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Sleep Training: Cruel or Kind?

by Sierra on March 3, 2010 · 34 comments

in parenting

Sleep has been the albatross around the neck of my parenting life for the past six years.

I have a piece up at Strollerderby this week about sleep training.

Seems that parents who feel OK about letting their babies cry it out are more successful at getting their little ones to sleep. I am not that parent.

Before I was a mom, I used to see leaving an infant crying in a crib as tantamount to child abuse, a terrible breach of trust. I know I’ll never have the cajones to do it myself, but I got too tired long ago to judge anyone else’s approach.

Like so many parenting philosophies, this one has been thrown overboard in favor of doing what works. Which for me seems to be: sleepwalk through two years of co-sleeping a baby, move toddler to own bed, then let the toddler cry out her frustrations at being cut off from night nursing in my arms for a few nights.

My first child was three years old before she started reliably sleeping through the night. This was after her little sister was born. My husband and I have been juggling baby related night wakings since before we even had a baby together, when I would get up three times a night to pee during pregnancy.

In fact, my husband is upstairs trying to settle a crying toddler back to sleep as I type this.

How did we end up like this?

We started out as well-intentioned hippy parents with visions of peaceful cosleeping in a gentle family bed. And we had a baby who woke up no less than once an hour for the first 18 months of her life. She’d wake up screaming at full volume, shaking and red and wild.

Apparently some kids are just like this. And, in case you were curious, these kids are never good candidates for a cry-it-out sleep training approach, no matter what attitude the parents have.

We never tried a cry-it-out method with her. While I’ve often wished I had the stomach to make a baby cry herself to sleep and get it over with, I’m just not wired like that. I usually find myself wishing for the nerves of steel it must take to do it around 3 a.m., when it is far too late to suddenly become a different mother.

Instead, we tried Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution, a lovely book which just left me in tears because none of it worked. Then we gradually weaned her off of our bed onto a mattress on the floor near our bed, onto a mattress on the floor in her own room, and eventually up onto her bed. Sometime after that we eventually persuaded her to give up night nursing.

I desperately wanted us to be one of those blissed out family bed families that let the child lead the whole process of moving out of the parents’ bed and away from night nursings towards a more adult style sleep. People do it, all the time. But it just didn’t work for us. At a certain point, we had to start setting some hard boundaries about what kind of parenting attention she could have at night. There was crying. And screaming. Not just from the kid.

When we finally got her to sleep in her own bed, she slept for almost four hours at a stretch that first night. It was the longest anyone in our house had slept in years. We all immediately became much nicer people.

So what was the right answer?

I’ve often wondered, since then, if it wouldn’t have been better for the kids to have me set a firmer boundary earlier. To let them cry it out, in other words.

It’s an experiment I’ll probably never run. I coslept and night nursed my second child too. Serena has a much more easygoing temperament than her sister. She slept through her birth, and sleep has been less challenging with her from the beginning. We didn’t do anything different with her, she’s just a different kid. More accepting. She moved into her own bed with no fuss when she turned two. She still wakes up most nights to pee, but gave up night nursing with minimal bother.

I think she would have done fine with a Ferber style sleep training approach. She did fine with cosleeping and free-range night nursing. Most kids, I hear, have this kind of adaptable temperament.

If you’re looking the right solution for your family, here’s a nice summary of the available expert opinions on infant sleep. If you’ve taken a co-sleeping, breastfeeding approach thus far and are ready for a change, PhD in Parenting has a great article up about night weaning.

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  • CBsMom

    I have no words of wisdom to add, just sympathy and I know how you feel. My 3 year old hated me when I finally night weaned at 20 months. I still have to lay with him in his bed to get him to sleep. My 6 year old didn't leave our bed until he was over 3. They both end up in our bed a few nights a week. I don't know how to “fix” it and don't know if I want to. I think they'll want to be away from me soon enough, so I'll try and embrace the present as best as I can for now.


  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    yeah – I have a lot of parenting moments where I just think “this too shall pass”. It's a shame that we have to have all our moments of of parenting babies consecutively – I love babies, and it'd be great to have one for a few hours a day for a decade instead of EVERY BLESSED MOMENT for two years.


