The road to sleep training for us has been gradual and not nearly as bumpy (or full of crying on either mine or Emma’s part) as I expected it to be.
We first tried letting Emma cry herself to sleep when she was around 8 weeks old. It was a hail-mary stab at maintaining sanity but she screamed so loud, and her face was so red, for those 10 minutes that I decided that was not the method for us.
When Emma was around 3 months old, there were still some times when she was so upset that I got upset and had to put her down and walk away. Fifteen minutes later, she was crying just as hard – and now even she had little tears running down her red face. The only way she’d had cried herself to sleep would’ve been out of sheer exhaustion.
Emma’s red face (Don’t worry, I did not leave her there to cry)
During that time, I was still holding Emma for the majority of her naps. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to do that. But she wouldn’t sleep for longer than 40 minutes if I put her down, and if she didn’t sleep longer than 40 minutes for any nap, she got overtired and cranky. So I chose to deal with the issue of a baby napping in my arms instead of feel the wrath of an overtired baby. (And it ended up not being an issue anyway.)
With the deadline of going back to work approaching, I started putting Emma down in her Rock N Play Sleeper for more naps, fully swaddled. I alternated between holding her and putting her down, so that she’d still have some good naps, but also get used to being put down. When I went back to work, Emma was put down for all of her naps in a Pack n Play, so that moved her even more toward napping well on her own, as well as in a location other than her Rock N Play, and flat on her back.
Around the time Emma turned 4 months, my friend Charlotte (who takes care of Emma while I’m at work) mentioned that she was putting Emma down when she was slightly awake, and just patting her a bit while Emma fell asleep on her own. I was encouraged by that, and started doing it too. (It has been so helpful to learn from someone who knows a lot more about babies than I do!)
During that same time, Emma found her hands and LOVED to suck on them. So we started swaddling her with one arm out. It was easy for Emma to get her other hand out of the swaddle though, so the swaddle was more for just keeping her from whacking herself before falling asleep.
Luckily, ever since we got our Rock N Play Sleeper at around 7 weeks, Emma has slept really well at night. She slept 5-6 hours straight at 2 months, 7-8 hours at 3 months, and 9-10 hours at 4-5 months.
A couple weeks before Emma turned 5 months old, we started putting her down for naps and bedtime fully awake. What changed? Three things:
1) Emma had become so much more aware of her surroundings, it sometimes seemed counter-productive to bounce her to sleep — like our presence was keeping her awake.
2) She can entertain herself. Emma loves playing with her feet and talking to herself. So when we put her down awake (but not overtired), she enjoys hanging out for a bit and then falling asleep.
3) Her cry is different. It’s no longer the “I’ve been abandoned” cry, but instead the “I don’t like this” cry. Or when she’s really crying, it’s the “I’m so tired, I can’t get to sleep” cry.
My one condition for agreeing to try sleep training was that I wouldn’t implement or obey any hard and fast rules. No “You can’t pick her up before 10 minutes” or “You can’t pick her up at all” or “You can’t hold her for a nap ever again.” I know they say the most important thing is to be consistent, but I’d rather listen to my intuition than rules. They say that if I pick her up when she cries, she’ll learn that if she cries, I’ll come. I say, isn’t that what I want her to learn? That I’ll be there for her when she really needs me?
So I set a 10-minute time limit. If she’s still crying (and not just whimpering or whining) after 10 minutes, I go in and bounce her. If she’s REALLY crying, I go in sooner than that. If she took a short nap and I can tell she’s still tired but won’t let me put her down, I hold her. And guess what? She’s still making progress.
Something that has really helped with this process is that we figured out a nap and bedtime routine that Emma likes and that calms her down before sleep. When she was younger, Emma hated baths, books, lotion, getting dressed, and would cry the minute she got swaddled, so I was at a loss for what to do as a pre-sleep routine. But now she LOVES the bath and has even stopped crying when we take her out. She still doesn’t like books, or getting her arms put in sleeves, but loves being massaged and having us sing to her.
Our nap routine: When we notice Emma getting fussy or turning her head like she’s tired, or rubbing her eyes, we take her into the nursery, put her sleepsack on and rock her for a bit while singing her a song. Then we turn on her white noise, put her down, say “It’s time for a nap,” and walk out.
Our bedtime routine: About an hour before Emma should be in bed falling asleep, we give her a bath. She plays for about 10 minutes, then we wash her and take her out. We dry her off, put a diaper on, give her a little massage with lotion while listening to music, and put her pajamas on. Then we sit in the rocker, sing a song or 2, and pray. After that, we put her sleepsack on and I nurse her one last time. Then we turn on her white noise, kiss her, put her down and walk out.
Out of the Swaddle, Into the Crib
Until the week that Emma turned 5 months old, she was still sleeping in her Rock N Play Sleeper, with one arm swaddled out. But we finally took the plunge. Since she could get her arm out of the swaddle so easily, she was practically already unswaddled. So for one night, I swaddled her with no arms in (just wrapped it around her waist). She slept straight through the night. The next night, I put her in a sleepsack instead of a swaddle and put her down in her crib. She again slept through the night! She’s been in the sleepsack and crib ever since. So that transition was really easy.
I think the transition was so smooth because she had gotten older, gotten used to sleeping on a flat surface at daycare (and for a few naps at home), and liked to play with her hands and feet. She loves to scoot around in a circle in her crib now!
Emma’s first morning waking up in her crib (I removed the pillows after that – didn’t know she could get to them in the corner!)
THE CURRENT STATUS
Emma still has trouble falling asleep on her own every once in a while, especially if we put her down when she’s overtired. Bedtime can also be a hard time. So I still bounce her a couple times a week. But overall, she is doing great. There are times when she falls asleep with no crying at all. Sometimes, she whimpers a little for a few minutes and then falls asleep.
Her naps are longer during the day now too, but for the past week or so, Emma has woken up a lot at night – which makes me wonder if she’s going through a growth spurt. She’ll talk to herself for a while and I give her the chance to fall back asleep on her own. Sometimes she does. Other times, I get up and nurse her. Again, I refuse to follow rules instead of my own intuition.
I will say, it has been very relieving to be able to just put Emma down for naps and bedtime, instead of spending several minutes (or tens of minutes) bouncing and rocking her. Even if I go back in to bounce her when she’s really upset, she has less energy for crying (so she falls asleep faster) and my patience is much greater. I hardly ever feel angry at her anymore, whereas before, when we were bouncing and rocking her all the time, it was sometimes a major fight and frustration.
I wouldn’t change the way we did things though. I do feel confident that we gave Emma what she needed at the time, and that she wasn’t ready for sleep training until now. I feel like we’ve nudged Emma to learn to sleep on her own, instead of forcing her. And we don’t expect progress to be continually forward – it can be two steps forward, one step back.
It helps so much when they get older! For future babies, I’m not going to worry so much about pampering them when they’re young, knowing that as they get older, they grow more independent.
So my encouragement to any new moms out there is to be patient. Trust your instincts, be willing to forego the ‘rules’ and give your baby what he or she needs. Instead of worrying about all the milestones down the road, or all the hypothetical problems or issues that could arise, learn your baby, adapt to their needs and do what works for them.
Obviously, I’m still learning, and I was so hesitant to do sleep training that I probably wouldn’t have without encouragement from Charlotte and Travis. But it has been helpful for us, and I believe, for Emma.
Let me know if you have any questions about our experience!