Sleep is a big deal and a big struggle.
Nothing sends me spiraling into grumpiness and depression like a lack of sleep. When I learned of my pregnancy, my first thought was to figure out how to gently sleep train my child as soon as possible. I knew I couldn’t handle sleep deprivation for very long.
Sleep is also a huge priority in my parenting. Not only does sleep make for a happier baby, but it also is crucial for development and learning. Lots of children today are sleep deprived, and I don’t want my kid to be one of them.
e.e. is a good sleeper, so his first couple of months were the stuff of parental dreams. He slept five or six consecutive hours a night, and took naps like a champ. We practiced good sleep habits, like putting him down drowsy but awake, following the Eat, Play, Sleep routine to prevent overtiredness, and rarely nursing him to sleep.
And people said this parenting thing was hard.
From birth, e.e. slept on his tummy. At his two month checkup, our pediatrician did her duty and scared me into trying to get e.e. to sleep on his back. Since he already was a good sleeper, she said, it shouldn’t be difficult to transition him onto his back.
She stands by her advice to this day, and she also takes full blame for ruining my child’s sleep.
I don’t know if a sleep regression coincided with our attempts to put him on his back or if our attempts to put him on his back triggered a sleep regression, but everything went haywire after that. He stopped sleeping through the night, instead waking every hour or two to nurse. Getting him to nap was the most agonizing, futile thing I’ve ever done.
We switched him onto his tummy to control the damage, but to no avail.
Once upon a glorious time, we just needed to swaddle him, insert a pacifier, bounce him a bit on the exercise ball, and he was out. Now he screamed at the swaddle, screamed at the pacifier, and screamed at the bouncing (unless we bounced for a minimum of ten minutes to calm him down, and then another thirty to get him to sleep).
Naptime became a battle, and nobody won. e.e. was tired and cranky all the time. I was tired and cranky all the time. At its worst, it took me two hours of repeatedly trying the old methods to get e.e. to bed, and in the end, we still cried ourselves to sleep.
This was not working for us.
At our pediatrician’s suggestion, we decided to let e.e. figure out how to sleep on his own.
I came home from the appointment, put him in his bassinet, and listened to him scream. I desperately tried to drown myself in infant sleep research so as to quell the anxiety searing through my bloodstream.
Every five minutes, I went in to pat his back and assure him that mommy was here and loved him. His screams made me feel like the worst mom in the world: If you were really here and loving me, I wouldn’t be crying at the top of my lungs!
I was crying, he was crying, and finally, after twenty minutes, I scooped him up and nursed him to sleep.
As he slumbered peacefully in my arms, I bolstered my resolve with a good, hard look at my baby’s needs. e.e. needed to sleep more than he needed to not cry. Besides, even if my goal was to reduce his tears, then the status quo wasn’t working: he cried just as hard when I bounced, crooned, and patted him as when I let him cry himself to sleep.
He was giving me more than enough hints that he wanted me to trust his competency — kicking out of the swaddle, arching away from the pacifier, wailing on the exercise ball, even turning away from the breast. He was his own person, with his own timetable for doing things that didn’t fit my predetermined plans. If I insisted on listening to my fear and anxiety about him crying, we’d get even more sleep deprived.
I did some research to curb my fears about the dangers of cortisol spikes and abandonment, and touched base with a couple of moms with lovely children completely unaffected by their early days of crying it out.
Knowing I wouldn’t brain damage my child helped a ton. We tried again with giving him an opportunity to self-soothe himself to sleep. Here’s our routine:
After about an hour of being awake, he gets snapped into his Zen sack. (Contrary to the five star reviews, it’s done nothing to improve his sleep, but it’s cute, soft, and perfect for transitioning out of the swaddle.)
I snuggle him close and remind him that we’re putting him to sleep differently for his nap (yes, I’m a weirdo who explains things to her newborn). “It’s difficult to fall asleep alone,” I empathize, “but I’m confident you can do it. If you feel you can’t, I’ll come check on you in five minutes. I’m always here for you.”
The white noise and fans go on, the lights go off, and we slow dance to the bassinet as I sing a short lullaby to this tune:
Now go to sleep.
Go to sleep, sleep, sleep.
Go to sleep, little one.
Close your eyes and dream tender dreams,
For you are guarded, protected by my love.
Then I give him a kiss (okay, lots of kisses), place him on his tummy, and wish him a happy nap.
That’s it. What once took hours now takes a few minutes.
He’s caught on quickly! It’s only been a couple of days, but for the most part, he cries or fusses only a few minutes before I sneak back in to see him conked out for a good, long nap. Before I lay him down, he starts sucking on his own fist to calm himself, something he never did before when I was frantically sticking pacifiers in his mouth.
This is such a huge relief for both of us to go from long, drawn out battles to a short, effective routine that allows him to sleep longer and, ironically, cry less.