Here I am again after a hiatus, as I’ve been adjusting to life as a mama to my truly charming and adorable little babe. This post has been writing itself in my head and as I sit in my quiet home with my husband, son and dog sleeping with just enough energy to see this through, I’m sitting down to write this post at last.
When you have a baby the first, and sometimes only thing most people will ask as the ice breaker or seemingly idle chit-chat is how your little one is sleeping. But unlike a “How about this weather” type of small talk this is a highly charged topic, and unless you’ve had some seasoning as a parent, you really have no clue what you’re getting into when you respond to these questions, or at least it was like that for me. When my son was in his newborn months, he co-slept with me and his sleep stretched for four or more hours at a time from when he was about three weeks old. As a breastfeeding mom, half-asleep I’d side-lying nurse him back to sleep next to me and would manage to feel tired but not terribly fatigued during the day.
When he was three months old, I took him in to see coworkers at my former workplace and nonchalantly shared those sleeping patterns when asked. I got some book recommendations to which I said thank you and let that into slip my mind. I was fried from my new role as a mom and reeling from my recent move to the suburbs, but sleeping was tolerable so I didn’t think too much about it, as amazing as that is in hindsight.
This all changed when my son reached about four months old. If you’re the parent of a child older than this age, you know what I’m talking about: the four-month sleep regression. To put it concisely, babies go through a developmental spurt at this age that leaves them unable to sleep as long as they had been. It started with my son waking up every couple of hours. And I did my thing, he woke, I’d nurse him, then we’d fall back to sleep. After a few days, I noticed how tired I was getting, but I kept it up, expecting that eventually he’d go back to the four-hour stretches at least. He didn’t.
Those few days stretched into weeks, and I lamented how tired I was but kept it up, with him waking up every hour or less some nights. At this point I starting getting wise to the debate raging on around me about baby sleep. In one corner, are the sleep trainers, who advocate the importance of teaching a baby to “self-soothe” him or herself to sleep, and in the other, are the folks who sternly warn against this practice and advocate parenting your baby back to sleep, with the expectation that when they’re ready, babies will knit together their sleep cycles and sleep for longer stretches. I was firmly in the latter camp. Before I was even pregnant, I knew I wanted to follow the attachment parenting gentle path of raising my child. In my Dr. Sears book of that title, there is a chapter stating, Beware of Baby Trainers, decrying any method of parenting that puts your baby on a schedule or trains him to sleep, with the cost being your connectedness to your baby. Attachment parenting philosophy focuses on using parenting practices that foster a strong bond with your baby, building confidence and emotional health. Since it has a strong anthropologic foundation of raising children with methods used by ancient cultures, plus a strong dose of compassion and a measured view of what you can expect from your baby, it appealed to me enormously. So when the sleep advice started coming in, I smiled, nodded and flicked it aside, just knowing that if I let my baby cry-it-out (CIO) through sleep training, I’d be damaging him. If I heard of moms who had done CIO, I would be stunned and horrified, wondering how they could not have read the research that says this is harmful, in short and primarily because the stress hormones that flood the baby’s system when they’re crying has adverse effects on their development, among other justifications for not doing it. Just as my baby needed me during the day, I’d be there for him at night and never let him CIO, or so I thought.
So I continued to nurse my baby to sleep for the night, and with each numerous waking. It wasn’t an option for anyone else to feed him at night since fr om about when he was three months old he steadfastly refused to drink from a bottle. This growing little dude wanted his meals right from the tap.
And I grew increasingly miserable from lack of sleep. I cancelled plans because I knew it was unsafe for me to drive. I snipped and barked at my husband and had emotional crying jags where I’d fall on the floor from exhaustion. A close friend I confided in with my desperation for sleep would worry and check in nervously by text if she hadn’t heard from me in over a day since that usually meant I’d had some kind of meltdown.
In the book The No-Cry Sleep Solution, the co-sleeping, attachment parenting author covers gentle ways to coax your baby to sleep, without tears. At first I wouldn’t even pick the book up since I was that averse to any sleep training of my child. But after months of not sleeping for more than 2 hours at a stretch, I decided to give it a go. I poured over it, and drew up a plan. Since a well-rested baby sleeps best, we got serious about naps. We implemented an earlier bedtime (7pm), and put together a nighttime routine that included lullaby music, a massage, pjs, books, and then rocking to sleep–addressing the sleep association of nursing him to sleep. This liberated me quite a bit since my husband could put him to bed and it wasn’t all on me anymore. And the first night he slept close to seven (yes!) at a stretch. I was so excited I barely slept.
