Eight and a half months ago, my wife Christy gave birth to our daughter Winifred Róisín. It’s been the best and most challenging time of my life. One of the challenges, of course, is sleep. Our sleep, Winnie’s sleep, friends and family’s sleep (when we travel) – it’s a dance to which we’re still learning the steps. Sometimes, it’s easier to feel the rhythm than others.
Recently, Christy told me her mom’s group is discussing sleep training. Both Christy and I work from home, and we divvy up responsibilities. Sleep training became my territory, while Christy focuses on nursing and introducing solid foods to Winnie’s diet. When the mom’s group started talking sleep training, Christy asked me to recount the steps we’ve taken to help our daughter (and us) sleep soundly and regularly.
After chatting about it with Christy, I decided to write down our experience, both for my own remembrance and to share with others. It’s hard being a first time parent. There are so many questions, and others with experience are always at the ready with a plethora of recommendations. It can be hard to cut through the din.
This is the process we took with Winifred to get her to regularly napping and sleeping through the night.
MONTH 1-3, or “Baptism by Fire”
The first month was tough. Winifred spent her first week in the hospital, being treated under LED lights for jaundice. In a way, I’m sure she was in heaven. She received 24/7 attention and fed whenever she wanted. It was an extremely emotional time for us – Christy’s milk came in, but she was only able to feed Win when we visited the hospital. And feeding is just what we called it. Latching and actually drinking didn’t really happen, and we had anxiety over whether Win would have nipple confusion when she left the hospital.
After six days in the NICU, Winnie joined us at home. Sleep during this time was almost nonexistent…for us. Basically, one of us was awake, holding Winifred all the time. She wouldn’t let us lay her in her bassinet at all. When Christy was up, I was sleeping, and vice versa. Oddly, Christy and I didn’t see much of each other except for a few mutually agreeable waking hours. It was a matter of survival.
At the end of that first month, two major shifts happened:
- One day, we chatted with our neighbors from down the hall, and we mentioned we couldn’t put Winnie down without her erupting in tears. It was usurping our sleep, and something had to give. They suggested the Momaroo, a robot/swing that had five different settings: Car Ride, Tree Swing, Rock a Bye, Ocean, and, of course, Kangaroo.
The irony of their suggestion was that during Christy’s pregnancy, we visited a baby store, and when I saw the Momaroo in action on the showroom floor, I declared I didn’t want a robot rocking our baby to sleep. However, as many parents will attest: You do what works so you can get rest. The Momaroo was our savior. We were able to get between two and five hours solid sleep a night during the following two months.
- Nursing was the other factor that played a part in the topsy-turvy first few weeks. Christy used a nipple shield as transition from hospital formula-feeding to full time breastfeeding. By her one-month doctor visit, Winnie wasn’t gaining enough weight, and the pediatrician suggested Christy employ a lactation consultant and pump after every nursing.
The following four days might’ve been the most challenging for Christy. I’ve never seen her go through so many emotions. Christy basically didn’t sleep because of all the pumping and feeding. Beverly Solow, the lactation consultant with whom Christy worked, was fantastic. Win eventually drank more frequently, which helped firm a routine.
MONTH 3-4, or “Getting a Groove”
The first sleep training book I read was Elizabeth Pantley’s popular “The No-Cry Sleep Solution”. We began with this approach because both Christy and I leaned toward attachment parenting. We wore Winnie in an Ergo when walking the neighborhood, brought her into our bed for night nursing, and avoided her crying as much as possible. This typically required our holding her.
“The No-Cry Sleep Solution” gave us four helpful tools in our sleep training:
- Sleep Associations: Arrange a series of events just before your baby’s nap or bedtime, like singing songs, reading books, offering a bottle or nursing, or bath time. One of the almost necessary items that Winnie relies upon is her lovey, a small blanket-like stuffed animal that she cuddles and chews throughout her sleep.
- The Pantley’s Pull Off: This technique is how to break the habit of sleeping with a pacifier. It also reduces the chance of your baby waking up after she’s fallen asleep. In the very beginning, we would put Win down with a pacifier in her mouth, but as soon as she fell into a deep sleep the pacifier would drop out. When she inevitably woke, the pacifier was gone and Win would crank up because she couldn’t sooth herself. If you can teach your baby she doesn’t need a pacifier, she may be able have a sounder sleep.
- Sleep Charts: I like the sleep charts Pantley includes in her book. It suggests how many times a day your child typically should nap, how many hours a night she should sleep, and it reinforced how having a routine can encourage nighttime sleeping.
- Looking for the Signs: This isn’t the only book to talk about signs of sleepiness, but it was the first I read that reinforced if you catch your baby’s signals for sleep – rubbing of the eyes, grabbing the ears (for older babies), and, of course, yawns – you can put your baby down before she ramps up to becoming over-tired.
By the fourth month, we were able to lay Winnie down in the bassinet at night, but not until she was in a deep sleep. This required between 30-90 minutes of either Christy or me in a dark nursery, holding Winnie in silence, reading our glowing iPhones. We had to bounce her on a yoga ball because she got too heavy to rock her in our arms. But once Win was down, she would sleep for anywhere between 5-8 hours. We still held Winnie during her naps, which adjusted to a regular three times per day.
The other book we used was the well-known “The Happiest Baby on the Block.” This book was beneficial when it came to teaching us about white noise, which simulates the sound surrounding your baby in the womb. Offering a “shhhh” was my go-to whenever we didn’t have our white noise Sleep Sheep, which Winnie uses for every time she sleeps.
MONTHS 4-6, or “Crib Transition”
At about four months, we decided to move Winnie out of our bedroom. It was a choice I was ready to make, but Christy was hesitant. It felt, somehow, to be the beginning of Win truly separating from her mother.
Fortunately, there is a futon in Winnie’s room, so if Christy had to get up with Winnie during the middle of the night, she would go into Win’s room and bring her into the futon for night feedings. Often, Christy and Winnie would continue sleeping the rest of the night away together in Win’s room. Today, Winnie still wakes this way in the morning and nurses straightaway in the futon.
This is what a typical day looked like:
|WINIFRED DAILY ROUTINE AT FOUR MONTHS|
|10:15am||BOTTLE AND APPLE SAUCE|
|5:45pm||CEREAL W AVOCADO|
|6:45pm||STORY, SONG, BOTTLE, BED|
As you can see, we began feeding Winifred solid foods about this time. The first foods we tried were rice cereal, avocado, and applesauce. You’ll notice the final food feeding of the day is at 5:45pm, and it remains that way today. After food, we read stories until Winnie shows sleep signs. When she does, we put her in her sleep sack, sing a song, and give her a four ounce bottle of breast milk. The bottle has been good for us because it allows either Christy or myself to put Winnie down without breaking her nighttime routine. During her bottle we continue singing. After the bottle we burp her, sing a few “OMs”, and tell her “Night, night.”
This routine didn’t transpire overnight. It started off like this:
Around four months, Christy got the gumption to try The Ferber Method. Our pediatrician suggested Winnie was ready for this technique, and after speed reading some of Ferber’s book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” we decided to put her down and walk out of the room.
And she cried. And cried. And cried.
We followed the instructions: 5 minutes, check. 10 minutes, check. Then, every 15 minutes, check, check, check…check.
After two hours, I went in to check on her, and Winnie’d vomited all over herself. Christy and I agreed, Winnie wasn’t ready to cry it out, and we would continue holding her as she went to sleep at night. And it went that way for the next couple months.
Then, we started traveling.
