Adventures in (Light) Sleep Training

(By Daniel)

He was a sweet and agreeable boy from the moment he entered the world. He didn’t cry when they gave him an IV an hour after he was born. He was happy to let anyone hold him. He didn’t mind diaper changes. He tolerated any amount of noise or light. Like most newborns he only seemed to care about two things: he wanted to be well fed and he wanted to be held while he slept.

So we held him—and we were happy to do it. There is no better feeling than your newborn snuggling up against you, peacefully snoozing away. After some time, we would set him down and he would usually stay asleep for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. But we were prepared for this. I splurged and bought a Snoo smart sleeper for 800 dollars. We planned to swaddle him, hook him safely into the snoo, and let the magic robot rock him gently as he slept through the night. But James had other plans. He disliked the Snoo. We kept trying to get him used to it and sometimes he would take to it. But mostly he just wanted to be held.

When we set him down in Snoo, he would wake. When we set him down in the crib, he would wake. But when we set him down in the Leachco Podster, gifted to us at our baby shower, he stayed asleep. It was a blessing. Eventually, our reliance on it would pose problems, but it was a lifesaver at the beginning. In the early days we would put it in between us in the bed. I would generally stay up on my laptop in the bed while he and Andie slept because he was still waking frequently to eat. Andie would get up early and takeover before dawn. Since he was almost always supervised and couldn’t roll over, we were ok with letting him sleep in the podster from a safety perspective.

We eventually moved him into the nursery after several months. We kept trying to reintroduce the Snoo, and it worked occasionally, but never as well as the Podster. Our nighttime routine was difficult but manageable. We would bathe him, swaddle him, feed him, read him a story, and then rock him to sleep. Once he was asleep for awhile, I would gently put him down in the Podster which sat inside his crib. I just am not the type of person who can sleep, wake, and go back to sleep easily. So I still stayed up for the night shift and watched him on the monitor. He was waking three times a night to eat, between 7pm and 5am, up until about 4.5 months, when he went down to two night feedings. After his feedings, he would generally go back down pretty easily.

It wasn’t the best situation. Me staying up all night and sleeping until noon was not ideal. We were nervous about him becoming too used to sleeping in the pod. We were still swaddling because he refused to sleep unswaddled. But he could turn over, so I had to watch him the whole time he was sleeping. It was working…until it wasn’t. At seven months old, he started to wake more and more frequently—crying and only going back to sleep if I held him and rocked him. Then he started to try to turn over in the pod, which was worrying, so we decided we needed to transition him out of the swaddle and out of the pod and into the crib.

At first, I tried a bunch of things in an attempt to make the transition less jarring. I bought a crib wedge to give him some elevation, like he was used to. I bought several different types of swaddles and wearable blankets that would allow us to take out one arm at a time. I continued to rock him and sat in his room all night to comfort him if he started to get upset. But none of it was working. He was sleeping worse, waking more, and becoming more and more irritable.

We discussed the situation with his pediatrician and she recommended sleep training, specifically Ferberizing. It was the same recommendation that Andie’s OBGYN gave her when they discussed how James was sleeping. We looked into this type of sleep training, where you let your baby cry and try to self-soothe for a set number of minutes and at specific intervals, and after talking it over we just weren’t entirely comfortable doing it. But at some point the situation had become untenable. He wasn’t sleeping. I was sitting in his room and rocking him all night long.

We still weren’t comfortable committing to a cry-it-out method, so I looked into other sleep training methods. I didn’t have a solid plan but on one particularly bad night I decided I had to try something. I took the swaddle off of him, fed him another bottle, and rocked him until he was drowsy. I kissed him, said goodnight, then I set him on his back in the crib and left the room. I just wanted to see how he would react and then formulate a plan from there.

He stayed quietly on his back for a few minutes—eyes wide, seeming a bit confused about what was going on. Then he started crying. I told myself I’d wait three minutes to give him a chance to self-soothe. Andie joined me in the hallway outside his door and agreed to my experiment. He kept crying for three minutes and I went in and gave him his pacifier and rubbed his head and then left the room again. He cried again and this time I said I’d give him five minutes. He kept crying but a few times de-escalated and seemed to almost calm himself down before starting up again. I went back in after five minutes and told him I loved him and it was time to sleep and left again. At this point Andie was bawling. I told her I’d give it another five minutes and then I’d rock him to sleep. After 4 more minutes of crying, it just didn’t seem like he was going to be able to do it. Andie and I both realized that sleep training wasn’t really for us. It was unbearable. We moved toward his door, my hand on the doorknob, when suddenly the crying stopped. On the monitor we watched as James rolled over on his stomach and went to sleep. That night he only woke up once to eat, and went right back down to sleep after.

