As a culture, we’re obsessed with how much (…or how little) babies sleep. Babies who sleep a lot are pronounced good babies. Babies who wake frequently are thought of as difficult. And the first question new parents are asked–after divulging the weight, length and name of their new arrival–is “Are you sleeping?”
Depending on your answer, you’re seen as either having won the baby lottery, or as pitiable–your baby one of those dreaded “hard” babies. Which is ridiculous, because babies wake so that they can eat so that they can grow. All they’re doing is being babies. Who are we to place judgement on them for just doing what they need to do to survive and thrive?
That being said, it can be hard not to get caught up in the sleep-value mania as a new parent.
When we first brought Indy home, we were floating on air because of how well he slept. He snored right through dog barks, construction and loud, boisterous conversations. Everyone who visited shook their heads in amazement. “He’s such a good baby!”
We felt validated, like his sleeping had something to do with us as parents. And although we were both still tired from the all-night stint of labor and delivery, soon I was feeling remarkably well-rested for a new mom.
I had enough energy to revel in our nighttime nursing sessions–curling myself protectively around him, watching the way his hair glimmered almost copper under our dim bedside light. Sometimes I didn’t want to put him down after, and would sit, back crooked uncomfortably against the bed frame, watching as he slept.
At our two-week pediatrician visit, the nurse leaned in confidentially. “How much is he sleeping?” she asked, hand poised over the keyboard.
“He usually wakes up twice a night, once at 1 a.m. and once at 3,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s good. That’s very good,” the nurse murmured as she punched in the times. “And how does he get to sleep? Do you nurse him? Pat him?”
“We usually swaddle him, give him a binky and then read him a story, and he passes out halfway through.”
The nurse looked around conspiratorially. “Don’t let other parents hear that. They’ll want to kill you.”
But our luck didn’t last.
Somewhere between three months and four months, Indy became dramatically more awake–and our good sleep habits slipped. We started changing his diaper and putting him in his PJs before he nursed so that he could drift off while he drank.
Then we would lay him carefully down–like a bomb that might go off–and sneak out of the room. Sometimes he’d stay asleep for a few hours, but other times he’d cry unless Jordan hovered over his crib, one hand rhythmically patting his round little belly.
Soon, he was waking up not just once or twice, but three or four times a night. We’d get a scant couple of hours in between wake ups, and then I’d have to nurse him off into dreamland again. Sometimes he’d wake up and cry and cry, no matter how much we patted and snuggled and cajoled.
I no longer enjoyed our midnight nursing sessions–in fact, the whole night felt like one long nursing session. Far from admiring the shine of his hair, I could no longer keep my eyes open.
I was beginning to feel the fog of exhaustion that I’d heard other new parents talk about. With it came anxiety about our abilities as parents. Was Indy a bad baby? Were we inadequate parents? Our baby book said that at six months, most babies should be sleeping more–and can even sleep through the night. So why was our kid waking up more than ever?
This was the point where I started to get desperate. It’d been two months since our good sleeper had become a bad one. And even though we’d felt relatively well-rested in those early days, it’d still been a solid six months since either of us had gotten an unbroken night of sleep.
One afternoon at lunch, barely able to keep my eyes open, I googled, “Sleep training.”
Two little words–but the internet had SO much to say about them. The first sites that popped up completely condemned sleep training. Sleep training, they claimed, was just a fancy name for the cry-it-out method. And the cry-it-out method was the WORST.
In fact, many websites declared that if we let our child cry for any period of time we’d be scarring him for life. He’d be doomed to increased anxiety and stress as an adult, a weakened bond with us, and would have learned that asking for help was futile.
Soon, I’d learned that there is so much more wrapped up in sleep training than I’d realized. In the United States, babies are expected to sleep well (or they’re bad babies), but parents aren’t supposed to take any true steps toward helping them do that (or they’re bad parents).
Parents are expected to be self-sacrificing and willing to stay up all night/give up their privacy/be endlessly exhausted–and they’re bad parents if they allow their kids to cry, even a little bit in their attempts to get more sleep. They are selfish if they prioritize their own needs over their child’s.
I went home confused and tired. “We can’t do cry-it-out,” I told Jordan that night before bed. “I can’t stand the idea of him crying until he gives up, because he’s learned that we won’t come help him.”
So we muddled along, more exhausted each night. I was getting to the point where I’d lay down on the stubbly carpeting of my office during lunch breaks and wake up thirty minutes later, disoriented and nauseous.
When Jordan went out of town, I decided to try co-sleeping. Maybe that was the secret key to more sleep! A lot of parents who co-sleep say that they actually get way better sleep.
