MY “sleep training” story

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Baby J. is almost five months old. And, it’s right around this time that I begin to hear chatter among parent friends about…

Sleep training.

Probably the most divisive term in parenting today.

To some in conjures associations of “cry it out” or “abandonment” or “undue stress” or “cruel and unusual punishment.” As if babies were helpless victims of undeserving torture.

You swing to the opposite extreme, and it’s used to talk about babies like, “you have to sleep train that baby,” or “they’re going to have to learn some day,” or “while they cry, just drink some wine and put on some headphones.” Pitting “us parents” against our adversarial “them, the babies.”

Yet, I would ask, must the topic of young children and sleep really be framed between two negative bookends? Does sleep for infants necessarily imply that either the child or the parent suffers in order to reach a certain goal?

Is it really all or nothing?

Is there any middle ground? I think so.

First, as with everything in parenting, it requires a reframing of our mindset, how we view the whole notion of sleep. And, how we view babies.

Babies.

RIE has challenged me to reconsider how I view babies. To respect them as whole human beings from the day they are born.

Sleep.

Perhaps it is more productive – and respectful – to discuss infants and sleep in terms of learning, a process, something organic and fluid. And, to trust that children are competent to learn how to sleep on their own (without a parent’s interference).

So, instead of sharing baby J.’s sleep learning story, I’d like to share mine.

Weeks four to eight of J.’s life were rough for both of us. For J., it was a period of lots of hard crying both day and night (“P.U.R.P.L.E. crying”). For me, still recovering from an intense labor, fluctuating hormones, and sleep deprivation, I found myself adamantly wanting to follow my idea of what RIE had to look like for sleep, obsessing over wake times and sleep cues and not using any “sleep props” (swaddle, pacifier, white noise machine, etc.).

But, then, reaching a literal breaking point, I just let go.

I stopped obsessing over the clock.

I backed off.

I released control.

Control over something (J.’s falling asleep) that I never controlled in the beginning.

And, I changed my mindset.

So, for me, what did this look like practically? How did I learn to allow J. to sleep? Well, I had to unlearn a lot and get rid of my preconceived agenda, and instead:

1. I focused on his days. This is often the last place parents look for ways to improve the quality of their child’s sleep. I made sure his days were slow, peaceful, and predictable. The same schedule Every. Single. Day. Babies (and, young children) thrive on predictability and find safety in it.

“…Imagine emerging from a dark cave. The world is a source of constant stimulation. Loud noises, loud people, and quick movements can be startling and unnerving…[to a baby]…Infants should be kept at home for the first weeks and months. Routine in the home brings security….As your baby learns to anticipate the next event in her daily routine, many conflicts will be minimized for her….As your baby grows to anticipate her daily routine, you will learn to anticipate her needs.” (Magda Gerber Your Self-Confident Baby, pp.32, 33)

So, we spend our days at home, playing, eating, resting, and snuggling, and we take short visits to the park across the street (at the same time each day) for fresh air and sun.

2. I did less and trusted more. I literally stopped moving J. around so much. Instead of immediately picking him up from his crib at the first sign of waking, I let him be. Often he would lie content just studying his hands, the shadows on the wall, or wiggling his feet (newborn play!) for an hour. If he called me to nurse or for a diaper change, I went. But, by refraining from moving him around so much, I was giving him the space to drift in and out of sleep as he needed/chose, without me obsessing over the clock or “infant wake times.”

I also started doing less in terms of the so-called “sleep props.” My observations told me that he no longer wanted to be swaddled or to suck on a pacifier. I turned off the white noise machine and ditched the “Calming Vibrations” chair, realizing that “over stimulated babies can become fussy babies. Babies don’t need constant entertaining in the form of rocking, bouncing, or swinging. Children sleep well if they are allowed to sleep. If over-entertained or over stimulated, they sleep less” (Ibid).

Doing less went against every fiber in my body. It required me to trust baby J. and his innate ability to sleep. It forced me to trust that he, more than anyone else, including me, knew what his body needed.

3. I accepted all his emotions. Crying. There was a lot of it during those early weeks. It is hard, sometimes painful, for a parent to listen to her baby cry. For some of us, it might bring up painful childhood memories. For others, it sounds like our baby is suffering, or worse, dying.

But, RIE has given me a more nuanced and respectful understanding of crying.

“Crying is a child’s language. It is her way of communicating her needs to her parents. Every average, healthy child cries. It is the way a baby expresses her feelings and she should be allowed to do so. Rather than trying to stop your child from crying by distracting her, try to figure out why she is crying so that you are able to help her” (Ibid. p. 45. Emphasis mine).

So, instead of reacting by popping a pacifier, or breast, in his mouth, or by distracting him with a toy, I learned to respond, by entering into a conversation with J. “Sweetheart, you’re crying really hard. I hear you. I wish I knew why. Are you cold? Are you hungry? If you need to cry, that’s okay. I will be here with you.” I stopped trying to control and started accepting by holding space for J.: “When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

4. I observed and observed more. And, to that, add waiting. I stopped rushing in the second or minute J. cried to pick him up. I would wait. Wait a little bit more. And, listen. Sometimes he would cry for a few minutes, then fall back asleep. Sometimes he would cry and suck his fist. Sometimes he would cry and cry and cry, and no matter what I did, he would cry some more. So, sometimes I would simply lie down next to him for half an hour and give him my presence and support. And, after days and weeks of observations, I came to realize that at times he actually needed to cry himself to sleep because that was how he would release all the built-up stress from the day. I observed that he really didn’t want to be held to fall asleep; he wanted space. So, I gave it to him.

 

In conclusion, let me acknowledge that every baby is different. There is no one right answer for how to help your baby sleep. Rather, it’s about establishing a relationship with your child that is built on trust and respect. Trust that your baby is competent. Trust that he will learn in his own time. Trust that she will let you know what she needs.

Be encouraged, friends.

Interested in reading more about infants and sleep? Check out these helpful (and, respectful!) books, articles, and blogs:

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Baby

Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems

28 Rules for Better Sleep

Helping your Baby Learn to Sleep (RIE associate and sleep consultant, Eileen Henry)

Let Crying Babies Lie

The Cry-it-out Controversy and My Family’s Sleep Story (“Science of Mom” blog)

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