  • http://twitter.com/bkdelong B.K. DeLong

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    My 5.5 year old “doesn't like” his room and if I don't stay next to him as he falls asleep at night he'll clump down the stairs and climb into our bed – sometimes before we get there. Most of it is a fear issue (according to him) as we live in an old house with thin walls and two neighbors directly on either side.

    We gave up early on carrying him up a flight of stairs half-asleep (he's getting heavy!) only to have him come back down so…he still sleeps with us anywhere from 2-5am until morning.

    It will be interesting to see what we do with our 1.5 year old when she's ready to get out of her crib. I have a rather…..severe reaction to her crying so we don't let her cry often. With the boy coming down into bed I'm not sure even he is ready to share with his sister.


  • Sara Amis

    I coslept until my son was ready to sleep by himself, but…he was never much of a cryer anyway. Even when he was 4-5, I would bring him back to my bed to sleep if he was sick. I did it that way because I got MORE sleep than if I was getting up to go in another room to check on him, and because I was actually more responsive: if his fever spiked it would wake me up. But in my mind the root of “attachment parenting” is being adaptive and responsive to YOUR child as an individual, not the idealized child in a book.


  • http://desiringsubject.livejournal.com/ desiringsubject

    “I know I’ll never have the cajones to do it myself”

    Did you mean “cojones”?

    “In US slang, cojones denotes “brazen, brave attitude”, pronounced /kəˈhoʊneɪz/ and /kəˈhuːnəz/ in English. Contextually, its usage is like that of the Yiddish chutzpah (nerve) and the Finnish sisu (perseverance). A common euphemistic mis-spelling of cojones is cajones (furniture “drawers” and “wooden box drums”, see cajón).”



  • http://www.findyourfloor.org/ Jen Hunter

    I think there’s a big difference between a child crying because she is scared or feeling abandoned, and a child crying because she didn’t get her way, and this difference is important in sleep training. When we did a modified Ferber method with Ilana at 10.5 mos, I could tell the difference, and it was pretty easy for me to ignore her “Hey! You’re not doing my bidding!” cries. Sometimes her cry was more scared/upset, and at those times I would give her extra hugs and comfort. I agree with your assessment that the success of sleep training may well depend on the temperment of the kid. Ilana took to the method really well. She’s the kind of person who really needs limits; she’s more content and pleasant when she doesn’t get her way too often. (I have found this out through trial and error!)


  • Krista

    This is always a touchy subject! I think mostly because parents seem to think it has to be one extreme or the other: lock a 3 month old in another room and let it scream until it passes out from exhaustion, or have a family bed and spring into action, breast out every time a three year old murmurs.

    I used to be a live-in nanny and now I’m expecting my first ‘biological’ baby, so I’ve thought a lot about it. I think the important thing to remember is that it can be a really gray area and that after that initial infant stage, it’s ok for parents to have some needs too. It’s ok to rock a crying kid instead of nurse her, you’re still responding. It’s ok to tell her that since she’s such a big girl now she gets her very own bed. And it’s ok to let her back into yours if she comes in halfway through the night.


  • Lise

    Psst… check the Strollerderby link…


  • Diana Onken

    This post really speaks to me. My 2 year old has some serious sleep issues and we have struggled with them on and off for most of her little life. It’s been rough and she definitely didn’t respond well to cry it out. She reminds me of your oldest daughter.

    We did find this approach (http://www.sleeplady.com/) to be very helpful. We worked with the Sleep Lady and have used her approach which has helped.

    I’m still not getting enough sleep at night (and either is my daughter) but she’s doing better.


  • Rowan

    Interesting piece!

    By the way, the link to the Strollerderby article is broken.


