I'm hoping for some brilliant ideas to help me through this time with my little guy. Some background: He has always been a reluctant and very light sleeper. The only way to get him to sleep without screaming was by nursing, so that's what I have always done. I co-slept with him for the first 5 months or so, at which point he woke up every 20-45 minutes all night long for about 2 weeks, I think partly because he is so sensitive that any little movement from me woke him up. This coincided with my return to work part time, so I decided to try moving him into his own space, and he started sleeping much better. So since then he's slept in his own room in a crib, and I would go in and nurse him back down whenever he woke up and then bring him into my bed if it's after 5am or so. Gradually, he woke up less frequently, and at around 13 months we had a 2 week stretch when he slept through the night from about 7pm-5:30 or 6am. He also mostly stopped nursing to sleep and would either pop off and go to sleep nestled into my elbow, or would say "night night" and I would put him in his crib and he went to sleep without fussing.
Two weeks ago, he started walking. At around the same time, he started frequently not napping in the afternoon, but since the morning is when he have most of our activities, I switched him to one mid-day nap. He also started a new playgroup that our neighbor runs two mornings a week, which is the first time he is not with a trusted adult (me, our babysitter, or grandma) 1:1. So, lots of changes. He started waking up in the night, but at first was just screaming one time and by the time I got out of bed, he was asleep again. Then he started waking up and calling me, so I would go in and nurse him, he would fall back to sleep, and then I could put him back down without a problem. In the last week, he falls asleep nursing at night and naptime (I literally have to keep him awake to take the second side) and no matter how long I sit with him asleep in my arms and how sound asleep he seems to be, he starts screaming the instant I put him down. Every bedtime is a struggle and now when he gets up during the night, he's up for 2+ hours. He's exhausted from sleeping so much less every day than he's used to, and I'm exhausted from being up half the night and then trying to be a functioning parent or actually go to work. I've tried bringing him into my bed, and he generally tries to play but then will eventually nurse and settle down, but he's up frequently and up for the day by 5ish. Last night I set up an air mattress right next to his crib, nursed him as usual, put him down and then lay next to him talking to him and trying to rub his back (though he was furious and didn't let me at first)--he screamed for 45 minutes, then finally lay with my hand under his face and went to sleep.
I hate not responding to him when he cries, or even if he's just calling "mama" without crying. I am committed to not "sleep-training" him or letting him cry it out, because the idea of him screaming in a dark room, desperately wanting me to comfort him feels unfair and cruel. But there have been a couple of times this week that I've been so frustrated and exhausted that I've ended up either yelling at him or leaving him crying so that I don't yell at him. This is not the parent I want to be, but I have no help at night, and almost none during the day except when I go to work, so I'm stretched very thin and at the end of my rope.
Sorry for this huge rant Does anyone have any suggestions? Should I start putting him down awake again and lay next to him while he falls asleep so that he stays used to going to sleep in his crib again instead of in my arms?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts.