11-2013 Update: I have recently changed the name of this process and this port to sleep ‘learning’. I received some very negative responses and personal attacks for writing this story but received MORE responses of appreciation as well as sleep learning stories so I have decided to keep this up here. If you would like to read more of these positive responses, please check out this follow-up post.
My two-year-old son sleeps 11-13 hours straight through the night.
You must be thinking that I have an easy baby; I DO NOT! My son is actually quite challenging. This took work, lots and lots and lots of work.
Rewind a year and a half to when my son would wake me every hour to nurse. That’s right, EVERY SINGLE HOUR I would nurse him to sleep for 20 minutes, take 20 minutes to settle myself back to sleep, and then wake up 20 minutes later to do it again. He was never well-rested and felt miserable during the day. I was never well-rested and felt completely and utterly miserable during the day to the point where I battled crippling postpartum depression. We reached a point where we realized that we had created these bad sleep habits and we needed to change before we all fell apart. After many no-cry solutions and failed co-sleeping attempts, after tons of much rocking and shushing this is where we landed! I want to share my story of giving our family the gift of sleep.
Preparation: At four months we had 2 pediatricians and my own naturopath tell us to give some light sleep training a try. We did extensive research and gave the matter a LOT of thought before finally deciding to give it one month; if it didn’t work we’d try something else. First, we talked to our son about the change and made his sleep space really nice and peaceful. My husband and I sat and wrote down a plan based on the books Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Our overall plan was to listen to him and learn how to discern sleepy cries from sad or hurting cries. His best interest was always in our minds so we would ask ourselves: “Will it serve him if we go in or if we stay out.” Here is a really great post on how to prepare for such a change.
Application: The first night was hard, he cried for about an hour as we went in at 3-5 minute intervals. He woke often. I cried too. I nursed him no more than every 3 hours and my husband went in when it was not time to nurse. Each time he woke he cried for another 30 minutes.
The second night he cried for 30 minutes and we went in at 5-10 minute intervals. He woke 3 times that night. Each time I nursed him and put him to sleep awake and he cries for 30 minutes, my husband went in at 5-10 minute intervals and reassured him.
The third night he cried for 15 minutes and then slept for 5 hours before waking to nurse. After being nursed he cried for 15 minutes and then slept for another 7 hours!!!! (Side note: I did not sleep straight through because I was used to nursing him frequently and was VERY sore. I did not pump but slept with ice cold wash clothes.)
He continued this pattern for a few weeks and then he reverted back to waking 3 times a night. He went to bed at 6, woke around 11-12 to nurse and then again at 4 and woke for the day at 7.
At 6 months we changed this. I wasn’t sleeping well with the midnight and 4 AM feeding and was beginning to really struggle with postpartum depression (read my story here). So we started doing a “dream feed” him at 10:30 and he slept until 4. When he woke my husband went in and soothed him and he cried for 30 minutes. The next day we did the same and this time, or any time after, he did not wake at 4 to feed again. One main reason why we knew it was okay to cut this 4 AM feeding was because when I would nurse him then, he wouldn’t even drink the milk that I let down. So he’d go back to sleep and I would have to stay up and pump.
At 10 months I was feeling like waking him to fed him was doing him a disservice. He ate plenty of solids during the day and did not seem to need that feeding. One night we experimented and did not wake him and he never woke us either! He slept from 6pm-6am at this point. YAY!
At 11 months he started waking at 5am which was really to early for us, so we made another change. It took us a little while but we realized that we was an 11 hour sleeper most of the time (about 1/3 of the time he sleeps 12 hours and sometimes we even get a 13 hour night!) So we put him down at 7 and after a week of a very tired baby, he started sleeping until 6 again.
NOW, we are at a point where he goes to bed between 7:30-8 and wakes between 6:30-7:30. (Though from time to time when sick, teething or some other random reason he has a hard time napping so this will change a bit.) He will still wake at night (or talk or fuss in his sleep) but now he has the confidence to go back to sleep without our reassurance so we don’t even go in unless his cries say he is hurting or scared. He falls asleep without crying about 50% of the time and will fall asleep within 5 minutes (usually under a minute). About 25 % of the time we sense that he NEEDS our presence to fall asleep so we stay and rub his back. The rest of the time he just WANTS to stay up to play and our presence is actually distracting him, so he will cry when we leave and settle down to sleep on his own (usually when we have guests or family over).
Night is for sleep in our house. It’s very important to let Mommy (and daddy) sleep because I struggle with insomnia and am a very, very light sleeper. I also am NOT a good mother if I am severely sleep deprived. It wasn’t until after this process that I realized that my son is a light sleeper too. He wakes a lot from little sounds and now he is able to drift back to sleep easier knowing that he has learned this skill.
Helping my son learn to fall asleep was one of the best things we have done for him and for us thus far. It was very hard emotionally during this process because I had been taught to fear my sons voice and had to learn to let that go and actually listen to what he was saying. We did not CIO, we listened and respected his cries; every night before I leave I tell him that “I am always listening and will be here if you really need me.” This isn’t a science or a set method, this is simply our realization that our son cries before going to sleep sometimes and that our instincts will guide us on how to support him.
Want to read more stories about sleep learning?
Mama Eve on Sleep – “I was so wrapped up in making sure I comforted my children, and let them know I was there for them, and “helping” them go to sleep that I never realized I was in the way of letting them sleep on their own.”
Science of Mom on Sleep – “At this point, I finally had to admit that my presence wasn’t helping Baby C in her struggle to fall asleep. This is a very difficult thing for a new mother to do. For the first time, I had to accept that I couldn’t buffer her from every struggle in life. She needed a little space to learn to sleep on her own.”
Holistic Squid on Sleep – “Admittedly, in the beginning I missed staying in my own bed through endless nights of nursing. But by only nine weeks, my daughter had begun to sleep from 10pm until 7am, and naps nearly always occurred like clockwork. At bed times my Contented Little Baby would lay down awake and drift off to sleep with a smile.”
Eileen Henry on Sleep – “The second thing I recommend is to try to distinguish between struggle and suffering in the child’s cries. Since struggle is inherent in all development, we can be confident that our child can develop a healthy relationship with struggle by allowing them to have their struggles. If at any time you hear what sounds like suffering, by all means go in and offer soothing and comfort to your child. We will always respond to suffering, but we can do so without “rescuing” or “fixing” the child’s sleep.”
Thank you for reading our story and I hope that it is helpful for you. I tried to be brief so please comment if you have any questions. If you would like to fix any sleep issues you may have and found this helpful, I offer sleep learning coaching. Please read more about this here.