On Sleep Training

I've wanted to write about this subject for some time, but quite frankly felt that my emotions were far too engaged at various period for me to peaceably and graciously approach the topic. Just the other day I was calmly pondering the subject--again!--and thought that I was at a pretty rational place where I could write about it. Then, today, I admitted on a social networking site that I--gasp--liked Babywise and one would have thought FB had exploded.

We have chosen a method that is rather controversial and people have NO qualms whatsoever about attacking it. Honestly, as a mom, it makes my blood boil to hear something I appreciate and am grateful for so across-the-board maligned without any room for discussion. That said, I have friends on all sides of the fences (which there are many) and two close friends in particular who are so gracious to me when we differ. I hope and pray that I can be as gracious. That's why I'm writing not so much about what is "wrong" with the other side, or critiquing a method based on anecdotal evidence, but to share what a blessing and benefit sleep-training has been for our family and what a helpful jumping off point it has been for us in all spheres of parenting. Also, as a disclaimer, I have not read any of the Sears, AP or what-have-you books and have no desire to critique or dissect it. I'm only sharing our experiences with sleep training.

Since Babywise is very controversial, let's refer to this topic as sleep training. I don't claim inerrancy Biblically or logically. This is anecdotal.

When we were expecting our first child, Mr. J, we were so blessed to be surrounded by several godly families who were a few steps ahead of us in parenting. As we observed their family lives, the dispositions of their children, the general health and well-being of their marriages, and their daily routines, we asked many questions, particularly about taking care of this forthcoming baby. One of the common denominators was that they sleep-trained (and they ALL breastfed--most until one year). There was also a beautiful underlying order to their homes--not materially, necessarily, but relationally. There was a striving to make God the center of the home, the husband-wife relationship was a high priority and the children were loved and adored, but part of the family, not the center. They moved in the family unit, but the family did not move around them. Even now, I see these families and am so encouraged to see the amazing home lives and incredible, many godly, children they have and are raising.

So, I read Babywise, which was not recommended to me by anyone, but had some very similar ideas and a few other books.

Just to digress a paragraph about nursing: Mr. J was born quite healthy, but delivered "sunny side up" and was not a good nurser. I now wonder if the difficulty of his delivery made nursing hard for him at first. I began pumping at the hospital and went home with an appointment with a lactation specialist. We STRUGGLED with latching on (TMI?) and it was a relief to see the specialist and know that his latching was not correct. I tried to nurse and I pumped in between and by that point (two weeks and two LS visits later), T and I came to the conclusion that if I could pump and feed Mr. J and not cry and resent him every time I tried to nurse that we would all be happier. I pumped around the clock for the first eight weeks of his life. Miss A went into the NICU the day she was born, couldn't be touched the first four days of her life and came home with thrush. When it cleared up, she had neo-natal teeth. Yeah, nursing didn't happen, but again, I pumped for two months, nearly around the clock. With Mr. O, I was determined to nurse and had a horrible hospital experience with the nursery nurse and unhelpful lactation consultants. At that point, I was so used to the pumping 'round the clock thing, and so frustrated with nursing, that we decided to pump again. Nursing is wonderful, just didn't happen for us.

Back to sleep training. The most useful idea that I applied when first home with Mr. J was the concept of a rhythm (schedule implies strict hours and times, which we never did). Sleep. Eat. Play. Sleep. I remember sitting on the couch the night we brought Mr. J home. He had just eaten and I had no idea what to do next. "Eat. sleep. play." Aha. We had about one minute of interaction before he was conking out again. I laid him down and that began our sleep training. No wailing or fussing or whining.

A lot of the critique I hear about sleep training is that the baby will fail to thrive and, at the worst, dehydrate or die of starvation. Looking back at Babywise, I read over and over again, "If your baby is hungry, feed him." I don't think anyone would advise you to not feed your baby if he is hungry. Upon really and truly pondering this debate, I am beginning to see that one (of many) forks in the road is the initial reaction to fussiness, discontent or what-have-you in an infant. Many seem to offer the breast or the bottle immediately, assuming that what must be wrong is hunger. I tended to consider other needs (sleepiness, gas, or overstimulation) first, particularly if we had just had a feeding (say 45 minutes since). Perhaps one philosophy is sleep-oriented as opposed to feeding-oriented?

