Sleep Training Didn’t Work for Me: Here’s What I Did Instead.
For most new parents, experiencing a continuous lack of sleep is one of the biggest challenges they face. Those restless nights and dreary mornings get blurred together, making it almost impossible to focus on anything during the day.
Some parents sleep train their infants and it successfully allows them to catch some Zs. It’s recommended that a parent begins sleep training when their baby is around 4 months old, because they will usually stop requiring night feedings around this point.
However, every child is different and there are no solutions that are ‘one size fits all’. It’s important that as your child grows and develops that you stay flexible in your parenting decisions.
Here’s how I dealt with my children’s sleep issues and managed to come out relatively unscathed.
When I first became a mom over 6 years ago, I experienced a level of tiredness that I had never experienced before. Forget about studying all night, working overtime, or even training for a marathon, that first week after our baby came home probably aged my husband and me by 10 years.
I remember one night when our daughter was crying at 2am, I ferociously read tips on ‘how to get your baby to go to sleep’. I learned about the apps I could download and why I needed to follow my baby’s sleep cycle.
I shushed her. I held her. I fed her. I changed her. I burped her. I swayed, danced, rocked and rolled. I sang, spoke and hummed. She would calm down and her eyes would grow weary.
Then when I put her in the crib, her eyes would open widely. The sudden coldness of her mattress that ripped her away from her mother’s warmth would trigger her wailing all over again.
From the Ferber method to letting her cry it out, none of them worked for us in the long run. If something worked one night, it wouldn’t work the next. Her sleep needs were constantly changing. So here’s what I did instead. It isn’t perfect, but both our kids have slept through most nights since they were about 6 months old.
1. I kept the same simple bedtime
Consistency is key and simplicity is what helped us maintain this. We had a very easy routine that we would follow before bed. We didn’t do a bath, change into their sleeping clothes, read a certain book, give a specific toy or put on a particular song because we wanted the routine to be portable so that we could do it anywhere. Complicated routines are only going to add more stress to already overly stressed parents.
We always started at 7:30 pm. One of us would run upstairs to their room to make sure the blinds were closed, to check that the humidifier was on, and that the temperature was comfortable.
Then in our living room, we turned down the lights and turned off any screens. The dim lighting calmed our environment and we naturally started speaking softer and slower. Then we began the bedtime routine.
We changed their diapers, fed them and wiped their gums or brushed their teeth. Then we headed upstairs and went to bed. That was it. We did this with both our kids every night and stuck to it.
2. We had realistic expectations
In the early days, I had nights when I followed every sleep expert tip and hoped and prayed that our baby would sleep through the night. But of course, they didn’t, and I’d get frustrated and discouraged.
The most important thing to remember about parenting is to anticipate change and never expect everything to work out perfectly. Setting realistic and humble expectations makes the entire sleep experience a lot less stressful because you’re not going to get disappointed, only pleasantly surprised when your baby actually sleeps through the night.
3. We let our babies lead
I reminded myself that in parenting, change is the only constant. Staying flexible and rolling with the punches is what keeps your head above water.
When they were babies, both our kids slept in a crib in our room so we could tend to them whenever they needed us.
With our daughter, we were able to move her into her own room by the time she was 5 months old. Initially, there were many nights when we would put her in her crib in her room and she would cry immediately. I’d rule out the usual suspects. Does she need to be burped? Fed? Changed?
If none of those worked, I would hold her until she fell asleep and carefully put her back into the crib.
I read about letting babies cry it out so they learn to self-soothe and I tried it several times. However, my heart just couldn’t stick to it. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my baby alone with her tears even for a minute. The moment I heard her cry, I couldn’t fight my urge to check in on her. I would rush in, hold her and comfort her. It defeated the whole purpose of sleep training.
Eventually, my presence in the room was sufficient enough to calm her down and I would lay beside her crib while she fell asleep. Then I would silently sneak out so I wouldn’t wake her. There were nights she’d catch me and I would have to stay longer; sometimes, I’d end up sleeping on the floor in her room. However, after a while, I adjusted and it’s become part of our normal routine. To this day, my school-aged daughter still needs me to lay beside her before she falls asleep.
With our son, we did a similar thing. However, around the time he was a year old, he started climbing out of his crib. So we began co-sleeping and that helped calm him down. Nowadays, my toddler son will fall asleep with my husband while I do the same with our daughter. When they’re both asleep, we will sneak out and head downstairs to watch TV.
I didn’t take note of the patterns surrounding when my babies were awake or when they slept, because my mental load was already beyond full; I didn’t want to add another thing I needed to remember to keep track of.
We let our babies tell us what they needed and met their needs. It was tiring and exhausting for many nights but there was one thing that kept us going…
4. We reminded ourselves that they will eventually sleep
In the beginning, I kept reminding myself that babies are asleep during the day and awake at night because that’s what they were used to when they were in my womb. They need time to adapt and adjust to this world. It’s only temporary.
As much as I was learning and growing as a new mother, my babies were learning and growing as tiny humans who breathe, eat, poop and move on their own. It takes time, lots of love, compassion and patience for both of us to get comfortable in our new roles. However, over time, my babies will grow up and become self-sufficient, self-regulating, and self-soothing adults who no longer need us to be part of their bedtime routines.
Whether a parent decides to sleep train or not, it’s a decision that is unique for their baby. And it’s been shown that doing either does not have any negative effects on the child’s emotional health, stress levels, sleep habits or relationship with their parents.
Being a parent is one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences. Although the struggle and constant tiredness are real, the unlimited capacity to love and be loved and the shared joy of learning together make it all worthwhile.
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Katharine is the author of three books, has been published in scientific journals, and has co-authored chapters in health research books.