Like many new moms, I wasn't terribly comfortable with the idea of sleep training. I read a lot about it when my son was a newborn, but it always seemed overly harsh to me. It struck me as a way to try to get tiny infants to fit into a mold of how we think they should act and behave, instead of meeting them in the middle.
After I spoke to a friend who sleep trained her own daughter, I conceded that hey, maybe everyone who tried sleep training wasn’t a literal monster, but I still wasn't in love with the idea. It was only until I realized I had totally run out of other options that I took a serious look at sleep training. So I tried the gentlest possible sleep training, and it was still brutal.
A little background: when my child was first born, he was a phenomenal sleeper. At about six weeks, he started sleeping through the night, and my wife and I were counting our blessings. When he hit four months, however, we decided to try co-sleeping, and brought him into our bed to deal with all the night nursing. He was still so little, and I was breastfeeding on demand, so it was more convenient for both of us if he was right next to me.
Then, right around nine months, he learned how to crawl. Suddenly, he couldn’t sleep, and therefore we couldn’t sleep. He spent his nights doing one or more of the following three things: climbing us, wailing, and breastfeeding. Because he was breastfeeding approximately every twenty minutes all night, he was constantly full, and then he tried to do somersaults over our exhausted bodies. The result really wasn’t pretty, suffice to say there was a lot of baby puke, and it was everywhere.
He spent his nights doing one or more of the following three things: climbing us, wailing, and breastfeeding.
"I just wish there was some kind of barrier or containment system, so he couldn’t just lunge off the edge," I said while on the phone with my sister.
"You mean, like...a crib?" she responded. The second she said that, I knew it was time to make some changes.
With a baby who could only remember sleeping in his parents’ bed, who could only fall asleep by breastfeeding in a lying down position and couldn’t handle being moved afterwards, there was just no way to change our sleep set-up without some kind of sleep training. Nonetheless, I was cautious about it from the get-go.
For starters, I knew that I was adamantly opposed to the "cry it out" approach, or the controversial Ferber method, which dictates that parents should leave their children alone when they cry for extended periods of time. (It's not recommend for children under 6 months old).
We were looking at sleep training methods that labeled themselves “no-cry" and modifying them slightly for our lifestyle (and, if I’m being honest, my paranoia). We ended up settling on was basically a modified version of something called “the sleep lady shuffle," which involves putting the crib at the foot of the bed and placing the baby in it while they're awake, then sitting by the crib.
Throughout the entire sleep training process, I questioned what we were doing. I questioned my fitness as a parent. I questioned the goodness of the universe.
Thankfully, we had already established a pretty good pre-bedtime routine, so we were able to stick to our usual pattern — dinner, bathtime, bedtime story, bedtime nursing — and just changed the last part. Instead of falling asleep for the night at the breast in our bed, he would go to his crib, and then my wife would do the Zen Buddhist chant she had been chanting to him since I was sixteen weeks pregnant.
We put a chair next to his crib, and assured him that as long as he was awake, a parent would be right there with him. The idea was to soothe our son as much as humanly possible, while also keeping him in the crib.
In the lead-up to that first night, I tried not to betray my nervousness. My wife and I reminded ourselves over and over again that we were only doing this because he wasn’t sleeping anymore, and even if it was hard, getting some sleep was ultimately the best thing for him. So after he had nursed sufficiently, I handed him off to my wife, who gently placed him in his crib.
He wailed. He cried. He screamed like something was hurting him. I left the room so my wife could take up her comforting vigil next to his crib, but our living room was only one room away, and I’m sure our entire apartment building could hear his protests. There is no way to describe that sound in words, other than to say it’s just the worst sound a parent can hear. He was confused, lonely, and absolutely terrified, and hearing him cry like that broke my heart.
The crying continued for hours. My wife and I had agreed to take turns sitting with him, so we switched off every 10 to 15 minutes. That first night, we did at least 10 switches before everything became a miserable blur. When I was sitting with him in that darkened room, I sang to him softly, murmuring, “It’s OK, baby, Mama is right here with you," while trying to sound as calm and relaxed as possible. But when I was in the living room, I was sobbing and questioning every life choice I had ever made.
He wailed. He cried. He screamed like something was hurting him.
Eventually, he dozed off, and in the quiet my wife and I held each other, trying to grapple with what we had done. Half an hour later, he was up again, screaming his head off. Lather, rinse, repeat. After a few hours I breastfed him again, and then placed him back in the crib. He looked at me like I was a traitor, and I knew he was right.
Throughout the entire sleep training process, I questioned what we were doing. I questioned my fitness as a parent. I questioned the goodness of the universe. It felt like being stuck in a nightmare, and I would have given almost anything to have gone back to the days of simply being puked on all night. However, around the fourth night, I noticed that things were gradually changing. My son started crying less; more importantly, he was crying less loudly. I could tell that he understood that we had not abandoned him, even if he didn’t understand why we weren’t snuggling. One day, he went into his crib, rolled over and went to sleep.
Ultimately, sleep training did work for us, but I haven’t forgotten how awful it was to go through that process. It also helped me become more empathetic toward parents who try other methods of sleep training. I still don’t think cry-it-out is the best method, but I’ve come to understand the cry-it-out parents more than I had ever imagined.
My experience with sleep training taught me that it was important to us that our son know that he was crying with company, even if he didn't cry any less. We wanted him to know that he had us to sit through the hard times with him. But honestly, now, I can also see the appeal of just closing the door and walking away.