Sleep is a precious thing. Just ask any new parent how things are going and their answer (whether good or bad or ugly) mostly has to do with how their baby is sleeping. And for good reason - sleep is the foundation of health in so many ways (for both parents and kids) and when there is a lack of it occurring in any household there is bound to be grumpiness.
When bringing home a new baby - whether it's baby #1 or baby #9 - a lack of sleep is simply assumed (and rightly so). The first weeks are blurred as around the clock feedings take precedence over continuous snoozing. When said baby sleeps his first 6 hour stretch it feels like the heavens are opened and angels are smiling down on us. We call everyone we know and shout from the rooftops: I Got to Sleep Last Night!
This post is quite longer than others of recent days, but I feel called to share our journey of getting our kids to sleep - especially for all you parents out there that feel hopeless there isn't a good nights sleep in your future. Generally I usually refrain from dolling out parenting advice here simply because we are all our own parent and we each do things the way it works best for us and our kids. But I share our experience with "sleep training" to show how this mom has struggled with finding the best sleep solutions for our family so that everyone is happy and healthy. Take what you want, disregard the rest (no pun intended).
Avila was a pretty normal baby when it came to sleep. But by 2 1/2 months she was sleeping 12 hours at night with only one feeding. Woot Woot! Naps on the other hand were a different story... I nursed her to sleep and, although it would take quite a long while to get her down, once she was asleep she would stay asleep. But around 4 months old things changed. At this age babies' sleep systems are maturing and when most babies wake up in the middle of the night, they now want to be put back asleep the way they fell asleep in the first place - this is called a sleep association. Insert Avila here. She went from unbroken sleep to waking up EVERY 2 HOURS. We did all we could to get her to sleep. Michael even moved upstairs to the guest room for a few weeks so Avila could sleep in bed with me so that when she woke to nurse we could both fall asleep while feeding. Needless to say it was one of the most difficult times of my life. No one was happy - not Michael because he was kicked out of bed. Not baby because she was SO overtired. Not mama because she wasn't sleeping. We continued on this way for another month and a half.
When Avila was a baby I was adamant that we would NEVER let her "cry-it-out." For those who don't know what this means, it's when you place your baby in her crib and let her cry herself to sleep. I read things that said if I let my baby cry she would become hopeless and lose all trust she has in me. Trust was something I had worked hard to build and of course I wanted to raise my child in the most loving and sensitive way possible. However, after going through the lack of sleep experience with Avila, talking with my husband about how we needed to change this situation, and chatting with other trusted moms who have taken the road of "sleep training" we decided to give it a go. I looked at said other moms' kids and saw that they were in fact not despondent or messed up and thought that there might be some validity to this whole other sleep method I was quick to disregard. Plus, I was in the throws of PPD and knew that a lack of sleep was contributing to my depression. I was more than willing to make a change, as an unhappy mama can lead to unhappy kiddos. And I didn't want that.
(To give quick reference to our experience below the following books are my trusted resources for sleep: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth. His research of sleep and how to help a baby sleep from birth -4 months is awesome - although his approach to sleep training is not: the extinction method. AKA: close the door and don't go in until morning. For our actual sleep training method we followed Richard Ferber's more graduated approach from Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Before this we attempted to follow the method spelled out in The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley but it just didn't work for us. On another side note, sleep training really should NOT be done until your baby's at least 4-5 months old. I advocate waiting until 5 months - but definitely don't do it when they are newborns. This is when trust can be lost.)
So, when things in our schedule were clear and we could devote our time and attention to Avila's sleep schedule, we went for it. At this point Avila was 5 1/2 months old. The first night we did our bedtime routine: bath, books, nursing, rocking. And then I laid her down and gave her a kiss goodnight. After leaving the room she proceeded to cry. Not easy to listen to by all means, but I knew in my heart this was the best thing for our family. I folded laundry with my husband and went in every few minutes to pat her back and let her know that mama loves her. After 20 minutes she fell asleep. And stayed that way until 3:30AM! After nursing and falling back asleep for quite a few more hours she woke refreshed with a big smile on her face! (And so did mama and papa.) The next night she cried for 10 minutes and the following night for only 5. And each night was filled with lots of sleep and only one feeding. Avila's personality never changed - in fact she was happier because she was rested! Naps were a bit harder as she would cry longer and not sleep for very long, but after a while she got the hang of it.
When Max came along we had a game plan. The first 6 weeks I let him fall asleep however and wherever he wanted. The next 6 weeks we started working a routine before naps and bedtime into our day. Between 12-16 weeks I focused on attempting to lay him down while still partially awake - letting him fuss while I patted his back, but still falling asleep on his own. This worked sometimes, but we then started traveling a lot this summer and it was just easiest to nurse him to sleep. I told myself that letting him cry would be a last resort if sleep ever became a problem (when he was older, of course) and I would do everything I could to prevent ourselves from getting to that point. (Side note - nursing to sleep is not a bad thing! It only becomes a problem when a baby starts waking simply because he can't put himself back to sleep. It may still work out for mama to get up multiple times a night, but for us Max would always get super annoyed when I pulled him out of bed to nurse just because he couldn't fall back asleep on his own.)
Max is now almost 5 months old and just a couple weeks ago was bit by the 4-month curse. Again, my baby who used to sleep 12-13 hours a night (even after nursing to sleep) with only one feeding was now waking 3-4 times a night. Not only that but it started taking 45 minutes-1 hour to put him down and all his naps were cut short because he couldn't put himself back to sleep. During this time I turned into a horned creature who spat fire whenever someone looked at me. I was more than exhausted. I ruled out teething and a growth spurt and got a clean bill of health from our pediatrician. And while I still understand that sleepless night are common to parenthood I knew that Max was waking not for health reasons but for sleep association reasons. And I was less hesitant this time around to make a change.
Yesterday was our first day of "sleep training" Max. We did our nap routine and then I laid him down. Again, I folded laundry - this time with Avila. He popped his head up and looked around for a few minutes. Then he started fussing. The fussing became crying. But the crying only lasted 5 minutes! Then he fell sleep for 2 HOURS! The next two naps took a bit longer as he cried about 25 minutes before each, but again he slept for 2 hours the second nap, 1 hour the third nap, and last night he only had 1 feeding in a 13 hour period. He still woke up a few times during his nap and during the night, but instead of crying out for me to come soothe him, he made a single noise and went right back to sleep. And after every sleep period he awoke happy, refreshed, and not showing any signs of abandonment.
Looking back on these 2 years after we sleep trained Avila, I can say it was one of the best parenting decisions we made. Of course it was a last resort (with both of our children) and of course it's not for everyone, but it worked for us. We are a well-rested, healthy family who can now focus on the other building blocks of life.
Again, I share our story to perhaps offer some hope to moms and dads out there who feel hopeless when it comes to sleep. We have happy, content, and well-adjusted children not only despite sleep training them, but I also believe because we focused so heavily on healthy sleep. Parenting involves some hard decisions and I know this will only be one of many hard decisions we have to make in our childrens' lives. I love my kids to death and I will do anything for them - including things they don't like, as long as I know it is beneficial for them in the long run. I continue to pray that God will honor and bless our decisions as parents and give us the discernment we need to be the best parents we can be. And I believe that as long as health and holiness are at the core of our decisions, He will give us and our children all the grace we need.