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Since Everyone Else Does a Cry-It-Out Post….Here’s Mine

Eleanor just turned 5 months old.  Which means the conversation around “sleep-training” and “cry-it-out” methods is well underway in the mama groups I follow.  While I’m admittedly anti-CIO, that’s not really the point of this post.  Instead I want to address the pressure that many parents feel to use CIO …even when it’s something that feels horribly wrong to them.   Why do so many wonderful and well-intentioned parents believe that the only way their child will ever get enough sleep is to learn to “self-soothe” by crying themselves to sleep?

By sleep training I’m referring to those methods that involve leaving baby to cry alone whether with check-ins at timed intervals (like Ferber) or those without any checking at all that instruct parents to leave baby alone until she stops crying, however long that takes.   That covers a wide range of methods for sure and parents use these at a wide range of ages.   And just to be clear, I’m not here to vilify parents who do decide that sleep training is right for them.   However, I do think that society deserves blame for making parents feel like “sleeping through the night” and “self-soothing” are some magical milestones that parents must “teach” their babies or else risk having a “bad sleeper” for the rest of their lives – and that the only way to teach those things is through CIO.

Why is Western culture so fixated on the idea that infants should sleep independently at such an early age?   We don’t expect our children to be potty trained at this age, to eat independently, to dress themselves, play alone, or a great many other things.  And yet we are made to feel that something is “wrong” if our baby doesn’t sleep solidly in her crib from 7 to 7 without our assistance by some point during the first year of life.  Add to this the the way that nighttime wakings affect parents’ sleep and well-being…it’s not that surprising then that parents want a quick fix.  But there is another way.

I’ve heard variations of the same comments in almost every discussion on sleep training.  Here’s my take on some of them…

“CIO was the only way we could get her to sleep through the night.”

The problem with this statement is the assumption that sleeping through the night is a necessary thing or even normal.  Do you sleep through the night?  I don’t (and didn’t even before I had kids!).  Most of us wake at least once during the night, perhaps so briefly that it hardly registers as a waking.  Of course, you and I are adults and able to put ourselves back to sleep quickly and without effort – most of the time at least.  Haven’t you ever had a night when you had trouble getting to sleep or going back to sleep for some reason?   Doesn’t it then follow that our babies would also wake at night and that sometimes those wakings may be more prolonged (particularly during developmental milestones)?

“I’m doing him a favor by teaching him to self soothe.”

Yes, it’s our job as parents to teach our kids things.   But more often than not there are multiple ways to teach those things.  I could teach my toddler to use the potty by spanking him any time he had an accident.  Or I could do what most of us do and slowly follow his cues, helping him when he messes up, reassuring him and providing him the tools for success.   Learning to self-soothe isn’t something to be learned in 3 nights of sleep training boot camp.  It’s something we have to coach our children through, something we have to model for them, and something we nurture by providing soothing as they learn to do so for themselves.   Just like anything else we teach our kids it will take time, they will have set back, and they will eventually get there at their own pace.

“Baby isn’t getting enough sleep because he wakes so often.”

Babies have relatively short sleep cycles compared to adults, meaning they have more opportunities to wake.  Does all that waking mean they aren’t getting enough sleep?  Not necessarily.  It is true that if your baby wakes frequently and stays awake for prolonged periods, he may end up sleep deprived.  But for most infants, waking and being soothed back to sleep does not cause an overall lack of sleep.   You can’t judge an infant’s sleep patterns by that of an adult – in other words, just because you don’t feel rested, doesn’t mean that baby doesn’t.

“My baby is fussy and grumpy from all that night waking.”

It is certainly possible for a baby to not get enough sleep.  But amount of sleep and being able to go to sleep (and stay asleep) without assistance are two different issues.   If your baby seems to be running on a sleep deficit, why assume that means that she needs to put herself to sleep to solve the problem?  I know that when I’m most exhausted, when I have the most on my mind, or when I’m in pain (think busy baby who is exploring the world, learning new skills, and possibly teething!) I have the most trouble sleeping.  So if baby really is struggling to get enough sleep, he does need our help – soothing to sleep and possibly altering sleep routines (such as changing bedtime and naptimes, etc) – in order to get more sleep.

“My pediatrician said there was no medical reason for her to eat at night.”

Unless your child has a sleep disorder and is seeing a sleep specialist (and most pediatricians are hardly sleep specialists), sleep decisions are parenting issues not medical ones.  Sure, a healthy 5 month old can go 8, 10, 12 hours overnight without eating.  But there’s also nothing wrong with them if they don’t.  This is particularly true of breastfed babies.  Nursing is about far more than just eating – it’s about comfort as well (and I would also make the same argument for parents who practice nurturing bottle feeding).  It’s mama’s touch that is needed as much as mama’s milk.  Many babies use nighttime hours to reconnect with mama, particularly when mama works outside the home.   It’s also worth remembering that as babies become more and more alert, they become more and more distracted when it comes to eating.  Nighttime nursing is often a way for babies to make up missed calories when they are more focused and drowsy.   As babies grow older, there are gentle ways to encourage night weaning (Jay Gordon’s night weaning method is one).  There are also things you can do to reduce night eating; Kellymom.com has excellent tips and further reading on the subject.

“My husband/wife/mother/cousin/best friend’s aunt said we had to.”