  • http://www.findingmommy.com/ Christy

    Well I definitely can’t offer any words of advice. I’m right there along with you. The most I’ve been able to let my girls cry it out for is about 10 minutes. Enough time for me to walk away, gain some composure, and get back to it. My 3-year old sleeps in our bed. She nursed until she was over age 2 at which point I was pregnant and she self-weaned. My 1-year old sleeps in a pack n play next to my bed but usually ends up in our bed around midnight. I tried the ” no cry sleep solution” also with our first to no avail. I haven’t tried anything with our second who still nurses frequently (sometimes hourly) at night. I figure it will pass. One day the girls will no longer want to snuggle up with us and we might as well enjoy it while it lasts (although some nights it’s hard to enjoy waking up frequently with each child!). I too sometimes wonder if I’m doing my children a disservice by not “teaching” them to sleep on their own and always having mommy or daddy there to rock them back to sleep, but in the end I guess I’d rather worry about that than the other way around.


  • CBsMom

    I like how you used “every BLESSED moment.” Sometimes I don't feel so blessed with three feet and a butt in my face at 3:30am.


  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    Yeah. I'm always pleasantly surprised with Serena how when we set a limit, she may fuss or cry, but after a time or two she responds. Rio was JUST NOT LIKE THAT. When I told Serena no more night nursing, she cried for two nights. With Rio it was…months?


  • keyne

    Same here. My therapist recently suggested I'd get more sleep if the 11yo and 7yo didn't still crawl into our bed fairly often. I told her I'd rather enjoy the time while I still have it. At least it's intermittent now — we didn't get the older one to sleep through the night in his own bed consistently till he was in elementary school :)


  • freedomroks

    It's nice to be reminded that we're not the only ones dealing with sleep problems. Cole is 2 yrs, 2 months and we'r in the middle of giving up night nursing now. He doesn't seem to mind so much at night – he just crawls into bed with us, asks for milk, and then goes to sleep in about 5 seconds when I give him his pacifier. He has started, however, asking for milk during the day, again, which he hadn't had in about a month. I”m hoping that with a lot of cuddeling and distraction, he'll be completly weaned soon.

    We're doing this becaues I don't think we can handle 2 kids in the bed with us, and we have a 2nd (a girl this time) due the end of July. My goal is to have him sleeping all night in his bed by May – mostly because I don't want him to associate weaning/sleeping on his own with the new baby. Plus we're moving in June…. guess we should delay potty training until after that, at least, lol.. Hopefully we can swing me taking several months off work to stay home and help us thru all these changes…


  • lillibet

    We didn't have to deal with screaming every hour–Alice has always been a pretty solid sleeper. But at nine months, Jason decided that it was time for her to enjoy the luxury of her own crib and undertook the process. The first night he sat in a chair next to her, the next night he sat in a chair in the doorway, the third night outside the room, the fourth night outside the room with the door mostly closed…and that was it. She very occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night–more often now that she's trying to use the potty every time–but goes back to sleep pretty easily. She is pretty dependent on music to get to sleep, but can control that for herself now.

    I've been following the several recent studies about how chronically sleep deprived we are and how that affects children's health, behavior and performance in school. The guidelines I'm reading suggest 12-14 hours up to age 4 and we generally hit that with 10 hours at night and a 2-3 hour nap in the afternoon.

    We had a major napping setback about a month ago, after the pacifier went away, that was resolved after a couple of weeks when I finally shut the door and let her cry it out for 20 minutes. After 3 days without a nap, she was a different and much less pleasant person and after one day with a four hour nap, she was back to her usual self. And so far–knock on wood–we haven't needed to do it again.


  • Pingback: Belle Saves Bedtime! — ChildWild

  • http://apprenticemom.com/ apprenticemom

    I love Elizabeth Pantley, but my friends and I have often referred to her sleep book as the “No-Sleep, Cry Solution.” :)


  • Pingback: The Baby Sleep Wars | Strollerderby

  • http://fastforwardacademy.com/index-page-irs-enrolled-agent-exam-course.htm Ricca

    Thank you for sharing the link for the summary of expert opinions related to this matter. I have found such great insight. I have to say that though I'm not a mom yet, I enjoyed reading your articles, they are very informative and the topics are interesting.


  • http://discountbeddingsets.org/ Discount Bedding Sets

    For me sleeping training is quite cruel and difficult. To increase your chance of getting a good sleep you should check your bedding sets.


  • Pingback: Cry It Out Sleep Training Hurts Baby Brains | Strollerderby

  • http://babybeddingcribsets.net/ Bedding Crib Sets

    It is proper to get your child trained in sleeping although this is quite hard and cruel but there would be a lot of benefits with it.


