My husband Karl and I have a 10-month-old son, and he sleeps through the night. He has done so for about 8 months now, because we successfully practiced the cry it out method of sleep training, which is also known, rather disturbingly, as the “extinction method.”
The extinction method, which is sometimes called the total extinction method (as opposed to graduated extinction, in which you let your baby cry for only a few minutes before going in to pick them up), works like so: put your baby to bed, say goodnight and leave, then come back in the morning. That’s it.
We hadn’t necessarily planned on training our child to sleep in this way. In fact, Karl had once sworn never to leave a child of his alone crying, after his early teenage experience of getting up to care for his baby sister when she cried in the night. But as with many of the notions of parenting I had before my child was born, the reality rarely lined up with the planning.
We became parents in our late 30s. While we both have a few decades of third shift jobs and all-night partying under our belts, we had never before experienced the levels of sleep deprivation that come with having a newborn. I'd been warned that new parenthood would come with no sleep, but this was on a whole other level.
Karl and I are both freelancers with nontraditional schedules, and we have a partnership with a pretty even split of household responsibilities. We were sharing the responsibilities of caring for our baby so completely that we would both get up every time our son cried. Karl would change and soothe our son and then I would breastfeed and rock him back to sleep.
I heard my husband’s disembodied voice on the monitor and saw my baby next to me. Everything was bizarre. My body was wrecked and I was confused.
This schedule was great because it allowed us to equitably share our parenting duties, but it had its drawbacks: by the fourth week of our baby’s life, neither Karl nor I had slept for more than three hours in a row since coming home from the hospital. I hadn’t slept since before going to the delivery room, in fact, because I had an intense three-day labor and two-day recovery period in the hospital. My body was crying out for a long healing rest period.
The moment we came home from the hospital, I started experiencing the first few symptoms of extreme sleep deprivation. The day we were discharged, I was napping on our bed with the baby while my husband had gone to check on a flood in the basement. Karl had left the baby monitor to watch me, and when he saw me start to wake, he said hello to me through the two-way audio function on the monitor. I heard my husband’s disembodied voice and saw my baby next to me. Everything was bizarre. My body was wrecked and I was confused. I was looking at my baby on the bed, and I was convinced that he was one of two babies of mine, even though he is our first and only child. I started wailing until my husband handed the baby to my mother, who was visiting. He washed my feet in the bathtub until I calmed down.
As we entered week five, it was pretty common for my husband and I to have hallucinations in the middle of the night. We were always dealing with the paranoia that we had left the baby somewhere unsafe, or one of us would wake up, see a pillow on the bed and think it was the baby, and then inexplicably exclaim,“ Where is his mouth?” I’m incredibly thankful that there were two of us taking care of our son – one could have feverish, sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations, while the other, somewhat saner partner made sure the baby was OK. We took turns in these roles.
When we took our son in for his two-month checkup, the pediatrician said, to our surprise, that the baby was ready to try sleep training. It was our pediatrician’s controversial opinion that a baby should be sleep trained as soon as he shows signs of being able to soothe himself, such as sucking his thumb. Waiting longer, he warned, would only make the process more difficult.
Just hearing that sleep might be a possibility felt like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
Just hearing that sleep might be a possibility felt like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Still ,we waited a couple of weeks to start, just so we could wrap our heads around the idea. At first, he seemed too young to start sleep training, but our son had been born 16 days past his due date, at a healthy 9 lbs 5 oz, so I reasoned that after we waited a few weeks, he'd essentially be the equivalent of a three-month-old baby, development-wise. That felt more reasonable than sleep training a two-month-old. After reading up on various methods, we decided that total extinction was the way to go. Although it was controversial, there was evidence that variations on CIO were among the most effective sleep training methods for babies.
The first night filled me with anxiety. We fed our son and rocked him until he was sleepy, then placed him into his crib at 8:00 PM, with the plan that we would not come back until 6:15 AM. I knew that he was going to wake in a few hours, and I did all I could to force myself to relax. I stared at the monitor, anticipating his inevitable movement. I started crying and second-guessing our decision for our helpless baby.
I did not sleep at all that first night.
Our son woke up shortly after 12:00 AM and began to cry. He continued to cry for close to an hour. I winced as I turned down the volume on the monitor, while my husband tried to convince me that everything was OK. I was incredibly relieved when my baby finally fell sleep again, his calm breathing showing no sign of distress.
When we went to his crib in the morning, we found our baby well-rested and happy to see us, just as the pediatrician had promised. The next night, our son again woke a few hours into his night, but he only cried for thirty minutes, then fell back asleep. The third night, he woke and cried for only a few minutes before peacefully sleeping again. By night four, he was sleeping through the night, and, outside of occasional teething pain or middle of the night poops, which we attend to as needed, he’s been sleeping through the night ever since.
I stared at the monitor, anticipating his inevitable movement. I started crying and second-guessing our decision for our helpless baby.
Once I became convinced that our son was consistently waking happily after full nights of sleep, I was able to put him to bed, work for a few hours, and then squeeze in a solid six to seven hours of sleep myself. I felt like a human again, and I found myself much more present during the day to care for and play with my son.
I will never sleep deeply in the same way that I did before I became a mom, and I readily accept that as a reality of parenthood. My ears are always tuned to hear my son's cries, even when I’m sleeping. If he wakes up, I wake up. But now those waking periods are fewer and farther between, and we are all a happier family for that.