Sleep Training for the Struggling Parent
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.)Published September 25, 2015. Last updated October 29, 2017.