Hi! First, a hug: The myriad sleep issues of the preschool set is just... there are no words. That anyone makes it to age five without losing it at their kids is amazing.
I have one rule in my family and it's not negotiable, and kept me on track during the tough times. It is: no one in my family cries alone; I stay and I listen and I always offer affection to an emotional child or adult, even if they're angry/tantruming.
As simple as that sounds, that rule gave me a solution to most issues that came up with my marriage and kids, including the sleep issues - which obviously meant that CIO was not an option for me, at any age. My first child is now 9 and I still wouldn't walk away from her if she was upset.
Both my kids went through that awful stage of one nap was too much, but no nap was too little. If my son napped, bedtime was a drawn out, frustrating nightmare. Without the nap, he was cranky, demanding and having tantrums by midday. By September last year, I cut the nap out altogether, he was 2yrs 5mths, and it was about 6 months overdue, in hindsight. I decided to deal with the day meltdowns instead of sapping of my time and energy each night trying to get an un-tired, fidgety, playful boy to sleep. It had taken me 1 to 2 hours to get him to sleep, no matter what I did, or how wonderful the routine or how early or how late bedtime was... I tried everything, in the end I realised the nap had to go.
Then I had to deal with his emotions during the day, and to help this I welcomed the wise words of a child psychologist friend who specialises in attachment parenting. She said, "No one gets emotional because they are tired. Fatigue does not cause emotions, it simply weakens the defenses enough that emotions can no longer be suppressed." She explained how those times were wonderful opportunities for parents to help their child heal old (and new) traumas and stresses.
This also fit with how my son was behaving, or what pop culture calls "over-tired signs". His emotions built up from frustrations or whatever until he needed to let them out. Then he'd do things that would eventually lead to him falling apart. Or he'd demand things until he found one I couldn't deliver then he'd turn that into his releasing excuse.
I'd hold him while he cried. If it was a tantrum, I'd give him my full attention like I do my daughter and husband when they're expressing, and offer to hold him if he was rejecting affection until he came to me and fell apart in tears on my shoulder. After a supported, validated emotional expression, it was like a switch... the crap was emptied, and now my real boy who was underneath all that was able to shine. For several hours, or even the rest of the day, he would be sweet, self-occupying, attentive and happy. It was like a freakin' miracle.
Sometimes a meltdown is poorly timed, and I try to suppress it as only a mother knows how. But I knew it was just on hold, so when I got home I'd keep a look out for signs and be ready to dedicate up to 20 minutes hugging or calmly listening to a crying child. Time investment well worthwhile. A child without stored up emotions sleeps easily and deeply, whereever they are, no fussy routine or dark or quiet required.
If my son gets aggressive with his sister, moody, or in any way starts THAT spiral (we all know the spiral I'm talking about), then I say, "Do you need to get some feelings out?" and he will often immediately ask for something he knows we don't have and then bam, fall apart. The causes for his upset would be gone, but the need to release them remained.
I felt gentle and feel I've still lived up to my philosophy, yet I was not living in fear of my children's emotions.
The current situation with my 3 yo son (his third b'day in a week) is that if he is relaxed yet tired, he'll sleep, whereever we are. If he needs to release, he'll get irritable and clingy and come looking for me if I'm inside or whatever and whine and find ways to tantrum. It is at this point that it is up to me to find some selfless compassion and be there for him - and if I'm elbow deep in a project, that isn't easy. After the release, he'll occasionally fall asleep on me, but mostly he just goes about his day because he only naps about once a month. Then at about 5.30 the four of us crowd on the couch and watch Brady Bunch and he's usually out by 6pm with his head on my lap. If he's still awake at 6.15, I take him to the bedroom and lay with him while he falls asleep... 10 minutes tops.
