I always say sleep deprivation is the most terrifying aspect of parenting for me. Lack of sleep has a terrible effect on my health and my behaviour, and in the worst periods I could hardly recognise myself. Our first-born R. was not a good sleeper. Until she was one year old nights were awful and we had to rely on a cry-it-out solution to survive. It was either that or the end of our wits. After she learned to sleep through the night – most nights, at least – she kept being an early riser for years, which meant we were lucky if she would let us sleep until 6 am. After trying everything, we came to accept it and started taking turns on weekends to sleep longer at least once a week.
We had different issues with our adopted son E., who joined us when he was 20 month old. During our stay in India, he would sleep through the night most nights, but I remember he had difficulties falling asleep. It was totally understandable, after all we were strangers to him and he had just lived possibly the worst trauma of his life. I used to rock him and sing for him, and most of times he would fall asleep on the room carpet and we could move him into the cot later. When we got home, we moved kids together in the same room. R. was more than happy, as she always complained she was scared of sleeping alone. We considered that E. was used to spending the night in the same room with many other kids and may feel more secure in this way. Also, many things worked great at the start because he kept carefully observing and imitating whatever R. did, and we hoped this would work with sleep as well. We tried to introduce a new bedtime routine from the first day. R. was already capable to fall asleep on her own, but E. demanded that my husband or I stayed in the room while he was falling asleep. We did that for few weeks and it was working alright. Usually it would take about 20 minutes for him to fall asleep and one didn’t need to do anything. He would then sleep through the night and get up around 6 am, which we were already resigned to. Then troubles began.
He started waking up in the middle of night, which required one of us to be there with him until he would fall back to sleep. He started waking up more frequently and at some point, he regularly began waking at 4 am and lying silent and awake in his bed for two hours or until get-up time. And he demanded that one of us two would lie beside the bed. Clearly this was not working. It took few days for us to lose our mind and he was cranky all day, as he was not getting enough sleep.
Thinking strategies and making changes are not the easiest things to do when you are sleep-deprived. Nevertheless, we needed to do something and fast. We searched online how to deal with sleep issues in adopted children and did not find anything useful, beside recommendations which sounded like “whatever you do, never use a cry-it-out solution with your adopted child“. It made sense, since one new thing adopted kids need to learn, is that they are being heard, and mom and dad are there for them no matter what. However, the CIO method was the only one we knew and we were not in the right mind to start reading full books to learn more. My husband remembered something he read about when R. was younger and we tried that first. We would sit beside E.’s bed, but each night we would sit further away. At some point we would be outside the open door, then close the door. The message was “I may not be close to you, I may be out of the room, but I’m here and I will not disappear“. Unfortunately it didn’t work at all. Then we started getting out of the room altogether after putting him to sleep and wait in the next room, then go and comfort every time he would call or get up to look for us. We stayed consistent with this strategy for weeks and still could not see any improvement at all. Every night it would take around a hour for him to fall asleep and he kept calling almost all the time. We slightly changed the approach and only intervened when he was getting out of the room. Again, we were trying to reassure him that we were not going away at once, we were just in another room. We kept doing this for several weeks and, again, could not see any progress at all. He would get up five to six times, in the span of 45-60 minutes. In all this, he was not consistent in sleeping through the night. He may sleep well for three days, then with interrupted sleep for a week. We were not there yet.
After so many weeks of trying different approaches, we were completely discouraged. Nothing worked and we could not spot any progress, not a tiny bit. Bedtime was extremely stressful and we were lucky we were two and could take turns. We were so nervous that any sound during the night would wake us up, and we were sleeping poorly. After months of this misery, we decided to try the CIO again.
One thing made us consider the CIO despite all the online terrorism about it: E. was rarely crying. He was calling for us, but his tone was quite neutral. After putting him to bed, we started going downstairs – and there’s a gate at the top of the stairs – then going up after 5 minutes if he would call. We would put him back to bed if he was up, caressing him without saying a word, then walk out while he was still awake. If he was calling more, we would wait 10 minutes before going again. Then 15 minutes, 20, and so on. We were lucky, since he rarely cried. It would have been very hard, maybe even impossible, to apply this strategy otherwise. At first he was calling a lot. He would say “mom” or “dad” tens of times and we were going upstairs 4-5 times every night. After some days we started seeing progress. He was calling less continuously. Then we needed to go and comfort him fewer times every evening. He started sleeping through the night or calling once or twice during the night and soothing himself without need for us to go. Now, after about five months since he came home, he falls asleep by himself without calling ever and sleeps through the night, even later than his sister!
This is just our story and there is no universal strategy to teach sleeping and self-soothing to kids, adopted or not. I am convinced our approach was not the only thing that worked in our favour. After all, time was passing by and we were deepening our relationship during the day and I am sure that helped him building the trust in us. After two not-so-easy sleepers, I can only say one thing: if you get to the point in which you need to choose to force your hand a little or lose your mind or health, choose the first. Your child cannot be happy if you do not function properly. Even more important, ask for help. If family doesn’t live close to you, ask a friend, even an acquaintance. I can assure you every parent on earth can sympathise with you. Even parents of good sleepers had their rough nights and can imagine how it would be to have only of those. Ask for help to get yourself together, so that you are in your right mind to apply the strategy you choose. Having a plan is half the hope and encouragement you will need to succeed.