Confessions of a progressive mama: I sleep-trained my baby

Guest post by Megan Plotkin

It started when my son was 9 months old. This thing, tickling, beating, sometimes pounding on my insides. Sometimes it feel like I’ve resolved it only to have it squirm out of my abdomen, into my throat and inevitably into my eyes where it pours down my cheeks and I think “Maybe this time it’s finally gone.” It never is. It’s one of those things that, wrapped in guilt, cloaked in shame, manage to stick around despite all my attempts at denial, rationalization, and even good old fashion confrontation. The thing is this: I sleep trained my baby.

As much as I thought about it at all, I had always assumed I would be a super crunchy bordering on sanctimonious hippy mama. I assumed that I would have a natural birth. My mom did, twice. She was a midwife and bequeathed me with an impressive hippy resume right from the get-go. The train went off the track early because I did not have a natural birth. After 36 hours of labor, I had an epidural and then a c-section. Was I overwhelmed to be holding a healthy baby at the end of it? Yes. Did I harbor a grief about how his birth turned out that I felt I could share with no one? Oh, hell yes.

Despite my perceived failure in how my son was born, I had no trouble throwing myself headlong into mothering an infant with impeccable granola credentials. I breastfed and breastfed and breastfed until it hurt. I pumped strawberry colored milk to draw out my cracked nipples enough for him to latch onto. I woke up every two hours to do it all over again. I bopped that little bundle of soft muscle and tissue while he screamed and screamed with saint-like patience. Ok maybe not saint-like patience. Would a saint scream, “You have to take him now!” and then run out to the driveway to smash a beer bottle? Maybe not.

Beer bottle smashing aside, those first months were easy. Well no, not easy, but do-able. I knew what I was supposed to do and, by god, I did it. The real trouble came months later. That was when his sleep went from the accustomed two hours to one and a half to, if I was lucky, 45 minutes. I turned to my old friend Dr. Sears and his Attachment Parenting website. I found his words in my terminally sleep-deprived state cold comfort. I bought the book The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night and tried valiantly to implement the strategies contained therein. I found that they produced, despite the title, quite a lot of crying and precious little sleep.

I was desperate. So very, very sleep deprived and desperate. When a month long experiment with co-sleeping reduced my son’s precious dream time to a fitful half an hour interspersed with thrashing and demands for boob, and raised my desperation levels to “throw myself off a bridge because maybe then I would get some rest,” I knew something had to be done.

I had heard of “sleep training” (can’t you just hear the jackboots and “sig heils” from here?) but was full to the brim with parenting propaganda and good hippie training. No, I couldn’t even consider it. Not me, who breastfed, who wore her baby, who had a midwife Mom, for God’s sake. It took a knock down drag-out fight with my long-suffering husband, over nothing much at all, to finally make me think maybe, just maybe, it was time to let go of my fiercely guarded hippy credentials and give this “sleep training” a go.

The monkey was 9 months old when we first laid him down in his bassinet and asked him kindly, supportively, with as much love as there was in our hearts, to go to sleep on his own. There was a lot of crying. Heart-rending, teeth gnashing, wanting to bang your head on the sidewalk, kind of crying. But then, oh miracle of miracles, he fell asleep and slept for 12 hours. Twelve heaven-sent, now-I-remember-what-it’s-like-to-feel-human-again, hours. The next time we tried, there was more crying but also more sleep and as we progressed, in fits and starts, he learned that nighttime was for sleeping.

I was hounded everyday, am still hounded, by the party line that sleep training destroys you and your precious one’s bond of trust. But every day when my little monkey woke up with a beatific smile on his face and I woke up feeling not like a zombie, but like a member of the human race … I felt more and more like we had done the right thing.

My little monkey man is as bonded to me as he possibly could be, barring the introduction of duct tape. He is happy and content. He is a perfect little love bug. Almost all of the time I am happy with our decision to sleep train. Happy until those razor tipped wings start beating against my windpipe and my guilt and remorse rush in full force.

Is it because I have done something wrong, unnatural and selfish, something my little boy will be talking about in therapy 20 years from now? Or is it because some non-traditional parenting communities hand out guilt just as pernicious as any one of the “onbeat” expectations forced on us mamas? The answer to that I leave to you, my gentle reader. I’m going to go kiss my son, light of my life, center of my world, sleep-trained monkey of love.

