One of the toughest things about having a baby is that whole sleep thing. The first thing you are inevitably asked once you have your child is, “How’s she/he sleeping?” It’s as though others relish in your exhaustion.
Newborns wake up every 2–3 hours because their stomachs are so tiny, they have to eat throughout the night, so those early months are supposed to be difficult. As they edge toward six months, however, they should be sleeping up to 12 hours straight — something that eludes many parents.
As we grow more and more harried, we cling to any advice that will provide us with coveted sleep. The only problem is that the advice tends to take away the precious amounts of sleep we are already managing to get. We aren’t supposed to nurse our children to sleep, but if we try to lay them down awake, we end up with a screaming child and hours of struggle. We aren’t supposed to put them in bed with us, but if we put them in their own bed, we are faced with a kid that reacts as though his mattress is made of needles.
All this to say, the majority of us will sleep train our children. Whether you start at six, 12, or 18 months will depend on your sleep deprivation threshold. I have met parents who are still getting up with their toddlers because they aren’t ready to fight the midnight fight.
There are a number of methods you can try that include little to a great deal of crying (from your child, not you), and some that avoid crying.
The cry-it-out method gets a lot of flack because it sounds cruel, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. What the cry-it-out method isn’t is throwing your child in the crib, closing the door, and walking away not to return until the next morning.
This method was created by Dr. Richard Ferber, and involves progressive waiting. You put your child in his or her crib, say goodnight, and walk out of the room. When the crying inevitably begins, you wait a designated amount of time – say, five minutes – and then you go in to briefly comfort and leave again. This time interval increases with each night.
This is a great method for children who don’t lose their minds whenever they see you. The idea of walking in for brief amounts of time to comfort is good as long as it actually comforts. I had one child this worked for. I had two other children who grew insane if I came in and didn’t pick them up, rendering the method pointless.
If you do have a child who finds comfort in those brief periods, the increased time interval will eventually draw out to the point of your child falling asleep on their own.
No-Cry Sleep Solution
This is a mid-range method developed by parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley. Her focus is that “magical moment” your child learns to put him or herself to sleep without your help. Where she differs from Dr. Ferber’s method is that she has a more gradual approach to removing whatever crutch your child is using to fall asleep — nursing, bottle feeding, rocking, etc.
Pantley’s plan is good in that it doesn’t result in crying, but it will more than likely take significantly longer than Ferber’s method. Her 10-step plan includes learning your child’s sleeping patterns and creating sleep logs, which may not be something your tired brain is willing to do.
Once again, your child’s temperament will make or break this method. Gradually removing a habit will work for some children, but may drive others crazy. You will have to make that call for yourself and your baby.
Parent-Soothing Method (Attachment Parenting)
Dr. William Sears is the advocate for attachment parenting, which promotes a baby-led mindset. In terms of sleep training, Dr. Sears suggests parents ask themselves three questions regarding outside advice:
- Does this advice sound sensible?
- Does it fit your baby’s temperament?
- Does it feel right to you?
The parent-soothing method may be for you if you aren’t comfortable listening to your child crying or if you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to have the noise (e.g. room sharing with other kids).
“When baby is ready to sleep, a parent or other caregiver helps baby make a comfortable transition from being awake to falling asleep, usually by nursing, rocking, singing, or whatever comforting techniques work,” says Dr. Sears.
He goes on to say that the advantages of this method include “a healthy sleep attitude,” “fond memories about being parented to sleep,” and “parent-infant trust.” The downside is that the child is relying on an outside prop to get to sleep, which can result in the child expecting that same prop in the middle of the night.
Sleep training is like a rite of passage for parents. They go through sleep-deprived hell while having to endure friends and family tell them what they should do. Success will come down to your ability to decode you child’s temperament while living on as little sleep as possible.