I hesitated a really long time to write about sleep training, as baby sleep somehow proves ridiculously controversial. People transform an impression of how you get your baby to sleep into an entire judgement not only of parenting, but of your very love for your child and decency as a human. Every camp has their own studies to support their methods and demonize the other side… in spite of the fact that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that how your baby sleeps has very little to do with their ability to attach, love, function, thrive, etc. as an adult. Google it, if you want. Or Google the opinion you already hold and let the echo chamber of the internet confirm your internal bias, because that’s what everyone wants to do anyways.
I have mentioned sleep training a couple times on this blog and Instagram, and every time, the emails and the messages pour in from desperately tired parents who have questions. I decided to devote two posts to this topic, squarely in the middle of a collection of writings on intentional family culture, which may seem like an odd decision. I do not think that baby sleep defines family culture. I do not think there is one right (or universally successful) method of getting children to sleep. But I do think that sleep becomes something in those early years that defines so much of a family’s schedule. It is often a top preoccupation of parents in the first couple years- and rightly so. When we are tired, we can’t function, much less intentionally parent. How we sleep, how we fill those precious nap times when our children sleep- these are things that take on an outsized importance. And so, we are going to talk about sleep this week.
In the next couple of days (or tomorrow, if I manage not to nap this afternoon and actually write it), I will tell you the steps that we went through to achieve independent sleep, long naps on schedule, and peaceful nights. These steps might help you, or they might not. I mean, they might not even help me when I try to implement them again with a second kid. But they worked once.
You cannot control the sleep of another person, cannot make someone sleep. But what every parent can do is think about what ideally works for their family. You might struggle to get there, but having an idea of what you want out of baby sleep can be really helpful in those exhausting early months. I don’t just mean the generic “we need to all get sleep,” nor do I mean the unrealistic “I want my newborn to sleep through the night and I want to be able to sleep in with a toddler.” I mean the concrete sleep needs of the entire family.
For instance, I knew that I am a terrible sleeper who routinely wakes up multiple times a night, struggles to fall asleep, and doesn’t like being touched as I sleep. I also knew that I would be returning to work part time after having Henry and therefore it was vital that other people could put him to sleep easily and consistently in my absence. I knew that I thrive, and our family thrives, on a schedule and predictability. I knew that I needed long and certain naps to eventually become a reality, because I had a dissertation to write during them.
In looking at what was necessary for the needs and goals of our family, I knew that we needed some method of sleep training that involved Henry sleeping independently, not in our bed, able to put himself to sleep/be put down by others, and a whole lot of structure. I set out researching how to accomplish that as quickly as possible. Which, as you will see in a later post, still wasn’t “quick.” Newborns don’t sleep as well as we like- this is a fact. Our magic sleep goals of Henry putting himself to sleep, sleeping all night without interruption or nursing, and taking predictably long naps on schedule clicked around 5.5 months.
This is not a post to judge those who take a different sleep route, nor is it a post to argue about safe sleep. There are safe and unsafe ways to do any style of baby sleep. I have friends who co-slept, still co-sleep, nursed to sleep until their children were 2, etc. In spite of what sleep training die-hards will tell you- these parents are not miserable and exhausted. Many of them love the hours that they spend cuddling their children to sleep. They cherish the bond of co-sleeping or toddler nursing, and you know what? I get that. The few times Henry has ended up in bed with us have been impossibly precious. I wasn’t able to sleep a wink, confirming that it wasn’t a good fit for us, but they were moments that helped me understand why parents “put up” with 1 year olds who still don’t sleep through the night or need lengthy rocking before naps. Those parents have found what works… for them.
Sleep training, like any decision in parenting, is about finding the path that fits your family’s unique needs and being willing to shrug at the scoffers and say, “this is what works.” Maybe not for you, maybe not for always, but in this moment, for this family, it works. And isn’t that what family culture is about? Finding what works for you, and then continuing on so you can all thrive. It’s about having the confidence to be your family and not anyone else’s.
So if whatever you are doing in the baby sleep department is working for you- that’s awesome. Don’t bother reading the follow up to this post. But if you are exhausted, anxious, resenting your baby when they wake in the nap or don’t nap, and generally falling apart over sleep- then something is not working, and maybe some nugget of what we gleaned will help you.
And now, some practical disclaimers:
- I have succeeded in sleep training exactly one child, with honorable mention going to a few others whose parents I have talked with a lot. Thus, I know approximately nothing. I am also not really sure how we will do it the second time around, as it will be harder with kids sharing a room. But I have talked with so many of you about it that I thought I might as well put my pointers in a post so I can stop sending them in individual emails. I poured myself into sleep research with a fervor that matched my dissertation research, and even if it didn’t always result in making Henry sleep, it at least explained why he wasn’t sleeping, which helped me not lose my mind in those early months.
- Henry was not naturally a good sleeper, something that people love to contradict when I say sleep training worked for us. There are good sleepers, and I hope to get one the second time around, but I didn’t the first. He was up every 1-2 hours to nurse for weeks, cried if I put him down the first two months, crap napped like a pro, and emphatically was not going to give up nightly nursing sessions on his own. Which is to say, he was a very normal baby.
- I read, and implemented, some of the highly controversial BabyWise method. Other parts of it I dismissed as totally BS that just isn’t in line with baby sleep science or common sense. I also really relied on the wisdom of this website and it is pure gold.
- I am not going to link to all the scientific studies showing that it doesn’t kill your child if they cry a little, but I promise- it doesn’t.
- If anyone wants to buy me this so that my next infant can magically sleep for hours- I will happily send you my shipping address.
And now I’m curious… what is the sleep situation that is working for your family?