Why sleep-training? Why place importance on it? I don't think I understood all the "why's" of what I was doing at the time, but in retrospect (three children later), I am seeing a bigger picture unfold.

Laying our baby down to fall asleep was particularly easy in the beginning. Babies sleep and sleep and sleep those first few weeks. It seems you can hardly get even one eye to open for more than a few seconds. Going ahead and laying Mr. J down after a feeding and quick play started laying a foundation that we would build and build upon. Sometimes he would whine a bit and I'd give him a burp or pat, but generally he'd go right down. If, after, say 15, 30 or 45 minutes he began to murmur and fuss, we'd check on him, but did not pick him up immediately. Instead we waited to see if he was truly waking up. Often he went right back to sleep. NEVER in those early weeks and months did our babies scream in the bed for hours. One's mind may be put to rest right now.

Life with children is always dynamic, particularly with babies. One thinks they've got it figured out and then BOOM a huge growth spurt happens and that sweet child eats every hour for a week and then calms down. Nevertheless, we stuck to the Rhythm: Sleep. Eat. Play. Sleep. The intervals sometimes changed, but not the Rhythm.

During the days, our sweet spot was a 2.5-3 hours between feedings. These lasted until well into the eight and nine and ten month ages. I would wake the baby up around the three hour mark during the day--not letting them sleep longer. At night, we eliminated "play" from the Rhythm and immediately after feedings, baby went back to bed.

As the weeks went by the intervals between evening feedings spread and by two months our kids were sleeping all night (meaning from 10-6-ish). That was around the age we moved our second two babies out of our room. (Mr. J slept in our walk-in closet, so we were close quarters with him until fifteen months)

Also as the weeks passed, awake time lengthened and our sweet babies became more active and alert and fun. We still intentionally put them down before or just as they showed signs of fussiness and tiredness. Even if they were awake in their beds for some minutes before going to sleep, we were okay with that. Because they had always fallen asleep on their own, they continued to.

Babies and children are dynamic, rarely static (shouldn't that be a mantra for parenting? Repeat 10x daily). We constantly evaluated and adjusted their quantities of sleep.eat.play.sleep to suit their needs. Eventually three naps gave way to two and night-time sleep stretched from seven-seven. With each month, our babies began to learn to play and be content in their beds and fall asleep on their own. I think this also helped what I think is a frequent cause of fussy children: overstimulation. To think of all that they are learning and experiencing and feeling in this brand new world, what a relief it must be to just chill out--even for a baby!

As our babies grew older, there were times when we let them "cry it out." Particularly when we knew all their needs had been met and they simply did not want to take a nap or be in their pack-n-play. You know the cry that turns on and off based on whether or not they're getting their way? Our family rating system regarding cries was based on the following three levels: 1. Discussing 2. Fussing 3. Cussing (it's a joke, people). We let them cry it out because they were learning a valuable lesson, one that we all struggle with: "I am not the boss."

As Christians, we believe that we are under the authority of God. Not only that, but under the authorities that he has placed over us. Bosses, ruling authorities,elders, spouses, parents . . . our hope is that our children know early on that they are not in charge and that the world (and our family life) does not revolve around them. We also allow our children (and babies) to cry and be sad. Life is hard. Suffering is more to be expected than excepted in the Christian life. We would much rather them know these truths now than one day be walloped upside the head with the realities of life when mom and dad are not there to protect anymore.

This is digressing from sleep-training a bit, but for what it's worth, like many of our parenting examples, we began teaching obedience around eight and nine months of age. Simple things like not rolling over during diaper changes and not throwing food or fighting mom and dad (you know, the stiff-body thing babies do). Temper tantrums were nipped in the bud. (Thanks Barney Fife) The beautiful fruit of that is that even with Miss A at three years old, we struggle less with defiance and more with learning immediate obedience and heart issues. Our children's norm is that Mom and Dad are the boss and obedience is normal and good. I'm thankful for our sweet children and God's grace evidenced in their lives. They are a joy and delight to us.

