It is a truth universally acknowledged, that friends and family will load you up with congratulatory balloons, happy Facebook messages, and teensy, tiny clothes when you welcome your first child to the world. What all those well-wishers fail to do, however, is tell you unequivocally that you will never sleep again.
About three months into our stint as parents, my husband and I were both reduced to sleep-deprived tears in a single night. We were taking two-hour shifts in the nursery: one of us holding a screaming baby, the other getting about 120 minutes of shut-eye at a time. As we passed on the landing sometime in the early-morning darkness, we noticed we both had tears streaming down our cheeks. Mine were joyful; I was heading to bed. His? Not so much.
Somehow we limped on for a few more months. Tommy was sleeping better, waking up two or three times a night. And occasionally, he even slept for six hours at a time. It felt so much more manageable than it had during Weep-mageddon.
But then I left my magazine position to start blogging at Bluehost. My husband decided to quit his job to attend a fifty-hours-per-week web development course. And to top it off, we started turning our unfinished basement into livable space. Suddenly, waking up even one extra time per night wasn’t sustainable.
Tommy needed to sleep. In his crib. All night long.
Sleep Training Basics
Though sleep training has a hot-button reputation, it’s a pretty simple concept: creating a set of behaviors and patterns that help your baby fall asleep by himself (i.e. self soothe) and stay asleep all night long.
The controversy comes in when we get to the how-to part. Some people believe in letting the baby “cry it out,” essentially allowing the child to scream until they realize no one is coming and put themselves back to sleep. That method sounded terrible to me; I didn’t want my baby to think that he was alone or that we wouldn’t respond to his calls for help.
So we decided to take a more gradual approach. Instead of letting Tommy cry until he couldn’t cry anymore, we’d allow him to cry for short periods (starting at 5 minutes and then moving up to 10 minutes) before going into his room to comfort him during the night.
While I originally came up with this plan as a mash up of my sister’s sleep-training technique and blogger Emily Henderson’s, research actually bears it out.
The Science of Sleep
A 2016 study tracked the stress hormones in 43 babies, ages six to sixteen months, as well as parent-child attachment over a twelve-month period after the babies were sleep trained. And the results were striking.
Sleep training decreased the time it took children to fall asleep, and, in particular, the gradual method, like we used, actually reduced the number of night wakings compared to the control group. All of the babies had normal Cortisol levels, and there was no difference in emotional well-being in the children twelve months later.
And those results came on top of a 2006 study which showed that rates of maternal depression are reduced when babies learn behavioral sleep techniques. Amen.
In short, the science shows that moms and dads don’t need to feel guilty for sleep training their babies. It can benefit the entire family as long as you wait until your baby’s tummy is big enough to go all night without a milk meal (for example, your baby is at least five months old and weighs around 15 pounds).
My advice: consult your pediatrician to decide what’s best for your little one.
Assembling the Gear
Now armed with family anecdotes, my doctor’s backing, and internet research (a potent combo), Scott and I decided to ready ourselves for Tommy’s big night.
Our first step was to move his crib out of our bedroom. Because of the construction downstairs, all three of us were sharing a small guest room and using another bedroom as a makeshift walk-in closet. That had to end. So the closet became Tommy’s temporary nursery, with his crib and our recliner — a parenting lifesaver — wedged in among the clothes.
We also purchased a simple baby monitor. You obviously can go high end with these, but since our house isn’t huge, we didn’t think we’d use a video monitor very often. Additionally, we picked up a humidifier to provide a little white noise and help with spring sniffles (the starry-night feature was a nice extra).
Sticking with the Schedule
Last but not least, we decided on a schedule. Tommy usually wanted to go to sleep at 8 p.m. Since that was his natural sleepy-time, we went with it. Starting at 7:45 p.m., the routine went like this:
- Lotion, diaper change, jammies
- Bottle while singing quiet lullabies
- Lay baby down while he’s still awake
- Say the pre-approved script: “It’s time for bed. I love you. I’ll see you in the morning. Night night.”
- Walk away
The first couple of nights we checked on Tommy every time he cried for 5 minutes. We went into his room, kept the lights off, caressed his head until he stopped crying, and then said the script before leaving the room. We really tried to never pick him up when we were comforting him (but sometimes when your little sweetie looks that sad you just have to give them a cuddle).
It took Tommy about 40 minutes to calm down and go to sleep the first night. On the third night, we allowed him to cry for 10 minutes before we came in to comfort him. By the end of the week, we didn’t have to check on him at all after we put him in his crib (he was asleep in less than 10 minutes) and there were no more nighttime wakings. Instead, he was sleeping through the night, waking up around 6 a.m.
As the months have progressed, Tommy has had a few regressions (nights where he struggled to go to sleep or woke up too early), but we’ve stuck to our schedule and the script. We still let him cry for 10 minutes before we check on him at night. And in most cases, he resolves his own issues in that time and goes back to sleep. Exceptions, of course, pop up when he’s sick or cutting a new tooth.
While parenting is totally a personal pursuit and all children are, in fact, unique snowflakes, sleep training is proof that putting the needs of the entire family at the top of your priority list (in this case, we all needed to go the bleep to sleep) instead of the needs of one family member (Tommy wants to be held at 3 a.m.) can actually lead to good results for all.
With a full night’s sleep, Tommy is happier. The grownups are happier too — and can actually function during the day. For example, I haven’t put milk in the cupboard instead of the fridge for months! Months!
Now it’s your turn. Tell me how you taught your little ones to sleep in the comments. Or did they figure out the zzzs all on their own? And let me know if you’ve got any sleep tips for moms (like I was) who are literally crying for lack of sleep in those first few months.