I was about as anti-cry-it-out as one can be without being a left-wing extremist post-hippie natural mama. Not that I’d go around telling other parents that they were traumatizing their children, but I’d sit there and be quietly smug about the fact that my child could rest assured that her parents loved her and met her needs.
In my defense, the anti-cry-it-out movement is pervasive, especially among parents who breastfeed. Breastfeeding, attachment parenting, cosleeping… three little peas assembled neatly in one pod, while formula, parents-first, and cry-it-out nestle snugly in another. So, since I was so on board with the benefits of breastfeeding, I could hardly help but be persuaded into the camp of attachment parenting. Our failed attempt at not cosleeping (I fell asleep with E in the rocker at 5mo, which scared me to death and began our journey of cosleeping) didn’t help, either.
When Attachment Parenting Fails
But as the months before #2’s arrival shortened, we became more and more desperate for E to sleep through the night. I hadn’t had a single night’s sleep since before she was born, and pregnancy was beginning to make a bad situation even worse: E was waking up more to eat, and I was having an even harder time sleeping thanks to pregnancy’s aches and pains combined with months of sleeping on the floor. Even worse, there was absolutely no way that this scenario could continue after the new baby’s arrival–there’s simply not enough momma to go around!
So we had to do something. First I tried Elizabeth Pantley’s method. It didn’t work. I think it might have worked if E had been younger, or if we’d done it from birth. It also might have worked if I’d had far more energy than I did, or if E was less of a strong-willed child. But it didn’t work for us, and still the months stretched onward. Then we tried the “stuff her full of food before bedtime” method, which accomplished nothing at all.
Finally, we started to contemplate letting E cry. Abandoning her in her crib–where she’d never slept since she was a newborn–and leaving her there all night.
It was a consideration born entirely out of desperation. And a decision founded more in our minds than in our hearts. I was terrified that it would traumatize her, permanently wreck what little “solution” we had to the sleep problem, and, in the end, not even work. But neither of us knew of anything else to do, and so we did it, after surprisingly little discussion and very little time to consider. It was almost as though we, having decided that it was a possibility, wanted to go ahead and get it over with as soon as possible. I suggested that we should begin on the first night of S’s work week, so that I would be the only one home to hear her cries. I thought it was best that only one of us lose extra sleep, and best, too, that only one of us should be traumatized by listening to a child cry because we refused to tend to her.
And So It Began
The first night, I was like a scientist, observing E in a little petri dish. I was pleased to note that her cries sounded angry, but not desperate and not hopeless. I was astounded to realize just how good a job I could do of completely ignoring her. Even when she woke me up in the middle of the night, I found myself only too capable of falling back asleep with her crying in the background–something I didn’t want to do, since we were more or less following the “Ferber method,” which means you check on the child and reassure him/her at regular intervals. I felt cold, and was both disturbed and mildly amused by how indifferent I was to her screaming pleas.
Happily, the first night was not the worst. And the day after, E was as happy as I’d ever seen her; maybe even happier. She had slept a reasonable amount and clearly was not injured by the horror of the night before. The second night, on the other hand, was awful. It was almost enough to make us quit, and I imagine that we would have, if we hadn’t had the better experience of the first night to compare. After taking hours to fall asleep, she woke up in the middle of the night and cried for nearly four hours straight. At the end, I went in and brought her with me after all; I was very much afraid that she would end up not getting any sleep at nighttime, and since we’re not doing cry-it-out for naps, it occurred to me that she might just be smart enough to flip her days and nights around in resistance.
Today is Day 8, and she is “sleeping through the night” in that she is more or less in her crib and not really crying for 12 hours. She still wakes up, but her cries are few and I suspect she isn’t even fully awake for many of them. I’m not exactly sure how much sleep she’s getting, but certainly from a momma’s point of view, she’s “sleeping” perfectly adequately for my needs.
