Sleep Training Nearly Broke Me but Changed My Life

Turning to sleep training helped this mom's baby sleep, but the process wasn't easy. Here's her story and expert tips to make sleep training easier on parents.

Mother laying her newborn baby boy into crib
Photo: Getty Images

I'm gazing lovingly at my little one on the baby monitor as she sleeps so soundly. But don't be fooled: her journey to these independent zzz's was more intense than I could've imagined. Up until my baby was 6 months old, my husband and I would sleep beside her (with her in the bassinet) or co-sleep. As much as I tried to tell myself I could live with this "new normal," it wasn't sustainable.

My husband and I were getting worn down with the sleep deprivation, and it was getting difficult to juggle the work-life balance with our baby. She was getting up every two to three hours, and I was breastfeeding her on demand. I was so incredibly tired that I'd wake up with dried up blood and/or bruises on my body in the morning, not realizing that I had hurt myself by hitting the side of a wall/kitchen counter/staircase the day before. That was a cause for concern (and a major wake-up call, no pun intended) because if I or my husband were no longer attuned and alert to our surroundings, it could compromise our ability to care for our little one.

The path to sleep training began when our pediatrician told us during our baby's six-month appointment that she had gained enough weight (14 pounds) to sleep through the night on her own now. While he said cry it out (CIO) was an option, I knew I wouldn't have the stomach for it. We preferred a gentler approach. Several friends mentioned that WeeSleep was a game changer for them. The company has a roster of sleep consultants and experts who provide parents with tailored guidance and advice. And so, we reached out based on their recommendation, knowing sleep training has been found to improve sleep quality for babies.

We did the training for 10 days and miraculously by night three, our baby was sleeping on her own. Although she was still rollercoastering—crying, self-soothing, whimpering—the sleep plan otherwise worked wonders. But what I didn't anticipate was how badly this experience would affect my mental health—even in just a few days. Although research shows sleep training can improve mental health for some parents, I learned I wasn't alone in my experience.

How Sleep Training Can Impact a Parent's Mental Health

Routine changes

Whether you attempt sleep training on your own or reach out to experts like we did, the biggest change is oftentimes breaking routines you've become comfortable with. You're already trying to figure it all out as you embark on this parenting journey, and suddenly overhauling schedules can be tough. "It means changing habits and behaviors that have been happening for a while," says Cara Myre, a senior sleep consultant with WeeSleep. "And change can be hard for anyone, let alone if you are sleep-deprived." Particularly, if there's an emotional connection associated with bedtime, it's extra tricky to get around. "For instance, if you have always rocked your child to sleep, it is hard to envision them being able to fall asleep any other way," adds Myre. "And I get that."

Sleep training for us meant major changes to our day-to-day schedule. That included our daughter's wake up time, wake windows, naps (down from three to two), and her bedtime ritual. We also had to dissociate the breast (breastfeeding) with sleeping, as that was a major sleep crutch and the reason why she thought she couldn't sleep in a crib on her own. We had to stick to this plan and not deviate from it, as consistency was a major component to our success.

On top of that, because our sleep consultant gave our day-to-day scheduling a major overhaul, I felt like we had failed as parents. I ruminated on these negative thoughts more so than my husband, as I have been previously diagnosed with trauma, depression, and anxiety. However, even though my husband wasn't contending with these mental health concerns, he was still expressing an immense amount of sadness, guilt, and worry.

All the crying

All these negative emotions were compounded the moment our daughter began wailing at the top of her lungs in the first few nights of sleep training. This brutal intensity made me desperate to pull the plug on day one.

"Parents are more inclined to try a new method or give up after experiencing an initial 'failed attempt,'" explains Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director of The Motherhood Center. "Mothers, in particular, can internalize this as a personal failure."

I also grew up in a volatile and abusive environment as a child, so to have my own baby screeching really triggered and shook me to the core. Her crying brought out many repressed feelings and memories I had buried deep within me. Ultimately, it became a wretched cycle of associating and projecting those experiences with the sleep training I was doing for my baby.

And Ann Marks, a mom of three and founder of Full Feedings, explains that a crying baby goes against a parent's natural instinct to respond and want to help their child. "The crying can be very over-stimulating to parents, which when coupled with the sleep deprivation, postpartum period/hormones, can push a lot of parents to the brink of what they can handle," says Marks. "I have met a lot of parents who have let their babies cry, but I have never met a parent who liked it."

Information overload

Another issue? From social media to relatives, everyone wants to weigh in on how your little one "should" be sleeping. Bellenbaum recounts a time when getting a baby to sleep on their own seemed simple and straightforward. "When I was growing up, there was only one baby book, Dr. Spock's The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, where he writes, 'the cure is simple: put the baby to bed at a reasonable hour, say good night affectionately but firmly. Walk out of the room and don't go back,'" says Bellenbaum. "I am not suggesting that this is the best method; what I am suggesting is that new parents are now drowning in choices regarding infant sleep today, including graduated extinction, progressive waiting, the interval method, the chair method, the pickup/put down, shush-pat method, bedtime routine fading, bedtime hour fading, the Snoo, and many others."

