I Don't Know What 'Expert' Baby Sleep Advice To Follow

Sleep Training My Baby Isn’t Working For Me

Mother holding her sleeping son while watching television
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It’s two in the morning and my baby wakes crying. I look at the time on my cell phone and start counting. I’m aiming for five minutes—that’s what the book of a well-known sleep expert advises—before I intervene. But I rarely make it that far; it’s too painful to hear her whimpers. Instead I move on to the next phases: turn up the sound machine (check), hand on her chest (check), rock her in her crib (check), pick her up and rock her (check). These only work half of the time. Usually, I end up nursing her. As I bring her to my chest, I can feel the tension drain out of her tiny body, and within 15 minutes, she is back to sleep. And yet, when I do this, I feel I’ve failed. I’ve failed by feeding her, and I’ve failed by not getting her to sleep without my help.

The problem is that, in my quest to be well-informed, I’ve ended up absorbing an internet’s worth of advice from sleep consultants. A cornerstone of this advice is that by feeding your kid or rocking them to sleep you are creating sleep associations—crutches that will keep your baby tied to your boob for the rest of eternity.

Who wants that when you are unable to sleep? All I want is a consecutive few hours of rest. I could sleep during her longest early evening sleep. But if I did, I’d give up the one tiny stretch of pedestrian adult activities—dinner, a TV show, eating some dark chocolate—that in my new life are raised to the level of sacred.

The facilitator of one of my mom groups (I’ve joined a few) reminds us that anyone who is a sleep coach, well-intentioned as they may be, is still selling a product. And for a sleep-deprived parent, that product—a good night’s sleep—is more potent than a drug. But it’s hard not to think that if I try harder, buy one more book, follow the program more closely, I might get a different result.

On the other hand, no matter what you told yourself pre-baby, you can see in those early days that what we are taught about infant sleep norms and safety is diametrically opposed to what we—the parents and the babies—instinctively want to do. After all, aren’t warmth and snuggles and nursing, on some basic biological level, what babies naturally seek, regardless of whether or not they are technically hungry or technically can sleep through the night? And if so, who am I to say no? After all, self-soothing to sleep is a skill that, at 35, I’ve yet to fully master (see: all those nights of pregnancy insomnia), so how can I expect a 4-month-old do so?

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But what we’re told to do is to sleep separately from the baby (in another room as soon as possible), try to reduce night wakings, try not to rock them to avoid sleep crutches. Don’t nurse them to sleep—they should only need sustenance and if they need to nurse for comfort that’s bad. In fact, try to wean them as soon as possible. If you don’t train them to sleep their brains won’t develop well and they will become obese. Sleeping together in a bed is unequivocally wrong and dangerous and you should never, ever do it. And you’ll feel awful without sleep (this last bit is true).

This is not, by the way, how the rest of the world thinks about infant sleep. It’s a Western, especially U.S., thing. It’s a manifestation of (some very valid) safety concerns around bed co-sleeping combined with our expectations of what makes a good baby—one who is able to be independent and follow adult schedules by sleeping through the night.

The safety concerns around bed sharing cover a gamut of issues: unhealthy habits (smoking, drugs, and alcohol use all drastically increase the risks to a baby), Western style bedding (things like soft mattresses, large comforters, and fluffy pillows again increase risk), and factors like prematurity of the baby. But the picture is complicated: these factors are not present in the same degrees or at all for all babies and mothers. And SIDS does not manifest itself uniformly across the world—Japan, which has some of the highest bed-sharing rates, has some of the lowest SIDS rates.

In contrast, in many countries and cultures it’s normal to sleep next to babies and breastfeed on demand throughout the day and night. It makes sense—babies must have slept right next to their mothers over the millennia. Ancient nomadic tribes did not, I’m sure, carry cribs with them and perch their children away from them in the savannah. And this form of sleeping, while it increases night wakings for babies and mothers, is more restful than going back and forth to a crib all night.

My mother’s friend, originally from Japan, confirms this. Though she raised her kids in the U.S., she co-slept with them in the Japanese style, on a large firm futon on the floor, without many pillows or bedding. She notes that babies wake up to nurse or just know that their mothers are near, so it’s much easier to settle them when they are close by. “When I slept with my kids,” she tells me, “they seemed to settle down just from my heartbeat or warmth or smell. Looking back on that time, I can’t remember having much of a problem waking up many times at night because of the baby.”

I do see the utility of sleep training—we live in a world with 8 a.m. client meetings, after all. But I wonder, who are these moms who, after such sleep deprivation, have the mental wherewithal, not to mention fortitude, to plan and successfully execute a sleeping plan? Are they the same women who can sleep when the baby sleeps? (This is inanity masquerading as self-care if I’ve ever seen it. What adult can fall asleep for 30-minute chunks of time throughout the day, starting at 8 a.m.?)

I can plan to train, teach, cajole as much as I want during the day, but in the small hours of the night all my best laid plans crash in on themselves. I am both desperate for sleep and so vulnerable to her vulnerability. One night I tried a form of sleep training, Ferberizing, and she eventually stopped crying and slept. But I never felt so hollowed out as a mother as I did then.

I ask my friends about what they’ve done. Their answers are varied. Only one seems to have the sleep training down pat. Another’s baby slept without incident, but she admits she thinks it was a fluke. One says she tried cry it out sleep training but all three of them (she, her husband, and her baby) ended up in tears. One says straight away that she sleeps with her baby in her bed—it’s much easier with breastfeeding, she notes. Another says she nursed her daughter to sleep for naps and bedtime until almost three, and now she’s a great sleeper. One of my friends in the medical field says that personally, she slept with both of her babies in her bed and then did a no-cry sleep training when they were older. Yes, she says, if you or your baby have risk factors, the data is clear that it’s not safe to bed share. But without underlying conditions, without unsafe behaviors, with a safe bed, and with breastfeeding, the data becomes less unequivocal.

In the end, I’m still not sure what the right decision is—to sleep train or not, when to respond to my baby’s nighttime requests and when not to. But for the last week, when my baby wakes crying, I take her at her word and head right over to her side. I’ve decided I could spend hours each night trying to calm her by letting her cry, by turning up the sound machine, by replacing the pacifier she won’t take. Or I can spend 10 minutes every three hours holding her and feeding her. And if she is particularly upset, I will lie her down in our bed. Next to me, I see her whole body relax, and then we both sleep, like babies.