The next night I did the same bed time routine and put him down in the crib and left the room. He cried for about 15 seconds before going to sleep. He never cried for more than 30 seconds to a minute after that point. Now he usually goes right to sleep when I put him down without crying at all. He sleeps from 7 to 3, I feed and change him, then he goes back down until around 6. It’s rare to hear any crying from him at all during the night.

So technically we did use a cry-it-out method of sleep training even though when Andie talks about it she always says we did “light” sleep training. But honestly, we just got very lucky that James adapted so quickly. I’m not confident enough to say sleep training is good or bad, right or wrong. Personally, I wasn’t comfortable doing it at all before he was over six months. And I’m not sure I would have been able to stick with it. Andie had already told me on night one that James could just sleep in our bed forever, so it’s safe to say she wouldn’t have wanted to stick with it either. But I do think it’s a viable option for older babies who are having trouble sleeping. It can be upsetting, but healthy sleep is really important for parents and babies. I think it worked for us because he was ready. He wanted to sleep on his stomach and his previous set up wasn’t allowing him to do that so once he figured out that he had the freedom to sleep in his preferred position (knees tucked in with his butt in the air and his face pressed against the mattress) he was able to sleep soundly.

Figuring out nighttime sleep was great progress for us. Now if only we could set him down for his naps. During the day, we either hold him and rock him or drive him around in the car while playing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” on repeat. I’m sure he’ll let us know when he’s ready. Hopefully it’s before college.

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7 thoughts on “Adventures in (Light) Sleep Training

  1. Bethany

    Your baby is a few months older than mine and I love hearing your perspective! My baby sleeps great at night but naps are a whole other story and I have a craaaanky baby! I imagine we may have to sleep train for naps at some point. That crying must be sooooo hard but it seems worth it for a happier and more independent baby and saner parents. :) I’m so glad you guys found something that worked.

    Reply
  2. Shelley

    Go look up Taking Cara Babies. Reasonable sleep training. She’s the first to say getting them to sleep at night in their cribs is easier than naps. It can be done. My grandson is a few months younger than James and now sleeps in his crib during naps after many attempts. It just takes time.

    Reply
  3. Erika

    Thank you for sharing this story! We had a very similar experience with our daughter, and we did pretty much the same thing you guys did. She’s 5 1/2 years old now, and while I know you and Andie both logically know this – she doesn’t remember what she had for breakfast yesterday let alone the times we let her cry in her crib for a few minutes here and there :-). James won’t remember either! I also think with all things baby, you guys have to do what works best for you.

    And remembering too that sleep progress is definitely not linear. My husband and I take turns having “sleepovers” with our daughter throughout the week (not every night, but about 2-3 times a week). It gives us the opportunity to tell goofy stories for a few minutes before bed, and I know she sleeps more soundly when she feels safe and comforted.

    Reply
  4. Su

    I’m glad you’re getting the sleep pattern worked out, and the pics of James are adorable. The last one has me a little concerned, though. Can the side of the crib be raised? Baby’s center of gravity is high, and it looks like he could easily lean over the top, flip out and end up on the floor. Or is the perspective fooling me?

    Reply
  5. Melissa

    Hi! Long time fan of yours (and Daniel & especially James now… he’s one of the cutest babies I’ve ever seen) My girl is 19 months now and I did sleep “training” very similar. I’d go in probably more than they recommend but I had to. Finally it worked. And looking back it was much quicker than it felt at the time. I agree with others that nap was 1 billion times worse/ harder but dont give up because you both need it!! I would repeat to myself while she cried that she needed sleep for brain development. It was the only thing that helped me get through the 5 minute cries (hers & mine) that seem like an eternity. I also had the dark curtains in her room which I think helps them wind down when its bright during the day. It gets easier & the 2-3 hour break a day is sooo worth it. Good luck!!

    Reply
  6. Katherine Marini

    Hey Andie and Dan!

    We had a hard time with sleep training for our first baby too! It seemed like Olivia was up all night for the first four months! I spent some time googling night nurses as well! I can tell you that it got easier with each kid. Of course – all babies are different but I have to say that routine is everything for a baby. I recommend doing the same thing you did in the evening at nap time as well. Implement a bit of a routine. We have a one year old and she generally takes two naps a day. One nap after breakfast and one after lunch. Her routine goes like: wake up at 7am, diaper change, breakfast, play, bottle, and then nap around 10:30 – 12ish. Then up again, diaper change, lunch, play, bottle, and down for a second nap around 2/3. It helps to be consistent and have a routine! Also, if she fusses at nap, we leave her in her crib – unless she is inconsolably crying. Hope this helps! Good luck :)

    Reply

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