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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

Sleep Training for the Struggling Parent

By Amalah

Amy!

You answered a previous question for me about the Satter Method and my picky almost three year old and I fan-girled so hard that I talked about it for 2 weeks.

I have a new question for you:
My youngest is 6 months old. It’s been a really difficult 6 months. My dad passed of cancer and I had a nasty case of PPD/PPA. I’m a SAHM right now– after being laid off– to two kids under 3 and I’m starting to feel a little normal again thanks to an amazing therapist and persistence, but I’m still struggling.

My question for you is about sleep training. I’ve been an avid reader of your blog for years and I have read the many many words you have to say on the subject. I want to train with Extinction Crying, but I’m having trouble with the guilt. Our attachment! I’ll ruin him forever! I am a cruel, horrible human being for even thinking of leaving him to cry in the dark! I’ve read everything I could get my hands on- Ferber, Happy Sleeper, No Cry Sleep Solution, Sear’s Baby Book. They all contradict and I am too tired to think straight, but something’s got to give.

Help me feel better about the mechanics of it all. How long is a reasonable time to let him cry (with checks) before I shelve it and try again in a few months? Do you have to retrain them again or is crying a regular part of the bedtime routine? What does “cry it out” look like at bedtime in the long term?

I’m muddling through this mommy to two thing right now. Help me feel ok about doing this for my health.

Thank you so much for your help!

Okay! So deep breath. It’s going to be okay.

First Imma need you to acknowledge that the guilt you’re feeling (about something you haven’t even done yet, and are just considering in the hypothetical) is at an exaggerated level because of all the Other Things going on, including the PPD/PPA. I’m curious if the intense guilt and fear and name-calling you’re heaping on yourself over sleep training is something you’ve mentioned to your amazing therapist. If not, I highly, highly recommend that you BACK AWAY FROM ALL THE BOOKS and talk this through with your therapist first.

For the record, no, you will not ruin your baby or your attachment and you are not a cruel, horrible human being for TRYING TO TEACH A BABY TO SLEEP. But I don’t want or expect you to take my word for it, especially since you’ve overdosed on Infant Sleep Theory 101 and have a million contradicting and judge-y opinions swirling around in your poor anxious and sleep-deprived head right now.

(My final thesis, by the way, is that NOBODY KNOWS OR AGREES SO SCREW IT YOU JUST DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU AND YOUR BABY.)

So look. What worked for us (three times!) was the Ferber method. This does not mean I universally endorse the Ferber Method or believe it is the Holy Gospel of How To Do Things. It is simply what worked for us and our babies. It worked with the minimal amount of Suck, in a reasonable amount of time, and now I have three children who all go to sleep on their own, in their own beds, at a consistent bedtime and who sleep through the night on a super-consistent basis. That last part, to me, is why I will never regret sleep training them and why I consider it a necessary PITA in the short term because the long-term benefits are GOOD THINGS, for both my sanity and for my children’s health and well-being.

What Ferber is not: Cry it out. Or at least full-on cry it out. CIO is a different approach, in which you engage in full extinction right from the get-go. You simply put the baby to bed and leave the room. The baby cries until the baby falls asleep, full stop. You do not intervene. This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, since some babies will absolutely scream for hours and vomit and undergo real distress. This is the method your grandmother or MIL probably don’t understand why you don’t use.

What Ferber is: Gradual extinction. With a focus on making bedtime as pleasant and predictable as possible, while gently teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own, without problematic sleep crutches (like nursing/rocking to complete deep sleep, only falling asleep in your arms, requiring your constant presence in the room, etc.).

The mechanics are simple, yet flexible. You establish a set bedtime routine, beginning well before your baby will hit the “overtired” wall, yet trying to aim for the “sleepy but awake” bullseye. You will not always get that timing right, which is why I’d say to plan on the method taking a few nights. (Also don’t begin sleep training if your child is ill, or super recently recovered from illness.)

You put your baby in his crib. You provide whatever sleep aids you think he needs that do not require your intervention (crib aquarium, white noise, blackout blinds, etc.). I would not recommend a pacifier unless he’s old enough to retrieve it himself. You leave and you set a check timer.

I started with one minute the first night. Then five. Then 10. If my baby was still crying (and not de-escalating to fussing), I went back in but you do not pick up. You pat and talk softly and comfort, then leave again. (And pour some wine.)

