…so you’d better teach your baby how to sleep.
The 2nd best piece of advice I ever got as a parent (read on to learn the #1 best piece of advice!) was to always put my baby down partially awake so that he was never dependent upon me to put him to sleep. We did that from the very beginning; I never nursed or rocked J to sleep. Maybe because of this, or maybe it was just pure luck, J was always a good sleeper.
But around 4 months, he started waking more frequently at night because he needed to be soothed. He would wake and need his pacifier to go back to sleep, so Bo and I would make numerous trips to the nursery in the middle of the night to pop it back in. After a couple of weeks of this, we were exhausted and knew this simply wasn’t going to work. Waking to feed was one thing, but waking because he couldn’t self-soothe was a whole other.
Enter: sleep training.
Learning to sleep and self-soothe is, I believe, one of the most important things we can teach our babies. The premise behind sleep training is that a child has certain conditions under which she is used to falling asleep–and you teach her those conditions. If you rock her to sleep every night, then when she wakes at night (and she will wake at night, multiple times) she will need to be rocked to go back to sleep. If you nurse her to sleep, she’ll need to be nursed to go back to sleep. And if she has a pacifier, she’ll need the pacifier to go back to sleep.
Before Bo and I started sleep training J, we spoke to our pediatrician. I knew in my head that sleep training was healthy–both mentally and physically–but my heart was aching at the thought of not going to my child when he cried. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t going to cause any lasting damage to my son, either emotionally or intellectually.
We then read Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber. I can tell you the method here (and I will), but the book is a really interesting read and it will do a few things for you:
- It will give you a brief education in children’s REM sleep, sleep cycles and circadian rhythms.
- It will help you understand the importance of bedtime routines and sleep associations.
- It will help you identify any possible sleep disorders or physical problems before you decide to sleep train.
- It will teach you how to use the interval training method for both naps and bedtime (they’re different!).
- The education and understanding Dr. Ferber provides will give you confidence that you’re doing the right thing for your child. You’ll need that confidence at 2am.
So without further ado, here is the Cliffs Notes version of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (but seriously? Read the book!):
Is Sleep Training Right for Your Family?
If you’ve read the literature, spoken to your pediatrician, and just cannot bring yourself to sleep train–don’t. And don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s okay and it isn’t for everybody. At some point, your child will sleep through the night. I’m fairly sure my parents never even heard of “sleep training” and never used an interval method, and I know I sleep pretty good.
I do know, though, that at some point it is very likely that you’re going to have to draw a hard line and say, Little Dude, get your ass in bed and stay there. But then, I think we’re all going to have to do that at times.
And I also think that some of us are blessed with better sleepers than others. On the one hand, I want to swear by sleep training. I’m a pretty well-rested mama for the most part. But on the other hand, I’ve only used it on one child. One easy child. I have mom friends who have tried it with no luck (I don’t know if they’re doing it correctly–I’m not there). But there is absolutely no way you could ever get me to say that it works, without a doubt, 100% of the time. Because sure enough, the moment I start getting all high and mighty and certain that my way is the way, my next child won’t sleep until he’s 7-years-old. I’d prefer not to curse myself.
So while I don’t care (and you won’t find me sitting in judgment) if you choose not to sleep train–there are those who will care very much if you decide you do want to sleep train. So brace yourself sister.
Parenting is a 24-hour job. (I know. That’s why I’m not leaving the house to go party while my son is sleeping.)
Crying for long periods of time can cause emotional trauma. (Right. Long periods of time. Up to 30 minutes at a time is not a long period of time. Also? Not getting enough sleep can harm brain development. So…)
It isn’t natural for a mother to let her baby cry. (My son cries when I won’t let him play with knives. I still don’t let him play with knives. Seems like a natural choice to me.)
When Do I Start?
Ferber recommends starting around 6 months. With our pediatrician’s approval, we started at 4 months. J was at a proper weight and no longer required (or asked for) night feedings. I really think Ferber is being conservative so that people don’t start too early. This is the mental checklist I used to decide whether or not J was ready for sleep training:
(If your baby is still too young or just not physically ready, consider using “the pause,” as explained in Pamerla Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe.)
Brace Yourself–It sucks.
Sleep training is not easy. At all. In fact, my worst night since becoming a parent, maybe ever, was the first night of sleep training. I followed all the rules and stuck to them, but I cried as hard as my son did. It was awful, terrible, heart-wrenching stuff. All three of us were up all night, and two of us cried like babies. The next day was awful. I cried every time I thought about “what I had done to my son!” the night before. Seriously? My eyes are tearing up right now, just remembering how it felt. I was exhausted and emotional. J, on the other hand? He was chipper and happy and smiled and laughed just like he always did. It was as if the previous night never happened for him, except for he was more tired than usual.
Later that evening, I called a friend who had used the same method. I told her I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. If it was really good for him, why did I feel so awful? That’s when she gave me the absolute best advice I ever received as a parent and I hope you can use it too: If you decide that sleep training is right for you and your family, then you’re right. And if you decide that sleep training is not right for you and your family, then you’re also right. Whatever you do, you’re right, because it’s your family and your child and only you know what’s best for them.
How Long Does It Take?
Recharged and encouraged, I dove into Night 2. This time, though, I was armed with wine, and lots of it. I sat outside his bedroom door with a glass of wine in my hand and I cried right along with him, reminding myself that this really was for his own good. The developing brain needs sleep! But then something magical happened: he stopped crying and went to sleep after only a few minutes. He woke up only a few more times, and only for brief periods. By night 3, he slept straight through. It was that hard and that easy, all at the same time.
It doesn’t usually happen this quickly (our little guy is pretty laid back and, though he will initially fight against the man, he’s pretty quick to wave his white flag), so don’t give up. On average it takes 3-4 days, but it can take up to 7 days, for sleep training to work. If you have a young baby (4-6 months–please don’t start before 4 months) and you see no improvement after 4 days, it’s best to wait a week and try again. She may be too young and not quite ready.
What Happens After Sleep Training?
As I mentioned before, J was always a pretty good sleeper. So when the 4-month sleep regression hit, Bo and I were stunned. So this is what everybody is talking about when they say having a baby is exhausting!
Before sleep training, bedtime went like this: bath, pajamas, books, nursing, put to bed, get out of bed and rock, put to bed, get out of bed and rock, put to bed…..run back down the hall to shove the pacifier in his mouth…run back down the hall to shove the pacifier in his mouth…run back down the hall to shove the pacifier in his mouth…run back down the hall to shove the pacifier in his mouth…
You get the picture.
After sleep training, it was like this: bath, pajamas, books, nursing, put to bed.
He sleeps from 7pm-7am, at least. Sometimes he sleeps until 8am. So, most nights, we’re able to get 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep (I say able to get because we’re usually not smart enough to take it). There is the occasional night when he wakes up and fusses some (usually when he’s teething, sick or off his regular schedule), but even then he’s usually (but not always! Sleep training isn’t magic!) able to self-sooth within seconds.
(Want a brief rundown in how to sleep train? Check out The Cliff Notes Version of Sleep Training.)