As I ponder the sweet fruit and blessings we reap daily with our children, I am thankful for wise friends who pointed us in this direction, but mostly for the GRACE of God. Any good fruit, any blessings come not because we are wonderful perfect parents (QUITE the contrary), but because He is.

Wrapping up this absurdly long spiel (is anyone still reading?). I wanted to share the list of "good things" that have come as a result of sleep-training and all it's spheres.

1. Our babies' needs were nearly always met before they became issues. They were fed immediately upon waking, enjoyed awake people time and went down before they were too tired to sleep. I really think that helped them feel safe and secure. (Mr. J would wail like a banshee from the moment he woke up until he was fed, so he may not have enjoyed that security until after his feedings!).

2. Having a normal rhythm and expectation for the days helped us clue in to when something was wrong.

3. We never coaxed our kids to sleep. The whole rock them, tip-toe to the crib, pat them, "stink, they're up", repeat process was never an issue. It was a blessing to enjoy them at their fullest and most awake and be able to let them go to sleep quietly while we tended to other things (children, each other, laundry). Nor did we ever sit up staring at our toddler because it was eleven o'clock and while we were ready for bed, he wasn't. We did have many nights of "dance parties" in the crib and bouncing sessions from a very awake baby, but they were generally content to party alone (Or, rather, J was. Miss A and Mr. O have always had J to party with them).

4. Bedtime is a JOY with our kids. Pajamas are donned, teeth brushed and stories read, giggles exchanged and a song or two sung. A snaggle-toothed Mr. O bounces in his crib enjoying the spectacle. Bedtime is rarely fought, because it has never been an option. Our children may not go to sleep immediately, but they are free to quietly enjoy all that their bed (and books! dolls! cars!) have to offer.

5. That naturally leads to a supreme blessing of sleep-training. Quality time between Mr. T and myself. It has been so incredible to enjoy time together at the end of the day to decompress and talk and be together. Having that time has strengthened our marriage. Our relationships with our children are precious, but our marriage is more so. One day, they'll all be out of the house, but, Lord-willing, we'll still be plugging along. : )

6. Another natural benefit is rest/quiet/nap-time. At this stage of life, Mr. O (our 21-monther) is the only napper. J and A have mandatory quiet time after lunch in their rooms, often together. Since I am with our kiddos all-day, every-day, this time of rest is beneficial for all. They decompress and engage in such imaginative play that leave me puzzled, and I have blessed quiet time to recharge. Because all their lives they've only known that after lunch is room/nap time they never question or fight against it. Giving up naps gradually transitions to play-time in the bed and then to room-time when they are trust-worthy.

I could go on and on. The foundations that were laid in their first years of life with sleep-training and other associated ideas have helped make our parenting years a treasure and truly enjoyable. We really enjoy our children and are SO thankful for them, for God's mercy and grace to us, such sinners!

I don't expect to change minds about this whole debate, but I do ask that one consider the possibility that this method has the potential to be quite good and beneficial to the whole family.


Anonymous said...

I think it is so wonderful that this method has helped you so much! I remember you writing to me on Facebook when Jade was tiny, and your descriptions of your sleep methods seemed so rational! So perfect!

To an extent, I applied the same regular routine to Jade - consistent actions (and even words) before bed and naps, putting her down around the same times. I allowed her to guide the routine a little more, particularly around what time naps and bedtime happened, but we would hold pretty firm on nap/bedtime being before a certain hour.

We had quite a lot of trouble in her first year with sleep, in part because she had reflux and, thus, lying flat in her crib was painful. We did not get her diagnosed until 4 months old, and by that point I believe some bad sleep habits were ingrained in her. It wasn't until she was about 9 months old that we felt confident that the constant waking (we're talking hourly on bad nights) had to stop. So we did some mild sleep training and being the smart child she is, it dramatically reduced within a couple of days. She still does not sleep all night every night, but I don't mind going to her once a night because we have a daybed to cuddle on as she nurses, and then she will happily go back to bed and fall asleep on her own afterward.

