I never expected to reach the level of sleep deprivation that I would entertain thoughts of hiring a sleep consultant, but that's what happened. And the advice I got was so shocking to me that I actually decided sleep deprivation was preferable. It's not even that my baby was such a terrible sleeper. I was the terrible sleeper, and I was encouraging it in her, all because I loved co-sleeping.
For so long, I loved the smell of my baby in my bed with me at night. I loved the feel of her cool skin against mine, her fingers curled up in mine, her breath on my face. I could watch her for hours as she dreamed. I loved her little sighs, her mouth moving, her cheeks flushed. I saw a million expressions and emotions play out across her face as she slept. I loved it all so much that I inadvertently trained her to nurse around the clock and to sleep only when we were holding her or sleeping next to her.
When that arrangement grew uncomfortable, I figured out how to nurse her while lying on my side. That worked well for a while, at least for her and me. We got a few hours of great sleep here and there, but my husband soon retreated to the couch, claiming he had no space and was getting no rest. He was a great sport about that for a while, but as she got older, he wanted his bed back. He was not a willing participant in our nighttime shenanigans and just wanted us to be done with it.
Yet I persisted.
By early toddlerhood she was starting to sleep restlessly. It seemed that she was just as aware of me next to her as I was of her. If I so much as rolled over, she’d wake up, and whenever she woke up, she wanted to nurse. Around the same time, she was teething in earnest and started biting down as she nursed. All of this together meant we had to find a way to transition her to her own bed: a crib in her own adorably decorated room that lay empty, unused. We’d do our best to put her down in her own room for a few nights, maybe a week. But then she’d develop a fever from teething, or she got a cold, or something or other happened that made her wakeful and us cranky, so back into the bed she came and then we were back to square one. Again, my fault! Because I didn't really mind. I loved having her back with me once again, to cuddle and stare at and breathe in. Even when she was sick or fussy.
But in my growing exhaustion, it occurred to me that my baby didn’t know how to self soothe. I’d never taught her. She refused to take a pacifier. She couldn’t nap on her own. In fact, we were starting to realize that she couldn’t sleep on her own at all. We tested this theory repeatedly: she’d fall asleep in my arms, I’d inch gingerly over to the co-sleeper, and, hoping for the best, in unbearably slow motion, I’d attempt to put her down. Then I’d hold my breath as I backed away, fingers crossed that she would stay asleep. Invariably, she’d sense a temperature change, a gentle breeze from the way I pulled my arms back, or some other vibration, and she’d startle awake, her Moro reflex squared or even cubed. And she’d open her mouth to cry and I’d open mine to groan some expletive and pick her up again, growing more begrudging and resentful with each of these exercises.
I knew cry-it-out was not for us. Neither was the Ferber method. But we were tired. We tried the Pantley method from The No-Cry Sleep Solution, and sometimes it worked, but it was a tremendous effort of charts and lists and I just couldn’t keep it up. We bought copies of the funny-not-funny book Go The F**k To Sleep and gave them to everyone we knew. It helped me to hear that other people could relate, but we still did not have a solution.
I decided we would wean our girl gradually away from co-sleeping, like pulling a band-aid off millimeter by millimeter, ripping out every single hair slowly and painfully along with it. I moved the nursing glider into her room and I’d sit there and nurse her down, sometimes even forcing my husband to stay awake through it to keep us company. She would fall asleep, or close. I would put her down. Instantly, she'd arch her back, awake. I'd pick her up and sit in the glider and nurse. She would get drowsy. And I'd put her down. And she would wake up. Or, worse, she'd stay asleep long enough for me to back away slowly, planning my getaway. And as my hand reached the doorknob, I'd hear her stiffen and roll over. And we'd start all over again.
We were all at our wits’ end.
The fear of another night like the last few sent me into panic mode right away.
My next insane idea was that we would sleep on her floor so when she woke up in her crib, fussy and maybe scared, she would have us there with her. I was hoping she would thus get acquainted with her room, become familiar with waking up there and eventually falling asleep there, recognizing the sights, the smells, the sounds of her own room and that she’d have her mama and daddy with her there to ease her through the change would make it easy. But when, sneaking up on 4 a.m. five nights in a row, I’d done the glider-crib-glider-crib dance a half a dozen times and was close to tears — unsure if it was because I was just tired or if I was actually losing my mind from the repetition and the baby flat out refusing to sleep in the crib — I decided in desperation to put the baby on the floor with me and my husband. So there was no one in the crib and there was no one in mama and daddy's bed. The entire family was all crammed together, camping out on a pink and brown play mat on a hard wood floor inches away from the empty crib. The only difference between this and the co-sleeping we'd been doing all along is that while co-sleeping can sometimes be uncomfortable, this was downright painful. No mattress, no pillows. It was drafty. We were cranky. It was stupid.
