My Deep, Dark Secret? I Sleep-Trained My Baby (And Have No Regrets)

by Anna Martinez
Originally Published: 
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As I sat in the rocking chair this afternoon nursing Leo pre-nap, thumbing through momstagrams as I do, I came across a flagrant debate between two opposing viewpoints: to sleep train or not to sleep train.These upset parents were criticizing one another for the decision to sleep train their children, insisting that sleep training is not exemplary of “gentle parenting” and that “scientific research proves” that sleep training is detrimental to a child’s development.

Well, guess what folks? I sleep trained my baby too. It worked really well for our family, and I am pretty angry with the parents who make me–and other parents who decided sleep training is right for them–feel like it should remain a deep, dark secret. Like we should be ashamed or embarrassed.

First, let’s get a bit of context for the term “sleep training.” In simple terms, it is teaching your child how to fall asleep on their own, in peace and security. As it was described to me by our pediatrician, everyone (you, your partner, your baby…) wakes up either partially or fully, multiple times a night. As adults we have learned that waking up in the quiet darkness is nothing to be afraid of. We can roll over and go back to sleep. But a baby has yet to be given that reassurance. While the “cry-it-out” method has infamously become associated with sleep training, there are numerous techniques to chose from: verbal reassurance, pick-up-put-down (PUPD), a strong and consistent bedtime routine, graduated extinction, etc.

People, sleep-training does not mean leaving your child to scream in terror in his crib for hours. And if you do that (now here I go judging…) shame on you.

I, too, was resistant for so long to the idea of sleep training. I couldn’t detach from the idea that anything other than tending to my baby’s every nocturnal whim, regardless of our doctor’s reassurance that he was gaining weight well and thus wasn’t waking out of hunger, was cold and damaging. Every night before bed I would embark on a ridiculous routine that was one step away from wearing our underwear inside-out and drawing a circle of salt around our bed. I was convinced that dimming the lights just so and speaking in languid tones would help the baby to sleep more than a couple of hours.

How my husband had the patience to jump through my nocturnal hoops, I’ll never know. Beyond regulating the height at which he could keep his bedside lamp (on the floor was preferred), I went as far as to insist that he hold the baby in certain ways before bed, and so on and so forth.

The reality is that a soul-aching exhaustion and the feeling that I was trapped in a terrifying cycle of helplessness was making me unwell.

We fed more. We gave warms baths and massages. We used dock-a-tots and zen sacks and whale sounds and mood lighting and lullabies and rhythmic movement. We also co-slept for many months. Even in our bed, nestled warmly between his two adoring parents, Leo woke up every 1 to 2 hours crying.

So, before anyone berates me for not trying hard enough, not giving motherhood my all, or being withholding of love and nurturing for my son, consider that I tried everything.

The regime that ended up working best for our family was a combination of PUPD, verbal reassurance and graduated extinction. It was important to me that we did not let Leo cry for long periods of time, and while the “no-tear” methods may take longer to implement, they do work. Also–and this is key–I stopped nursing (or bottle feeding) Leo to sleep. Instead, we did our bath (if it was bath night, because let’s be honest, he doesn’t get a bath every night), got in pjs, did our feeding routine (which in our case was a breastfeeding/bottle combo), and then read a story. If Leo fell asleep during the feeding I would wake him back up before reading the story. Wild, huh? Just wild enough to work. It is imperative that your baby be laid in the crib awake, so that he understands that it is bedtime and time for him to put in those long nighttime hours.

And thus our sleep training efforts did just as they were meant to, they taught our son how to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Sometimes we have a bad night, especially after returning from a vacation–or other unavoidable (and important) life events–when sleep routines get jostled. Inevitably, after a trip, we have to start back at square one to re-teach Leo to settle into sleep on his own. The first night can be really tough and I hear the confusion, frustration and, sometimes, fear in his voice. On those bad nights we nurse and snuggle more, just so there is no doubt in his mind that he is safe and loved.

But the point is, you can hear the difference in your baby’s cries. There is a distinct difference in a cry of panic and a cry of protest. When your baby cries in panic, go to him. When he is fussing and grumpy because it’s bedtime, but he’d prefer that all the wonder and exploration of daytime not be over, let him communicate his displeasure. He’ll be happily dreaming in no time.

What I found most surprising about our sleep training journey was how peaceful our nights became in such a short time. Even with all of our above mentioned “gentle parenting” practices, Leo was swinging in and out of distress every. single. night. He would fall asleep only to wake (at most) a few hours later in a panic. I would get him back to sleep for a short spurt before he would wake again, just as panicked.

After we implemented our sleep training regimen, Leo’s rare night wakings are punctuated by a couple of chirps before he falls back to sleep. Most often, when he is placed in his crib and the lights are turned off, he falls asleep on his own without a peep. If ever he wakes and cries out in fear or hunger, I go to him. And with this newly adopted routine, I can sense a greater ease for him overall.

And of course, I finally feel at ease, too.

With all of the parenting noise out there–studies declaring that you should breastfeed until your baby is 2 years old vs. those saying 6 months is perfect; message-boards commending stay-at-home parents vs. warning stay-at-home parents against losing their sense-of-self–what happened to gathering all the information you can and then using your gut?

How about instead of relying solely on facts and figures, we honor ourselves and trust in our instincts to be good parents too? Let’s believe in the deep connection we have to our children.

I have no regrets about sleep training. I’ll trust in your parenting, if you’ll trust in mine.

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