Sleep deprivation is hard for all parents. But not everybody takes the same approach to a baby, even an older baby, who wakes up during the night. For Wendy Wisner, crying-it-out was not an option: she co-slept with her children and “waited it out” for the years it took them to sleep through on their own. Jessica Smock, on the other hand, believes babies should be actively encouraged to develop good sleep habits, and that sleep training, though difficult, can be best for the entire family.
Why I Don’t Sleep-Train My Kids
By Wendy Wisner
When it comes to children’s sleep, I think the choices parents make are influenced—at least in part—by their own childhood associations.
When I was a child, we had a family bed: sleep was a shared experience, replete with elbow bumping, shuffling, sleep sighs, and minor snoring. I remember falling asleep next to my mom, sometimes next to my sister. Eventually, I asked for my own bed, but I always knew I could rejoin the family bed whenever I needed to. I never had a stuffed animal or security blanket. My parents were that for me.
As luck would have it, I married a man whose family also espoused a communal bed. So when our first son was born, he naturally joined us in ours. It made nursing a million times easier, and keeping him close minimized sleep disruptions. I was able to latch him on, and go right back to sleep. I’m sure the fact that I spent my childhood settling in and out of sleep with others nearby helped me feel comfortable with this arrangement.
Sleeping with my son wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of wake-ups, and even though I didn’t have to leave my bed to tend to him, my sleep was still fragmented, and I would wake up exhausted and depleted. At the four-month mark, I reached a breaking point. My son was waking hourly, all night long, and kicking me in the head. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I said to my husband, “I can’t live my life this way. I just can’t do it.”
I scoured the Internet looking for solutions. Most of the advice I found was something along the lines of, “Put your baby down, drowsy but awake, and then leave the room.” I hadn’t heard of sleep training or cry-it-out at that point—at least not explicitly—but I knew that if I took that advice, it would result in more crying than I was comfortable with. My son had already revealed his intense personality. When I did leave him alone in the room at naptime, he didn’t just fuss a little until I came to get him: he cried his head off. I wasn’t going to subject him to more than a few minutes of that.
So I waited it out. As an at-home parent, I was able to nap with my baby, cancel plans when necessary, and take my sleepy days slowly. I know mothers working outside the home don’t have this luxury, but I managed to slog through. Sleep got a little better, then a little worse, then a little better again, and I made it through the first six months. At that point, things became more bearable. I didn’t do anything differently; my son’s sleep patterns just changed, with stretches of uninterrupted sleep happening more often.
I soon began to take the baby out, and have my first conversations with other mothers, many of which cycled back to the topic of sleep. As a new, idealistic parent, I was appalled by the other moms’ tales of sleep training. A mom at the playground told me they were still crying-it-out after a month because it wasn’t working yet, and she wondered if the neighbors in her apartment complex heard the screaming. There was the mom at a birthday party who told me that her son had just recently started waking up again after he’d been trained a few months ago, and that they had recently survived a night of four hours of crying.
In that first year of motherhood, I became the classic, righteous attachment parent when it came to sleep training. I’d hold my pure, innocent baby close, and feel sick at the thought of leaving him in a dark room to cry for hours at a time. A baby cannot talk: when he cried, he was asking for my presence. In these early years, I was teaching him about communication and kindness; it seemed inhumane not to respond when he cried. I found articles like this, which demonstrated that excessive crying increased the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in babies’ brains, and this, which showed that sleep training could cause attachment issues.
That was eight years ago. I have two children now. My older son has slept blissfully through the night since he was just under three years old. My second son has recently started sleeping through at around the same age, though he still wakes in the early morning and needs to be soothed back to sleep. Having “waited it out” twice, I will say that it isn’t always rainbows. I have felt sick from exhaustion. Extreme sleep deprivation increases my anxiety and exacerbates my migraines. But most nights my children’s wake-ups were manageable, and I felt as well-rested as most parents of young children feel.
I haven’t changed the way I handle sleep with my own children, but the way I perceive other parents’ choices has changed. I have made friends with many loving parents with awesome kids who have done some sort of sleep training. I understand that not all parents want to attend to their kids in the middle of the night, and that having your child in your bed or in close proximity (which is the best way I know how to deal with sleep disruptions) is just not within everyone’s comfort zone. I also understand that not everyone has the right support or lifestyle to get through months of sleep deprivation.
I am also aware that there are different kinds of sleep training, and different kinds of sleepers. I still have a big problem with letting a baby cry for hours at a time (really, any more than a few minutes is hard for me to fathom). Even Ferber, the father of sleep training, never advocated for hours of crying at time. I think that most parents take a kinder, more measured approach to it, checking on their babies frequently, offering assurance along the way—at least I hope so.