Let me also share in your frustration of the difficulties with breastfeeding. My heart breaks for you because it was so hard. It is hard for everyone, although some have it easier than others. Mississippi actually has one of the worst breastfeeding rates, which is a sad thing because it can be such a beautiful and intimate relationship with your child. However, as strongly as I feel about nursing, I feel even more strongly that the First Rule is FEED THE BABY, and very close behind that is KEEP MOMMY SANE. I applaud you for exclusively pumping for such a long time...it is a lot of work!

I have been very rambly, but I guess that my parenting experience has been summed up thusly - If you care about what you're doing and know why you're doing it that way (hint: because you love your child is a good reason), there's a pretty low chance that you're doing it wrong. I cannot abide by parents who attack other methods just because they aren't right for their specific family.

Joey and Elizabeth said...

I remember Julia "warning" me when I was pregnant with Lucy that no matter what I chose or did (breast or bottle, AP or BW, public/private/home school), SOMEONE was going to disagree & let me know it. It's sad that we (as sinners) get something in our heads, and if others don't do it just as we did, it's the worst thing in the world (I didn't realize this about myself until I had Lucy... and then it slapped me in the face!).
I had several great friends around me who were 100% Babywise mamas, and then I had several who were not at all. I had a few who mixed the methods to make it work for them, and one of those mamas told me to at LEAST stick with the sleep - eat - play routine. That was probably some of the best advice I got!
I read Babywise & several other books, honestly b/c I was so scared I was going to mess Lucy up & fail completely as a parent. And I have at times... but God is good :)
I would say that I've pretty much done as you have. Lucy's always put herself to sleep, and I learned EARLY on that she was manipulating me into thinking "I'm not tired - it's not nap time" when in fact she was exhausted. After a few major mistakes there & some helpful sleep advice from Julia, Lucy and I got it figured out :)
We go through the same motions before nap & at bedtime. We say the same things & do the same routine (usually!), and she knows what's coming - it's not a surprise & she does wonderfully with it :)
Every time I'm home, my in-laws are amazed that she just goes to sleep by herself... and quickly.
I may have to tag this post for the next baby... b/c I'll forget EVERYTHING from Lucy & feel like a failure I'm sure!
I was very blessed with Lucy & the nursing... I was terrified of it b/c I had seen my sweet sister & several good friends STRUGGLE over it. A great friend of mine pretty much told me the same thing from the previous comment... 1.) feed the baby, and 2.) and keep as sane as possible! Breast/bottle/formula, the baby gets fed & all is well :)
I remember hearing & reading some of the BW critiques, but like you said, the book says over & over, "If hungry, FEED the baby!" And dehydration?? Gracious. There were a few times we'd let Lucy "cry it out" only b/c we knew for a fact that she was overstimulated and beyond exhausted... and if needed, I'd go back in after a while (I'd set a timer so I KNEW how long it had been) to reassure & comfort her for a minute before laying her back down. That always worked, and she's always been an amazing sleeper!
I'm glad you pointed out the over-stimulation thing... as a new mommy, I had NO IDEA how huge this was. Lucy could be over-stimulated very easily, especially early on, and it helped greatly when I learned that I could avoid such stimulation & kick the problem before it even started.
And the levels of crying, that's hilarious :) Joey and I have those too! We could listen to her cry & know what was going on in the room :)
And I like the fact that you said it's ok for our kids to be sad... life IS hard, and suffering will come. Great paragraph!!
I feel like I've written a novel... and not a very well written one either! Forgive my randomness & crazy jumping around. I really enjoyed this & will neec to read it over & over as (Lord-willing) God blesses us with more children! Very well-written post :) Thank you for sharing!!

(PS: Longest comment ever on a blog... eek!)