Respectful Sleep Learning Part II: My Story

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Before you read about my experience with the polarizing language commonly used in regard to sleep training and my conditioned fear of infant crying, please take a minute to read Part I of this series, The Real Danger of “CIO”.

Based on all the “evidence” against “Cry-It-Out” (“CIO”), I firmly believed that sleep training and crying are harmful to children.  I read articles by parenting experts, sleep experts, and doctors telling me that certain cries were not to be feared – and believed I understood them – but I thought my child was different and just always needed me to help him.  I also believed that “sleep training” meant I had to ignore his cries, so I avoided anything that resembled it, which meant nursing him to sleep every time he was tired or woke at night.  For the first 15 months of his life, neither of us got a full night’s sleep or ever felt fully or deeply rested.

When my son was a few weeks old, I kept nursing him to sleep, but began laying him down on my bed after he was asleep instead of keeping him in my arms.  I thought cribs were restrictive, like little cages for babies, and that the most securely attached babies slept with their parents, so I never bought one.  I was so afraid he would wake up and be terrified when he realized he was alone, that I would run to him the moment I heard that first sound on the monitor.  For MONTHS my baby only napped for 45-47 minutes at a time.  You could almost set a clock by him and he was exhausted and clingy.  At night, he slept for no longer than 1-2 hour stretches before waking to nurse.  I was exhausted and short-tempered!  One day, someone said to me, “Of course he’s waking at 45 minutes!  That’s when they shift into the next sleep cycle!” I thought that was amazing news, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I kept nursing him to sleep and laying him in my bed.

At some point in time, he started waking up when I would go to set him down and I had to start over again, so I figured out I could nurse him while I lay next to him and then sneak away.  This was revolutionary!!  But somehow it never increased the length of his naps and of course he kept waking throughout the night.  I was still stuck… and exhausted.

After over a year of broken sleep for both of us (I do NOT do well on broken sleep!), I finally decided to night wean and get him to fall asleep without nursing.  I knew he was physiologically ready, but over the first 15 months of his life, I had TAUGHT him to need me to fall asleep, and I had TRAINED him to wake up after 45 minutes by always running to pick him up right away, even when he really didn’t need me to!!!

When weaning him off nursing, I also missed that I was exchanging one sleep association for another and still teaching him to depend on my arms or my presence to fall asleep.  At least at that point my husband was able to help him fall asleep sometimes if he tried, but we would sit next to his floor bed for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes waiting for him to fall asleep and constantly laying him back down when he got up.  We needed to end the power struggles and we needed him to feel safe and confident in falling asleep on his own, so we bought a crib.

I was hesitant, but couldn’t believe how much happier and more secure he seemed and how much better he slept.  Once he had the security of that limit (the crib), he could relax knowing that he needed to sleep and mom was going to make sure that happened.  We were easily able to remove ourselves from the room by moving closer to the door over the course of about 4 nights. When I got close to the door, I could tell he wasn’t ready for me to leave him yet, but I also knew he needed me gone so he could sleep, so I used a slightly different method that worked really well.

I told him something like, “I forgot to brush my teeth. I will be back in two minutes.” Then I went out, brushed my teeth, came back two minutes later, and sat right back down in my chair. I knew I didn’t need to comfort him when I came back, because I didn’t want to reinforce any possible fears he had about me leaving, and I knew he was okay, though upset. So I confidently left and calmly returned as promised. A little later, I said I needed to empty the dishwasher and would be back in five minutes. I made sure he could hear me doing what I said, and came back when promised, again just returning calmly to my chair by the door, where he could see me. The next time it was two minutes again, or three, then the next day, three and five, then more fives and a seven, then I threw in a 10 on the last day and he fell asleep while I was gone.

After that, I changed to putting him down and saying I would be back in five minutes to cover him up. It was a gradual approach that worked for us. It allowed crying, but not to the point where I felt I was leaving him too alone, and always gave him just enough reassurance and support, without coddling. It was not easy, but we got there and my boy, now two, does not need to call for me at night, sleeps in a crib in his own room and falls asleep without me there, and is one of the most happy, independent, and securely attached two-year-olds I know.

EDIT: Updated to add extra detail to our sleep training story.

Did your child miss out on sleep due to your preconceptions about crying or sleep training?

Up next: Respectful Sleep Learning Part III: What I Wish I Knew Then


4 thoughts on “Respectful Sleep Learning Part II: My Story

  1. I have a 3yr old son who has a sleep association where we have to cuddle to sleep and when he wakes he needs us to help him to sleep again. I also have a 4m old who is up 3+ times a night so needless to say I’m exhausted. My question is about my 3yr old: when we try to get him to sleep on his own, even if we are holding his hand or sitting on the floor he breaks down in a huge fit. I don’t know how to manage this correctly. Please help.

    • Samantha,

      Thanks for your question! I really empathize with your situation. I made the transition with my son because I, like you, was just not functioning with that level of interrupted sleep.

      I think it’s so important to recognize that your needs are important too, if not the most important. Remember to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others! Showing your son that you value your own needs as well helps to give him confidence in the structure of your family, as well as helping him learn self-respect over the long term.

      I don’t think I can give you a one size fits all answer, because I don’t know you or your child, or what is important to you, but if it were me / my family, I would decide specifically what you want bedtime to look like and choose a path to get there in a few steps. I would let him know about a day in advance what will be different and talk with him about how it will feel. Give him lots of reassurance that you will always be nearby and that he will be safe even though it will feel different. I would also think about crying as his way of communicating his upset feelings, rather than being afraid it might damage him. I can assure you that in the context of a loving and responsive relationship, some upset and crying will definitely not cause any damage. Regardless of whether you decide to leave or stay, one important factor is to make sure you’re being as boring as possible while you’re there, so that you’re not reinforcing his need for your presence in any way. From there, you would have to really tune in and determine whether he benefits from you staying with him, leaving but checking in, or leaving and not going back. Just know that all those variations are fine, healthy, and normal for different kids. You just have to figure out which type your son is. Good luck!!

      You also might consider a sleep consultation. There are lots of great consultants out there and many will do a great job of considering your individual preferences and values in helping you come up with a plan.

  2. With my first daughter she bedshared with us until 28 months old! A month after her sister was born! I couldn’t take it anymore and out of desperation did something more closely related to CIO on her in her own room. I tend to follow more AP (even though I do not purposefully do this). I definitely would recoil at the mention of sleep training! Lol.

    When my second daughter turned 16 months I knew I felt ready to stop bed sharing, too. I slowly transitioned her to sleeping into a shared room with big sis by first nursing her and laying her down slightly awake and patting her back, then nursing and walking away inside the room while still singing and finally leaving the room and then coming back at small intervals (5-10 min).

    The benefits have been wonderful!!! I am now pregnant again and I am not being pushed to the edge of the bed like last time!! Which was very painful. My kids now 2 and 4.5 are excellent sleepers and do not fight bed time.

    This is the first time I’ve read some one who “gets” respecting children but still sleep trains.
    Thanks!

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