adventures in baby sleep-land

A few minutes ago, I laid my daughter down for a nap. After a little bit of initial whimpering, she fell asleep in five minutes. I smiled as I closed her door, then sat down to relax and drink some coffee, reflecting on how good it feels to have her be able to put herself to sleep – and how far we’ve come in such a short time.

Babies and their sleep is one of those hot-button issues that is divisive in the parenting community. Opinions on the best way to get baby to sleep run the gamut, from leaving baby in a room by herself to cry herself to sleep with no help, to laying down with baby or nursing her to sleep every time. For some people I think the way they parent and get baby to sleep comes very naturally, but I had a really hard time figuring out how to do it, and it was hard even figuring out what I was comfortable with. I just want to share my own experience here in case it can somehow benefit others.

When I was learning to breastfeed and spending hours on the couch or in bed with my little one, I searched the Internet with various questions that I had. I noticed that Eleanor wouldn’t really fall asleep unless she was suckling at the breast. My Internet searches took me to different sites with different parenting philosophies, but the most popular search result on a well-known breastfeeding help site told me that it was not a big deal to nurse her to sleep. The Dr. Sears Baby Book that I have also reinforced this position. But what I know now that I didn’t really know then was that she was not gaining enough weight or eating enough, so it makes sense, looking back, that she was basically spending entire days either feeding or falling asleep. There was very little time when she was awake and not fussing, or sleepy enough to just fall asleep in my arms vs. while she was trying to fill her belly. (I could write a whole other post on my breastfeeding issues so I’ll try to stick to just talking sleep here!)

Anyway, once she started getting enough to eat via supplementing (formula), I had a problem: I thought that maybe eventually she’d start falling asleep not sucking, but she couldn’t. We tried swaddling, rocking, shushing in her ear, bouncing, swinging, etc. Nothing worked well, unless it happened to exhaust her so much that she fell asleep before our energy gave out. She was so used to nursing to sleep that any other way of doing it just seemed to upset her; that is, unless we put her in a carrier, which usually worked, but then she still had to be moved from the carrier to her bed. And sometimes I didn’t know if she was tired or hungry (she was not giving me clear cues yet), so I would try to nurse her to sleep, but she was actually hungry, so then I’d have to give her a bottle and THEN nurse. It was exhausting… and obviously if she was always nursing to sleep, then no one else could give me a break and put her down. Then there was always the issue of being able to lay her down without her waking up and screaming. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t, but either way, her sleep times were exhausting. When she was around 3 months we even tried for one week to break her of the nursing to sleep, but she was still too young to adapt. I began to really dread naptime.

At 4 months we decided to start sleep training, because day after day and night after night we tried to rock her to sleep and she would cry for so long. We were exhausted and obviously what we were doing wasn’t working well. I didn’t really want to do a cry-it-out method because I hated hearing her cry, and honestly I felt like as a first-time mom I’d already made her cry more than necessary, since I didn’t know what I was doing very well! I’d read a lot in books and on the Internet about different methods, and the most useful book I found is called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth. He is a sleep researcher and though his book didn’t really tell me clearly how to DO the sleep training, he did encourage me with the information and recommendations in his book. 

The method I use is called gradual extinction. Basically I keep an eye on the clock and watch Eleanor for sleepy cues – listless staring, yawning, eye rubbing, etc. (I will add that she didn’t start giving these cues clearly until around 4 months – another reason to be wary of starting sleep training earlier). At this point she can only stay awake for about 1-2 hours at a time before needing a nap. When she gets sleepy, we go through a routine of reading 1-2 books, then I pick her up, sing her a song, and lay her down. I stay with her a little to soothe her, then I put on white noise and leave the room. I check her at 5, 10, and 15 minute intervals until she falls asleep. When I check her I usually just readjust her blanket, reassure her a little that she’s okay, kiss her head and maybe shush in her ear, and then I leave the room. Unless she’s just not tired (which is rare), she falls asleep within 5-20 minutes, and usually doesn’t cry much. When she does cry, it’s really more of a protest cry then a sad cry (no tears when she’s protesting).

When we started sleep training, it was very hard to listen to her cry. The first time we did it in earnest, I cried too. But I have to say that life is much better for all of us this way. Before I was frantic, trying all sorts of things to get her to go to and stay asleep. I think that it made it confusing for her and exhausting for me. But now that I’m being consistent and sticking to a routine, she knows exactly what to expect. Within 3 weeks she has gone from needing 30 minutes to 1.5 hours of rocking and bouncing to get her to sleep (with lots of crying happening), to being able to put herself to sleep in five minutes with little to no crying. 

I know that what we’ve done won’t work for everyone, and some people will never be okay with intentionally making their baby cry. I understand that. But I had to come to terms with the idea that crying cannot be an indicator of whether a decision I make is good or not. Babies are intelligent beings even when they are small, and they will protest/cry if you do not give them something that they want or believe they need. Especially at the age Eleanor is now, she would probably much rather stay up and play than take a nap. But as her mom, I have to do what is best for her and not wait until she is an exhausted mess before she can get to sleep. I was not doing her any favors by having her exhaust herself crying in my arms. Our house is also much more peaceful because of sleep training. I have to say that it’s completely liberating to lay her down and come back a few minutes later to peek in at her laying still in her crib with her eyes open, just waiting for sleep to come. 

I would encourage any mom to try her best to follow her intuition, but if you think what you’re doing isn’t working, take the plunge and try something else. There will always be differences in parenting styles, and it seems to be really easy to find people who will tell you you’re doing it wrong. But YOU are your baby’s parent, not them. Do what you think may be right for your baby. Be empowered that because you love your child, you get to choose the best for them. Personally, I am very glad that I finally made the decision to sleep-train my daughter. I look forward to our sleepy future together, knowing that she has a good start. 🙂