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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

Sleep Training Wars

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My husband and I are at loggerheads over when and how to sleep train our baby. Whenever we are truly at an impasse, we go to a neutral third party (with the relevant skill set) to decide the issue. I thought of you. With your experience both raising three children and answering countless baby sleep questions, I hope you can help us. I will try to present the issue as evenly as possible (otherwise my husband won’t accept the outcome).

I am not working now and my husband works from home. So I do most of the childcare, while my husband lends a hand throughout the day. Our baby girl is fourth months on July 2. We went to her four-month checkup on June 28. The doctor told us that at any time we can start sleep training our baby and advocated letting her cry for 10-15 minutes, going in to check on her, and repeat. She also said if we wanted to eliminate the night wakings, let her cry when she wakes up and don’t feed her. (BTW–our baby is now just over 16 pounds.)

So here is the background on our baby’s sleep situation. I sleep in the baby’s room; since I’m breastfeeding, we figured there was no point in both of us getting up at night. It’s been working for us so far. The baby usually wakes up three times at night. She starts the night in her crib, then after a stretch of 4-6 hours, wakes up. I feed her, then put her in a cosleeper next to the bed (although recently I’ve started putting her back in her crib). She goes back to sleep easily. She wakes up again about 3 hours later, and I feed her and then usually keep her in bed with me, with off-and-on nursing until she’s up for the day. Twice she’s slept 8 hours straight, but usually it is in the 4-5 hour range, with an occasional 6.

To get her to sleep, we usually bounce her with an exercise ball. Up until 3 or 3 1/2 months, I would bounce her until her eyes got heavy (more often closed than open), then put her in her crib. Sometimes I would jiggle her until she fell asleep, or sometimes just leave. If she started crying (which was often), either I or my husband would go back in and bounce her. Since three months, we have not put her down asleep (and before then would aim for drowsy-but-awake as much as possible). About 1-2 weeks ago, I started a bedtime routine of boob, books, sing one song while bouncing, put in crib and sing another song. She rarely goes right to sleep. I let her cry as long as it sounds to me like fussing-going-to-sleeping crying. Once it escalates, I first try to leave her in her crib, but hold a pacifier in her mouth to calm her down. But if that doesn’t work, either my husband or I bounce her a little while singing. (My perhaps-naïve-first-time-parent plan is that the baby will associate the singing with sleep, and we will wean her off the bouncing.) It usually takes going in twice after she’s down before she falls asleep.

Naptime is similar. I bounce her until she is drowsy, then put her in her crib awake. I usually have to go in a couple of time before she falls asleep. I don’t wait a particular amount of time; rather I base it on the type of cry. I have a fairly high tolerance for the fussy, poor-me cry, but a low one for the frantic, world-about-to-end cry. She consistently naps for approximately 45 minutes and is awake for about an hour or an hour and a half between naps.

Sorry for the novel-length introduction. Here is the issue: my husband thinks we need to start sleep training her now by letting her cry it out (I’m not sure if he means Ferber or Weissbluth). Not doing so is ruining our lives and harming her. It is ruining our lives because, if we sleep train, the baby will sleep from 6:30 or 7:30 until the morning, so we’ll get to watch TV or hang out at night until I go to bed (which has always been early, around 9:30 or 10). Instead, in his mind, we’re still in “survival mode.” It is harming her because she will never learn good sleep habits or how to self-soothe.

I don’t agree with him, nor do I trust his opinion. He has been talking about sleep training since before our daughter was conceived and is sure he knows The Right Way to do it. I don’t trust his opinion because I don’t think there is A Right Way, and much of his opinion is based on the experience of what worked for friends of ours with their baby (sample size of one). Further, how can he know what is best or right for our baby if this has been his plan since she was still a twinkle in his eye? But most damning, in my eyes, is that he thinks we should have done this two months ago—when she was just two months old! This just demonstrates to me a lack of understanding. Granted, she was almost 14 pounds, but a baby must be both physically and developmentally ready to be sleep trained. At two months, she may have been big enough, but she was not ready developmentally to cry it out.

I have nothing against crying it out, and I know that eventually we will have to do it. (Nor do I think I coddle her. During the day when she cries, I tend to wait and see if she will resolve whatever is bothering her on her own rather than rushing over.) But I don’t think our baby or I am ready to sleep train yet for several reasons. First, I don’t think we’ve had enough time for the bedtime routine to be established. I had a hard time figuring out when was “bedtime”, so I would put her down for a nap and she would be down for the night. Or I would realize too late that it was bedtime and not have enough time to do the bedtime routine. Second, I think it would be too much for me to move out of her room and start sleep training at the same time, so I want to do one, then the other. Third, I don’t have a problem with how things are. I am no longer exhausted like I was at the beginning and don’t mind waking up to feed her. (I would prefer that her daytime naps start consolidating, but my doctor said that won’t happen until she sleeps better at night, so I’m fine with waiting.) And fourth, I am a little sad to stop sharing a bed with her and to leave her room, but I know at some point it will have to happen.