But alas–it was not for us. So close to the source of the milk, Indy woke often, and sometimes nursed for hours. I drifted in out of sleep all night, and he was squirmy and had trouble settling down. The next day he was horribly cranky, and my spine felt like it’d been twisted into a spiral.
We gave it another two nights, and then back into his pack n’ play he went. I expected him to cry more after having had a taste of sleeping next to me, but he honestly seemed relieved to have his own space again. He slept better that night than he had in a long time, only waking up three times to nurse.
That day, I deep-dived into all things infant sleep. But this time, instead of reading blogs and websites, I headed for primary literature. First I read a literature review on the impacts of co-sleeping vs. cry-it-out. That paper argued for settling somewhere in between the two methods–and doing something that sounded a lot like what I had initially imagined sleep training to be–teaching babies to soothe themselves with periods of crying and soothing while simultaneously encouraging positive sleep associations.
I read a few more articles on stress and babies and cortisol levels, and then headed to my favorite site on all things pregnancy and infants, expectingscience.com, which takes a scientific approach to answering the many hard questions of parenting.
She made a research-backed argument for the cry-it-out method, and directed me to two other sources, a blog called Precious Little Sleep and the book Science of Mom by Alice Callahan. Both of these deep dive into things like circadian rhythms, self-soothing, and continuity.
(If you’re in the sleep trenches, the basics are: babies need continuity. If you’re doing something to get them to sleep that you don’t plan to do all night, when they wake up they won’t be able to go back to sleep on their own, and will need you to keep doing whatever it is that you do–whether that’s patting or rocking or nursing. The key is to put them down awake, and have them fall asleep in their crib without your assistance. That’s tricky–and might require a little crying–but doable! You can also create sleep associations that will continue all night–like playing white noise).
As Jordan and I drove home, I was bursting with sleep facts. We sat down that evening and drew up a bedtime routine we could stick to: dim lights in the bedroom, a nice long nurse, PJs and a fresh diaper, story time, white noise (on loud), and then laying him down in his pack n’ play.
We’d lay down next to him on the bed (we wanted him to know we hadn’t abandoned him), and let him cry for five minutes. At that point, we’d reach down and soothe him with snuggles and pats, and then let him cry for another interval. And so on and so forth.
We also differentiated between Indy’s needs and wants. We would take care of all of his needs–he’d be fed, dry, and comfy. We’d make sure he knew we were close by. But we decided that we weren’t obliged to sacrifice our own needs (sleep) for his wants (getting patted continuously, nursing to fall asleep).
That first night, Indy cried for the first five minutes, we patted him, and then lo and behold, his crying morphed into a self-soothing babble, and within minutes he’d drifted off to sleep! Jordan and I were stunned, especially because bedtime had been so touch-and-go for so long. That night, he slept until 1 a.m., and woke up one more time at 3 a.m.–a vast improvement on our prior couple of weeks.
The next night he only cried for four minutes and then conked out. Soon we were putting him down for naps and bedtime with easy casualness, awash with pride at his newfound sleeping abilities.
It’s been a week since we started our new regime, and now he doesn’t even cry–just smiles hugely as we stick him down in his pack n’ play, plays around for a few minutes, and then rolls over to rest his cheek on the mattress, fast asleep. He’s even ditched his binky, and no longer needs it to drift off–which is awesome, because it means we no longer have to wake up to replace it for him when he spits it out.
Sometimes he’ll be really fussy, and then we plop him in his pack n’ play and he immediately settles down. He seems relieved to finally be able to comfort himself–to be able to put himself to sleep when he is tired.
(Disclaimer: every kid is different, and what worked for us may not work for you. Sleep training worked well for Indy and us, but depending on you and your kid, it may not be the right fit!)
It’s obvious looking at him that he didn’t stop crying because he learned helplessness–as many of those against sleep training claim–but that he actually learned how to soothe himself. He also cried far, far less during sleep training than he did beforehand–when he’d wake up and not be able to get back to sleep, or in the daytimes that followed, when he’d be irritable because he was sleep deprived.
Now we’re working on gradually weaning him off those night time feedings. Last night he slept until 4:30 a.m., giving us a solid seven hour stretch of sleep.
We’re still tired (we have a lot of sleep to catch up on) but we feel sane. And in control of our lives. We also feel good about our decision to sleep train–to value our own sleep, even if it meant letting Indy cry a little.
Most importantly, we’ve learned that whether you choose to co-sleep or cry-it-out or anything in between–you’re probably doing just fine.