I was on the brink this past month. My 9-month-old son was just starting to learn to self-soothe at bedtime, but getting himself to sleep at nap time was just not happening. He had a lot of help from the car, the stroller, and the bouncer. I basically had to tip-toe around him every time he fell asleep, and I was getting irritated at the sound of leaves falling. No matter what I did or how quiet I was, everything threatened to wake him up. I started telling myself, “This kid has got to get himself to sleep or I’m gonna go nuts," and truth be told, I really felt like I was going to. I'd tried to let him cry it out before, but to no avail. I thought I had just had one of those kids who wouldn’t sleep without help. So I gave up.
But this time around, I was desperate for a fix that worked. So I emailed my editor and asked her if I could do this experiment. I was determined to successfully let my son cry it out at nap time. Not only had I been getting ever-more biting comments from my mother about not letting my son cry himself to sleep, but I was also worried that the older my baby was getting, the more incapable he'd be to calm himself down when he was tired. To put it frankly, I didn't want to still be rocking him to sleep until he was 15. I wanted to find a sleep solution for us both. The "cry it out" method, often referred to as The Ferber Method, is the technique allowing a child 6 months old or order cry themselves to sleep for a predetermined amount of time, developing the ability to soothe themselves to sleep without parental intervention.
I believed that my son's growing ability to get himself to sleep at bedtime would transfer into nap time, so I decided to make another attempt at letting him cry it out at nap time for the next 10 days. This would be a tricky week, as we were headed for vacation on day four of this experiment, but I felt it was the perfect time to let my son cry it out. I thought if he could cry it out on vacation, he could cry it out anywhere.
So after his 10:30 a.m. bottle, I planned to wait for his cues of sleepiness, like rubbing his eyes, yawning, zoning out, etc., and then I'd read to him, tell him it was time for "sleepy night night," kiss him, and set him down in his port-a-crib and walk away. I would allot 20 minutes maximum of him crying it out, and then I'd intervene if he hadn't stopped. I was hoping to see if he'd be able to get himself to relax and eventually sleep for an hour or two, so that he'd wake up well rested.
Day 1: The Perfect Sleeper
My son woke up at his usual time (7 a.m.) and we went through our normal morning routine: solid-food breakfast at 7:30, playtime, and a bottle three hours later. At around 11 a.m. we were in the living room with my mom when I noticed he was rubbing his eyes and starting to get whiny. I looked at my mom, took a deep breath, and said, “OK I’m gonna just try to put him down for a nap." I took him into the room where his portable crib was and set him down on the bed to read him a story very quietly. I fed him the last bits of his bottle, rubbed his back, kissed him, and then set him in the crib and left the room. Cue the immediate crying.
I cursed my cockiness from the day before.
I tried to block it out while sitting with my mom in the other room, listening to her tell me, for the umpteenth time, the importance of letting him learn to self-soothe. I rolled my eyes so hard at her that I didn’t notice there was no more noise coming from the other room. Could it be? IT WAS! He was asleep! I checked the clock, within 15 minutes he had fallen asleep himself. My son slept for an hour-and-half for his morning nap. He woke up a little groggy, but mostly cuddly, and within 20 minutes was refreshed and ready to play. That night, he slept the whole time without waking up.
Day 2: Was This Too Good To Be True?
Again, we followed our same morning routine, only we woke up a bit earlier than yesterday, which meant that nap time was going to be earlier too. I repeated all of the steps I took yesterday, crept out of the room, and waited to see what happened. Thirteen minutes later, there was once again absolute silence. I snuck in, took a picture, texted my mom and sister-in-law, and prematurely posted on Facebook. (You’ll see why I say, “prematurely” in the days to come.) I thought I'd cracked the code on crying it out with kids!
All of those nights of work my mother and I had put in to get him to self soothe were now paying off. I could finally relax and get stuff done because my kid was out like a light. He slept for almost two hours this day and woke up refreshed and ready to play. He did wake up around 4:30 a.m. and drank a full bottle, but I was able to set him into his crib where he immediately went back to sleep.
Day 3: Yup, Too Good To Be True
Another morning where we started out day at 7 a.m. with breakfast, play time, and a bottle. He started rubbing his eyes at about 10 a.m. but didn’t seem too tired overall. Still, he’d been up for almost three hours, and it was time to put him down for a nap. I took him into the room, read him the same book, rubbed his back, kissed him, and put him down.
When my son hit the crescendo of his crying at 18 minutes, I cursed my cockiness from the day before. I went into the room, and he was pretty upset when I had to lay him back down, but I gave him the last few ounces of his uneaten bottle and he did go to sleep, but only for about 40 minutes. He was also significantly more cranky after he woke up from his nap. He took a second short nap in the afternoon as I ran errands, and was able to sleep the whole night.
Day 4: Is This Really Going To Work?
Day four marked the day before we left for vacation in Las Vegas. I was suspicious of my son was anticipating our new routine more than I was, because he fought all 20 minutes he was in his crib to stay awake at nap time. I had to pick him up and set him in his bouncer until he settled down and started to nod off. Thinking about it now, I was likely only going off of our normal schedule rather than reading his "tired" cues. He probably wasn't as tired today so I could have pushed his nap a bit later, however, I was feeling content with my decisions because he had another full night of sleep! Overall, it felt like crying it out was working.