But that was a short-lived success. After that one night, he went back to frequent wakings, and then a few days later he came down with a nasty cold he picked up at a party. He had a fever, runny nose and cough, and the only way he could sleep comfortably was by laying on me or my husband’s chest through the night.
Then I got sick, hubby picked up the bug, and the “Frankencold” as I called it, lept households to my in-laws’. I lost my resolve to not nurse him back to sleep after he woke up and continued to contend with constant wakings, sometimes every 45 minutes and so often that I would lose track of how many happened through the night. Naps were erratic and full of struggle, where he’d need to be rocked, driven around or nursed to sleep and then held while he slept. I desperately tried catching up on sleep after my husband woke for the day and could take him before work, or on the weekends he would pick him up at 3am and hold him until the morning so I could sleep. I had family insisting that I try sleep-training, but I brushed it off. If someone pointed out that’s how they’d raised their children or they’d been raised, it frustrated me since parental practices have moved forward over the course of a generation. Our little guy had a delightful little personality emerging, where he’d play contentedly for long stretches of time with his toys, barely fussing and full of bright smiles. My husband and I ached with love for him and couldn’t bear the thought of him crying alone in the dark.
In a dark humor kind of way, I chuckled to myself when I started wondering if my lack of sleep could lead to a psychotic break, and slightly hoped for it since a hospital stay would mean I could sleep. One mom who I respected offered up that she had sleep trained her baby, was enjoying full nights of sleep, and her baby seemed unaffected. But coming up with the resolve to bring my husband into some kind of sleep training plan when I was in a such a haze proved difficult. I stalled on it and grew more and more exhausted. The thought of bringing someone in to fix the issue for me sounded appealing and I briefly considered spending hundreds of dollars from my savings to bring in a sleep expert. Then one night, as I sat in bed awake with frustration after hours of trying to rock my baby back to sleep, I googled sleep training and came upon a very informative website called Troublesome Tots, and it worked some magic on me. The blogger behind the site handily debunked the theory of sleep training being harmful but making the case that it would take some significant neglect (e.g. Romanian orphanage level) for the adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones to aversely affect your baby. In fact, a few nights of crying many days and nights of poor sleeping would stress out your baby much less. I also came around to the idea that a better-rested mom would be a better mom overall. I continued reading and found an article saying that sleep training was a safe practice. Reading up on development topics also showed me that with him at about seven months old, we were at a stage where it would be more difficult to do the sleep training, but it was not too far gone for us yet. By sleep training him now, we would be addressing his object permanence issue of getting startled that he’s waking up in a different place than he fell asleep (similar to how you’d feel if you went to sleep in your bed and woke up on your driveway). He needed to fall asleep on his own to learn how to knit his sleep cycles together on his own. I also got hip to the idea that CIO was a misnomer of a term, and that we weren’t about to abandon our baby to cry on his own, that it was just letting him cry, so he could figure out how to put himself back to sleep, and in doing so, he could start getting an age-appropriate amount of sleep.
I was able to sort out that we had three issues to face, transitioning him to his crib, sleep training, and night weaning, and it was best not to do everything at once. I still feared however that something would happen to my baby’s happy little disposition if we tried it. I knew in my heart that our connectedness fostered by the attachment parenting cornerstone of co-sleeping had helped my little guy to thrive. But I also had the hunch that if I moved him out of our bed, the wakings would let up since he didn’t smell his next meal right next to him. I knew also that the window on moving him out of our bed seamlessly was closing since he would be approaching the separation anxiety phase, and I knew I didn’t want to do extended co-sleeping into the toddler years. We bought a crib, but I still resisted, and after it arrived it sat in the box for a few weeks before my father-in-law put it together for us. It was time to start moving him out of our bed, so we tackled that first.
We put him down to sleep in his for the first part of the night, before moving him into bed with me after the first waking. I also got him acclimated to it during the day by putting him down with a bunch of toys to play, showing him this was a safe and happy place.
Then as the Martin Luther King, Jr. long weekend approached, I thought that might be a good time to start sleep training, since my hubby would be home for three nights in a row. We had cancelled plans with friends to go away that weekend since sleeping was such a state of mishigas. Still, I resisted a bit, but when I spoke to my worried friend about it, she simply said, “I think you should do it”, and with that I decided, we’re going to do this. It also occurred to me that maybe part of my resistance had to do with a disbelief that I could “have it all”; a happy, delightful baby who also slept well.
One mom who had successfully sleep-trained her happy baby gave me some guidance, and I took the Dr. Ferber book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems out of the library. Another attachment parenting mom of two, whose advice I very much respected, also encouraged me. ”Be consistent” was the mantra. So that Friday night, we did what was once so unthinkable to me, we started sleep training our baby. Would he stay our happy and confident little guy? More on that in my next post.