In defense of baby sleep-training

Prepare to judge me as a mother. I let my kid cry it out in his crib when he was four months old. I can count the number of times we slept or even napped together. He goes down in his crib in his room alone and stays here. Maybe I missed out on some cuddles, but he is a great sleeper, and I think a lot of it has to do with sleep training.

Four months old. That’s the magical age for sleep training, according to my lactation consultant who runs a support group for new moms that I attended. The second that kid hits four months, it’s time, she said. Any younger and they aren’t developed enough to pick up on the self-soothing bit. Too old, they resist it more and just want to crawl and climb and scream.

Let me be clear. There are all kinds of sleep training methods. I’m not talking about the “no-cry” sleep business where you gently suggest to your infant over the course of several months that sleeping some would be kinda nice. None of this craziness where you put a chair in the baby’s room and move it a few feet away from the crib each night until you’re out of sight. No. I’m talking cry it out. “CIO” as the mommy boards will call it. Letting the baby cry until he stops and falls asleep.

Reading: Reading is a part of our nightly routine.
Reading: Reading is a part of our nightly routine. (All photos by Sara Michael)

I’ve read the criticisms. I’m cruel and heartless. I’m causing long-term neurological damage and abandonment issues; I’m setting him up for aggression issues later in life; He won’t trust me. I am generally a bad person.

I don’t buy all of that.

Given my personality and my baby’s temperament, I knew nothing but a good cry-it-out would work. The topic has come up a few times lately with other moms, so I thought it a good time to share our experiences.

First,  two caveats: If you sense your baby isn’t ready around four months, or ever, don’t do it. You have to listen to your baby, because even though sleep is awesome for parents, sleep training is ultimately for the child’s benefit.

Second, if you’re not ready, don’t do it. It’s not for the faint of heart, and if there is part of you that still wants to sleep with the baby or get up with him at all hours of the night, don’t do it. Chances are you won’t power through and it will wind up just being heartache for both of you.

So here’s what we did. I’m pretty sure this list is a modified version of the Ferber method, as described in a BabyCenter article.

  1. Start a bedtime routine. We decided for dinner, bath (It doesn’t need to be a full washing. Even just a quick soak in warm water works to chill him out.), jammies, bottle, stories and then lights out around 7 or 7:30 p.m. Even at four months this became our routine. I’ve read that babies like the consistency and it gives them the signal that bedtime is imminent.
  2.  When baby is drowsy but still awake, put him in his crib, say good night, and leave the room.
  3.  Pour a glass of wine and sit out on the back porch.
  4.  Listen to the baby cry. The first night, we decided to check on him and sooth him in intervals, a Ferber hallmark. I think it was every five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 15.  But after a few checks, we realized we were just making it worse, as he would just cry harder when we went in the room. So we let him cry.
  5. If you decide to go in and check on him, don’t pick him up or linger. Just go in, say something soft and sweet, pat his back or gently rub his head. Then leave.
  6. Repeat the process every time baby wakes up in the night (unless you decide to do a night feeding if he wakes up at a certain time). Every time my baby would wake up, we might go in and check (or stay out as we found was more effective), then just let him be. In the meantime, I sobbed and sobbed, drank wine, and Googled terms like “long-term harm of cry-out-out” and “Does sleep training damage my child.”
  7.  Continuously remind yourself why you’re doing this. You’ve decided it’s best for the baby to learn to self-sooth, you think he is ready to learn to sleep through the night, you’re so exhausted you can’t see straight and you’re kid is an overtired ball of fuss. Whatever your reasons, keep them close at hand while you and baby are crying.
  8. Keep this up for a few nights. If you’re thinking interval checks are your thing, try spreading out the time between checks with each night.

Our results? After about four nights, he was going down with minimal whimpering, and staying asleep all night. For a few nights, he’d wake up a couple times here and there, but with each passing night he cried less and less – an hour would be 20 minutes the next night then 10 minutes then nothing – and he was far more willing to settle in for bed when I put him down.

Now, he sleeps 11 to 12 hours a night, usually without a peep. After traveling, or when we have friends over, or if we’re out with him, he will cry a bit before falling asleep. There was also a period of super early waking and fussing, but that usually corresponded with a new skill. Nine times out of 10, he’ll just babble or moan or sing a bit, wiggle around in the crib and then he’s out until morning.

For the most part, I missed out on bed-sharing and middle-of-the-night cuddling. And the sleep-training week of tears was heart-wrenching, gut-punching hell. But we powered through and he became a better-rested, happier baby; I became a more patient, loving, and productive human; the sun shone brighter, and the birds chirped louder.

I welcome your thoughts and experiences. Did you sleep train?

 Two good baby sleep books


One thought on “In defense of baby sleep-training

  • December 25, 2012 at 7:26 PM

    We did. Reluctantly at ten and a half months due to hourly to two hourly nursing through the night. Luckily dd is a very adaptable and easy going child so it took three days and not much crying. I was at breaking point even though my tree hugging mother tendencies did not want to do it. It was the sleep training or my sanity. Sleep training or a bitch of a wife and a cranky mother. Apart from illnesses and teething, we have all felt the benefits of dd being able to sleep on her own. Travel to places where there were ten to12 hour time diferences did not matter much to dd. She had adjusted pretty much on day1. Im not an advocate of CIO, but it worked for us. Some people are lucky to not have to resort to it and some (like me) set up bad habits.

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