I've written before of the early years with Bobby, the need for sleep (mine, apparently; not his). I called them the years of fractured nights and splintered days and wrote:
I remember exhaustion with Bobby. Screaming. The need by him to be held closely, tightly, the need to nurse constantly. The same with the girls: the need to be tightly held at all times or screaming. I remember exhaustion. Fractured days, splintered nights. Years of exhaustion and the need to keep one foot in front of the other, to keep going, to keep upright.
It was easier with the girls, but only in terms of how long their sleep issues lasted. We fought for more than a decade to help Bobby sleep on a relatively normal schedule. His 36 hours up and 14 hours crashed cycle was exhausting to live through year after year and many medications were tried. For whatever reason, his stroke at nine is what fixed the abnormal sleep cycle. Not a magic cure I'd recommend for anyone, but it did. Of course, then I was too scared to sleep for awhile. What if he had another stroke? I learned to live through that fear, and for three years, I appreciated the sleep I finally got, that Bobby got, until Lily was born, and we once again lived the years of fractured nights and splintered days.
By the time Lily was 4 and Rosie was 2, I was tired, literally, and had enough sleep issues of my own to deal with. It was time to get to work on fixing their problems with sleeping through the night, with going to bed at all.
Consistency is important. Bedtime rituals are, too. Removing electronics and stimulation in the hour before bedtime helps (and these go for the grown ups, too).
Turn the tv off. Select soothing music if your children like to listen as they go to sleep. Create a routine that you, the parent, are willing to do each night, and then do it so that these steps begin to trigger that bedtime is fast approaching. Begin to dim the lights.
If you've decided to give melatonin or other meds, make sure you give the dose at the right time (and consult your physician on what that time is).
Have quiet time with your child in his room, read to them, but don't get them riled up. If you know a certain topic will get them upset or excited, avoid it.
Make sure that you have a set time for when you leave their room (as them falling asleep without you is one of the goals--having been there done that with Bobby until after the age of 7 and then fighting it every night until he was 11, I was determined that the girls weren't getting that long--Lily got co-sleeping until she was 4, and Rosie 2, as we started this for both at the same time).
We created rules and would lead the girls back to their room when they toodled out. Lily had night terrors, so that alters things, and Rosie routinely wet the bed, so we modified what we did to take care of issues without letting it involve us sleeping with them.
I won't pretend this fixed everything, made them sleep for as long as I believed they needed, but it did minimize the difficulties, and it let them learn to self-regulate. It's just been this summer that they'be begun to sleep in, and it's a joy not to have to be up before 5 in the morning.
Each family's sleep issues will be unique to them, and the answers they find will be specific to them. Their bedtimes and the rituals they set in place will be distinctly their own. What is important is consistency. We need sleep to function well, and our sleep debt accrues. If you've got a child whose sleep is badly fractured, then seeking help to create a plan to correct this is an important tool. In the mean time, as you fight those sleep battles, make sure that if you get a chance to safely sleep during the day to catch up on your sleep debt that you take it.