I know my husband truly believes that it is best for our baby to sleep train her now and is convinced that I am not being my normal rational self, but instead letting my emotions get the best of me. He thinks all of my reasons are just excuses to put off the sleep training, and I will just keep inventing more reasons to keep putting it off. He wants a firm date, which I can’t give him.

So, what are your thoughts? Is 4 months the “best” time to sleep train her? Are we doing her and ourselves a disservice if we wait a month or so? My plan is that by six months I’ll be out of her room and we’ll be down to one waking at night, if that. (That is another issue–my husband thinks I should night wean her as soon as possible–but I’m not going to deal with that until after the sleep training is done and I see how her night wakings go.)

Thanks for your help! We have a slight détente because my husband is overseas at a conference and I’m at my parents’ with the baby, so nothing will happen for a week. But this issue will arise again once we both return. If I am doing something nonproductive, I will stop. But I need someone other than my husband to tell me that.

Nope. Nope nope nope. While I’d love to be all diplomatic and happy-fun-everyone’s-a-winner here, I can’t. Your husband is wrong; you are right; there is NOTHING out-of-the-ordinary or red-flaggish about ANY of your daughter’s sleep and bedtime habits. Everybody go home. We’re done here.

OKAY FINE.

Maybe instead of “wrong,” we’ll call your husband’s views on sleep and sleep training “dated.” Once upon a time, yes. Very very little babies were plopped in cribs and left to basically fend for themselves and “learn” that no one was coming to feed or comfort them. Newborns were put on strict feeding schedules (vs. on demand) and new parents were advised to start solid foods incredibly (even dangerously) early. We used whiskey for teething, picnic baskets for car seats, and formula was going to save humanity from disgusting female boobgerms.

And while the baby-rearing industry is still a seething mass of conflicting opinions about many things, hardcore CIO sleep training of a 2 month old has pretty much COMPLETELY fallen into the “please don’t do that” column. A 2-month-old baby needs to eat at night. So does a 4 month old. It is not until closer to six months that babies can realistically go eight hours without at least one pitstop of breastmilk or formula. SCIENCE!

So, despite your doctor’s blase approach to “sleep train whenever,” I’m going to draw the line at six months old. Sleep training before six months is unrealistic and can even be counter-intuitive, since you can end up introducing separation anxiety or fear of the crib if you get too hardcore prematurely.

None of this is to say that some 4-month-old babies DON’T sleep through the night. My first baby did. My second followed about a month after. (Though note that my definition of “through the night” at that age is one six-hour stretch, an early waking and then some morning nursing/dozing. So by that measure, you are often getting the best sleep-case scenario for her developmental stage.) And I did not technically “sleep train” beyond what you’re describing: Let them fuss, give them time to settle, but intervene when it’s obvious they are awake and need/want you. Routine, routine, routine. Be careful/mindful of any non-sustainable dependencies you create during the newborn survival period (swaddling, bouncing, pacifiers, etc.) and slowly work on making yourself extinct from the soothing-back-to-sleep process.

But none of that needs to be Priority Number One at four months. Nothing bad or terrible will happen if your baby is not sleeping through the night completely independently at four or five or even 10 months old. My third baby was a fairly wretched and inconsistent sleeper until eight months, when I finally used the Ferber method. HE IS FINE. HE SLEEPS. HE IS EASY. I put him to bed wide awake and he figures the rest out and sleeps through the night and I don’t seem to have irreparably screwed him up. (Yet.) And I only employed the Ferber method because he met the criteria of the book’s title: Solve Your Child’s Sleep PROBLEMS. His sleep WAS a problem. For us and for him. He was overtired and miserable and had no self-soothing skills. See? Problems that needed a solution.

Your daughter’s sleep seems to only be a “problem” for your husband, because everything you describe strikes me as perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate, and clearly moving in the natural direction of longer stretches of sleep and less dependency on you guys (i.e. she is put down drowsy but awake,  given the opportunity to fuss if needed, you are focused on creating a bedtime routine and moving away from the bouncing, etc.) I think it would be worth figuring out why.