So I really recommend not pushing the nap or even setting one up, and just seeing where the fatigue takes him. If he is "misbehaving" or pushing boundaries, see if there is a phrase you can use to trigger the tears or rage (tantrum), setting the stage of safety, that he is safe to express. I use "do you need to get feelings out?" but sometimes what it takes is following his lead to see what he's doing to make himself cry or rage or if he keeps hurting himself - some kids only feel safe to cry when they're hurt because that's the only time someone meets their emotions with empathy, and needless to say, those kids are known as "accident prone".
I watch sad movies, I love a good sob and feel great for weeks afterwards.
A note of warning... this becomes second nature and just part of the routine of being around emotionally sane people who express themselves, adults or children... but the first few times can be overwhelming. Be prepared if you decide to stay-listen to emotions, as they can run deep and can trigger your own unheard pain, causing bad reactions. The other thing is, if you try this... stay-listen. It is not healing, and could be counterproductive to healing, to leave them to cry or rage alone... tender ages need a validating ear, and preferably some words to their feelings (you sound angry... you seem very sad... it can be frustrating when we want something we can't have... etc).
Hope there's something in there for you. Good luck. Family sure is one helluva ride.
I'm a bit puzzled at all of the talk here that seems to be looking at the bedtime parenting as the either-or of "good mama staying with child" or CIO . . . it sounds like you and your son have a middle ground, much as my son and I do. My DS is 18 months old, and likes to play games with Mommy as well--he has for quite a while, actually, and we've had to institute a caregiver switch-off for whenever Mommy's getting angry and frustrated. Frankly, I'm not a good mother when I get frustrated. It makes me angry with my son, angry with myself, and I can't be patient and loving. So, when I get to that point, DH takes over and gives me a break. We've also, over the past six months, started drawing a very firm line and reacting differently to DS angry vs. DS upset. When he's angry and throwing a temper tantrum, we just let it run its course. We don't respond to it (except to give a hug if he seems to want it and if wanting a hug at a bad time wasn't what set it off!), don't try to stop it, and above all, don't give in to it. Temper tantrums still happen with relative frequency (saying "no" to anything is the simplest way to get them going! ), but they tend to be fairly short in duration and very easily ended with re-direction. When DS is actually upset, he gets held and loved. We use this distinction at bedtime too, and it's helping to cut back on the unwanted games. Most important for me, though, has been DH's willingness to take over when DS starts playing games that get me frustrated. When you get frustrated and start feeling like "monster mommy," let your husband take over completely for a while so you can take a sanity breather. Some of us just need that--we don't have endless reserves of patience, and we need a mental break to refill our reserve of patience.
Anyways, it sounds to me like you may have something going on that's similar to what I've been dealing with with my son, and honestly, the only way to reshape it into healthy habits is to get your partner to help. Get a tall enough gate to put over the door that your son can't leave the room, and switch off turns soothing him with your husband. The gate is necessary IMO because the rule that's worked for us at bedtime is that above all, when the bedtime routine starts, DS does not leave the room where he sleeps, and he preferably only gets to come out of his bed if he's being held/snuggled. We don't let his feet hit the floor--just crib-arms-crib-arms. And we switch off; I start, since DS nurses before bed, put DS in his bed when he's done nursing, and leave the room. When he decides he's unhappy about being left alone, DH goes in and hugs him for a few minutes, then puts him down, pats his back to get him settled, and leaves the room. If he gets up again, I go in, then the next time DH, wash-rinse-repeat. Since we've been doing this (about two months now), the number of times we've gone back in has been steadily decreasing, and he's started sleeping for longer stretches. It's kinda cool. It does, however, involve letting him fuss a bit, especially if he's trying to break the rules and get down from the crib or our arms. In my view, however, that is not in any way CIO, and anyone who tries to tell me it is needs to butt out of my family dynamic.
Calm---thank you so much for your post. I am struggling with DD2's sleep--as I did with DD1's--and your comments about children needing a safe opportunity to vent their feelings and frustrations was just the reminder I need for both my daughters, as well as for myself.