Sleep training is one of those topics—like breastfeeding, vaccinations and co-sleeping—that elicits a passionate response from a lot of moms and dads. While I understand it may not be for everyone, I wanted to share our story of why (and how) it worked for us along with a few thoughts on kids and sleep that I hope some fellow parent (or parent-to-be) will benefit from reading.
How Sleep — Dreaming of it, Losing it and Helping Your Child Find it — Can Consume Your Life as a New Mom
If there is ONE thing I underestimated about this life-changing ride called parenthood it’s how the idea of sleep — my own, Nick’s, Dean’s, our lack thereof — would come to dominate my life the way it has these past six months. When you have a baby, you know you’re in for sleepless nights. I wasn’t naive to this reality. I just couldn’t have imagined the way I would be OVERWHELMED with all the literature, attitudes and opinions out there on the topic of children and sleep. (This woman’s tongue-and-cheek essay on the subject sums it up pretty well.)
For us, the troubles started around the time Dean turned two months old. Nick and I were exhausted, my son was at the fussiest stage of infancy and I was convinced Dean was never going to sleep well. People were starting to ask us “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” Parental small talk that, to me, had become the most loaded of questions.
It’s SO ridiculous to admit now, but I began to feel like a failure as a parent because Dean had yet to be sleep trained. The one time I’d let him cry it out in his crib for 20 minutes (so I could make myself lunch), I felt as if I’d traumatized us both. I was deterred by books like Babywise (which, in my opinion, advocate sleep training your child too young with too little direction). I was obsessively reading the blogs of mothers whose infants slept like “dreams”. (Despite knowing better, I couldn’t stay away from them.) I’d even started rationalizing to friends and family that Dean was “a bad sleeper” to make myself feel better about things.
By three months, we’d entered a routine of my nursing Dean twice a night and occasionally popping out of bed to give him a pacifier, rock him or pat his bottom to get him back to sleep. Those once-a-night pop-ups started happening a lot more when he turned four months. Suddenly we were up five or six times a night. As he was starting to develop more mature, shorter sleep cycles, Dean couldn’t go back to sleep on his own. So it was up to us to finish the job for him every hour, on the hour.
After a particularly rough night two weeks ago, I told Nick enough was enough. It was time to try sleep training. He was far more reluctant to the concept but, with us both sleep-deprived zombies at work, it no longer felt optional. After reading this post from one of my favorite bloggers, I ordered the book The Sleepeasy Solution. I also had a long-distance friend of mine in New Hampshire (hi Kristen!) who sent me her copy of Richard Ferber’s book, promising me the method had worked for her kids, Dean was at a great age to try it and, oh yeah, wouldn’t it be nice to sleep again?
How it Works
Both books employ similar concepts: After establishing a bedtime routine, you put your child to bed awake. Once they start crying, you check on them at staged intervals (5, 10 then every 15 minutes). I’ve heard people “demonize” the crying out method as cruel and unusual punishment, but now I think those sentiments are coming from parents who’ve never actually read either of the books I’ve cited above. Because both texts do a wonderful job explaining how the process is parent-led (you don’t just leave your kid alone the entire night to cry) and, most importantly, describe in detail how crucial it is for children to learn to sleep on their own. Turns out, falling asleep is not a skill we’re born with but one that must be learned. Think of it this way, Ferber writes: You’re an adult who falls asleep with a pillow every night. But what happens when someone yanks the pillow out from under you? You wake up confused, unable to sleep without having your pillow back. This, essentially, is how babies feel when they wake up to find that the bottle, breast, pacifier or arms that rocked them to sleep are no longer there. (Makes sense, right? This concept really helped me to understand how important this process was as a milestone for my son.)
The first night we implemented the Sleepeasy method, Dean started crying the minute I tiptoed out of the nursery. It took him 35 minutes to stop. Was it hard? Absolutely. But with each night that passed, we started to see tremendous progress. And here we are, two weeks later, and Dean is now consistently sleeping STRAIGHT THROUGH THE NIGHT ON HIS OWN. It’s enough to make me want to run through hills and burst into song, Julie Andrews-Sound of Music-style.
While I know sleep training may not be for everyone—it’s obviously a very personal choice—in the end, for us, the experience was akin to pulling off a Band-Aid. We’d worried so much about it, putting up with the frustrations (sleep deprivation, crankiness, fear of bedtime) its delay brought us. Then, when we actually went through with it, it was FAR less painful than we thought it would be.
I only wish I could go back in time four months and calm the fears of the mother who worried incessantly that her infant son was never going to sleep through the night. This is the one issue as a parent I have regrets over, which is why I’ve felt so passionately about writing in such detail about it here.
What I Want Other New Moms to Know
If I could sit down with a new mom (hiring her a babysitter to give us the luxury of an hour together over cups of tea), sleep would be the No. 1 topic of discussion. I don’t want any new mom to unnecessarily go through the weeks of frustration (and tears!) that I did. Here’s what I would want her to walk away from the conversation remembering — and if you happen to be that young mom reading this right now (or the friend of one), here is what I’d tell you too:
• Don’t worry about sleep training until your baby is at least four months old: Most experts seem to agree that, before the four month mark, babies really do need the comfort of their parents when they’re crying (day or night). I know it’s the choice of parents on when to sleep train (if they choose to do it). Some will decide to do it before four months, but I’m positive their experience will be filled with a LOT more tears (from both them and the child) than if they’d waited a few more months. Babies won’t make any sleep associations (ie, needing to be rocked or given a bottle to fall asleep) before four to five months. So parents of newborns, you do whatever you need to do to get your baby to sleep. And enjoy that time together because it’s a stage that passes so quickly. I regret the time I wasted worrying about Dean’s sleep habits as an infant and wish I would have better enjoyed those hours we spent in the rocking chair together.
• If you do sleep train, be consistent: This is where sleep training can get you. You and your partner REALLY have to follow the method to a T. At one point after Dean had been crying for 20 minutes, Nick looked at me and said, “Can’t I just give him his pacifier?” My response? “N-O.” There’s no better way for you to fail at sleep training (and give the method a bad rap) than by being inconsistent. As the authors of both books write, if you give your kid inconsistent or mixed messages (sometimes helping him to sleep, sometimes not), he’s going to sleep less and cry MORE. Don’t do it!
• If it doesn’t work for your family this time, consider trying again in a few weeks: I’ve come to learn this way of thinking applies to most everything with parenting. Your child hates solids? Try again in a week. Your child isn’t loving to sleep unswaddled? Try again in a week. Can’t get him or her out of the bed you’re sharing? Try again in a week. It’s been amazing to me to see how many times I’ve wanted to scream in frustration over some parenting roadblock, only to let it go, give it a try a short time later, and then think, “Geesh, why did I get so worked up over this?” My guess is sleep training might fall under this sliding scale of developmental changes too.
If you’ve read through this entry in its entirety, bless your heart. If you want to tell me your own thoughts about sleep training (if it worked for you, if it didn’t work for you, whatever the case may be), I’d welcome the comments. And if you want to pass this essay along to a bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived new mother who might be just as confused and frustrated by her child’s inability to sleep as I was, even better. Tell her I said “Things will get better“. Because, truly, they will and do.