Q&A Monday Vol. XXI: To Sleep Train or to Go Crazy, That Is the Question

QandAHi Lynn, My baby doesn’t sleep. She’s eight months old, and everyone is constantly asking if she sleeps through the night yet, and then telling me to either ride it out, or that I’m doing it all wrong, or to sleep train. I remember you saying something about your second daughter not sleeping, so I thought maybe you would have some insight. Please help! I’m ready to fall down from exhaustion.

Oh, dear. Sleep deprivation is the absolute worst. You are right about Evelyn–she was a terrible, awful, no good, very bad sleeper. My first was so good, and that made the second even more of a shock. I had no idea what I was doing. The bad news is that even now that I’ve been through a terrible sleeper, I still have no idea what I’m doing.

I did everything right with my first. I put her to sleep at the same time every night, following the same routine (bath, nurse, songs–meaning I wasn’t nursing her to sleep), and I put her down drowsy but awake. After the first six months, she generally slept most of the night, waking one time at around 3 am, at which point I would just let her finish the night in bed with us. It worked, and we all got plenty of sleep.

I did the same thing with Evelyn, but it didn’t work at all. When it became bad enough that I was scared to drive (driving that tired is just as bad as driving drunk), I tried sleep training. Did not work. Cry it out did not work. It slowly got better, meaning she went from waking up every hour to waking up every two hours, and then only three times a night. She is now 20 months old and only wakes up once. It’s heaven.

You don’t say how often your baby is waking. If it is just once or twice, I say ask your husband to help a little more. If you are nursing or bottle feeding at night, I suggest slowly night weaning. Evelyn only stopped waking up five times a night after I night weaned. I would probably wake up too if someone promised to get me a snack every time.

If you have night weaned, and your baby is still waking up five times a night, TRY EVERYTHING. We aren’t talking about a newborn here. I seriously doubt that a few nights of CIO or sleep training is any worse for a baby’s psyche than an exhausted mother, and anyone who says differently hasn’t been truly exhausted. Exhaustion is dangerous. It means mixing up medications and dropping things (like babies). It means being much, much closer to shaking the baby. It also means your baby isn’t getting the sleep she needs.

I wish I had better advice, but the truth is first I got lucky and then I got unlucky. Hopefully you will get lucky. Amalah wrote a few good, helpful columns on sleep training at the Advice Smackdown.

And remember: Babies change constantly. This might be over in another month. Fingers crossed for you.

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4 Responses

  1. Anna says:

    Argh, the sleep question. I’m glad you took this approach; you seem sane. When my baby was around a year old, I finally did the sleep training. I was shocked when it only involved three minutes of crying, for three nights. No problems after that! (NOTE: this is just my experience. Everyone is different.)But man, the looks I get when I say I finally did CIO! Like I murder babies or something.

    • Lynn says:

      I know. I would never let the baby cry for very long, but people assume she’s crying for hours. Um, no.

  2. Amy says:

    Really read the Ferber book. His methods really are very gentle, and for some kids, its the only way they finally learn to put themselves to sleep. My son didn’t sleep past 4am until he was nearly a year old, but only 1 wake up felt magical after so many months of 3-4 wakings a night.

  3. Smita says:

    My 21 month old was a terrible sleeper — and no sleep training method worked until we tried the sleep lady shuffle. CIO was a disaster b/c she would work herself up w/ the crying and vomit all over the crib. Anyway the sleep lady shuffle (concept summarized below) has worked well for us and was a more moderate approach and its sticking. She’s now been consistently sleeping through the night (generally 8pm-7am) since she turned about 15 months. Good luck and hang in there. Sleep deprivation is the worst — esp as a working mommy!

    Nights 1-3 –> after bedtime routine ends, sit in a chair RIGHT NEXT TO THE CRIB and stay there until she falls asleep
    if she cries or fusses, you can stroke or pat her intermittently (esp the first night) but don’t do it constantly or you’ll create a new negative association;
    you can sign during the get ready for bed stage but once its time to sleep, stick to calming sh-sh or other soothing sounds.
    You may want to close your eyes to make it easier to not talk to her too much.
    If she stands up in the crib, put her down ONLY ONCE. Then if she gets up again, pat the mattress and encourage her to lie down (this works better if you are sitting by the crib at her level rather than standing over it)
    Parents to control the touch — instead of having her hold your hand or finger, you should pat hers — do it on and off so that you avoid swapping one negative association like rocking for another like constant touch or the sound of your voice
    DO NOT BE QUICK TO PICK HER UP during any stage of the shuffle but if she’s really upset and you do need to pick her up, do so briefly until she calms and then put her down again while she’s still awake

    Nights 4-6 –> after bedtime routine ends, sit in a chair HALFWAY TO THE DOOR and stay there until she falls asleepl stay in the chair as much as possible

    Nights 7-9 –> after bedtime routine ends, sit in a chair RIGHT NEXT TO THE DOORWAY STILL INSIDE THE ROOM AND IN HER VIEW and stay there until she falls asleep

    Nights 10-12 –> after bedtime routine ends, sit in a chair RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOORWAY AND IN HER VIEW and stay there until she falls asleep

    Nights 13 and beyond –> time to leave baby to fall asleep on her own if she’s not sleeping already; move away from baby’s room after bedtime — you should be out of her sight and if she’s whimpering or crying a bit, soother her with your voice from the doorway. If you find that you MUST go to her crib, do so briefly and then return to hallway out of view but close enough that she can hear your soft soothing sounds

    when your child wakes up at night during the Shuffle, go to her crib to comfort her briefly and then resume the position in the chair where you were at bedtime that evening until she falls back asleep

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