being a single parent and sleep training is a hard job. With some good preparation and planning and some hard work up front, everyone will eventually get consistent sleep.
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