Why I let my baby cry: Sleep regression, baby sleep training methods, and what actually works

“I no sleep, mom”-The 4 month sleep regression

I made it about 5 and a half months of getting up every 1-3 hours to feed the baby. I was so exhausted and after giving everything I had to the baby, day in and day out, I was starting to reach my breaking point. Just when he was starting to sleep better at around 4 months, or what I thought was better, about 3 hour stretches, we hit the 4 month sleep regression. I had read mixed things about sleep regression online—from mom’s experiences to debate about if it even existed. It exists. And it’s real as fuck.

T started the regression a little later than 4 months, but once he did, he was up every 1-2 hours. It was so miserable. One of us had to get up and feed and/or rock him to sleep. This went on for weeks. I read everything I could about sleep and sleep regressions online, and was left feeling more confused than ever because every piece of advice directly conflicted the next piece I found.

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Finally, when T was about 5 and a half months, I called my pediatrician’s office. “I need to see someone today,” I told the receptionist, “I’m about to lose it.” I went in that afternoon and poured out my frustrations to the doctor. She listened empathetically, and assured me that I was doing great as a mom. “It’s really hard,” she told me, “it lasts a few weeks and then it should get better.” She went on to tell me that we had to do whatever we could to get some sleep, whether that was breastfeed T to sleep or rock him or whatever, but that it doesn’t help anyone to be so sleep deprived. She also didn’t recommend any form of sleep training until 6 months; babies were simply just too young to handle it before then.

I [almost begged] her to let me start solid foods, as everything I had heard told me that once T got baby cereal daily it would fill him up and make him less hungry at night, which should lead to longer sleep stretches. My fairy God-doctor said sure, we could do cereal or fruit or vegetables, but tailed this with a warning that it wouldn’t help the sleep. “It simply isn’t true, but I wish it were,” were her final words on the matter. I was so desperate I didn’t care. I was elated that I could try solids and that I almost had permission to just do what I needed to do to survive this regression.

I stocked up on baby oatmeal and sweet potatoes, and we tried to introduce solids. True to the doctor’s words, it didn’t help. Like every professional resource said, the introduction of solids are for learning and not for filling, and T still wanted his calories the boob-way. Nothing got better. Then at about 6 months, things got worse.

“My f-ing face hurts,  mom”- Teething

How is that even possible, right? What is worse than reverting back to newborn sleep? One word: TEETHING. Mother fucking teething. Mother Nature had a really good idea to take a happy baby and shove razor blades through his gums, which [in most babies] elicits a lot of pain. A lot of pain = no sleep. T was up every 15 minutes to hour and a half. I thought I might die. Apparently growth hormone is secreted while the body sleeps i.e. this makes teeth pop out i.e. no one is actually getting any sleep. The doctor had okayed the use of Tylenol, which seemed to help a little, but nothing helped like that tooth finally breaking the gums.

We got a few days of reprieve before the whole thing started again and a second tooth emerged. My poor sweet angel was in so much pain, I could hardly get frustrated with him over the shitty sleep and nap sessions. But we made it, and things went back to about every 2 hours. It was better than before, I guess.

“I never going to sleep, mom”- Sleep training

When the 6th month was well underway, things weren’t changing, and my husband and I finally decided we needed to try some form of sleep training. We agreed that we couldn’t bear to make our sweet angel cry, languishing alone and afraid in his crib and wailing until he fell asleep, so we started with the No-Cry Sleep Solution, the gentlest of methods.

I should also mention that I did a ton of research on every method possible. While many variations exist, there seem to be a few core methods from which everything is derived. The most gentle is designed for no crying ever, the middle ranges in crying allowance, while the full “cry it out” calls for putting baby to bed and letting him have at it, crying until he passes out, no intervention at all. No matter what, we decided this last option was absolutely not something we would resort to.

Anyway, the crux of the No-Cry Sleep Solution was to change sleep behaviors and ultimately teach baby to fall asleep on his own. The author said it may take longer than other methods, but I was willing to sacrifice a few more weeks of sleep if I could ultimately get a blissful 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Human beings have to learn how to do everything, even fall asleep. An analogy I read is that if your sleeping environment changes, it takes you a few nights to adjust and you get worse sleep, right? Eventually, though, you adapt and start sleeping just fine again. Most babies are allowed to fall asleep breastfeeding or being fed in the warm embrace of a parent, while being gently rocked and sung to. This is an amazing way to fall asleep, right? I wish someone would do this for me, but apparently it’s not acceptable for adults to be rocked to sleep while being sung to (but without boob, obviously).

All of these behaviors are thus associated with sleeping, so a baby begins to rely on them to fall asleep. When these elements aren’t there they can’t fall asleep, and what’s worse, when they wake up on their own alone in their crib, they can’t sleep and begin to cry out for mom or dad. This made so much sense I totally face palmed. I had unwittingly created a monster simply by being a loving mother. Of course these associations don’t apply to all babies. If you have an angel baby who sleeps well without any assistance then count yourself as having won the baby jackpot. For the rest of us haggard souls, though, sleep training is the next step.

We went about trying to change these associations, gently teaching T to not rely on breastfeeding to sleep. I even added the EASY method. This routine changes the standard wake, play, eat, sleep to wake, eat, play, sleep. We were excited to find success when we were able to break the breastfeeding association. But that’s about where our success ended. We followed the No-Cry to a T (ha!), but try as we might, we couldn’t get past the first step of putting T down drowsy but awake. This always resulted in crying, no matter how many times we repeated it. Exhausted, we eventually just gave in to holding him to sleep so someone in the house could at least get a few hours of shut eye. We kept trying, desperate for the method to work. I read and reread the book in case I made an error, but to no avail.

I eventually even tried adding in some of the fading method, where I would stand crib side and soothe T with gentle pats and song without picking him up. Not happening.

Weeks later and no progress to be had, T would wake up in the middle of the night wanting only to play, not to eat or be held. He’d wake up early, ready to start the day at ungodly hours. “That’s it,” I thought, delirious from sleep deprivation, “tonight you cry.”

I had finally reached my breaking point. After more than 7 months of broken sleep, I knew something had to change. There was no way I could continue in the shell of a person I had become. My other mom friends had found success with the Ferber method, so my husband and I finally decided to try it. In basic terms, Ferberizing your baby teaches them that bedtime means bedtime, and if they cry it will not result in pick-ups and snuggles (therefore why babies need to be old enough for this training). You follow bedtime routine, kisses and hugs, and put baby down with a cue word like “night night” and close the door. If baby cries you return at set intervals to assure baby it’s okay, and then gradually stretch out the intervals before re-entering. In theory, babies will learn to fall asleep independently.

Finally evening came, and we had a plan. Our intervals would be 3, 5, 7, 9, then 11 minutes, and if T still cried we would call it quits and pick him up. My brave husband would take the lead, given that T knows that mom is synonymous with boob. I fed my little guy hoping he couldn’t sense my apprehension and gave him a big kiss, then passed him off to dad for story and bed. I waited anxiously downstairs, wine in hand. For the nerves, you know. My husband came down and the crying commenced. Three minutes lasted hours. I was the worst mother in the world. Dad went up and came back. Five more agonizing minutes of crying passed. I was dying inside. Seven minutes. Pour more wine. Nine minutes. Pure human torture. Six minutes into the 11 minute interval, the crying subsided. Silence. My husband and I looked at each other in shock. He was asleep. Sweet Jesus, we did it. He woke up once that night to eat, and we didn’t hear a peep again until 7 am.

It was truly a miracle. I couldn’t believe it. I was afraid to count my success. The second night, we only made it five minutes into the 9 minute interval. T slept the entire night. I woke up in a panic the next morning, thinking something must be terribly wrong. Nope, that sweet boy was snoozing away. Every night got better, T only waking up once to eat or not at all, and sleeping about 12 hours. I didn’t know why this method got such immediate results, but I didn’t care. I was saved. I was sleeping. I felt so much better. It was obvious that T felt better, too. He was happier during the day and didn’t look so tired all the time.

I’m ultimately glad we went with this method. I am also glad that we waited. I don’t believe that T would have been ready earlier, and I probably wasn’t either. I definitely believe that babies need to have reached a certain development before the more drastic measures of sleep training are initiated. They also need to have the physical capacity to go all night without eating. I cringe when I read that moms of 3-month olds are letting them cry it out.

If you think that you might be ready to Ferber, I highly recommend the following steps:

  1. Consult your pediatrician. Sleep training is a big part of baby’s development, so you need to be sure baby is healthy and ready for it.
  2. Do your research. I read a ton of legitimate resources, including the actual Dr. Ferber writings, before attempting this training.
  3. Go in with a plan. You will likely fail if you do not have set parameters with your partner before going into this. What intervals will you follow? Will you follow the same intervals the next night, or start at the second interval length the second night, and the third the following, etc?
  4. Don’t start sleep training when baby is sick or teething, or during any other change in environment (like moving). Baby needs comfort and nourishment more than ever at these times, and adding a new stressor to the mix is a recipe for disaster.
  5. Know that it will suck. It’s horrible hearing your baby cry. Pick the stronger partner, if you have one, or bring in a friend or relative to help you. Having support makes a big difference.
  6. Have a middle of the night plan. What will you do if baby wakes up in the middle of the night? For most babies a “full night’s sleep” is only 6-7 hours, so baby may need to eat and top off in the middle of the night. For much older babies, they may just want comfort.
  7. It’s okay to bail. If the first night kills you, or you just aren’t seeing progress with this method, it is okay to stop. Don’t torture yourself or your baby. Sleep training only works if it works for everyone. It should not be endless stress that makes things worse than before.

I firmly believe that every baby is different and will need different sleep training. No one way works for each baby. We continue to adapt our methods for T’s developing needs, and you will need to do the same for your baby. Whatever method you choose is the right way. Don’t get derailed by all of these professional, and non-professional, opinions on what is “right” for your baby. Follow your gut instincts, you have them for a reason. At the end of the day, we have to do what works for our families, and do what we need to do to survive. Maybe the No-Cry method worked for your baby (if so, I am jealous!). If it means continuing to get up and breastfeed, then fine. Co-sleep [safely]? Fine. I support you, and expect the same in return. We gotta stick together, after all.

Until next time, mama. Wishing you good sleep and sweet dreams…

2 thoughts on “Why I let my baby cry: Sleep regression, baby sleep training methods, and what actually works

  1. Pingback: When Cry It Out stops working | Surviving and thriving in the (sur)reality of motherhood.

  2. Pingback: How to (re)do Cry It Out | Surviving and thriving in the (sur)reality of motherhood.

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