Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

I'm Just Gonna Say It: Sleep Training Saved My Marriage

A sleep consultant is like a fairy godmother. She comes into your life, offering a solution to your biggest problems, provided you adhere to her strict schedule. The baby's got to be in the crib by 6:30 each night — any later, and you have to record it in your sleep log, and be turned into a pumpkin.

Before we sleep-trained, my husband and I were fighting tooth and nail through long, sleepless nights. We rocked and bounced the baby endlessly, neither of us resting for more than four or five hours at any given time. We felt like lab rats in a bizarre sleep deprivation experiment, and we had started turning on each other. Luckily, we ended up meeting our own sleep consultant fairy godmother, and when we finally started sleep training, it honestly saved our marriage.

My husband and I didn't think we could afford a sleep consultant. But one day, my pregnant best friend invited me to go with her to a Baby Expo. She was excited about the possibility of buying discount strollers and attending pelvic heath seminars, and I couldn't find it in my heart to say no to her. So I strapped my 6-month old into the Baby Bjorn and Nespresso'ed my butt out the door to lurch through the packed convention center.

Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

Two months without sleep had killed my social skills. When I wanted something — usually food — I growled like a creature from The Walking Dead. When my husband pissed me off, I bit him (or at least, I thought about biting him). So I wasn't having a great time at the Expo until I found the Baby Sleep stall, which was manned (womanned?) by a human ray of sunshine.

"You look really tired," she said, as I gaped at the sleep chart beside her. According to the diagram, my 6-month old should've been sleeping 12 (!) hours a night, with two-to-four-hour naps twice daily. I almost laughed out loud. My baby hadn't napped for longer than half an hour since she was a newborn.

"She looks tired, too," the sleep consultant said, as my infant rubbed her eyes. "I can help you guys. I really can."

"She looks tired, too," the sleep consultant said, as my infant rubbed her eyes. "I can help you guys. I really can." Hope stirred in my soul until I found out what her rate was: $195 dollars for one week. I started tearing up, but then, the very expensive fairy pressed free aromatherapy samples into my hands. She suggested I enter her lottery. She was giving away one sleep consultation, and maybe I'd get lucky. On the drive home, I kept thinking about those naps. All that free time I'd have to read, or work, or possibly even clean something for once.

The day we got the call, I had a premonition: I was going to win. The fairy godmother was going to pick us! I don't know if sleep debt makes you psychic, or if the fairy bent the rules for us, but when she called, I did a happy dance. I looked around my filthy house, imagining the well-Swiffered castle it was destined to become. I looked at my crabby, red-eyed husband, and I wondered if a good night's sleep could bridge the huge chasm between us.

Courtesy of Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

At our first consultation, the fairy godmother delivered a stern lecture. We were instructed to follow a strict sleep schedule, and to steep our Ikea-bright bedroom in total darkness. "Take a few days to get your act together, and call me when you're ready to start." Then she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

My husband blacked out the windows with poster board and electrical tape, while I scoured Target for motion-sensitive night-lights, aromatherapy diffusers, and white-noise machines. The list said probiotics. Did a baby really need probiotics? Whatever, we bought them anyway. Then we dialed the sleep fairy, ready to begin.

"Look, you have to weigh the risks and benefits," she said. "Sleep training isn't stressful. Sleep deprivation is stressful. What are a few nights of crying if she sleeps in the long run?"

Most sleep consultants use one of two methods: extinction, or gradual extinction, aka "cry it out." I was, of course, nervous.

"Won't crying raise her cortisol and affect her brain development?" I asked.

"Have you been reading Dr. Sears?" she said, referring to the attachment parenting guru. "Don't read Dr. Sears."

"But — "

"Look, you have to weigh the risks and benefits," she said. "Sleep training isn't stressful. Sleep deprivation is stressful. What are a few nights of crying if she sleeps in the long run?"

It made sense, so we agreed on the gradual extinction method, which involves leaving your child alone for specific time intervals. On Night 1, we put the baby in the crib at exactly 6:30. Two minutes later, she was screaming. My husband set a timer for three minutes — our plan loosely based on the Ferber method — while I tried to suppress my instinct to fly by my baby's side. When my husband called time, I dashed into her room, held her for a moment (babbling my apologies), and gently placed her back down.

The cries crescendoed into shrieks, and we set the timer for five minutes this time. Next round: ten minutes, which felt like an eternity. I reminded myself what the consultant said: If you rush in every time she cries, she'll never learn she's perfectly safe in her crib.

For five days, my daughter's heart-wrenching wails gradually extinguished my will to live. We weren't supposed to soothe her or hold her or rock her, like before. She had to learn to cross the boundary between the worlds of waking and sleeping — and she had to do it by herself.

Courtesy of Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

Our coping methods weren't amazing. Every night, I drank beer and demolished an entire bag of Goldfish, while my husband drank beer and devoured a pint of cherry vanilla ice cream. In the morning, the sleep consultant heard our reports and offered her encouragement. Without her, I'm certain we'd have quit after the first five-minute cry.

One night, as the baby wailed for a horrifying 15 minutes, I thought about preindustrial societies when parents didn't have to get up for work in the morning. Did they still have to sleep train? Before I got too deep into cave-mother fantasies, however, I reminded myself I'd have likely died giving birth in a freaking cave. Without SitterCity and an iPhone, how would my husband arrange for babysitting when he wanted to hunt mastodons, or whatever?

My husband and I gazed at each other across the crib, mouthing: 10 hours. She slept for 10 hours.

Listening to your baby cry twists your soul. It feels unnatural, but then again, so do a lot of things about parenthood. For example, I don't relish the thought of a needle piercing my baby's chubby arm, but I dutifully get her vaccinated. It gradually occurred to me that the great haters of "cry it out" methods are attempting to force mothers back in time. But we can't go back. Not if we value our jobs, our relationships, or our sanity. A world that requires strict sleep schedules may be a harsh one, but it's our world, and we have no choice but to live in it.

On Day Six, we woke to find the baby still sleeping. Blue cartoon elephants danced on her crib sheet. They were obviously thrilled for us. My husband and I gazed at each other across the crib, mouthing: 10 hours. She slept for 10 hours.

Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

Sleep training isn't magic, but it worked for us. After a week with a sleep consultant, our baby now sleeps through the night. After we put her to bed, my husband and I get to work, sewing the fissures in our marriage rent by far too many sleepless nights.

"Do you ever miss all that rocking and soothing?" he asked me once. "All that snuggling?"

"Sometimes," I said.

"But this is better." He snuggled next to me, and I knew what he meant: that we were better, that our marriage was better. Even through sleeplessness, hopelessness, and tears, I've never loved him more than I do now. For us, sleep training was difficult. But it also restored our happiness.