Even so, it still breaks my heart a little (OK, a lot) when I hear about a baby who is sleep trained, especially when controlled crying is involved. I just want to rush to the baby, and place him back in his parents’ arms. I want to tell his parents to wait just a little bit longer, because it gets better on its own. It really does. And someday you might even miss those midnight snuggles.
Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems and her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Why I Sleep-Train My Kids
By Jessica Smock
Sleep training my son was hard. But not that hard.
By the time he was four months old, his sleeping habits were becoming more challenging for all of us. He was waking up more times during the night, becoming more difficult to soothe back to sleep, and napping less and less. My husband and I were exhausted. We fought constantly, and our son was cranky and overtired too.
When I mentioned our sleep issues to a few friends, I was given one name from each of them: Weissbluth. Like thousands of parents before me, I devoured Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. From Weissbluth, I learned about sleep associations, infant sleep cycles, wake times, nap schedules, patterns of sleep organization for newborns and older babies, and graduated extinction (“crying-it-out”). From there, I moved on to books by other experts in the field of baby sleep: Ferber and Jodi Mindell.
At that point, I had just finished the coursework for my doctoral degree in education and development. Immersed in the world of academia, it had made sense to me that because I was struggling with an issue I knew nothing about—solving and preventing baby sleep problems— I should turn to research from the experts: people who had devoted their lives to helping parents with this exact problem. Left to our own devices, what my husband and I were doing wasn’t working, that much was certain. We were all miserable. Consulting these books suddenly made me feel less alone. I now had hope.
Online I read some of the criticisms of sleep training—that it could cause long-lasting psychological harm, that it can impact the attachment bond between parent and child. But then I reassessed the sleep training research for myself. It was obvious to me that these critics were grossly overstating and misconstruing the research on infant stress responses. If you look closely at the studies many critics cite, you will see that they are specifically about the effects of chronic, severe neglect and abuse on the infant brain, not about the effects of a temporary stressor, like sleep training, in the life of a baby in an otherwise happy, loving home.
And a secure attachment bond develops over the course of months and years of sensitive and responsive interaction between parent and child. Attachment researchers state that a few nights of sleep training (and even periodic “retraining”) resulting in better sleep for everyone will do nothing to harm that bond. In fact, it’s quite possible that it may improve the bond once the parent and child are no longer suffering the effects of sleep deprivation.
So we did it. We let our son cry it out, using gradually increasing “check-ins” and then no checks at all. He cried for almost an hour the first night. Then less and less over the next few nights. In less than a week, he no longer needed to be rocked or fed to sleep and didn’t cry at all when placed in his crib awake at bedtime. From our video monitor, we witnessed how he learned to self-soothe: he discovered that he liked sucking on his fingers and sleeping on his stomach. Best of all, he now only got up once during the night to eat—rather than four, five, or six times—and woke up happy and babbling, not screaming, crying, and rubbing his eyes.
Three years later my daughter was born. Unlike my son, who was bottlefed from the age of six weeks due to severe milk protein allergies and who never liked co-sleeping, my daughter is breastfed. Up until she was more than four months old, I shared a bed with her, purely out of desperation. The only way that she would sleep more than an hour at a time was nestled in the crook of my arm, inches away from the breast. All the things I swore I would never do with her—bedsharing, breastfeeding all night on demand past the age of three or four months, rocking to sleep, holding her in my arms for naps—I have done. And still do on occasion.
At four months old we decided to sleep-train her as well. While this taught her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, she continues to wake up inexplicably and inconsistently, screaming again for the breast or for my arms. We let her cry during the night, sometimes, for almost an hour. For two or three nights, she’ll wake up once for a quick feeding, but the next night, she’ll wake up four or five times and refuse to go back to sleep. Naptime is also a struggle.
Despite my daughter’s more challenging sleep habits, I still feel confident in our choice to sleep train her. Before sleep training, she and I rarely slept for more than one or two consecutive hours, and I found it impossible to sleep well in the same bed with a baby who demanded nearly continuous breastfeeding through the night. I was so tired that I was afraid to drive and had no patience for my four year old. Now she stays in her crib all night, and she falls asleep at bedtime without much fuss. My husband and I get at least a couple hours of time together in the evenings before she might wake up.
If my son was the hare of sleep training, my daughter is a tortoise. But that’s okay. Because helping our children to be good sleepers is just like any other skill that we teach our children. Some of our kids are fast learners, some are not. The goals of sleep training are not the same for every kid or family, and neither is the process. There is no one sleep training method that will work for all babies.
So we won’t give up. Sleep is too important. We’ll keep adjusting our expectations and methods as she grows, develops, and matures and is capable of more and more independence. We’ll continue to support her and love her, even if it that means leaving her alone to struggle a bit, every day and every night.
Jessica Smock is a former educator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy last spring. At her blog School of Smock she writes about parenting and education and was the editor of the recent anthology, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her husband, son and daughter.