Sleep Training: How We Won Back the Night

On Friday, December 14, 2012, our daughter was 3 months old. The following Monday, I went back to work. That night, she slept from 9:15 p.m. to 6:35 a.m. She continued to sleep through the night every night (STTN) for the next two weeks, and has STTN regularly since then. I am hesitant to take credit for the amazing sleep capability of our daughter, but I am thrilled to be getting enough sleep. I want to share our sleep training experience in the hopes that it is of some small help to other caffeine-addled, sleep-interrupted, beleaguered parents.

Never let it be said that I’m unwilling to tackle touchy parenting issues. If you’re not familiar with the issues surrounding sleep training and babies, first go do a Google search for “cry it out”. I’ll wait.

…you came back? Awesome. I want to say a couple of things right up front. I recognize and respect that every family is different, and that what worked for us cannot or will not work for everyone. I will also say that I believe there are a number of factors that made sleep training our Squeaker easier. For example, she is formula-fed; we do not room-share; and our overall attitude toward parenting is largely based on two (tongue-in-cheek) assumptions:

  1. We’re not training her, we’re training ourselves
  2. She will survive pretty much anything we do for, with, or to her

So, disclaimer made: this method may not be your cup of tea. There are a couple of schools of thought sleep training babies – well, I guess it’s a spectrum of thought. Without doing a formal review of the literature, I can say that the viewpoints I’ve been exposed to range from very responsive (do not leave baby to cry ever) to fairly unresponsive (cry-it-0ut methods and so forth). We adopted the view that, while she is precious and engrossing and wonderful, Squeaker is not the center of the entire universe or even the center of our lives – that is, she may be our first priority, but not our only priority. So, as long as all her needs are met – she’s clean, fed, and not in pain – it’s not unreasonable to let her cry a bit before responding.

We originally planned to room-share. And breastfeed. Hah! Not so fast. After a short stay in NICU turned me into an exclusively pumping queen, we also realized the first night at home that our child (who’s nicknamed Squeaker for a very specific reason) made an awful lot of racket even at rest. On her second night at home, she was put to bed to her own crib in her own room. Very early on, we developed a loose routine for “bedtime” that we still follow. It felt a little silly to talk about bedtime for someone who’s only awake for about 45 minutes at a time, but we did. First, we prepare the room: fan and sound machine turned on, lights dimmed, toys and clothes put away – really, just all distractions for her or us are minimized. Next, we take care of any final nighttime activities: bath, bottle, book, PJs, diaper change. Until Squeaker got old enough to roll over, she was swaddled every night – the SleepSack Swaddle was our lifesaver in this regard.

viv swaddled

Once the squirt was swaddled, we’d usually rock her, or walk/bounce her for a while. Note: I’m defining ‘a while’ as 5-10 minutes. Once she was fairly calm and sleepy – but not asleep – we would lay her down in the crib and quietly and quickly leave the room. Often, she’d start to cry almost right away – not a full-out scream, but those whiny, whimpery, pathetic baby noises. After the first week or two of not leaving until she was totally asleep, I hit upon something that worked really, really well. I won’t pretend this was a flash of genius; this was a stopgap measure to regain sanity. I started to set a timer, literally set my phone alarm, for 15 minutes after I left the room. I told myself that if she was still making noise at the end of the 15 minutes, I’d go back in the room. She was almost always fast asleep by the time the buzzer went off. Sometimes she wasn’t, and I’d go back in, check her diaper, make sure she wasn’t making hungry faces – essentially repeat the whole bedtime routine – and then leave and set another 15-minute timer.

I never once – not one time – had to go back into her room a third time. She was always asleep by the second time through this routine. When she woke to eat in the wee hours, we would turn the lights on as low as possible, do a quiet diaper change and feed – often not uttering a sound other than the occasional ‘ssh’ – and repeat the going-to-sleep routine. Soon, she was only waking once per night, and sleeping 4-6 hours at a time.  Then, I went back to work. Daycare both totally engages her and tires her out (she’s a catnapper), so it works out well for all concerned. Sometimes she still wakes up at night and makes noise, but we’ve learned to tell dirty and hungry cries from everything else, so if she just wants to babble or coo to herself a little and then go back to sleep, we leave her alone. She has learned to put herself to sleep, and back to sleep.

In the end, I don’t claim that our method was the “best”, but certainly worked for us. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Our experience with sleep training has confirmed my belief in having a healthy balance of routine and flexibility. And plenty of wine on hand.