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'2 books, 1 story, 1 water sip, get out': How we won our toddler sleep war

One tired community member volunteered to have a sleep expert come to her house for a sleep intervention. Here's what happened.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

As part of our TODAY Parenting Team sleep challenge, exhausted community member Natalie Thomas volunteered to have sleep expert Dr. Jodi Mindell, who works with TODAY sponsor Johnson's, come to her house with a TODAY crew in tow for a sleep intervention. Here's what happened, in her own words. Share your own sleep confessions on the TODAY Parenting Team, and check out our Facebook chat with Dr. Mindell.


Six months ago, I was cocky. Six months ago, I was sane, stress-free, well-rested and happy, and I recognized myself as a mother. Six months ago, I even wrote a piece for the TODAY Parenting Team in which I claimed to know how to get a baby to sleep. Because I did. (At least I had the foresight to include a disclaimer. And, sure enough, as predicted, it's come back to bite me.)

The thing is, I no longer have a baby. I have a toddler. And that's like comparing a minnow to a shark.

We are in a full-blown, cataclysmic toddler testing phase, which often seems more like pre-puberty than pre-school. The highs are unbelievably high (unsolicited kisses and hugs, proclamations that I'm her best friend, hysterical interactions and extremely impressive imaginative play periods), but the lows make Jekyll and Hyde look like amateur hour. Seemingly out of nowhere, on a whim, this sweet, silly, mama-loving girl is enemy #1 using her body as a weapon, her screams and tears as extremely effective negotiating tactics. (If she's not a lawyer, we'll have failed her.)

Mom Natalie Thomas and dad Zach Friedman were shocked by the tenacity of their 2-year-old daughter, Lilly.Diana Lee

The behavior isn't reserved for meal time or bath time, and not even for the playground or grocery store aisles. Those are matinee performances, the junior leagues. The main stage is her bedroom; nap time and bedtime have become epic battles. When she doesn't get one more book or another story, batten down the hatches. I've seriously considered leaving notes for the neighbors. ("No, we're not harming our child. Yes, everything is OK, we just have a toddler.") And wine. Lots of wine.

RELATED: Share your sleep confessions with the TODAY Parenting Team!

The only thing that works is becoming belligerent cop (forget bad cop, we're way past that). I have to threaten her, grab her bunnies, which are her lifeline, and leave the room and a convulsing child. I don't care how over it (or her) I am, how much practice I've had — it never gets easier. No mother wants to hear her child like that. I hate that it's come to that, that I've come to that.

I wish I could say that was the extent of our problems. I also wish I was exaggerating for production purposes. But, sadly, neither is true. My almost-3-year-old is in a slow process of giving up her nap, which is far more traumatic for me than it is for her, as I work from home and those are my office hours. When she does nap, it takes her forever to fall asleep, and then she wakes too late, which keeps her up at night. When she doesn't, every single time, she has night terrors that evening, keeping all of us up throughout the night. No matter which way you cut it, we're all lacking in zzzz's.

RELATED: When I was at my most sleep-deprived, another mom threw me a rope

"We are in a full-blown, cataclysmic toddler testing phase, which often seems more like pre-puberty than pre-school." —Mom Natalie ThomasDiana Lee

So when the TODAY Parenting Team, which I'm a proud part of, reached out to ask whether we were having sleep issues, I practically raced to Rockefeller Center to pitch them in person. Surely, one look at my bleary eyes and defeated demeanor would sway — or scare — them, but either way, it had to work. For once in my life, I showed restraint and sent them a simple yet not-so-subtle email, which basically consisted of, "HEEELLLLLLLLPPP."

Days later, it was settled. A sleep expert would come to our home along with a camera crew and producer (and a few others, which made for a cozy New York apartment!) and observe us. Not sure they knew what they were in for. Not sure we did either. It was a frenetic, cluttered, stressful, enlightening, exhausting and, ultimately, rewarding day.

RELATED: Mom of 2: ‘The damage, and discovery, that came from depriving myself of sleep’

The sun is starting to come out again for mom Natalie Thomas, dad Zach Friedman and their almost-3-year-old daughter, Lilly.Diana Lee

Here's the takeaway:

1. Routine, routine, routine. Put her down at the same time, wake her at the same time. Read the same amount of books, tell the same amount of stories, same animals, water sips, etc. Our formula is two books, one story, one sip of water, get the eff out.

2. Make a chart. Much like a potty or behavior chart, detail the above in picture and graph form so it's right there in front of her. Ours has a picture of her two bunnies and blankie (she'd recreate Noah's Ark if we let her), two books, one story (a made-up tale by her father or me), and her water bottle. We check it off each night. If she asks for it and it's not on the chart, she's not getting it.

3. Give her a pass. This is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Dr. Jodi Mindell suggested we use an index card that she decorates and can use as her one bonus request. If she wants one more animal, another story, an extra sip, she can use the card, but once it's gone each night, that's it. Honestly, we haven't tried this yet but intend to when she gets a bit older and/or we get a handle on the new rules, chart, etc.

RELATED: Sleep confession from a mom of 3: ‘I’m more tired than tired’

I'm happy to report that it's working! Even without the pass, my husband and I are now on the same page. (After being at work all day and missing her, he tended to be a little more lenient than I was and would cave when she asked for just "one more." And after a full day with our daughter, I was often too tired to put up a fight and slipped myself.) Together, we are strictly enforcing the 2, 1, 1 rule. We've taken back control of our sleep — and our life. OK, at least our sleep.

Natalie Thomas is the founder and creative director of Nat's Next Adventure, an Emmy-nominated producer, and a contributor to the TODAY Parenting Team, Huffington Post, Cafe Mom and Womanista. Connect with her on her site, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.