I can almost hear the collective gasp of mothers everywhere as I type out the words “sleep training” – the assumptions, the judgment, the “I would never” declarations just waiting to make their way to the comments section of this post. Look, I get it. I get where the anger and vitriol and pitchforks come from. As parents, sometimes that’s all we have. When we’ve lost all control in spite of doing everything “right”, there is nothing left to do but throw up our hands and say, hey – this parenting thing is hard, and nothing I’m doing is working, but I’m doing it for my child. I am suffering for my child, and this rite of passage makes me a good parent. Those parents with the easy babies, the night nurses, the live-in nannies – they are somehow lesser than because they don’t suffer enough; they haven’t earned their martyr badge. And of course, if we’re all honest with ourselves, we realize this just isn’t true. We love our children, and are all surviving the best way we know how. Maybe by asking for help and relieving some of the suffering, we’re actually better equipped to be good parents.
From the moment our baby was handed to me in the delivery room, she had me wrapped around her tiny little finger. The protectiveness and fear came rushing back and I decided then and there to do away with the books, the rules, the do’s and don’ts – I would just go by what my baby needed and what felt right. With our first child, we were slaves to the schedule and our colicky son resisted at every step. Our struggle to log times and feedings and analyze his every move did nothing except add to the already stressful experience of caring for a newborn, so I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. But after six months of tending to my daughter’s every whimper and nursing on demand, I had arrived at the same place by way of a different route – I had a baby that wasn’t sleeping and a work/life schedule that was not standing still for my sleep deprived self. I cried from exhaustion and frustration daily, and between referencing Wonder Week Leaps, growth spurts, and phantom teething diagnoses with only smooth gums to show for it, I was starting to think I had no idea how to take care of a baby. I had lost all confidence in my abilities as a mother, my performance at work had taken a dive, and I was barely hanging on as a wife and mother to our older child. I misplaced my car keys, wedding ring, and got into a car accident – a domestic hat trick that could only end in a disastrous grand finale. I was a ball of exhaustion and my emotions were being released into random bouts of crying and hysterics, which were usually (always) directed at my husband. When he finally grew tired of being at the receiving end of my misplaced anger, he threw a Hail Mary – “please, can we just hire a sleep trainer already?” At this point, I had lost my fight, my pride, my “but I would NEVER hire a sleep trainer…” declarations. I was desperate and was fighting the beginnings of hallucinations from six months of no sleep. So, we hired one. And it ended up being the best decision we ever made.
It would be irresponsible of me to prescriptively recommend the exact plan we followed, because every baby and situation is different. But I will share a few things I learned from working with a sleep trainer that will hopefully help you, or at least help you decide if one is right for you. Now, please – put down the pitchforks and links to articles correlating cry-it-out children with life-long trauma – and come with me to the land of the rested.
1. A Person is Better Than a Book. I’d read all of the sleep training books, but the problem was – I had read ALL of the sleep training books. I liked elements from different ones but didn’t want to Frankenstein a sleep training program – our girl was obviously a stubborn one and I knew I needed to stick to one plan if I wanted to stand a chance of things working. The advice given in books tends to be a one-size-fits-all solution – sometimes unrealistic if you have an extremely difficult baby or a second child in the picture. Our trainer was able to provide us with a detailed plan based on our older child’s schedule, work schedule, and home life. The best part about having a sleep trainer is having someone who can help you through some of the gray area – like what to do if they just aren’t taking to the schedule, when and how to adjust a schedule, and providing much needed validation during tough times (good job, or stay strong – it will get better). Your partner can provide support as well, but it’s often easier talking to someone who is not emotionally involved. I texted my sleep trainer many late nights, and her quick responses were invaluable in getting me through the first few weeks.
2. Let Your Baby Guide the Schedule. Though we were told to stick to the schedule as closely as possible that first week, the sleep trainer acknowledged that it would take some time for the baby to respond. In our situation, the baby responded to some elements and not others – such as the 8:30am nap (from a 7am wake time). She took a long time to settle, and once she fell asleep would wake up after thirty minutes. After several days of her continuing to follow this same pattern, we discussed possible causes and she suggested pushing her nap an hour later – to ensure she was tired enough to fall asleep and stay asleep. The first day we adjusted the time she slept an hour and a half without crying. From there, we were able to plan the rest of the day accordingly and still keep the goal bedtime and wake time, which were most important. For two weeks we made slight tweaks to the daily schedule until we found her sweet spot – 9:30am and 2pm nap times. She went from sleeping random fifteen-thirty minute blocks to sleeping an hour to an hour and a half for each nap. Instead of forcing the naps at an arbitrary time, we tried to find the best nap times for her within the framework of the schedule.
