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New Mom Dispatch: Confessions of a Sleep Trainer



Learning the parenthood ropes one month at a time

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

As any parent can attest, sleep is everything. I recall in those newborn days feeling elated and capable when rested. But when tired, everything seemed like such a struggle.

In my circle of new-parent acquaintances, most people, myself included, start with a version of attachment parenting lite (breastfeeding, co-sleeping etc.) as the ideal baseline, then slip and slide into their own style from there, but not before feeling some guilt about those concessions to real life. Sleep is no exception, and though sleep training — aka letting a baby learn how to put herself to sleep, both initially and throughout the night, even if it involves some crying at first —  seems common, many parents (understandably) feel bad about it. 

So it’s with that in mind that I present my unapologetic endorsement of sleep training. Not to preach that it’s right way -- I know it’s not for everyone, and also know it doesn’t work for all babies. But rather in support of those who are considering it, as someone once did for me and I have done for many since. 

Fiona was one of those “alert” babies, more interested in scrutinizing the world than shutting her big eyes. She wasn’t a disaster sleep-wise, but liked neither pacifier nor swaddle and every afternoon around 4:30 pm would dissolve into fussiness that we’d try to remedy with tedious hours of bouncing in many forms. I’d feed her to sleep, because if I put her down awake she’d just cry. The only sleep book consulted was Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution, because who can resist a title like that?

By eight weeks or so, she was only waking up only once or twice a night, and together we’d sleep until 8 am. Then the dreaded four-month sleep regression hit early, and she started waking up again every two hours. Once you’ve tasted a little unbroken sleep, it’s terrible to go back. So around 14 weeks, we decided to try sleep training. 

Several factors led us there. I knew she was now capable of longer stretches of sleep, and I had recently read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, a book I thought would be irritating but turned out to be influential: for one, she talks about how French babies “do their nights” starting at about two months and if not, parents sleep-train no later than four. More conceptually, a theme runs throughout the book about how American mothers often lead child-centric lives, to the detriment of their health, happiness, marriage and jobs. Whereas for the French, evenings are adult time. For me, this hit home. 

Also, the idea of a child learning to fall asleep unassisted struck me as imperative for us and her. I have never been a good sleeper — between night feedings I would often, agonizingly, lie awake. And lastly, I have Seattle traffic to thank — after wailing once for two hours on I-5, Fiona and I both emerged from the car tear-stained: I was shaken up, but she was giggling within two minutes. She could get mad, I realized, then be OK. 

So we went for it, committing to three nights over the course of a weekend (as is advised, as you will initially lose sleep). We opted to eliminate all her sleep “crutches” at once: We moved her into her own room, put her down awake at 7 pm, and didn’t feed her again until the early morning. Per Dr. Ferber’s time-honored instructions, my husband would soothe her periodically (though sometimes, going in only riled her up more). We made gin cocktails, listened to her cry, and felt bad. But it worked. Quickly, and very well. She started sleeping 10- or 11-hour nights and began to take real naps, too. Better rested, she awoke cheerfully and didn’t succumb to evening fussfests. Her bedtime transformed into a simple, predictable and tear-free routine that today anyone — dad, grandma, babysitter — can do. 

Of course, there are some drawbacks: It’s hard to listen to your child cry. Without fail, she wakes up early, even around 5 am in the initial days. A 7 pm bedtime is both freeing and restrictive for us grown-ups. And she’ll sometimes regress, waking up at night when traveling, teething, sick or just randomly, and we’ll debate over how to handle it. But at least we have a baseline of solid sleep to work back towards. 

For the next theoretical child, I’ll try to put them down awake more and pause before picking them up, even if it means a little crying, thus teaching those self-soothing skills in a more gradual way. If that doesn’t work, we’ll go for Ferberization, round two, with far less guilt in our hearts. Looking back, it wasn’t just about getting more sleep — though the significance of that cannot be overstated. It was about teaching Fiona independence, while trying to hold onto some semblance of our own. 

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