Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sleep training advice... should I do it? Or am I being cruel?

 My wife and I agree, sleep training was one of the best decisions we made during the first year of our babies lives.  Don't get me wrong... it was also one of the hardest experiences we went through as new parents.  But in the end, we are firm believers and recommend it to anyone who is considering it.   

So what is sleep training?
I think captures it well in this article.  

The idea is that if your child gets used to having you rock him to sleep, or he always falls asleep while nursing, he won't learn to fall asleep on his own. When he wakes up during the night — as all children and adults do as part of the natural sleep cycle — he'll become alarmed and cry for you instead of being able to go back to sleep. By contrast, if your baby learns to soothe himself to sleep at bedtime, he can use the same skill when he wakes up at night or during a nap.

So essentially, sleep training gives your child the necessary self-soothing skills so that she can learn to sleep well independently. 

Isn't sleep training cruel?
There is no doubt about it.  Sitting by and letting your child cry while every ounce of your body wants to run over and pick her up to soothe her is by far, the most difficult part of sleep training.  And yes, it is gut wrenching while it's happening.  The first time my wife and
I tried it, we both failed miserably and ran into the room to soothe our crying daughter within a few minutes.  If you're going to do sleep training, you have to truly believe that you are giving your child self-soothing skills that will benefit her through the rest of her life.  If you're not really a believer, then you will likely fail.

Who should NOT do sleep training?
If you don't believe in the theory that your child will benefit from self soothing, sleep training is not for you.  My sister firmly believes that she should soothe her daughter whenever her daughter cries out for her.  She believes that sleep training will create a sense of abandonment that will have a lasting impact on her baby.  And I don't argue with her at all about that.  I completely understand and respect her perspective.  At the end of the day, each parent will have his/her own philosophy when it comes to soothing his/her child.  If you're thinking about sleep training, read as much as you can about it and formulate your own opinion about the method.  If you disagree with the fundamental principle that self-soothing skills are acquired through this process, don't try it.

Also, if you plan to sleep with your child in the same bed, you probably don't have a need to sleep train.  I know many parents who love sleeping in the same bed with their child.  But many of these parents also admit that eventually moving their child out of their bed to her own room is extremely difficult.  And I know some parents who end up sleeping in separate beds for years so they can sleep with each of their children.  My wife and I both agreed that our children, when they were ready to leave their co-sleeper, should sleep in their own bed/crib.   We believe it is best for our marriage and our own sanity!

If your child already sleeps well through the night, you obviously don't need to do sleep training.  Our second child, believe it or not, slept very well by month four.  So sleep training really wasn't necessary.  Our daughter oftentimes naturally fell asleep by herself after we used the same sleep routine every day.  And of course, we would support this by letting her cry it out a bit during the times when she didn't.  I'm not sure if my wife and I just got much better at putting her down to sleep since we had already sleep trained our first child or if our second child was just a naturally good sleeper.  Most likely, it was both. 

When should I sleep train my child?
Depending on who you ask and what books you read, you'll get a very wide range of answers to this question.  We found that sleep training around 4 months seemed like the right time.  Our daughter was on a fairly regular sleep schedule and was also able to sleep for several hours without waking up.  We really used sleep training to help her fall asleep easier and to help her to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night when she inevitably would wake up.  Also, at 4 months, we felt confident that if our daughter woke up in the middle of the night, it wasn't because she was hungry. 

How can I improve my chances of successful sleep training?
Successful sleep training begins with scheduling and consistency.  My wife was vigilent about the sleeping schedule for both of our daughters.  And while I sometimes thought she was being neurotic about getting the kids to nap and sleep at the same times almost every day, I realized later that it helped to create a healthy sleep cycle for the kids. 

Also, we made sure to use the same routine before every nap and before putting our daughters down to bed for the night.  The routine would typically involve reading a few books and then singing a few songs.  This routine clearly signaled to our daughters that it was time to go to sleep and over time, they learned to expect to sleep once they heard us singing our "sleep songs." 

Also, when you decide to implement sleep training, you have to know what you're getting into and agree with your spouse on how you expect to handle your child when she inevitably cries the first few nights.  We made sure up-front that we were both in agreement that we wanted to do sleep training.  We also agreed to try and keep by the recommended schedule for soothing our child when she was crying (we did not want to do the "cold turkey cry it out method").  We both supported each other when our daughter was crying and reminded each other that we were doing the right thing.  We also timed each period between our soothings as well as the amount of time it took for our daughter to eventually fall sleep each night.  Doing so gave us confidence that we were in fact making progress.  We didn't get mad at each other when one of us gave in and soothed our daughter before the scheduled time.  But we also mutually celebrated when we felt we were making progress.  There were at least a dozen times when my wife would ask me, "we're doing the right thing, right?"  And even though my heart was aching as I listened to my daughter crying out for us, I reinforced that yes indeed, I believed we were doing the right thing.

How long does it take for sleep training to work? 
For our daughter, we noticed that after the third night, we were making very good progress.  And we saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  By the 4th-5th night, it was clear that our daughter was able to fall asleep very easily on her own... and sleep through the night. 

During the first two nights, I think the sleep training took over an hour.  Of course we went in to soothe our daughter at regularly scheduled times, but the entire session was pretty long... and felt more like 10 hours given how difficult it was.  I think the third night it probably took 15 minutes. 

Remember, if you end up giving up on sleep training after the first try, don't despair.  My wife and I tried for about 30 minutes before we gave in and "rescued our baby."  Later, we simply prepared ourselves and tried again after about a month.  

Also, another thing to keep in mind is that as your kids grow up, you'll find that its necessary to reinforce the principles of sleep training.  Sleep training is a philosophy that is used not just once when you're teaching your child how to sleep on her own.  But its a process that must be reinforced as your child also grows up.  For example, it's common for children to experience sleep disruption through various stages (e.g. moving from a crib to a bed, waking from nightmares, wanting to sleep with their parents).  Over the first few years, there were periods of time when our daughters would want to climb into our beds to sleep with us.  And as hard as it was to carry them back into their room in the middle of the night for several days in a row (sometimes 5-6 times a night), we found that doing so reinforced their healthy sleep habits. 

Did it work?
YES!  After a few days, we found that our daughter was making really great progress.  And by the end of the first week, we were able to take her to bed, go through the routine, put her down in her crib, and within a few minutes, she was fast asleep.  And better yet, she would sleep through the night!... usually for 9-11 hours.  Of course she would wake herself up throughout the night but she rarely cried out for us, but rather, she would simply fall back asleep within a few minutes. 

My wife and I were thrilled with how well both of our daughters were sleeping.  It not only fostered good sleeping habits for them, but it also put an end to the process of spending hours putting our kids down to sleep.  Overall, we were less stressed and had time to recuperate from the exhausting day. 

What are some good references if I want to learn more about sleep training?
One of the books we often referred to was, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.  My wife also read a ton of blogs and researched the Ferber method quite a bit.  Feber's book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems is also a good resource.  I encourage you to read the reviews on Amazon for other parent's perspectives on sleep training. 

Parting thoughts
There will be readers who adamantly oppose sleep training and disagree with this post.  I encourage you to post your thoughts since its valuable for anyone considering sleep training to be aware of various perspectives before trying it.  That said, my wife and I are very happy we did it.  Our daughters have great sleep habits and we have no doubt that the sleep training did not cause any sense of detachment or abandonment with our girls.  My wife and I are less stressed since we have a few hours to decompress after our busy days, our daughters are well rested, and are growing into very healthy and happy girls.  If you're planning to do it, good luck!  

1 comment:

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