My partner and I had a difficult time with our first baby. She had birth trauma, was colicky, wouldn't take to nursing, and as parent we were clueless. Her sleep trouble began immediately and has yet to subside. She's 7 years old. When she was around 6 or 8 months old, her pediatrician started making the hard sell on sleep training, and by 12 months we gave in. It was one of the worst parenting decisions we've ever made, made painfully obvious by all the ways sleep training almost ended my relationship.
Sleep training is a controversial subject, so I want to start off by saying that my personal experience is in no way mean to encapsulate anyone else's. This is not me saying that people should (or shouldn't) sleep train their children, because different parenting choices work for different parents and their children. This is only a snapshot of our simply awful personal experience of sleep training our first child against what our hearts and parent-guts were telling us. I don't want to preach about how you, or anyone else, should approach the topic of your sleeping infant. Nor am I sharing with with the subtle hope to shame anyone else into making a decisions they don't believe is right for them. I am sharing because my former, first-time mama self really could've used an article like this when we were struggling.
The best thing you can be when it comes to parenthood, in my opinion, is realistic. When you frame your choices around practical expectations, and go into certain situations with both eyes open, your chances of success increase. So, with that in mind and because honesty truly is the best policy, here's how sleep training did almost end my relationship, and here is how:
When We Disagreed
When the pediatrician started pressuring us to sleep train we were both reticent. Our child was bottle-fed half-formula and half-breast milk, so we took turns getting up each night. Thanks to her chronic sleep difficulty, though, we were each getting up at least twice per night, usually more. So, eventually,the doctor's insistence began to wear us down. We would be driving home from the doctor's office when one sleep-deprived parent would start to hedge, "Maybe we should consider...?" and the other would immediately snap and say, "No! We said we were not doing that!"
This back and forth, with each of us switching sides, went on for a while and wore on our already faltering relationship.
When We Fought With The Doctor
I'm not even sure who pushed back against the pediatrician's heavy-handed pressure for us to sleep train. This was our first pediatrician and I wasn't clear then, as I am now, on how inappropriate it was for this pediatrician to have so much attachment to whether or not we sleep trained. She wasn't a specialized developmental pediatrician or anything of the sort, so when she kept insisting we sleep train our baby I thought maybe I'd missed something. Was sleep training really a necessity? Was it not an psycho-emotional decision? Were we hurting our baby if we didn't sleep train her? Seven years, and many disagreements later, I know what I wish I knew then: this doctor had her own agenda that did not include listening to what we as first-time parents had to say about it.
This is the same doctor who, despite our other concerns, said our baby was "too smart" to be autistic and ultimately delayed our developmental evaluation and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis by years. The self-doubt that her dismissive attitude exacerbated and deepened the rift between my partner and I. When one of us stood up to her, the other, like a shamed child, would worry and eventually say something along the lines of, "You shouldn't have done that. Now she'll be upset with us."
When We Both Thought The Other Wanted To
There came a time, due to all this back and forth, that we both thought the other parent wanted to sleep train our baby. We were, as I said before, massively sleep deprived. To this da, neither of us remember how we came to the decision, but somehow we ended up on the other side of the door in a darkened hallway with our baby howling on the other side.
We each blamed the other, too, which absolutely didn't help.
When Our Baby Was Inconsolable
As previously mentioned, first born was always impossible to soothe. As it turns out, difficulty being soothed is one of the signs of ASD in babies. Though the specifics are hazy from the years and the trauma, I recall that we did the method where you put the baby down and come back in if they haven't stopped crying in a certain number of minutes. Upon your return you soothe them without picking them up, leave again and stay gone longer. Over and over and over. Until, eventually, the baby falls asleep.
Our baby didn't fall asleep, though, and she never calmed down. Each time we entered she screamed for us. Each time we left she screamed harder. She shook and she sweat and she gagged. She was absolutely inconsolable. At some point in this method, after a certain number of unsuccessful soothing visits, we would give up and rock her to sleep. Then we would try again the next night.
Listening to and seeing our baby go through this parent-inflicted horror did not bring us closer as a couple. Instead, it drew an even deeper wedge of blame and shame between us. Few things are more of a turn off than seeing your partner not protect your baby from pain, even if you are the one causing that pain.
When Our Baby's Sleep Problems Intensified
I can't be sure how long we tried to sleep train. There will be people who say we just didn't try hard enough, sure, but I have a feeling those are the same people who would tell us our child's autism is just "bad behavior." What I do know, however, is that after the failed sleep training fiasco our baby's sleep problems intensified. It was like her little nervous system was traumatically hyper-vigilant and in a constant state of needing to stay awake to avoid the traumatic bedtime routine.
Or have sex.
Or talk to each other in kind ways.
When Our Baby's Behavior Worsened
Though we didn't think it possible, our baby's inability to be consoled or soothed worsened after our sleep training attempt. She had meltdowns on a daily basis. Teaching her the rules that would be normal for any 12-month-old kid to learn became nearly impossible. If you think about it, though, when you have conditioned your kid to assume you won't come when they need them, and your kid has sensory integration challenges that are confusing and scary, of course you're going to have a child who not only melts down but acts out. Our little one was so frustrated and so confused as to how to get her needs met.
My partner and I were at our wit's end. Each frustrated with our inability to help our child understand and navigate her world, and each frustrated with each other for not having the answers.
When Our Baby Had Night Terrors
It was shortly after sleep training failed that our firstborn started having night terrors. Night terrors are not nightmares. In fact, they are far more devastating and terrifying. She had them every night for an entire year. I would run into her room and pick her up. She would be screaming at the top of her lungs, sweating, shaking, unable to breathe, and unable to be soothed for hours. I would hold her close and rock her in my arms while she pushed against me, stiffened, and seemingly incapable of feeling my love.
My partner was so triggered by his own memories of night terrors he would beg me to calm her down on my own, but I couldn't. His sensory sensitivity made him unable to stay present with her piercing screams. He would snap at me and I've no doubt he blamed me for not being able to calm her. I, unconsciously, blamed him for not only giving her the night terror gene but also not being able to soothe her in a way that made sense to my neurotypical mind.
I'm pretty sure we both hated each other during this time. Or as close to hate as we've ever gotten.
When We Didn't Sleep
Between the guilt over the week we tried sleep training and the subsequent disaster that became her sleep schedule, behavior, and night terrors, my partner and I were basically never sleeping. When one of us did sleep the other would be resentful that they weren't the ones who got the one or two winks. It was awful.
When We Read The Research
As I've said previously, I do not judge other parents for their decisions to sleep train. I'm of the mind that you know your kid and your family best, and each dedicated parent is making the best decision they can for everyone.
That said, for us personally, it was devastating to read some of the research that our pediatrician did not point out when she was trying to convince us to sleep train. It solidified in our minds that we were wrong to not listen to our hearts and guts that told us all along we should not be sleep training.
When We Never Had A Bed Alone Again
Because it was so damn difficult and traumatizing with our first, we didn't even try to sleep train the second and third. Neither of our other children are on the Autism Spectrum, so maybe things would've been different. Who knows, right? While I think not sleep training the next two was the right choice for our family, and it turns out we were able to survive the damage sleep training did to our relationship, it certainly is difficult to not have a bed only to ourselves.