Comments on Confessions of a progressive mama: I sleep-trained my baby

      • Wow that article makes me sad. Sometimes we would try literally everything we could think of to comfort our baby, and he would still essentially cry himself to exhaustion. I get tired of hearing my baby compared to a rhesus monkey who only has a piece of wire for comfort, ala Harry Harlow. My baby has a whole other 12+ hours of attention and love, does that really count for nothing? As if it isn’t already heartbreaking and confusing enough to have a baby who is hard to soothe.

      • I agree that every parenting choice should be about what works for the individual family. We considered sleep-training in our darkest moments of sleeplessness but ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. And yet I don’t judge people one bit who choose to try it out. Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture for a reason. I think part of the problem though is the pressure that’s put on parents from the moment a child is born to get that child to sleep through the night. I seriously had people ask me when my son was 5 days old whether or not he was yet sleeping through the night. At the time, I knew that was silly, but when it was still happening a few months later and he was still not sleeping through the night, and I was slowly losing my mind about it, I began to think something was wrong with me and what I was doing.

        What I eventually realized in my first year of parenting is that for every expert that agrees with one of my choices, there’s another who claims that my choice WILL CAUSE IRREPARABLE HARM! So I started ignoring “experts” (and everyone else) and listened instead to my own internal (what I like to call) cave woman. If something I was doing felt right to her, then I decided it worked for me. Of course, every cave baby is different and what felt right to cave woman this go round might not work so well with #2. Cave woman is fine with that. Cave woman knows how to evolve.

        OP, you sound like a loving mama. I don’t think any of us will make it out of parenthood without something (or many things) we feel guilty about. But so far it seems that all of your efforts, however you feel about them, have produced a happy little guy.
        Focus on that.

    • I was just about to ask the same thing.

      Something I’ve always wondered though, is are babies a lot like dogs in that if they realize you’ll always come when you do something, they just do that for attention? It seems like just letting the baby cry and realize that “unless you’re hungry or in pain, it’s fine!” would actually create a more stable child, but I certainly don’t know!

  1. I know exactly how you feel. We sleep trained too, and I never thought I would ever even consider doing that. But it worked like a charm. I just tell myself that every baby is different and as long as it works for you and your little one, so be it. I don’t think it’s possible to not have a bit of mommy guilt about something 🙂

  2. It’s sad that a lot of offbeat mums seem to feel guilty about ‘normative’ stuff. The thing is, there’s a reason it’s normative… if it were causing an epidemic of emotionally stunted, damaged people, I doubt people would do it. But I take the, quite possibly offbeat, line that babies and kids are resilient!

    Think about it – we’d all be headcases if, for example, every time our end-of-teather parents had left us to cry for a while it became indelibly printed on our minds. And a lot of us may have grown up at a time it was considered quite OK to leave a baby in a cot/playpen with a few toys for quite long periods while grown ups did housework or whatever, and we seem to be fine.

    Maybe rather than beating ourselves up over not doing what seemed to be the most nurturing (and often most effortful) we should, within reason, respect our children’s mental resourcefulness and accept that we’ll be better parents when we create the conditions for things to be more manageable.

    • Oh, yes! My fiance and I have been talking about how we’d raise children lately, and that has been my major point. So many people had things done ‘horribly wrong’ and yet they seemed to turn out just fine.

      In the past, babies were pretty much just left alone – put in those long dresses so they couldn’t crawl away! Was every one of our grandparents horribly developmentally challenged? I don’t think so!

      Also, Heck yes for wooden play structures!

  3. I need to research this sleep training. My daughter hasn’t slept more than an hour at a time for months and I’m beyond desperate. Nothing upon nothing has worked – she just will not sleep. Far from judgment, I’m a bit jealous of your success!

  4. We tried to sleep train at 6 months and totally failed… for more than two months. We went back to rocking and nursing him to sleep, which of course soon meant I was back to laying in bed with a screaming baby at my chest the whole night. At 10 months, I started giving baby a bottle at bedtime. He conched out, and pretty much has most of the time since. He also completely stopped breastfeeding, deciding after 10 months of solely nursing that bottles beat the hell out of boobs. I feel a tinge of the same weird guilt about letting him suck a bottle to sleep, even though I know that having a human mom instead of a banshee is more important to my baby (and his big brother) than nursing or rocking at night.

    Sometimes I too think crunchy/offbeat moms come with more judgment than your mainstream parents, because we pack so much high moral belief into parenting.

    I mean, “gee, going to bed with a bottle might hurt your kid’s teeth” is a pretty mainstream worry. “Gee, you’re going to scar him for life and he’ll never form a secure attachment to any human being forever, especially you, mom,” is a crunchy-mom judgment, and way harder to deal with.