First, we visited our friend in Colorado. She has two daughters who are seven and four years old, and she let us borrow another “cry-it-out” book called “The Sleepeasy Solution”. Again, I was skeptical. This time, my incredulity rose from the fact that these were the “sleep trainers to the stars”. There are quotes from Ben Stiller and Conan O’Brien on the back cover. I imagined the authors probably came over and sleep trained these celebrities’ children while the parents were off making millions entertaining America. But I decided to read the book because our friend highly recommended it.
It’s a good book. And it’s good for the very opposite reasons “The No-Cry Sleep Solution” and “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” frustrated us.
When we told our friend we were trying “The No-Cry Sleep Solution”, her opinion was it’s a bunch of hooey. I’d had similar feelings, and I wondered why our friend had this opinion. Her issue is that Pantley doesn’t give you any real solutions. She only offers ways to sooth your child, but doesn’t offer hard means of putting your baby down without her crying. In fact, the book made us feel we were horrible people if we let our baby cry at all.
On the flip side, Ferber’s tone is such that we felt if we picked up our baby at all when she cries, we failed. If we even touched her, we ruined all the hard work we did, and we must start from square one. Parenting is hard enough as it is. Why should we feel like failures when we’re doing something as natural as comforting our child?
“The Sleepeasy Solution” offered solid middle ground. Its approach is easy, open and non-judgmental. The authors, Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack, share a precise method while empowering parents to make choices that are right for their family.
At six-and-a-half months, Waldburger and Spivak made us feel like we could revisit the “cry it out” approach. If we heard Winnie crying but she wasn’t bawling-her-eyes-out-real-tears-crying, we might let her go a little while. If Win screamed bloody murder and couldn’t catch her breath, we felt like we could pick her up without ruining the work we’d done.
Within a week, Winifred was sleeping 11-12 hours through the night. By the time we took another trip to visit family in Illinois, Win’s naps were lengthening, and low and behold, one day, when I put her down for her nap, she nestled her head against my shoulder and I was able to put her down for her nap while she was tired but awake.
And she napped for two hours straight.
MONTHS 6-8, or “We Can Actually Get Work Done”
Since our visit to Illinois, we’ve been on a regular routine. Winifred’s third nap shortened, and then disappeared completely. Now, she usually takes a 90 minute to two hour nap in the morning, and the afternoon is anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. At night, we start our routine around 5:45pm, Winnie’s asleep by 7:00pm, and she wakes between 6:00-7:30am the following day. This is amazing for us, since both Christy and I work from home. We don’t have to tag team as much because we can work when Win sleeps.
Of course, there are frustrating shifts in schedule. Last week, Winnie had a double whammy: She was teething and she got a cold that lasted a week. Sleep regression reared its ugly head, and Win woke at 3:00am, 4:10am, and 5:00am. Naps have been all over the place. And other recent travels over-stimulated her to the point that she didn’t want to go to sleep at night. But now we’re home again, and Winnie seems to be settling back in.
Routine. The stuff baby dreams are made of.
YOUR BABY, or “Do What Works for Your Family”
When Christy was pregnant, I had a friend talk to us about sleep training, and then he gave me a piece of advice: “Do what works for your family.”
It’s the best advice I’ve received since becoming a father. There are tons of books and articles online about sleep training, but you have to figure out what works for your family. If you can’t stand hearing your baby cry, go ahead and pick her up. If you’re losing sleep because your baby can’t sooth herself in the middle of the night or you can’t put her down awake, maybe consider cry it out. I had friends who co-slept with their daughter until she was five years old. That’s what worked for their family, until it didn’t. Now, their daughter sleeps in her own bed.
Or maybe you’re like our family, and you cherry pick bits from books to fashion a plan that works for your child. Babies are humans, and not every technique is going to jive with your little human’s personality. So do what fits her. And when it stops feeling right, try something new.
Listen, love, and do what intuitively feels right. That’s all we can do.
Special thanks to my stellar wife Christy for helping me remember some of the more murky moments we drudged through together. Here’s to seeing the future with clearer eyes.