I was beginning to think that the crying it out was only successful at home, and we were losing momentum by being on vacation. I was back to strolling him to sleep, and sort of losing faith in my experiment.
Day 5: His First Flight
Day five was absolutely crazy. My mom and I had to rush to get our dogs to the pet-boarding clinic before we boarded the plane, which meant that my dad had the treat of getting my son to sleep. I told my dad that once he ate his bottle and was beginning to seem sleepy to set him in the crib and wait exactly 20 minutes before he picked him up if he hadn't stopped crying. When we got back, my little guy actually was sleeping and didn’t even wake up when we burst through the door to finish packing. He'd only slept about a half-hour in total, waking up on the drive to the airport.
Mind you, this was the first time my son would ever be flying, and I was a ball of nerves. He did a good job, by the way, even falling asleep a little bit on the plane. The first night we were in Vegas my son actually did get himself to sleep after whining for about 10 minutes and slept most of the night, waking up for about an hour at 4:30 a.m the next morning.
Day 6: Losing Hope
Because I'd gone out with my younger brother the night before (he turned 21!), my parents had mercy on me and took my son out to breakfast, letting me sleep after he woke up for the day at 7 a.m. By the time they returned, he'd skipped his usual nap time by more than an hour and was verging on overtired. I tried to set him down to cry it out while I got ready, but he was not having it. So I had to put him in his stroller and walked up and down the hotel hallways to get him to sleep, which he did, but only for a mere 45 minutes.
It's no secret that the first few days — even the first week of attempting to cry it out — are difficult, but I definitely think it was harder on me than it was on him.
I was beginning to think that the crying it out was only successful at home, and we were losing momentum by being on vacation. I was back to strolling him to sleep, and sort of losing faith in my experiment. And I definitely was losing hope when he woke up at 3 a.m. and stayed awake for two more hours.
Day 7: He's A Trooper
My poor little guy was a bit of a mess on this day of the experiment. He wouldn’t eat any of his solid foods and was pretty much only drinking his bottles, which meant he was missing out on a lot of much-needed calories. To his credit, when we were out and about he was catching his naps at his normal times, but only in the stroller. I was feeling more hopeful because I was able to set him in his crib to cry it out at bedtime and he went down for the night at his usual 7:30 p.m. and lasted until 5 a.m. the next morning. But I was worried a day out on the Strip had ruined his ability to cry it out at nap time. I cursed myself for trying to be daring and attempt this experiment on vacation. I knew my little guy was tired and disoriented since we were in a new place, with new smells, bright lights, and a lot of stimulation, but I had to do the best with what we had.
Day 8: Homeward Bound
Day eight marked our last day in Vegas. My son and I were both yearning to be home where we could finish our experiment in a more controlled environment. The flight back home was exactly at what his nap time would be (11 a.m.), and he fussed a little on the plane, attracting a few glares from other passengers, but was sound asleep by the plane took off. Once we got back home, I was able to finally get some solid food in him. He didn't end up taking another nap that day, but did sleep the entire night. Honestly, I felt that hope was on the horizon.
If I could give any piece of advice to parents attempting to let their child cry it out at nap time or bedtime, it would be to read the tired cues, maintain a schedule, and have good sleep associations.
Day 9: Back On Track
On day nine it was clear we were both glad to be home. He ate his normal solid breakfast, had his 10 a.m. bottle, and yawning and rubbing his eyes soon after. I was determined to make cry it out work since we'd been so inconsistent on vacation. I picked him up, read to him, rubbed his back, kissed him, and left the room. Ten minutes later, there silence.
I snuck in to check on him and he was sound asleep! I think I even danced a little. He slept about an hour and half. Granted, he did wake up that night at 3 a.m. very hungry, which I anticipated, but thankfully he cut me some slack and woke up at 9 a.m. the next morning.
Day 10: The End
I knew that because my son woke up later that morning I'd need to push his nap time back. Even though that messed with our routine, I did my best to keep things as normal.
Even with the hour delay, my son was asleep five minutes after I put him down, not even crying a little. When I left the room he just sort of heaved and babbled to himself. Then, there was absolute silence. He slept about an hour, and woke up feeling great. That night he woke up around 4:30 a.m. starving, but after eating a bottle I was able to put him in his crib while he was still asleep and he got comfortable and went right to bed. I felt like I'd just reached Peak Mom status.
Although trying cry it out wasn’t exactly successful on vacation, I will say that once we got home I was able to put him in his crib for his nap times successfully. I think just attempting to maintain his schedule while on vacation, despite having had fallen asleep in the stroller, allowed him to remain on his inner clock which ultimately helped comfort him when we did get home. If I could give any piece of advice to parents attempting to let their child cry it out at nap time or bedtime, it would be to read the tired cues, maintain a schedule, and have good sleep associations. I do the same thing at every nap time and bed time: I let him know it’s time for “sleepy night night," then I read him the same book, give him the same blanket, and say and do the same things. It's no secret that the first few days — even the first week of attempting to cry it out — are difficult, but I definitely think it was harder on me than it was on him.
I was honestly someone who truly thought that their kid was never going to get to sleep by themselves. I was convinced I’d have to rock him to sleep for his naps forever, well into college in between his morning and afternoon classes. But I'm so thankful that cry it out helped give us both the break we needed. And I'm going to continue doing it.