  • http://babybeddingcribsets.net/ Bedding Crib Sets

    It is proper to get your child trained in sleeping although this is quite hard and cruel but there would be a lot of benefits with it.


  • valerian42

    In my opinion, you have to find a way to make going to sleep fun for them, like reading a story or watching all in bed Shrek… etc.


  • Pingback: Bedtime: How Do You Make It Work? | Strollerderby

  • eurasia15

    I really feel for you, I had the same situation with my little one, getting one of those new memory foam beds helped a lot though once they were big enough for one. Sometimes you have to experiment with sleeping surfaces to find the one they like the most.


  • http://www.kingbedinabag.com king bedding

    Letting them sleep it out is not anything that I was able to do myself. Pros & cons each way, I guess.


  • CletusShirley

    Letting the child cry might seem cruel but you must realize that, although just an infant, our children can manipulate us. If we come running every time they start crying they will understand that they have to cry whenever they need something. So let them cry for a while until you run to comfort them. At least this is what I did and my two girls are both healthy, happy and listen to their parents.
    All the best,

    PS: Discount tempurpedic if anyone was looking. I just found it and thought I'd share the news.


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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EOJ422OHLXIYXDRTXIXNC46M6A Kat

    Some kids can do it, others cannot. My nephew rarely wakes in the night(he’s 2). Once you get him down he’s done, its GAME.
    My sister was the opposite. She fought and screamed and would not sleep unless someone was there.
    Me? My parents sleep trained me in a fashion. By the time I was 7 months, if they laid me down and left I would cry for a minute then, according to my dad, cursed them and went to sleep.
    Your the mom, you know your children. You have to trust yourself to make the right choices for them, for you and for your family.
    We might not approve of your choices but does that matter? We’re the nameless internet masses.


  • Rachel

    Sierra, I think you and I had the same child (and we are very similar parents). I have tried letting my stubborn sleeper cry for 5-10 minutes at a time, but after an hour of 5 minutes of crying, then 5 minutes of holding (and me near tears), I decided it was absolutely not worth it. 

    My son wakes up SCREAMING and furious, and will only fall asleep nursing… when I am home, that is. After two nights of him switching from one side to the next for over an hour and me having the most uncomfortable aching breasts, I decided that that just was NOT going to happen again tonight. I let him switch sides once, and then he was done. As a result, I tried to hold a screaming toddler as he arched his back, trying to pull my shirt up, rolling around on top of me and all over the bed for two hours. 

    I also read the “No Cry Sleep Solution” and was left feeling the same way… sad that not one of those ideas worked with my son. From what I hear, it’s a fantastic book for easy going kids. My son is very easy going, except when it comes to sleep.

    I am so tired of reading stories about putting babies/toddlers in their bed when they are drowsy, but still awake… like they just lay down calmly rather than jumping up and screaming full throttle. I am tired of hearing about the frustrations parents have when their 18-month-old wakes up twice in the night when my 21-month-old only JUST went down from 12 wakings to 2-3. I am tired of hearing people say to just let them cry it out in your arms, when my son rolls, arches his back, kicks, flails his arms, and screams as though he is being tortured.

    Seeing as we have such similar children, I would LOVE to hear how you finally manged to get your toddler into her own bed, and to fall asleep without nursing. I’m feeling like I’m going to be that mom nursing a seven-year-old with the way things are going here.


    Sierra Reply:

    Rachel, it was a long, hard slog, but I found that around age 3 something seemed to just click for her and she started going to bed much more easily and sleeping through the night. I know 3 years old seems like eternity from where you are, but it really is a huge shift to look forward to. In the meantime, if you have a partner who can do bedtime, you might consider giving over bedtime to your partner and just getting out of the house. Yes, your son will probably scream bloody murder the first few times, but then he’ll get into a new routine and you’ll both catch a break. My husband still puts our kids to bed most of the time, while I go for a walk or out to visit a friend or whatever. It’s a special time for him to bond with the girls and it gives me a chance to get some downtime after a long day with them.

    Good luck! I know how hard it can be!


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