Note: There’s a specific “schedule” in Ferber’s book that tells you exactly how to space the check-ins, and how the check-in times change from Day One to Day Two, etc. You can also find it online with a quick Google of “Ferber Method Schedule” but there are some variations from site to site. I believe anyone who is considering Ferber should buy/get the book at the library and read the whole book ANYWAY, so…uh. Get the book and look up the specifics there. Note that Ferber DOES encourage parents to modify the schedule as they see fit. You can space the checks out to whatever length of time you’re comfortable with, and you’re not gonna screw anything up by not following his chart to the letter.

Eventually, they fall asleep. I cannot even begin to predict how long it will take, or make wild guesses about what the “average” time is. At some point (see the book!), the time stops increasing, so you’re going in every 10 minutes or so, for however long it takes. This is why anyone who says sleep training is only done by selfish sleep monsters is wrong, because it’s hard dang work and can be just as exhausting as a baby waking up multiples times at night.

Nighttime wakings should be treated the same if they are super soon after bedtime or “extra” wakings; regular wakings to nurse or take a bottle should be kept silent and short and baby goes back in the crib ASAP.

The second night, you start with a longer time to the first check. Like five minutes. You do want to give them the chance to decide, “eh, I AM tired and maybe sleep is easier than crying.” But you do want to go in and reassure them that you absolutely haven’t gone anywhere before too long so the crying never peaks too much.

It took us about three days. The third night I typically only had to do one or two checks before they zonked out, and NO, crying is ABSOLUTELY NOT simply part of the bedtime routine from then on. That’s basically the entire point. You’ve allowed them to learn how to put themselves to sleep, and that’s what they do. Maybe they might fuss a bit, maybe they might have an off night every now and then (teething, colds, sleep regressssssssionssssss, etc.), but the end result is supposed to be a child who simply…goes to sleep like a rational human being most of the time.

And…that’s pretty much all I can say about it. Again, I personally have no regrets. But I would like to circle back to my initial recommendation that you talk specifically about this issue (and your fears/worries/self-loathing surrounding it) with your therapist before you begin. It IS stressful and hard to stand outside a room listening to your baby cry. It IS easy to break down and halt the process riiiiiiight before you were about to have a breakthrough because you’re convinced it’s not working and will never work. And for someone still struggling with PPD/PPA, it might simply be a bit too much. And that’s okay. You’ll get there. He’ll get to sleep at some point, even if you don’t push the issue. But no judgement here if you DO decide to push the issue. I just want to make sure you’ve taken care of yourself properly before you do.

(Also! PARTNERS AND SPOUSES NEED TO BE PART OF THE PROCESS. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO THIS ALL ON YOUR OWN. SLEEP TRAINING TAG TEAM STYLE, Y’ALL.)

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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Katherine
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Katherine

“Also! PARTNERS AND SPOUSES NEED TO BE PART OF THE PROCESS. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO THIS ALL ON YOUR OWN. SLEEP TRAINING TAG TEAM STYLE, Y’ALL.”

This was critical. Sleep training was the first time that the final phases of bedtime weren’t entirely on me (because I nursed the kiddo to sleep before that and he refused to take a bottle). It was a break!

Sara
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Sara

Good advice!  I echo that some sleep training won’t ruin your relationship.  I was going crazy before I did some sleep training around 6 months.  It was taking forever to get my son down to sleep for the night, with endless rounds of nursing, rocking, and patting.  I did the Ferber method.  The first two nights he cried for 10 minutes before going to sleep.  Then a couple more days of 5 minutes of crying.  I had psych myself up for a much more difficult process and was kicking myself for not doing it sooner. The first round of sleep… Read more »

Amber
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Amber

We Ferberized and I don’t regret it for one minute. Be prepared for nights 4-6 to be mighty tough in the middle of the night (as baby takes their final stand), but push through. It wasn’t the most fun week of our life, but in the end both us and the baby were getting HOURS more of sleep a night. I highly recommend a video monitor in conjunction with the method so you can watch your kiddo to comfort yourself that everything is okay (and that they didn’t get stuck in a crib bar or something). So worth it. Our… Read more »

Myriam
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Myriam

+++ on the video monitor too! Good advice! For us, we would not intervene if we saw she was lying down…

Melissa
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Melissa

I second the motion (or I guess third it) for the video monitor. When we Ferberized our daughter, I would put the monitor on mute and just obsessively watch and sure enough after only about 3 days, she would go to bed smoothly and (knock on wood) has been a great night time sleeper for the past two years. I also “sleep trained” for morning wake up after about 18 months because I started noticing her waking up and crying for us earlier and earlier in the mornings and so our stop gap solution was just to bring her into… Read more »

Holly W.
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Holly W.