If I could switch out my Armchair Sleep Bossy-Person Hat for my Armchair Therapist Hat, I’d wager that this is actually more of a marital issue than a parenting one. He misses you. He feels like he’s “lost” you to the baby and that you are “hers” and hers alone at night. Your sleeping arrangements probably sounded convenient once upon a time but I bet he wants you back in your room, your bed, with him. Some fathers absolutely do experience a strange (to them, anyway; it’s actually fairly normal) feeling of jealousy/competition with their newborns. Suddenly their wives’ bodies and time and affections are all going to this new unformed, personality-less needy creature that they haven’t particularly bonded with as a PERSON (also normal!!). The fact that you sleep in your daughter’s room probably exacerbates some of these rumblings and while YOU think you’re arguing the position of “our baby is not ready to sleep-train,” HE’s hearing you argue against trying to get back to being a normal married couple who spends their evenings and nights together, and thus lashes out with the “STOP WITH THE LADY HORMONE EXCUSES” nonsense because he’s actually concerned that…geez. Maybe she doesn’t care and is fine with things always being like this. Maybe she’ll never want to wean or focus on anything other than The Baby and things will never be the same for us OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE WE DONE. Classic marital fight about one thing that is really about another, completely different thing.

Dear Husband: Things will be the same, kind of. Things will go back to normal, kind of. Just…slow your roll, homeboy. Your baby is so young and your baby is so normal and sleep training is not — I REPEAT NOT — the holy grail of infancy that works for every baby ever. It works for some. It backfires for others. It’s a plus-six-months thing for most, however, and I swear, you guys are doing good. She sounds fine and I personally predict that as the next couple months go by she’ll nurse less at night and start solids during the day and you’ll get those eight hour stretches of sleep without even trying. If not, okay. Buy a couple books on sleep and READ THEM. (The No-Cry Sleep Solution and Ferber’s book will give you a couple different, yet equally valid opinions on sleep and sleep training.) Proceed accordingly, but as a team. Because TRUST: sleep training — even perfectly necessary and non-hardcore-CIO is no magic picnic. It’s actually draining and stressful and can take a lot longer than you’re probably thinking. You guys need to be united on this. Compromise is necessary, refrain from judgment or blaming your wife’s “emotions.”

And now back to you, OP. You can absolutely stand strong on the needlessness of sleep training right now. You sound like you’ve got the bedtime/nighttime thing down, or at least know what steps to start taking as she gets older. (Put her to bed drowsy but awake, even after night nursings. Wean from external soothing methods. Bath/boob/book/song routine times eleventy billion. Etc.) Tell your husband the conversation is tabled until six months, at least, and even then you’re expecting him to read some damn books (written in the past CENTURY, at least) and that you will decide on a plan together as a team.

Also, since you expressed concern over not knowing when to even put her to bed: “Bedtime” up until four months or can indeed be late: anytime between 8 and 11 p.m., so don’t stress that you haven’t gotten that “down” yet. Because it’s about to change, anyway. (Once again please refer to the excellent chart on this page for bedtimes and nap expectations by age — and note that yes, babies your daughter’s age STILL NEED TO EAT AT NIGHT BECAUSE SCIENCE.) Between four and six months bedtime usually creeps up. Try putting her down for naps around 9, 12 and 3 (I believe that’s assuming a 7/8 a.m. waking). Her bedtime should be about 3.5 to four hours after she wakes up from that third nap — though note that naps can be a total crapshoot even WITH consistent nighttime sleeping, so again, no stressing that a sloppy nap schedule is a sign that you’re messing things up at night.

In the meantime, though…maybe rethink the sleeping in the nursery all night, every night. That was a perfectly fine newborn survival approach but I do think about 90% of your husband’s insistence on SLEEP TRAIN APOCALYPSE NOW could be lessened if you make some moves to separate from her at night. Not even every night. Just when you put her down for that 4-6 hour stretch…go to YOUR bed. Or to the couch to watch a 30-minute TV show together or to talk about something other than sleep-diapers-boobs-vomit. Unless there’s a great distance between your bedroom and hers, you probably won’t even need a baby monitor at this point — your boobs and brain will wake you up when she needs you. (If you’re concerned but don’t want to disturb your husband, get a lights-and-sound monitor and keep it on lights-only right by your face. When my babies were that small that’s all I usually needed for my body to be all, GET UP BABY ALERT HELLOOOO.) Bring her to your bed for the early morning nurse-doze so Daddy gets to see that lovely smiley good mood that so many babies have when they wake up for good.

And finally, consider getting a breast pump and a babysitter/relative and taking a night off for dinner and a movie or both. A break and a chance to be your old pre-baby selves could be something you both don’t even realize how badly you need right now. Argue over splitting dessert instead of sleep training, at least for a little while longer.

Published July 8, 2013. Last updated October 29, 2017.
Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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