3. Set Your Baby Up for Success. Crying it out is the term most associated with sleep training, but the fundamental goal behind sleep training is providing an environment for your baby where they’re the least likely to cry. This can be accomplished through a consistent routine, a comfortable, stimulation-free sleeping environment (nothing in the crib, dark as possible, loud sound machine, perfect temperature), and making sure your baby is tired (but not too tired) when you put them down. Before the sleep trainer, I went purely by my daughter’s cues – I’d wait for eye rubbing and crankiness, but there was no real consistency with how long she was awake between naps. Because of this, I was sometimes putting her down too early or too late, which made her more easily wake when she wasn’t necessarily rested yet. With a schedule, I knew that after 3 hours she was extremely sleepy – I could put her down with little resistance and if she woke after twenty minutes she’d put herself back to sleep if I let her be – because I knew without a doubt that she was still tired and could fall back asleep on her own. For her middle of the night feed, I learned that the hours of 1-4am are when babies produce the most melatonin, so to keep the feed within those hours would best ensure that she’d go right back to sleep afterwards.
4. How to Better Read Baby’s Signals. It is important to note that sleep training babies younger than four months is not recommended for several reasons – babies younger than four months old do not have the ability to self soothe, and their erratic development and schedules make it more difficult to pinpoint their needs. After four months, most babies have developed the ability to sleep for longer blocks of time. For most moms, four months is enough time to start recognizing patterns in your baby – such as when they’re distressed, tired, or hungry, and the differences in behavior attached with each need. With that baseline understanding you’re better equipped with the confidence needed to sleep train. A soft cry for five minutes is less concerning to you because you know they’ll be ok, and you’re more likely to recognize a cry that sounds urgent or unusual. Now that my daughter is sleep trained and follows the same patterns everyday, I can tell immediately when something is wrong on the days she acts differently or fights her usual routine. I can assess the problem based on the changes in her routine and it’s much less of a guessing game.
5. What Sleep Training Terms Really Mean. It’s no surprise that parents resist implementing the horribly named “extinction method” with their babies. Contrary to what I thought prior to sleep training – this is not the only method out there and crying it out does NOT have to mean just leaving the baby to cry. You can still check on them, comfort them, and make adjustments so long as you are not physically helping them fall asleep (for example by rocking or feeding them to sleep). Sleeping through the night does NOT mean going the whole night without feeding. My daughter was still feeding several times a night when we started the process, so I asked specifically to keep one feed in our new schedule to make sure she was getting enough to eat, and so the transition wasn’t as hard on her (and me). Sleep training and putting the baby on a schedule are also defined differently – you can give your baby a consistent schedule from when you bring them home, but they do not have the ability to be trained or self-soothe until after four months.
6. Babies Thrive on a Routine. A routine can be as specific as designated sleep and wake times, or as general as a bedtime process (bath, bottle, book). An “easy” baby may not need their entire day mapped out, but if you’re finding every activity is a struggle, your baby may be in need of more consistency. Now that my daughter has followed the same daily schedule for several months, instead of spending the better part of an hour rocking her to sleep, I feel her relax and begin to close her eyes as soon as I darken her nursery and turn on the sound machine. By giving her the same daily schedule and providing the same cues for her before every nap, she knows what to expect – it only takes her five minutes to fall asleep after I put her down.
7. I Can Still Be the Mom I Want to Be. I waited so long to seek outside help because honestly, I enjoyed all the time I was spending with my baby, even if it was in the wee hours of the night. I loved feeding her to sleep, and holding her while we both slept. I loved scooping her up when she was crying if it meant I could provide her safety and comfort. I only aimed to change these things when they were no longer working. She fought co-sleeping (I tried many times), she would cry while I held her, and was just as unhappy being rocked as she was lying in her crib. She was starting to refuse the breast because I was using it as a fix-all solution when I couldn’t tell whether she was hungry or tired. She was cranky all the time, and I had no choice but to change what I was doing. I went through a very palpable grieving period when I was no longer able to feed her to sleep, as that was the first step to helping her learn to self-soothe. I miss those times, but we still cuddle when I read her bedtime stories, I still cover her with kisses in the mornings when she greets me peacefully lying in her crib, and I still hold her for a few brief moments before bed, just for a few minutes to say goodnight instead of until my arms go numb.
Sleep training is not easy, and it is not always a miracle cure. I cried a lot watching my daughter cry, and it took us over a month of stops and starts due to illness to see lasting effects. Every few months I find myself having to go back to basics when my daughter has a sleep regression, but being consistent and disciplined is key. Don’t let the fear of not being able to tend to your baby stop you from trying. There are always exceptions and you should always follow your instincts as a mother over a sleep training regimen, but working with a sleep trainer may help you differentiate between those exceptions and self-doubt. I came out of the experience a much more confident, knowledgeable, and well-rested person than when I started. But more importantly, I have a baby that is much happier because she’s getting the rest she needs.
Sleep Training Resources: