Let me begin this possibly controversial post by saying that many, if not most, of my friends sleep train their babies. As you read this, you’ll see that I am passionate about this issue, but I also respect that others make a different choice. This post isn’t written to stand in judgment of those who use some form of sleep training, but rather as an encouragement to a mom who may feel torn. I was that mom 9 years ago. I wanted so badly to make the right choice for my family, and I felt blessed to have encountered other moms who inspired me to make the best choice for our family.
In our house, there is no crying it out. There is no leaving a baby alone for any length of time, actually, unless she’s asleep. There isn’t even a bona fide crib.
Shocking, I know.
In our house, there is a mini pack-n-play that is currently used as storage for diapers and burp cloths. (Yes, we need that many burp cloths. She’s a regular ol’ Vesuvius, this one.) There’s a king-sized bed that holds two grown up people and one tiny person. In the early light of day, sometimes one or two more smallish people might sneak in. It is a very comfortable bed, after all.
It wasn’t always this way. Long ago, 5 babies ago to be exact, Kevin and I spent more money on nursery furniture than we had previously spent on the furniture for the whole rest of our house. A glider, a changing table/dresser with a hutch, and a verrrrrry fancy crib set the scene for tiny Gianna when she came home from the hospital.
Little did I know. Gianna has always had pretty strong opinions about things. As a baby, she let me know fairly early on that there would be none of this crib sleeping business. Nurse her, lay her down, tiptoe out, sit down on couch, baby cries, rinse and repeat. Every night. Until I went to bed and brought her with me, the longest stretch I would get was 30 minutes without her in my arms.
I knew I didn’t want to listen to my baby cry. It went against every instinct in my body, and I knew those instincts were there for a reason. The months dragged on, though, and I tried every “gentle” approach on the market. They all failed and I began to despair. All my friends had babies who slept.* All my friends could leave their kids with grandparents and have a night out. I didn’t even bother. I mean, my baby refused a bottle at daycare for 4 long hours, every single day, and waited for me to come on my lunch break and nurse her. Every. Day.
When Gianna was 9 months old, we found out we were pregnant again. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I sat down and wept bitterly. I was so tired, so worn out, at the end of such a frayed rope I couldn’t imagine holding on. Throw another baby into my arms and I would lose my grip altogether.
I decided then and there that all that gentle parenting crap was just a lot of hooey, and by golly, my 9 month old was going to learn to sleep on her own if it was the last thing I did. I picked one of those dreaded sleep training books off my shelf and we made a plan. But again, Gianna didn’t follow the plan. Hours of crying. Hours of crying every night. It’ll get better, the book said. Just a few days, my friends said.
But it didn’t get better. After nearly 2 weeks of hours of nightly crying, I realized that somewhere along the way, my heart had closed off to my child. Her cries didn’t affect me anymore. I had lost compassion and empathy for her to the point of feeling annoyed when she bumped her head or frustrated when she cried to nurse. I started to feel a little frightened by my own indifference. But I still persisted with the desperate hope that once she just “got” it, we’d all sleep better and I would become the mom I knew I was deep down.
The most disturbing effect of all came when after 2 solid weeks of sleep training with zero positive results, I sat down to play with my daughter, and she wouldn’t look me in the eye. She didn’t smile or clap or play pattycake. She didn’t want me to tickle her or read her a book. She turned her back on me over and over. All day this behavior went on, and my heart broke.
That very day, we stopped sleep training. I told Kevin, “I can live on no sleep. I cannot live with a broken relationship.”
It took only a few days to reestablish trust with my baby girl. It took a couple more months to get her into any kind of reliable sleep pattern. (Thank you, husband, for taking over that role.)
I’ve never sleep trained any of my other kids. To be honest, there are moments when I wish I could. I wish life, and parenting, was as easy as the books make it sound. I wish I could shut off after 8 p.m. and not deal with any children until after I’ve had my morning coffee. But babies are inconvenient. Babies are needy and fussy and difficult and unpredictable.
Then again, so am I. And she, sweet baby that she is, lets me sleep next to her every day and awakens me with a smile and a snuggle. I guess I can reciprocate.
*I’ve since come to believe that sleep is sort of like the greener grass. It sure seems like everyone else is getting more than you, but that may not be the case.
The nitty-gritty on how we manage:
~We do not use a baby monitor. Our house is small and I hear the baby as soon as she cries a real cry. I think a big part of the issue with Gianna was that by using a monitor I would hear her sleep noises and rush in, even if she wasn’t actually awake.
~We do use a sound machine to block out noise. Sometimes it seems like I have to turn the volume up to “airplane tarmac” level to do so, but it makes a difference.
~We swaddle (at night only) for the first few months. It seems to help quite a bit.
~We try to set a routine. Not a schedule, but a routine where baby knows what to expect. It’s difficult with all of our obligations, but we do our best.
~At various ages and stages:
- Infancy through about 14 months: baby sleeps in our bed at night. Naps may be in our bed, a pack-n-play, or on a futon in our room when he/she gets mobile. We are careful to follow safe co-sleeping practices, especially when baby is very small.
- Around 14-17 months: we night wean using the Dr. Jay Gordon method. It has worked for us with all 4 children that we’ve used it with, but twice we did realize the baby wasn’t ready so we stopped and tried again a month later.
- After night weaning: if sleeping is going well and there isn’t another baby around, we generally let the little one continue to co-sleep. This all depends on whether we are all sleeping well, though. If not, we typically move them out of our bed and into a shared room with another sibling. Oftentimes we start them off by sharing a bed with an older sibling.
Aren’t you exhausted?
Sometimes, yes. Honestly though, that’s more my fault than the baby’s. I tend to stay up way too late. Sleeping with a baby is second nature to me, and unless there is some extenuating circumstance, I sleep right through nursing sessions and get a decent amount of rest for the time I’m actually in bed.
Do you worry about your baby manipulating you?
No. Unequivocally and without question: No no no. Infants cannot manipulate. They do not have the cognitive skill to do so. When they cry, it is because they need something. Comfort, food, whatever it is, it is real to him/her. Manipulation has nothing to do with it.
Do you worry that they won’t ever sleep through the night?
I have 5 kids and 4 of them sleep well. Because of that, I’m much more at peace with this than I used to be. However, 2 of my 4 big kids took longer to sleep well at night. They’re needier kids by nature, and while I don’t really enjoy that, I know that this parenting gig is actually a 24-hour job, every single day. So we handle it and pray for it to pass.
I could never do that.
That’s not a question, but that’s alright. 😉 I hear you. Some people are very light sleepers and having a baby in their room is disturbing and overwhelming. I don’t think that it necessarily means you have to go to the extreme other end of the spectrum, though. I know plenty of people who sleep in a different room than their baby and yet they respond when the baby cries. It builds the same trust.
I know that my experience with Gianna is not a universal one. Many children cry for a short time for a few nights and seem to learn to soothe themselves to sleep. I’m not entirely sure it’s as simple as all that, but I’m also not so emotional that we made all of our sleep decisions based on that one experience. There’s a wealth of research on child development and infant attachment that influenced us as well. Erik Erikson’s stages of development, ancient practices as well as practices in other cultures, plus brain development and research on the mother-baby bond are all supportive of co-sleeping/responding to children’s cries. Shoot me an email if you’d like more information or you can check out Dr. Sear’s The Baby Sleep Bookor Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution.