Sleep Training: A Love/Hate Story

What: Sleep training. Fuuuuuck. Like vaccines and introducing solid foods, there are schools of thought on this one. Some people think it’s damaging to the baby, or to the parent-child relationship; some people think it’s just another milestone in infancy, like teaching them how to roll over. Some parents who have great sleepers shrug and say, “Well, I could never do that to my child;” some parents who have babies who need to be bounced/rocked/nursed/walked/patted/shushed to sleep, or who wake easily, or who fight their bedtimes, will look at you wild-eyed and say, “I need to get some rest, man.” I will say this: approximately zero parents look at their newborns and say to themselves, “Someday, I’m going to put on headphones and drink two glasses of wine while you scream yourself to sleep.” But sleep training is a thing precisely because sometimes sleep gets wacky for both parents and babies. This isn’t like training a dog; this is like course-correcting a wayward luxury yacht before it crashes into a pier during Mardi Gras and kills seventeen people. And yes, in this analogy, the baby is a luxury boat.

Why: Because the night before we started this process, I went in to nurse NS back to sleep at 2:30 AM, the third time since midnight I had been in his room trying to get him back to sleep. I heard a tapping at my window and my immediate thought was, “it’s a demon” (it was, um, a branch). Then I had a silent sweaty panic attack about postpartum psychosis. I was anxious, overwhelmed, and starting to feel like the baby—our sweet little guy—was holding me hostage.

When: Two days before his five-month birthday, NS started waking in the night. There was that dreaded four-month sleep regression, wandering in a month late, to fuck with our shit. After about two weeks of this, he had a couple good nights (read: he woke only once or twice between midnight and dawn), and then teething started in earnest. He started waking every two hours, then every 90 minutes, then every hour. Every. Single Night. For two weeks. By the time he hit 26 weeks, I was a basket case.

Still, it took me a couple weeks to seriously consider sleep training as an option. I kept waiting for the baby to shift gears, to change…but the longer it went on, the more entrenched the whole situation seemed. I realized (with a little help from my mom) that, by trying to meet NS’s every sleep-related need, I wasn’t taking good care of myself at all. And he wasn’t thriving either. After all, babies are people, and people need more than 45 minutes of sleep at a time. By wide consensus, six months is old enough to master this cool new skill of falling asleep on his own; it was time to put on my Mom Pants and help him learn.

How: We did some research on different methods you can use, but when a girlfriend offered me to send me a plan their sleep consultant (yep, that’s a thing) had prepared for them, I jumped on that. We just adopted their plan whole-hog: bedtime ritual, timed checks, and—gulp—crying it out.

Bedtime ritual: Starting at about 5 PM, we feed NS a solid-foods dinner, let him goof around without a diaper on, then pop him in the tub for splashzone time. Dry him off, lotion him up, get him dressed for bed (a onesie on these hot days, a sleep sack when it’s a bit cooler). We read him a story, and then I nurse. Each beat takes ten to twenty minutes, and the goal is to get him into his crib—awake, drowsy, and ready for sleep—by about 7 PM.

Day one: Tears. So many tears. After we went through our new bedtime ritual, I put NS down in his crib and went to join M and my mom for dinner. As soon as he started crying in earnest, I started bawling—big fat blubbery I-can’t-do-this tears. After ten minutes, M went to go reassure the baby that everyone he loves isn’t dead, and my mom took me for a walk. It took 56 minutes of crying and five checks before NS finally fell asleep. I gave him a dream feed at 10:30, then got into bed myself. At 1:45 AM, NS wakes up, complains for about 25 minutes, cries off-and-on for about an hour, and then goes back to sleep. M and I lie awake in the dark feeling horrible.

In the morning, he seems a little shell-shocked. He’s also teething, and in the craziness of the previous night, we had all completely forgotten the baby Tylenol. Failure moment.

Day two: Same ritual, same bedtime, this time with baby Tylenol, total one-eighty. NS goes into his crib at 6:50, grouses for about five minutes, and then falls asleep. We tiptoe around the house; I am partially convinced he’s faking, and will be sitting up in his crib if we go in. My mom shoves some money in my hand, and we sprint down to the local bar to have a beer and talk about things other than how tired we are.

At about 9:10, NS wakes up crying. We’re fairly certain his pain relief has worn off at this point, so M goes in, gives him a dose, and NS cries off-and-on until about 9:45. I sneak in at 10:45 for a feed, pop him back into bed none the wiser, and then the little weasel sleeps until 6:10 AM. SIX TEN IN THE MORNING. After a month of waking up every hour, eight hours in a row?! Miracle.

I, of course, am awake at 3:15 and totally unable to fall back asleep. But baby steps.

Day three: Same tune as day two, but he misses his afternoon nap, so we put him to bed super early. He conks out after a bit of crying—like, four minutes. Dream feed, and then I think he wakes up in the wee hours, maybe around 2 AM, but this time, I’m able to fall back asleep once he settles himself. The little bum is up at 5 AM, but seeing as how he went down so early, this is not totally surprising. The next day, he has a monster two-and-a-half hour nap.

Day four and beyond: Sleep, that slippery bitch, has come to our house. We’re a rhythm now. Nap times have become more consistent. His sleep cues are much easier to read because he’s not exhausted 24/7. The grumbling at naptime and bedtime lasts for ten minutes, tops, and almost never devolves into full-blown crying; usually, three minutes of loud complaining, some shuffling noises as he scoots around his crib, and then silence. Sleepy, sleepy silence.

And so: Our little experiment seems to be working. I hate that it came to this, and I feel tremendously guilty. But, when I see that it’s paying off, and that NS is taking to it the same way he took to baths and solid food—with great gusto and early mastery—then it’s much easier to let myself off the hook. I had steeled myself for weeks of hysterical bedtime weeping. This is…not that.

Sleep training is the final nail in the coffin of The Mom I Thought I’d Be: that co-sleeping, baby-wearing, baby-led-weaning, responsive-to-every-need mama. There’s a bit of a mourning process when I realize that I could never have gelled in that mold, and that the baby wasn’t the type either. What can I say? We’re both cut from the same independent, gotta-do-it-myself-to-learn cloth. Quel surprise. I can already tell that NS will be the type of kid who rides his bicycle into a bramble and then pops up shouting, “I’m okay!”

The baby and I still seem to be great friends. When he’s upset, he puts his arms up for me to pick him up; he takes a tiny bit longer to truly relax in my arms, but it’s early days yet. He knows that I’m still here for him. I’m starting to understand that the last month will take a long time to correct. I have an enormous, Fort Knox-sized sleep debt, and this is the first step in trying to repay it. His naps have stretched out; tonight, he went into his crib, chatted to himself for 45 minutes, and then fell asleep all on his own. No tears, no drama. I’m immensely proud of him. He’s learned a whole new skill.

About the Author

Kaitlyn Kochany
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More about Kaitlyn Kochany

Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-area freelance writer and editor. She had her son, NS, in January 2016, and has been trying to sleep and write since then.

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