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I know sleep is a hot topic for parents from all walks. I fall in the “sleep training is a gift to baby and parents” camp. Here is a video that explains the science behind stress levels and sleep training. Any inflammatory comments will either be responded to with sarcasm or deleted entirely.
My Introduction to Baby Sleep
Our daughter Casey was born in March 2013. After five years of marriage, we were ready to take the parenthood plunge and I proceeded to take a year of maternity leave to spend in bliss raising our little bundle of joy.
She was a bit of a fussy newborn, maybe borderline colicky. An excellent breastfeeder who was a happy spitter. No reflux or digestion issues, other than puking on everything. A happy, healthy little peanut.
In the beginning, we were just going with the flow and figuring each other out, sleep wise.
Wanting Things to be a certain way
A lot of my friends followed the attachment parenting philosophy and had very well-adjusted older kids and teenagers. Parents would tell me the wonderous tales of having flexible kids who slept anywhere at any time that was convenient for them.
They also bed-shared and raved about it.
I naturally wanted all these things in my life.
When Casey woke up from her sleepy newborn state, it was apparent that she was very particular. She had an aversion to napping on her own. She did not like sleeping at night for long stretches. She would sleep on me during the day, but not in bed with me during the night.
She hated her soother but needed it.
She fussed and fidgeted while she lightly dozed instead of falling into a deep sleep.
She fought swaddling but needed it.
She wouldn’t let me rock her to sleep but demanded to be held.
Breastfeeding wasn’t even a surefire way to get her to sleep.
Other parents would suggest simple things that worked for their babies (“just lay her in the crib and see what happens…” yeah, no). Their simple, non-helpful answers made me think I was doing something wrong. Like I was a bad mother or something.
I was ragged. A hollow shell of myself. All the coffee in the world didn’t work for me.
My breaking point
At 3 months of age, Casey and I went to stay with my parents for a week during the summer while my husband worked in the city. It was a disaster that ended in a hotel room the last night of the visit. We had traveled to another town to go to my brother’s wedding.
My husband had to coach his baseball team and would meet us at a wedding on Saturday, leaving me solo in my hotel room with a baby that had not napped or slept well in a week with only one person who could put her to sleep (me).
She didn’t sleep a wink.
Not in the playpen, not on me, not next to me in the bed. Not with me vigorously rocking her to keep her quiet in the room at 3 am. Praying didn’t work. Neither did swearing under my breath. Or swearing above my breath.
That night was my last straw.
By the time my husband came to the wedding, I was oscillating between hysterical exhaustion tears to anger that would scare a grizzly bear.
I don’t even remember the wedding.
Casey broke me. I think this is what postpartum depression could possibly feel like. Writing about it 4 years after the fact still brings me to tears. I feel like I failed on so many levels to be a gentle, nurturing, bed-sharing parent.
But my child has needs different from what I perceived.
She needed the gift of independent sleep.
We needed to ditch the holding, soother and sleep crutches that would help her drift off somewhat successfully into dreamland for short periods of time.
Choosing a sleep training method to improve my mental health
As soon as we returned home, my husband and I had a frank discussion about what we needed to do about Casey’s sleep so that I didn’t go crazy. Around that time there was an extreme news story about a mother who experienced postpartum psychosis and ended the lives of her two young children as well as herself.
That story scared the crap out of me.
I knew that we had to get this sleep under control. What we were experiencing was possibly in the realm of normal for a 3-month-old, but I was not doing well in managing it. My husband was very helpful, but with me being the one with breasts, I was much more involved in the process during the wee hours of the morning.
My sister, God bless her, talked to me about healthy sleep and babies before I gave birth. She warned me that having well-rested babies came at the expense of going out, having flexible bedtimes, and sharing beds. I didn’t want to lose my freedom or social life just because I had a baby. This didn’t sound at all as blissful as what my attachment parenting friends talked to me about, so naturally, I tried to ignore her advice and listen to them.
I started using that afternoon nap holding time to read some books. I read them all and will list them below, but there was one that stood out by far as the best. That book is Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth.
My eyes were opened to the important world of healthy baby sleep.
We decided with Casey’s particularities that any parental interventions or attempts to soothe her would be more stimulating than soothing, so we chose to use the extinction method to help teach her the skill of independent sleep.
If you’re unfamiliar with this style, it’s the simplest on paper to describe, but the most difficult for parents in execution. You simply put your well-rested baby to bed and let them figure out how to soothe themselves to sleep- no interventions, no time limits. This definitely involves some crying, if not a lot of crying.
