Sunday, September 10, 2006

Second Time Around: Sleep Training the Kids

I started this blog in earnest when I sleep-trained Eric. The whole experience was very traumatic for me, but also very liberating. I didn't read a bunch of fancy books. I just did what I thought was right.

There are a few schools of thought on baby sleep:
Suck it up:
Deal with nightly waking as long as it takes. Usually kids will sleep by themselves through the night after a few years, depending on the kid. God bless 'em. I don't know how people deal with night waking for years. But they really do it. A lot of women nurse their babies throughout the night for well over a year --sometimes two. Just the thought of it makes my teeth ache with exhaustion.
Let them Cry it Out: Also known as "Ferbering."A somewhat controversial method of getting kids to sleep wherein you let them cry until they fall asleep. It's really not a brutal as it sounds, but that's the basic idea.
No Cry Sleep Solution: A gradual way of getting your kids to sleep through the night. It mostly caters to co-sleeping, breastfeeding families. A good read, but I found it didn't work at all for us. (even though we were and are a breastfeeding co-sleeping family)

With Eric, it started on a Friday afternoon when he was about 10 months old. I nursed him to sleep for a half an hour. Laid him down in his crib and he was awake. Repeat over and over with the same results. He clearly needed a nap, but I was no longer able to help him sleep.

I'd had enough. I let him cry and I stayed with him almost the whole time and hugged him over the crib and patted his head and after about 45 minutes of sheer hell, he laid down and slept for an hour and a half. The next time I did it, it took about 25 minutes of crying and by the end of the weekend I could put him down awake at roughly the specified time and he'd go to sleep without crying.

I shook. I cried. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I called my mom and she said "They don't want to be in charge." That made a lot of sense. I was in charge, and he needed to learn how to sleep some other way besides nursing and it was something he had to learn for himself.

Being on this side of the Great Sleep Training Debate I have a hugely different perspective than I did three years ago when I was a new, first time parent. I thought sleep training was an evil practice, done by heartless lazy parents who didn't love their kids as much as I loved mine. (See the 'suck it up' method defined above.) But time went by and I realized that sleep wasn't something I could love my child into doing for himself. And regular naps were absolutely critical to his (and our) physical and mental health. There was no easy, tear-free path to good sleep.

Once we got the naps down, Eric started sleeping through the night by himself shortly afterwards. We let him cry a little from time to time at night. We went in and checked on him and hugged him and kissed him and he went back to sleep on his own. We implemented a relatively strict bedtime ritual and usually by 8 PM he was asleep for the night and we had our evenings to ourselves.

Kaylee never nursed to sleep very well. So, at 3 1/2 months I unsuccessfully tried to nurse her to sleep twice in a row. I sighed, gritted my teeth and put her in her bed awake and stood beside her crib talking gently and rubbing back until I realized I was agitating her more. So, I let her fuss and cry and it took about 20 minutes for her to fall asleep herself. I picked her up and rocked her a few times to calm her down, but she went to sleep by herself. Within a few days, and very little crying after that first time, I could put her down fully awake and she could put herself to sleep within minutes. She doesn't sleep through the night on a regular basis. If she wakes up, I just bring her into bed with me and we nurse and snuggle for the rest of the night.

Part of me still feels like the stepmother in a Disney movie. She's a just tiny baby and I let her cry. I'm a MONSTER! But you can't argue with the results. Once my kids understood what they were supposed to do and how to do it, they're usually more than happy to go to sleep, they way they're happy to play or eat at the right time. Many babies need to cry to learn the skill of falling asleep. I know there's other ways, but it's so little pain for so much long-term peace.

I keep reading about people fighting to get their kids to sleep when they're toddlers because they didn't 'train' them when they were babies and it just sounds hellacious. There's a lot more crying when your toddler doesn't know how to go to sleep than there would be if you just bit the bullet and let them cry until they fall asleep.

Things that made it easer for me were:

Staying in the room with the baby for most of the crying. Unless your presence is making them more agitated, there's no reason to leave. You can talk to, touch and kiss your baby during this process. If they're tired, they will eventually sleep.

Nothing small children learn that's worth knowing comes without its share of tears. Crawling, sitting up, walking, sharing, learning to ride a tricycle and being nice to your siblings are all learned behaviors that come with a lot of tears and frustration. Why should sleep be any different.

It really works for a lot of kids. I don't think you're doing your kids any favors by not establishing clear boundaries about sleep time. It's just like establishing a clear boundary about not going near the stove in the kitchen. Your kid may not like it. He may scream and cry because the broiler handle is the PERFECT height for climbing. But you have to establish the rule and stick to it. Why should sleep be any different?


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