And here, of course, is where we get to the sticky part. I realized on the very first night, after waking up at 3am feeling more refreshed than I’d felt at 7am on my mornings with E, that I would have been much happier–myself–if we’d done this months ago. The experience of putting her to bed, without being at her beck and call for hours afterward: this was new. Having hours of time that I knew would be unbroken: this too was new. Being able to move freely about, make some noise, and use some light after E’s bedtime: new. An unbroken two-hour-long conversation with my husband: new.
In short, it was clear in an instant that regardless of whether E ever adjusted to sleeping by herself, this new arrangement was infinitely better for me physically and psychologically, and for our marriage. I had forgotten what I was missing, and now that I had the tiniest taste of what it would be like to have it back, I knew I would have a really hard time giving it up, no matter what it meant for E.
Cry-it-out is unquestionably the appropriate course of action for selfish parents.
What about unselfish parents, though? How has it affected E? On Day 8, it’s honestly very hard to assess. On the one hand, the child is clearly getting more sleep. She is clearly learning new independence, as confirmed by those outside our little sphere. In her good moments, she’s less clingy to me than she was before; she’s been much more aggressive about accepting new people. Today a dog two feet away from her barked very loudly, and all she did was jump. She also seems more alert, more intelligent, and more curious. It’s hard to know how much of this is because she’s eight days older than she was before we began, but she seems to have accelerated sharply. On the other hand… one thing nobody told me about cry-it-out is that the days are worse than the nights. On the second and third days, she was just horrible. It was work to make her vaguely happy in the mornings, and in the afternoons she was so tired and upset that nothing either of us did could stop her from screaming non-stop–for hours. It is a horrible thing to not know how to comfort your child when you want to so badly. Only the past two evenings have we been able to hold off her tears until bedtime. She has also become obsessed with being held during the day, although this too seems to be lessening as the days pass. But it’s very slow going, on both counts, and it was all the worse because it was unexpected. I would guess that some of this might have been avoided if we’d done it at an earlier age, but as it is, I’ve often wondered in the past few days if we were ever going to see our happy little girl again.
So the jury is still out, but we’ve seen some positive effects already, and obviously we are hopeful that they’ll continue to grow and that the negatives will lessen and disappear.
The obvious question, then, is what are we going to do with child #2? I’m still strongly in favor of cosleeping–for my own sake, if not for the child’s. There is no question at all that I got more sleep cosleeping with E than I did getting up out of my own bed multiple times each night to feed her, rock her, and sooth her back to sleep. It’s quicker and less jarring to be in the same bed, and many times I wouldn’t even fully wake up. So we’re planning to cosleep again, this time with a cosleeper bassinet so that I can sleep on a mattress, and so that the baby’s “nest” is physically delineated from mine. E and I never cuddled–neither of us seemed inclined–but a separate bassinet is easier to transition out of cosleeping, as well as safer from the well-publicized “threats” of overlaying and smothering. We’ll have to see how it goes; my only concern is that it will require moving the baby away from me at the conclusion of each feeding, instead of moving myself away from the baby.
In pursuit of sleep, I plan to use many of Elizabeth Pantley’s methods from the very beginning, and take care that the new baby forms as few sleep “conditioners” as possible. With E, I managed to make it so that she didn’t need rocked or “soothed” to sleep–but she did need fed. At the time I thought she would simply outgrow that as she outgrew the physical need to eat throughout the night, but she didn’t. So I’ll try to avoid making that sleep connection, or any at all. Teach the baby from day one to be a self-soother.
If everything went perfectly, that would mean the baby would start sleeping through the night on its own at three or four months, or even sooner. And I’ll certainly be hoping that happens. But if it doesn’t, my experience with E has taught me that I don’t want to wait until one year to sleep-train. That’s too many months of wasted sleep for both of us, and too old a child to be able to negate any “trauma” associated with sleep training. I remember E’s newborn cries, and they were cries I’d much rather listen to than her toddler screams.
So, A Mistake
I was wrong about cry it out. And naive. I certainly would do it differently if I had it to do over. I read so many articles and deliberated so carefully, and came to the wrong conclusion. I’m beginning to realize that parenthood is full of mistakes; there have been many things that I’ve been utterly convinced of, only to be proven wrong.
I think this is the biggest one so far.