Starting Sleep Training
When I was pregnant, my big complaint was insomnia, which began in my second trimester and only got worse.
But even tougher was the reaction I got every time I mentioned my insomnia to anyone: "Just wait until the baby arrives."
At the time, I laughed off the warning. But when my beautiful daughter, Ella, finally arrived -- and my body was finally willing to grant me the sleep I craved -- I really learned what it meant to be sleep deprived. Waking every hour or two to nurse or change Ella left me exhausted, both physically and mentally. While nursing, Ella would peacefully fall asleep, only to start screaming the second her little body touched the bassinet. But if my husband, Patrick, or I slid her between us in bed instead, she'd stay asleep. We tossed out all thoughts of establishing good sleep habits early on, in favor of getting a few hours of uninterrupted zzz's.
Flash forward to now, when Ella is 15 months old and still sleeping with us every night. We had tried Ferberizing when she was 4 months and 8 months old. Ferber advocates that you teach your baby to put herself to sleep by letting her cry it out. Patrick was willing to tough this out, but I always insisted we give up after a few days. My reasons were practical -- we live in New York City, so her screaming kept up not only us but also all of our neighbors -- as well as emotional. I just couldn't bear to listen to my baby cry.
So why try again? For starters, whoever coined the expression "sleeping like a baby" didn't know what he was talking about. Babies flail about in their sleep, so Patrick and I kept waking up with a fist or foot in our faces. And our bed seemed to grow smaller as Ella grew bigger. None of us were getting enough sleep, so I swore to my husband that I would faithfully heed Ferber's advice. What follows is my night-by-night account of our sleep-training days.
I call all my neighbors to apologize in advance for the screaming they're bound to hear, and I promise to buy them all lunch. Next, I talk to my kindly pediatrician. I know what he's going to say -- Ella needs to learn to sleep on her own, and this is the only way to make it happen -- but hearing it from him is reassuring nonetheless.
7 p.m. We decide to start on a Friday, when Patrick can leave work early. That gives us three days to do this together, because come Monday, he'll be back to working late and I'll be on my own.
8 p.m. After giving Ella the bottle, bath, and book recommended by Ferber, we sing her a song and place her in the crib. She's content lying there and listening to us sing. But as soon as I say goodnight, she starts crying. It's hard to walk out of her room, but I do. We order Chinese food and pop in a DVD. Following Ferber, we take turns going into Ella's room at five-minute intervals to reassure her that we're still here. Within 40 minutes, she's fallen asleep.
1 a.m. We're sleeping on the living room couch because Ella's bedroom is right off ours. Still, her piercing cries wake us instantly. My husband goes to her as I watch on our video baby monitor. She ignores him completely, and I know she's screaming for me. I put my hands over my ears and try to block out her crying. Maybe because I don't have the movie to distract me, listening to her wail is a lot worse in the middle of the night. She cries for an hour before finally collapsing into sleep. Patrick and I doze off seconds later.
5 a.m. As I wake to Ella's cries, I realize that it's 5 -- the hour the pediatrician told me I could get her -- and I run into her room and take her into my arms. She's smiling that big, lopsided smile of hers. She's clearly not mad at me, and I feel instantly relieved.
"How bad was it?" I ask all of my neighbors. Not bad for most, except one who shares a wall with Ella's bedroom. I apologize profusely, and she says she understands. She has two kids herself and knows how tough this can be.
8 p.m. We're optimistic that it's only going to get better. Enjoying her bath and book time, Ella clearly doesn't dread the upcoming bedtime like I do. But tonight, her cries start as soon as we walk into her room, and she clings to me as I try to put her in the crib. Patrick and I dutifully sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" despite her cries, and he puts his arm around my waist and gently pulls me outside. During my five- and 10-minute visits, Ella buries her head in my chest and I have to tear myself away as she starts screaming for Mama. Patrick volunteers to take over while I take a shower to drown out her cries. They're still going strong when I get out. She cries for an hour and 10 minutes, and I feel like the worst mother in the world.
4:30 a.m. "I can't take this!" I say to my husband, as I hurry to get Ella. He's too tired to protest when I bring her into bed with us. We get up a few hours later, and we realize that we're right back where we started -- with Ella in bed with us. We promise ourselves not to let it happen again.
I tell my mom about our new no-baby-in-bed rule, and she sighs. "I used to love sleeping with you guys," she says. "You'd just crawl in next to me during the night." Her nostalgia makes me wonder whether we're being too harsh. But it feels like it's all or nothing, and right now the priority is giving everyone a good night's sleep.
8 p.m. Ella goes to bed very easily, with only about 15 minutes of crying. "See, it's getting better," my husband says, jinxing us. I make him knock on wood.
12:30 a.m. The wood apparently didn't do us any good, because Ella's up, and she's hysterical. We take turns going in. When Patrick goes in, she angrily pushes him away. When I go in, she falls down heavily, sobbing into her mattress. But at least she's lying down, and I pat her on the back. I linger longer than the two minutes we're supposed to stay, hoping desperately that she'll stop wailing and fall asleep. When I leave, she stands up again, screaming for me to come back. It's 15 more minutes until Patrick goes in. I can't wait out the next full 15 until it's my turn; I last only five. Exhausted, Ella falls asleep as soon as I put a hand on her little back. I tiptoe out.
1:30 a.m.. Ella's up again, and she won't lie down even when I go into her room. We start taking turns again, but Patrick gives up after 40 minutes. "Let her cry," he mumbles into his pillow, and then he falls back asleep. I watch the clock, going in every five minutes -- in between visits, I watch snippets of a Michael Jackson expose we have on TiVo. Ella finally falls back asleep two hours later.
5:45 a.m. I guess she slept in because she was up crying all night. There's no argument from Patrick when I bring her into bed with us, and we all fall back asleep, grateful for an extra couple hours' rest.
We decide it's not realistic to ban Ella from our bed entirely. Patrick works long hours, so we don't get to bed until midnight, which makes it impossible for us to get up at 5 a.m. We decide that she can come into bed with us at 5 -- but not a minute earlier.
8 p.m. This is my first night putting her down alone, and I pray that she falls asleep easily. Thankfully, she lies down without a fuss and listens to my song, and then I sneak out. I don't know whether she realizes I'm gone, but the only thing I hear on the monitor is heavy breathing that becomes more regular as she drifts off to sleep.
4:45 a.m. I wake up to silence. Ella hasn't stirred all night? Could something have happened to her? I creep into her room and check on her. She's on her side, fast asleep, her pudgy pink face all crinkled up. I quietly get back into bed and fall back asleep until she wakes up at 5:30.
We're pretty self-congratulatory in the morning, and we deserve to be. It hasn't been the easiest few days, but Ella is definitely sleeping better -- and so are we. Now we just need to tackle naptime.
Now, seven months later, Ella usually goes to bed easily and sleeps until at least 5 a.m. But there have been setbacks. Last night, for example, Ella was sick and would sleep only when lying on top of me. As soon as she gets better, we'll have to do a mini refresher course in Ferber. We've had to do a couple of these before, and she gets back on track with very little crying after just one or two nights. A friend's mom once told me, "The last good night of sleep you'll ever get is the night you get pregnant," and that's true. But we're getting the best sleep we can, and right now that's good enough for us.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.
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