Compassionate Sleep Training
09.20.12 Helping parents and babies get through the night
A new study says it’s OK to let your baby cry it out so they’ll learn to sleep through the night. After much debate about whether this particular sleep training technique causes children any long-term psychological harm, scientists tracked a group of kids up to age six and determined that, “nope…they’ll be just fine.” On the one hand, I’m very glad to hear that, because one of my daughters was an all-nighter who couldn’t sleep without lots of help and eventually, a couple days of cry-it-out-sleep training. On the other hand, I sure wish we’d never gone through that. It might not cause any harm, but I’m not convinced it benefits anyone either.
While most of the time I think Mother Nature knows what she’s doing, when it comes to the whole newborn sleep thing - she might have gotten that piece wrong. Babies aren’t equipped to tough it out all night on their own. Parents aren’t equipped to go for long stretches of time without sleep. Sure, you’ve pulled the occasional all-nighter, partying or studying into the wee hours and nothing bad happened to you. But when you’re 100 percent responsible for a baby and a brand spanking new parent, you’re exhausted, vulnerable and every nerve is completely raw. Night after night of little sleep followed by day after day of complete responsibility is enough to turn the toughest parent inside out.
But babies are even more vulnerable and every nerve really is exposed because they aren’t physically developed enough to have adequate coating on their nerve endings. They have no idea what’s going on in their world, except when they’re in their parents’ arms and know they’re safe and loved. If it’s the middle of the night, and they need their mom or dad, a baby’s gonna do what a baby’s gotta do - cry for support.
Back when my not-quite-one-year-old was our resident insomniac and her sister was not quite two, I spent hours rocking, nursing, soothing, then creeping out of the room and holding my breath so my baby would stay asleep. And then, the door would creak, she’d wake up and we’d do it all over again. I cried from sleep deprivation while my baby cried from insecurity about sleeping alone. My pediatrician admonished me to quit coddling her and let her learn to do the most basic thing in life – falling sleep. He blamed me for instilling poor sleep habits that reinforced her need for comforting, nursing, rocking and my or my husband’s constant presence. In my heart, though, I knew she needed me, that sleep was hard for her and without the warmth of another body, she just couldn’t hack it.
I tried to make her cry it out. I put her down in her crib, patted her on the back and walked resolutely out of the room. I sat on the edge of my bed having anxiety attacks as my baby screamed for me to put her out of her misery. I couldn’t take it and went back in every time to comfort the both of us. Eventually, the stress of going without sleep got to me and I couldn’t think straight. It wasn’t just the sleep thing of course, but also my job, having two babies and a sick parent to care for. I was losing it because I had too much to manage and never got more than a couple of hours of sleep. My husband did his share of middle-of-the-night baby-time, but we lived in a small apartment and if they were awake, I was awake. The only one getting any sleep was my toddler (bless her heart).
That’s when we decided to buy the book on the Ferber Method, which prescribed a badass sleep training routine that’s now called “extinction.” You put the baby down, leave them to cry, go back in after a predetermined period of time, pat the baby on the back and leave again. Each time you make them wait (and cry) a little longer and eventually, they cry themselves to sleep. Pretty soon, they figure out you’re not going to pick them up and they learn to put themselves to sleep. It worked like a dream and within two days my daughter figured it out and we all got some desperately needed sleep. And yet, I l felt like I was letting her down.
Twenty-something years later, my daughter still has a tough time sleeping. Her mind gets active and she plans, dreams and sometimes worries at night. So do my son, another daughter, my niece and…so do I. Countless members of my family are lousy sleepers and we’ve all developed our own techniques to get through the night. How I wish I’d recognized back then, that my daughter’s nighttime insecurities weren’t poor sleep habits, poor parenting or any type of disorder. How I wish I’d realized, she was a sensitive soul and nighttime was hard for her. How I wish I’d had the stamina to help her through the night and the insight to understand she was a lot like me, an insomniac.
Pediatric sleep experts now have better techniques for helping sleepless parents and babies. With titles like “controlled comforting” and “camping out,” these kinder, more realistic techniques are less harsh. They also teach parents to have more realistic expectations, namely, that many babies aren’t cut out for making it through the night on their own. Some are…many aren’t. Mine wasn’t.
In hindsight I know I did the best I could in my fatigue-addled state. I followed the advice of the best experts I knew and did what was culturally accepted at the time. My daughter has grown up to be a lovely, highly functioning, productive and talented woman. But in my heart, I wish we hadn’t gone through that. I wish I’d had more compassion and used more creative coping strategies until she was old enough to sleep on her own. I wish I’d honored the person she was instead of the person I wanted her to be.
Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered in a future blog post.
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