Why I Changed My Opinion About Sleep Training
A beloved former coworker of mine is a new mom. I love keeping up with her through social media, and it sounds like her baby girl is a lot like mine — sweet, adorable, and a bit high maintenance. As a first-time mom with nothing to compare her personally to, she may not realize her daughter is “difficult;” motherhood brings out strengths we never knew we had. My daughter is difficult, and I know this because my son, who is 3.5 years the older brother, was such an easy baby (and continues to be at nearly 4.5).
She recently posted about sleep training. I believe she was referring to a nap schedule, but immediately as I scrolled through the comments they seemed dripping with mom-shame. “Isn’t she a little young?!” “I could never stand it!” “Just wear her!” And on and on. I typically scroll through the comments on posts about sleep and try to leave something positive and supportive in a sea of criticism and unsolicited advice. But I have to admit something.
Once upon a time, I was that mom. The mom who judged other mothers for sleep training. For letting their kids cry for what amounts to hours, in an effort to teach them to sleep independently.
Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is hard, ridiculously hard, even when parenting an “easy” child. The hours and energy I spent tending to my son were exhausting, even though he was the “easy” baby of my two, his sleep was by no means great. He comfort nursed every few hours until he weaned at 13 months old. He’d calm quickly and generally transfer easily. I was tired, sure, and it was definitely hard, but it was tolerable.
When he weaned, we decided to try some gentle sleep training. It involved us setting him down in his crib sleepy, but awake, with his pediatrician recommended “lovey” which was a stuffed monkey he picked out. She said it could help comfort him overnight when he woke. Then checking on him every minute or two (if he was crying or upset) by going in, patting him and verbally soothing him, and then exiting without picking him up. He’d cry. It was ROUGH.
However, by the third night, he slept 12 hours straight. The longest he ever cried was 14 minutes. Seriously! He was ready to learn to sleep through the night. It had been well over a year since I had, save the random nights he stayed overnight with my parents.
And it was, of course, a game-changer. I felt self-righteous that I had achieved sleep training my son with very minimal stress, tears, and disruption to all of our lives.
At the time, I heard lots of comments like “I could never do that!” from other parents.
Parents who could “never do that” included parents whose babies had been sleeping through the night on their own since 7 weeks old. Parents who coslept and used a “family bed.” Parents who meant well but honestly had no idea what we’d been through and how we got through it. And I thought, I could never do that either. But thankfully I never had to listen to him cry for hours. I wasn’t sure I ever could without breaking my own heart.
After my son started sleeping through the night at 13 months old, I went to him, and still go to him, every time he wakes overnight. He’s nearly 4.5 years old now, and this still happens most nights. It’s a trip to the bathroom, a drink of water, comfort from a bad dream or just the security of knowing Mom is here. I’m honestly happy to do it even if I’d love a solid night of sleep.
It wasn’t even a big deal. The days (and nights) are long, but the years are short, right?
Then, along came my daughter.
I call her my wild child, and honestly, it’s my favorite thing about her. She’s a little spitfire. She will change the world someday, I truly believe that. She’s strong willed, opinionated, smart and passionate. She’s also an extremely sensitive individual and an extremely sensitive sleeper. Even as a newborn, she fought sleep like a champ. I planned to have her in our room (in her bassinet or pack n play) for sleep until she began to sleep longer stretches.
However, every time I readjusted myself overnight, it would wake her up. I’m talking about rolling over and rustling sheets. I’d bring her into bed with me to nurse, dose off with her, then try to gently place her back in her sleep space… only to have her wake again after I set her down. I swear I was like one of those magicians who can pull the tablecloth out and leave the table perfectly set with my son. With my daughter, the dishes dropped every time.
We moved her upstairs to her nursery when it became evident having her sleep in our room with us wasn’t serving anyone in our family well. A box fan and sound machine have helped drown out our other household noises, and I even got a few 3-4 hrs stretches around that time. WooHoo!
Then… she rolled. She began rolling herself over in her sleep, which would wake her up, which would require comfort breastfeeding her. She was, of course, old enough to be dropping some night feedings, and very quickly even nursing became less effective of a sleep aid. Instead of drifting off easily as my son did, my daughter seemed to get riled up. Scratching my chest. Pinching my underarms. Grinning at me and biting my nipple in jest. It took ages (okay, maybe 20-30 minutes) to get her back to sleep overnight. And like clockwork, another 20-30 minutes later, she’d roll over again and we’d start the cycle all over.
I was losing my mind. Already suffering from postpartum depression, my rage and resentment grew. I thought about sleep training, letting her “cry it out” just to save my sanity. I joined a Facebook group called respectful sleep training. And I finally bit the bullet. I had to try something. So I let my strong willed daughter cry. I’d check to be sure her needs were met, and then I’d give her a hug, set her down, and let her cry. It was hard. It was awful at times.
And then, it started to be a bit freeing. Like I said, I was suffering from postpartum depression and exhaustion, and turning the monitor down a few times recharged my batteries. I was a much better, more patient mother on more sleep. I read a blog post someone shared in a sleep training group on Facebook, and I could relate to every word. The title? “Sleep training saved my life.” It was that which empowered me to let go of my guilt and judgment about using this method. It may not be for you, and it may not work for your child. But if you need it and your child needs it, there should be no guilt about this parenting choice.
Like most people, I was the perfect parent before I ever had kids. My kids would never watch an iPad during dinner. Sleep in my bed. Eat artificial food dyes. The list goes on and on.
I also hate hearing my children fuss. My son wasn’t nearly as fussy as my daughter and he soothed far easier. Oh, not to mention he was my only child for a while. So it truly had been a perfect storm of circumstances that led me to sleep training with my daughter.
It didn’t work easily, but it did work. She’s still a poor napper most days (I didn’t have it in me to sleep train for naps), but she’s an excellent night sleeper. I stick to a strict, early bedtime and it works for us. She’s happier. I’m happier. We’re all happier.
It might not work for you. Maybe it will. It’s not really the point of this post, anyway. My point is, it’s easy to judge until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes. Having a child who didn’t sleep was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It tested me and taught me so much, and I’m so much stronger for the experience. I will never judge this parenting choice again.
Whatever sleeping arrangements work best for you is what you should do. It’s truly no one’s business and yet I can’t tell you how much sleep becomes a question asked to new moms. “How’s she sleeping? Are y’all getting any sleep? Does he sleep through the night?”
“Terribly, no, and HA!”
Well-meaning people are asking to just check in. There’s certainly no malice there, but maybe we should be asking different questions, like “how is everyone adjusting,” “how can I help you get some rest,” or “I’m here to support you” may be ultimately a better way to reach out to the new moms in your life.
There’s a deeper issue here, too.
What’s to blame for the mom shaming? I honestly have no clue. Despite some scathing criticism, the millenials I know, myself included, are sensitive, socially aware, and have a deep compassion for others. Yet we continue to judge.
Jump on any celebrity mom’s Instagram and you’ll see comments about what they’re doing wrong, from buckling car seats, to babywearing, to feeding.
I’d love to say I don’t care what other people think, but that’s not true. I’m teaching myself to care less the older I get. It’s a process for me to undo a lifetime of people-pleasing tendencies.
But when it comes to momming, we all have to get tougher to this shaming climate we are currently in. It’s so hard to be a mom these days.
Being a good mom has never been easy but it seems harder than ever. Let’s try to lift each other up, instead of tearing each other down.
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