  5. This is the first time I’ve heard this term. Babies need
    To learn how to fall asleep on their own just like they need to learn how to do everything else. Magda gerber who did a
    Lot of research on the RIE (resource infant educare) talks extensively on this. I can understand why you would feel guilty but there’s a lot of literature against co-sleeping. The point is that you love your baby. You’re not a bad mother for that.

  6. Sometimes I am so happy that I was young and blundered through the baby thing a bit. My guilt seems to be less at times. If we had not ‘sleep trained’ my daughter I still might be wanting to jump off of a bridge 😉

  7. I am a HUGE believer in ‘we do what works the best with the least amount of damage’. Wouldn’t it be great if the soft touch always created a beautiful outcome? But there are oh so many factors when you’re raising a child. Oh so many things that make them the little creatures they are. Outside stimuli, inside stimuli, genetics, environment. The same thing does not work for every situation. You can eat all the granola in the world, but if your child needs that strong, firm, proverbial hand, then he will let you know, and you better be able to step up, or you’ll end up as one of those parents you want to throttle as their children run around screaming and wreaking havoc. When he needs a soft touch, all that guilt you feel has a purpose. To keep you in check. I say let yourself feel it and guide it to the place it’s supposed to keep. The same place every good mommy has, that is filled with the pain of a thousand mistakes, and the pain of a thousand hard decisions. It’s human to feel bad. Look at your success to judge if you’re making the right decision I say.

  8. Don’t feel guilty momma!
    I co slept with my son since birth and we sleep trained him at 9 months. It was hard setting him in the crib and hearing him cry instead of the usual rocking him to sleep. I wanted to just go into his nursery and pick him up. My hubby was the brave one. He is now 14 months old and sleeps about 11 straight hours at night. Our bonding time is still strong and everyone is happy. 🙂

  9. I’m currently reading the Marc Weissbluth book “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” I suppose it fits under the category of “sleep training.” I’m really enjoying it and learning a lot about the science of sleep (including adult sleep). One thing that he points out is that sleeping, or sleeping well, is skill that must be learned and practiced, just like any other skill babies learn (talking, feeding themselves, using the toilet). Thinking about it that way allows you to reframe the sleep training so that it’s not so guilt-inducing: you’re helping your child to develop a healthy habit (and you’re saving your own sanity)! You wouldn’t feel guilty about helping your child learn to speak or walk even if it was frustrating for them at times. So why feel that way about sleeping?

  10. We also used the Weissbluth book, referenced above.

    It’s one thing to leave a brand new baby alone to cry, someone who is less than six months old. But there is a developmental shift that occurs around 6 months old, where little ones stop crying only because they need and also start crying because they want. One of those “wants” might be at odds with a need. When our daughter was 7-8 months old her want to sleep with us and in contact with me came into conflict with her need for sleep and we did sleep training, I eventually wrote about it on my blog. I don’t feel bad – quite the opposite I feel sort of proud that I was able to make a decision that worked for my family and helped my little one accomplish something major, learning to put herself to sleep. That being said, it’s not for everyone. Sure sounds like it was for you though! (and kudos for writing about it – it’s a controversial thing to admit, somehow!)

  11. I’m reading “Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old” by Suzy Giordano – anybody heard of it? Many of my friends have used it successfully and I can’t say that we’re very crunchy. It does sound regimented and I’m not sure that I would like a very regimented life for my yet-unborn child, but since this method has had such good reviews and it’ll get me lots of sleep, I’m willing to try it.

  12. I never thought I would sleep train my daughter, but we did. And, I held on to a lot of guilt because of it. One thing people should keep in mind with sleep training is to make sure you don’t do it too young. We didn’t do it until our daughter was a little over a year old. But, my parents did it to me when I was only a month old (waaay too young). I wouldn’t do it until about the baby is at least 6 months old. Basically wait until it is no longer necessary to do night time feedings (ask a doctor when that time is!!)

  13. When we decided to publish this post, we knew it touched on a controversial subject and that discussion would be challenging. I’m proud of the Offbeat Mama community for keeping the conversation relatively cordial — but I’ve been watching as the comments coming in have gotten increasingly negative (no, you’re judging ME! no, there’s research suggesting BOTH methods have value! no, YOU’RE judging ME!!) and so I’m cleaning it up and putting the discussion to bed, as it were.

    The summary here? Sleep is an incredibly challenging issue, we ALL feel like we deal with judgments about our choices, and everyone needs to feel supported in their decisions. The sleep debates can rage on elsewhere online — for me, I vote we all shut down our browsers and get some rest. 🙂

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