The sixth night, I knew we could not do that again.
Once again, she fell asleep in my arms but was instantly awake when I put her down. The fear of another night like the last few sent me into panic mode right away. I sat back down in the glider with her in the dark and started looking up words like sleep training and Ferberize on my iPad. I Googled sleep consultants. I was surprised that I was doing these things. But even for me, it had come to this. I hadn’t gotten very far in my research when I realized she was asleep. Before I put her down and walked out of her room, I emailed myself the contact information of the highest rated of the sleep consultants just in case. I put down the iPad and crept out of the room. Before I could even exhale though, she was awake again. Normally I'd go right back in. But this time I didn't.
This time, emboldened by my internet browsing, I decided to wait for just a minute. Then two. I breathed. I paced, I whined, I questioned myself. I cried too, and then I turned off the monitor. My husband hugged me. I could still hear her crying and I knew it was a tired and confused cry, not one of pain or suffering. I paced some more. And then, it stopped. I looked up at the clock. Seven minutes we'd waited. Seven long and horrible minutes, and then she was asleep. And she stayed asleep. I guess we’d both been ready.
'You need to stop letting your toddler manipulate you,' this person who claimed to have a PhD wrote. 'You are giving her all the control.'
When our second baby was born, we transitioned our now 18-month-old into a toddler bed. I remembered how difficult it was to get her to sleep in her crib, so I was braced for disastrous sleep regression. But she was so excited about her big girl bed that she couldn’t wait to lie down. I lay with her, reading to her, stroking her hair. And as she dozed off, I crept out of the room and all was well, at least until the night she figured out she could get out of bed by herself. At all hours of the night, every night, we’d hear her in different parts of the apartment. “Hi Mama,” she’d call, smiling at me from my doorway, from the kitchen, from the bathroom. “Mama, wake up!” Every single time I did the same thing: I just walked her back to bed and lay with her until she drifted off again. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she was too tired to argue. Occasionally, she even stayed asleep. More frequently, she didn’t, unless I slept there with her. But I just kept walking her back to bed and trying to leave. I knew it had to be developmental, that part of her brain was digesting this new freedom and what it meant. It would pass sooner or later. But now doubly sleep deprived because I was now co-sleeping with the second baby, I was losing my mind. I remembered the high-rated sleep consultant I’d found a few months ago.
In the middle of that night, I shot off an email explaining the situation and begging for help. I got a response the next day telling me I was doing everything wrong. “You need to stop letting your toddler manipulate you,” this person who claimed to have a PhD wrote. “You are giving her all the control. You need to show her you are in control and that she can’t just wander around all night. I have a patented method that works. You lock her in her room and you don’t open the door no matter what. You may need to take the doorknob off the door if you can’t lock it from the outside. She will cry, but eventually she will give up and go back to sleep. If you would like more information, I’ll have to charge you for a session. I assure you, this will work. Consider it. You need your sleep and your toddler needs to be more independent.”
He quoted a range of prices for his services and signed off.
I know that extinction sleep training works for many families, but even in my sleep deprived state, I knew this was not for us. The problem was not that my daughter was a bad sleeper. It’s that I was a bad sleeper, inadvertently rewarding the same in my child with late night snuggles. Locking my toddler in her room and taking the doorknob off the door was not going to solve my sleep problems. I was horrified. “Thank you for the response,” I typed. “I appreciate the information and your recommendation. I think we will pass on this.”
I came up with a new idea instead: I asked my husband to take over. Back on the couch because of baby #2, he wasn’t excited about the prospect of even less sleep, but he took one look at me, toggling back and forth between co-sleeping with a newborn and sleeping with the toddler in her bed while the newborn lay alone in our bed, and agreed to take my place — temporarily.
He began walking her back to bed and coaxing her back to sleep every night. And because Daddy was the one doing this, there was no singing, no hair stroking. Daddy was gentle and loving, but Daddy was tired and he didn’t have a problem tucking her in, kissing her forehead and simply retreating. He didn’t get roped into singing or reading or snuggling like I did. His version was way less exciting to our daughter, and it's exactly what our entire family needed.
He did this regularly for another two weeks or more, until she finally grew bored of waking up the whole house. We started hearing her singing to herself here and there throughout the night, or talking to Stripes, the stuffed cat she slept with. Every night there was a little less, and soon she was sleeping through. She’d learned to soothe herself to sleep. And I learned too.