Yay for Ferber! It’s unfortunate that the name has been associated (OK, at least in the attachment parenting style circles I somehow move in) with this horribly, mean sleep style. We did this with both of our sons right about a four months, because for both of them we needed to get them on a regular schedule and they were starting to sleep for longish (five hours?) chunks during the night. My first actually worked out well – the first night I did two minute checks for the first ten, then four minute checks. He cried on and off for… Read more »

Traci
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Traci

I completely agree with this poster that the sleep info out there is all over the place, contradictory, and most of the “experts” have no credentials other than this is my great idea and I say this works.  I had read the happiest baby on the block sleep book because I felt that that doctor actually did a lot of research before coming up with his methods even if they weren’t tested/researched themselves.  Unfortunately, his method did not work for my stubborn, spirited kid.   I finally came across Dr. Jodi Mindell’s book Sleeping Through the Night when I found… Read more »

Myriam
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Myriam

I did not sleep train with my oldest until she was 18 months. It took one night, her crying for 5 minutes, then that was it. No method, no nothing. But shw was 18 months old!!!! Before that, it could take us over an hour of butt-patting… With my second, we bed-shared for 7 months. At that point, she was waking up every hour to nurse. So I decided to sleep train using the http://www.sleepyplanet.com Sleep easy solution. It’s a 5-10-15 method. Loved it. Worked like a charm at night. Took us about 3 nights. Naps took about a week.… Read more »

Myriam
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Myriam

Forgot to add. I did not night-wean until that second bout of sleep training at 14 months. I used dreamfeeds, twice a night, than once a night until then.

KristenSue
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KristenSue

to add another experience: most times my kids don’t fall asleep right away. The baby may still be angry at me for ending book time and yell/cry. Most of the time my kids take a while to fall asleep. The baby rolls around in his crib with the blanket and lovies. My 4-yr old talks. a lot. she sometimes will be up an hour after ‘bedtime’ just talking.

but they are both quite, in their rooms and in bedtime ‘mode,’ which I consider success!

Lindsay
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Lindsay

Oh man, PLEASE don’t feel guilty about this. Just to add a different perspective here, we are a complete non-sleep training, non-CIO (and yes, sorry, but I consider Ferber CIO, along with all the other methods that have you leave your child while he/she is crying). But I am anti-sleep-training FOR MY KID. And JUST for my kid. Because I know my kid and myself and my family better than ANYONE ELSE. But YOU know yourself and your kid better than anyone, and the fact that you are so strongly considering it means that it is almost DEFINITELY the right… Read more »

Emily
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Emily

I think one of the most successful things we did was the pre-bed routine. It doesn’t even have to take long, but its a few steps we do so that our daughter knows “oh, ok now it’s bedtime”. It basically just consists of us going around the room – first we turn on the music player/projector, then we turn on the nightlight, then turn off the ceiling light, hugs and kisses and finally tucked into bed. We’ve done it since she was 5 months or so (she’s 14mo now) and obviously it hasn’t always been perfect, but you can see… Read more »

Autumn
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Autumn

Becoming a parent responsible for 2 small people is TOUGH!  Even without all the stuff your life threw at you!  You are doing great and surviving and loving your kids!  Sleep training is often a parent’s first taste of “tough love”   It sucks, but in the long run, it is beneficial for everyone involved.  That being said, it’s still not easy. We did the Sleep lady shuffle with our older daughter who only would nurse to sleep, which after 14 months and a week of it not working (of course when my husband was gone for work) was a… Read more »

Becky
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Becky

Just to echo…it won’t mean they cry every time you put them to bed forever. After following a combo of Ferber, amalah and my heart and 3 days of (more than was already) hellish sleep, our then15mo now 25mo happily asks for her cot an chatters away before lining up all her toys and putting herself to sleep. She LOVES her room, loves her cot, loves to sleep! So as worried as I was about acrewing her up, NO GUILT, mamma! They will be fine. DEF tag team, def follow your gut (eg if she is Sick or something and… Read more »

Jeanne
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Jeanne

The website Troublesome Tots was very helpful. (New name is Precious Little Sleep.). There’s an active Facebook community where you can ask other parents for advice. It supports CIO and offers no judgement.
Our strategy when our daughter was 9 months old was that I would put her down and then leave the house while her dad did extinction. We did that for four nights and from there I could stay home. CIO is hard but sleep deprivation was worse.
I would suggest doing bedtimes first and then nights after that’s established.