In addition, Myre says that due to the overwhelming and/or conflicting information found online about infant sleep—and that none of these recommendations are customized for your child—it can create more problems than it solves. "Parents try this, and that, and then give up because they don't have a clear path forward and accountability," explains Myre. "What ultimately ends up happening is that parents feel frustrated, then come to the conclusion that sleep training just doesn't work for their child, and everyone ends up with extended months or even years of sleep deprivation."

Not setting up for success

There are many moving parts to helping your little one cultivate happy and independent sleep. "Many parents will select a sleep training method but don't realize that there are other factors that will influence their child's sleep, such as having a proper schedule in place for daytime naps and their respective length," Myre points out. In fact, the method chosen is just one part of the puzzle. "Overall, it is important to really take a holistic look at what is happening with sleep and in the home. For instance, if your child has had terrible naps all day, they are likely to continue to have night wakes, no matter what method you choose," says Myre.

How To Make Sleep Training Work for Your Family

Sleep training isn't for every family: there are many factors to consider, it's not always successful, and, in some cases, can even fuel anxiety in parents. But if you want to give it a try, here's what experts advise.

Have compassion for yourself

Positive self-talk and encouragement can work wonders for your mental mindset and help you navigate the tricky and painful moments. "Be gentle and kind to yourself when you are sleep training your baby," says Bellenbaum. "It can feel like the hardest thing to do because on the one hand, you want and need sleep more than anything in the world, and on the other hand it can feel almost impossible to tolerate listening to your baby cry without the urge to immediately console."

Know you are not failing

As with any challenge in life, sometimes, it requires a few extra attempts before something sticks. The reason why sleep training can be particularly unnerving is because it activates your fight-or-flight response. But it's possible to go from chaos to calm.

Greer Slyfield Cook, MSW, RSW, a social worker with the Women's Mental Health Program at Women's College Hospital, advises shifting perspective and reminding yourself of all the positive reasons you're doing sleep training—even writing down a physical list of pros can help.

To prevent the downward spiral, remind yourself that you're not a "bad parent," but rather that this is helping your little one gain independent and empowering sleep habits. Cook says to also make use of grounding techniques such as pausing to check in with yourself (e.g. closing of the eyes, doing a body scan, and taking deep belly breaths) which can calm down the nervous system.

Be consistent

Before sleep training, my husband and I were scattered when it came to day-to-day scheduling and activities with our baby. This unpredictability interfered with the times we put our baby to bed. This negatively affected our little one's sleep in the long run because she could nap too much or too little in the day and then struggle for deep slumbers in the evening. Myre explains that it's imperative to be consistent and firm (in terms of sticking to the prescribed schedule and/or method selected).

"Children thrive on consistency and predictability when it comes to sleep. Whatever you decide on, stick with it to minimize confusion. Also, it can take time to shift sleep patterns, so trying an earlier bedtime for a few nights won't be enough to help you determine if it is helping with sleep or not," she advises. "When you make changes with sleep, stay consistent for at least a week."

Focus on teamwork

When we first embarked on this sleep training journey, I was critical and hesitant with the methodologies prescribed to us, and it would cause big arguments between my husband and me. When we circled back with our sleep consultant, she reminded us that we also needed to sit down and have a conversation on expectations, goals, and what to do in case one of us wants to give up. Ultimately, this was 100% necessary to ensure success for us and our little one.

For those who have a partner, it's important to be on the same page about sleep training. "This will not only help you both be consistent, but also saves the middle of the night heated disagreements when the baby is awake and everyone is tired and feeling stressed," says Myre. "Talk about sleep when everyone is feeling well, come up with a plan, and then support each other through the changes."

Limit social media

To prevent all the second guessing, feelings of failure, and the urge to compare, it's necessary to put a cap on how much time we spend scrolling through social media. This rule also applies to our trigger finger when wanting to check in with Dr. Google (aka googling it). "In an already glamorized and romanticized depiction of motherhood all around us thanks to social media, commercials and more, mothers are constantly made to feel as though they aren't doing 'it' right, thus contributing to anxiety and even depression," says Bellenbaum. Reducing time in the digital sphere is also to ensure that you're more focused on the task at hand rather than gazing at someone's curated "snapshot of life."

The Bottom Line

Overall, I still feel that sleep training was excruciating. But ultimately, would my husband and I do it again if given the choice? Yes, absolutely. While some parents have the discipline required to do it independently, my husband and I needed that encouraging push and guidance from a sleep expert to steer us through the darkness (again, no pun intended).

Despite all the heartaches, there was a light at the end of the tunnel—we all made it through, and as a result, our baby learned the important life skill of being able to sleep on her own. Our collective efforts have also given us a little bonus: a slice of free time to ourselves, being able to temporarily step out of mommy and daddy roles and focus on nourishing our relationship as husband and wife—all while our baby catches some happy zzz's in her crib.

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