This one bothers me because something as major as leaving your young baby alone to cry should not be a decision made by anyone but parents – and it should be one that both parents are in 100% agreement on, not something that one pressures the other in to no matter how well intentioned.  So the next time great aunt Maise says “you’d better just let that baby cry” tell her “my kid; my choice” and leave it at that.

“I sat outside his door and cried as he cried.” 

If leaving your child alone to cry drives you to tears (or makes you want to hide away with a glass of wine and loud music) …you are trying to tell you something, namely that this isn’t right.  I think it’s enough to say that if the process makes you feel awful, it’s making baby feel pretty awful too.  And there is another way.

“He’s such a bad sleeper that I had no other option.”

There are lots of options to explore before resorting to CIO.  While I confess that I’ve not read it myself, I’m told that even Ferber sees his graduated crying intervals as a last resort, the thing you do when you’ve spent months trying everything else.  And yet, some form of CIO seems to be the first thing many parents turn to when they decide (or when they are pressured in to feeling) that it’s high time baby could self soothe.  If you feel like something needs to give in your sleep situation, Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution  Pantley notes that her method is not a quick fix – and that’s probably true of any gentle sleep learning method you use.  But if you really want to change sleep habits, that will take time and effort.

“Rocking, nursing, wearing my baby to sleep is a bad habit.”

Guess what.  I can guarantee with almost 100% certainty that all children will outgrow any of these routines on their own.  And if you really don’t want to wait for that to happen, you can replace them with another routine with a little bit of effort (Pantley’s book has useful tips on this).   Maybe rocking to sleep turns to rocking and then in bed awake and then to just sitting by the bed while baby falls asleep to being able to just tuck baby in and leave.

Most importantly, if these are rituals you enjoy and baby enjoys, who cares what anyone else thinks.  If it works for you, run with it.  A loving act like rocking your little one to sleep can hardly be called a bad habit.

“I.AM.SO.TIRED.”

I feel ya!  By the time you’ve dealt with night wakings for more than a few months, you are probably feeling done.  Who wouldn’t want a lovely, uninterrupted night of sleep?  This is where I think the power of expectation comes in to play.  Now I realize that having to get up several times a night sucks any way you slice it.  But it sucks less if you are expecting it to happen and believe that it’s normal.  It sucks more if you think baby really should be over this and that you should be able to sleep without having to help baby.  I speak from personal experience on this one.  Try it.  I don’t promise you’ll feel like a million bucks, but I do think you’ll feel less angry about the situation – and less angry means a better mood which means you can run well on less sleep.

Happy feelings aside, there are other things that you can do to minimize the impact of night wakings on you.  First and most importantly – bed-share (as in baby is in your bed) or co-sleep (as in baby is in your room in a separate sleep space).  I realize this isn’t for everyone.  But for many babies it will minimize night wakings and help mama get more sleep too (although I know there are some babies out there who actually sleep better in their own space).  If baby is next to you, you can get to baby before she fully wakes (as in starts crying full out) – and that means you get her back to sleep quickly…and get yourself back to sleep quickly too.  If you are like me, you find it tough to get back to sleep if you’ve been up for 15 minutes or so.  Because she’s right beside me, when Eleanor starts to wake I often hardly have to wake myself to get her back to sleep.  So even though I’m technically up with her several times a night – I still wake feeling well rested.  It’s the nights when I have to get up with my toddler because he’s having a rough teething night or has wet the bed (sorry folks, night waking don’t end with infancy!) that I actually feel the most sleep deprived; those nights I have to wake up so fully to help Callum I have a harder time getting back to sleep so my sleep ends up really fragmented.  Fortunately, Callum is really cute so I forgive him for interrupting my sleep.

Even if you aren’t in to co-sleeping, making minor changes to your routine can help.  Regardless of how baby is fed, both parents should be able to soothe and get baby to sleep.  Eleanor gets nursed to sleep a lot.  But if I’m not around, Jesse can wear her to sleep.  This means the burden isn’t always on me to get her down.  It also means that Eleanor is learning that it’s not just nursing that’s comforting, but rather the attention of a loving parent.  It’s also important to work with your partner to trade off sleeping in or going to bed early – one day sleeping in or even grabbing a weekend nap can make a big difference.  If you are like me and not much for napping, just having an hour or two of kid free time can be refreshing.

I also can’t say enough about the power of exercise, fresh air, and sunlight.  Taking a brisk walk in the morning sun can do wonders for your disposition.   I’ve been sidelined by a stress fracture in my foot for the last 5 weeks – not being able to run or even take a long walk has made me feel far more tired and cranky than any number of night wakings do.  Try it.  It works!

Finally, if your baby has hit a period of frequent wakings, you may need to temporarily adjust your own sleep habits.    Of course it’s nice to unwind with a good movie at the end of the day, but maybe it’s wiser to hit the hay early in anticipation of being up later.  And sure you’ve got plenty of work to get done, but sometimes things just have to wait.  This too shall pass.

 

Babies cry because they need us.  They have immature brains that are working hard to understand the world – those same immature brains and all that hard work are frequently the very things that make them cry for us in the night or need our calming touch to drift off to sleep.   When our babies stumble and fall as they learn to walk and crawl, we pick them up and comfort them and help them try again.  Should we not do the same when they “stumble” in their sleep?

 

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Published in Parenting Sleep