Robin
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Robin

Sleep train your baby! I too suffered from severe PPD and I sleep trained my daughter at 5 months. Let me tell you, FINALLY getting the sleep I needed was life changing for me and my family.
My daughter is now 2, and people marvel at how easy she is to put to bed. Also, she is bright, incredibly verbal and loves my husband and I fiercely. (I only say this because some of the anti-sleep trainers out there will try to tell you that you are somehow damaging you child. NOPE! Wrong!).
Sleep train your baby; you won’t regret it!

Emily
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Emily

We ferberized too and it was tough but so worth it. The advice I got which we loved was come up with a set script for what you say when you go in to comfort. That way they aren’t getting any extra attention. Ours was “Oliver we love you but it is time for bed. We will see you in the morning, good night”. That was it, pat pat pat out the door. He got the hint pretty quick that no one was coming in to play with him. The nice thing about the script is that if both partners… Read more »

Samantha
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Samantha

We did Ferber-ish. I second the ideas of a set script and partner support. Our script was “it’s night night time. Love you. Sweet dreams.” Then my hubby and I sat on the couch and watched stupid comedies and sipped wine. It took us a loooong time to have our first tear free, no checks needed bedtime. It took three weeks. But DS is now 2 and he has loved bedtime for at least a year. He goes to bed with a smile. Sometimes he requests his nap. Bedtime is a happy, comforting, stress free thing for him, despite the… Read more »

Bmom
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Bmom

I will add (echo?) that part of the reason there are conflicting opinions is because different kids respond differently. We tried a Ferber-ish gradual extinction with our first, and it was a disaster. Eventually, we did the Sleep Lady shuffle with her around 11 months (which is very very gradual extinction) and had much more success. But our second kid was the opposite- he won’t sleep with us still in his room, so it’s put him In the crib and go. He fusses or sings (depending on his mood) for a few minutes and that’s it. So, I guess the… Read more »

Chiara
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Chiara

We used the happy sleeper after failing at CIO.  It worked pretty well and is something I fall back on with modifications when the little guy isn’t sleeping for whatever reason. I think the most important thing to do, though is a bedtime routine (everyone agrees on that one, everyone) and then to pick a method and carry through, so that you little one is able to figure out what’s going on.  I wasn’t able to be consistent with CIO, because it made me feel shitty. The happy sleeper method was similar to something that worked before the 4month sleep… Read more »

MR
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MR

This is why I love Amy, because she is always so supportive of whatever works for you. I’m not going to talk about the sleep training (which I did with both my kids for my own sanity, for the record). But, OP, please, please, please discuss this with your therapist. I had PPA and didn’t get it treated, and wish I had. I finally got my anxiety treated, and OMG, life is SO MUCH BETTER!!! Anxiety is one of those things that is so insidious, because the anxiety itself makes you not want to get help, because you get anxious… Read more »

IrishCream
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IrishCream

I did CIO (extinction, not the Ferber method) with both my kids. I felt horribly guilty because I had also read some Dr. Sears and other attachment parenting books, and their take on sleep training is…not helpful, in my opinion, but YMMV. Not only was it totally worth it when they were babies (sleep is so crucial for infants’ development, and for parents’ health and sanity!), but it remains worth it. They’re in preschool and kindergarten, and all the dire warnings from anti-CIO sources have not come to pass. They are affectionate, very securely attached but still confident and exploring… Read more »

Rose
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Rose

I have six kids and cannot imagine doing CIO with any of them. The idea of letting your child scream for HOURS, vomit, etc is just…well, the research isn’t exactly kind about the idea, and I don’t think it’s kind to your child either. BUT Ferber and similar methods are not CIO. Our methods have varied with each kid and especially with the twins, and because we are fundamentally lazy we coslept till our kids were reliably sleeping through the night, including past the period when they suddenly needed to eat at night occasionally during growth spurts. But we’ve always… Read more »

Jay
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Jay

We Ferberized our twins when they were about 7 months old. It was the best decision for all of us. They are 4 1/2 now and, just like Amy’s kids, they go to bed at a consistent time and sleep through the night on a consistent basis. Everyone that I know who did Ferber or CIO or Sleep Lady Shuffle or some form of sleep training has had a similar experience — they trained their child or children to sleep, and the kids…..sleep. And so do the parents. You help your child learn to do so much else — why… Read more »