We decided to maintain her night feeds, as she was a very small baby (born at only 6 lbs).
Preparing for a great night’s sleep
Before we started our big sleep training plan, we did a few things to set Casey up for successful sleeping. We got some white noise and cranked it up in her room using a speaker. Her room’s temperature was checked each evening to make sure she wouldn’t be too hot or too cold.
A bedtime routine of a night-time bath, diaper change, putting on pajamas and a sleep sack began. We also had a shorter diaper/sleep sack/nursing routine for naps that we did in the same order every time we put her to sleep.
We also made sure that she had an age-appropriate schedule and enough naps by monitoring how long each wakeful period lasted to prevent overtiredness from setting in (though it had already with her poor napping and night sleep).
The Extinction Method of Sleep Training
The first night we began sleep training, we followed her bedtime ritual, nursed and put her in the crib awake. She cried for 40 minutes. I know this because I charted her sleep from night 1 of sleep training to well past her first year. It was awful. She cried, I cried.
Night two, she cried for 15 minutes. No crying on night three. Nights four and five she cried for 20 and 25 minutes. Then she really didn’t cry much at bedtime.
She still woke in the middle of the night 1-3 times for a feed, and I allowed this to happen until she was 14 months old. I probably should have night weaned her much earlier, but hindsight is 20/20.
She also would cry for a minute or two at bedtime and naptime if she was a little overtired, but she always managed to get herself to sleep.
Four years after the fact, I can tell you that sleep training was probably the best thing we did for our darling Casey. I will tell you, it was not a cure-all.
- She did not nap well until she was down to one nap at around 16 months of age.
- We had to guard her schedule like sleep nazis. No late evenings, no missing naps, no excuses. We missed out on weddings, potlucks, Bible studies, birthday parties and other social gatherings until she was around 2 years old. If it was an important event, we could hire a sitter, but she didn’t miss bedtime. Ever.
- She woke in the middle of the night for far too long (we did another round of extinction sleep training for the middle of the night feeds at 14 months).
- We also dealt with 4:30 and 5 am wakeups from 16-20 months because of poor naps at daycare- the problem resolved itself on its own, thankfully. UGH.
People have commented over the years about how happy she is. She has never had an overtired freak out in public. She didn’t really go through the terrible twos (which I attest to her being very well-rested!). What we have is a very flexible, lovely girl.
We also get compliments about how well she’ll go to bed for naps (now quiet time) and bedtime. Babysitters can easily follow her routine and she will fall asleep within minutes. No shenanigans, tears or stall tactics.
In fact, today, after lunch, Casey put her plate on the counter and happily said “night mommy!” and bounced up the stairs to her room for her quiet time while I tended to her little brother’s needs on the couch.
She’s an amazing sleeper. Incredibly smart and well-adjusted. She didn’t suffer psychologically and is well attached to both her mom and dad.
The second time around
As many of you know, we now have a new baby in the house! Leo was born 8 weeks ago, and we are actually looking forward to sleep training him! Not to the tears, of course!
He is still a newborn and requires our attention to make sure his needs are met. We aren’t monsters- we happily oblige him in making sure he’s fed, changed, napped/put to bed and of course showered with love and affection.
At 12 weeks old, we will begin teaching young Leo how to fall asleep by himself as well. It will involve some crying, but we know how dangerous sleep deprivation can be for his mom (me) and also for his development.
He will ultimately be an even happier baby (if that’s possible… little man is seriously laid back and much happier than his fussy sister) once he can be put down, roll over and drift off into dreamland on his own.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
If you are struggling with your baby’s sleep and are as miserable as I described above… please reach out!
Sleep training can be very beneficial for you and for your baby. Postpartum depression is not.
Can you imagine how miserable an overtired baby must feel? I know how miserable I am when I’m overtired. I am a bear.
If you are on the fence because you’re not sure of the outcome, please hear me when I tell you those initial nights of anguish are worth it. I’ve read stories from other parents who have been set free from their baby’s poor sleep health with 20 minutes of crying. Some babies desire to go to sleep independently, and we as their loving parents are preventing it!
Some babies desire to go to sleep independently, and we as their loving parents are preventing it!
Sleep training is not an event, it’s a journey. It’s your baby learning to fall asleep independently as well as the parent(s) learning when and if it’s necessary to intervene. Years after the first night, we still follow our sleep training rules and rituals. If you are considering sleep training your baby, please consider that you will have to be consistent in this new routine for your child to experience success. Are you ready?
What was your experience with baby sleep? Did you have to train? What method did you use?