It is 3.52 am in the middle of the night. Yes, I am up. I just need a wee before I can return to my comfy and warm bed deeply asleep for another 3 hours at least. The times when I would be up because my baby was crying wanting a cuddle or a feed are distant memories of a few months ago now. Occasionally my toddler would have a nightmare or a proper night terror and I would try and help him get over it and fall peacefully back to sleep in his own bed or make an exception and let him finish his night in the middle of mummy and daddy, in their big bed, with their smell on the pillows and the sheets. But generally this family sleep sound and good nights throughout. The baby from 8pm to 7am. The toddler from 8.45pm to 6.45pm. The parents from a range between 10.30pm and 12am and 7am roughly.
This may sounds like a dream land for some of you who are still struggling with their first child’s sleep and are dreading the arrival of a second one to only complicate the matter. I don’t know if we are just lucky or if we also influenced our ‘destiny’ to get back our sleep within the first 9 months of our babies’ lives. All I can tell is my personal story. You will be able to make your own conclusions and take whatever suits you best from it 😉 P.S. Because there is so much controversy around this topic, my post is particularly long as I hope to cover all the basic doubts you may have around the subject. It is more addressed to those who already heard of this method before (but see it as too savage to even consider it) than to those you are just looking for a solution to their sleep deprivation for the first time… Though it may just help those people as well, to find out a bit more about a potential solution!
Family sleep background
Both my husband and I are quite good sleepers. My husband needs much less sleep than me, he can manage OK with 6.5 hours sleeps at night, despite we both noticed he functions at best with 7.5 hours and he actually feels discomfort when he goes over 8 hours. I am just about comfortable with 7 hours sleep, however I really have an extra gear when I sleep 9 hours in a row. Those numbers are probably giving you dizziness right now, if you have had 2 hours sleep in a row at maximum in the last few months (years 😦 )! But it is true, generally we both sleep through the night and quite deeply, especially me. I am making this point as the quality of one’s personal sleep may as well be hereditary though, from parent to child.
Issues related to lack of sleep
Personally, if I don’t sleep well for several days in a row, I start noticing great changes in my mood, I make more mistakes and I tend to be a bit absent-minded. When the condition of bad sleep spreads on a couple of weeks or more I can start feeling properly depressed and even experiencing vomiting due to extreme tiredness. The only two times it did not affect me that way were when I had a new born baby to look after. The adrenaline and the immense love for this tiny bundle of joy who had just entered in our lives would keep us both going with what felt almost no sacrifice at all ❤ . However, once the first few months passed, around 4/5 months let’s say, I would become easily hysterical, unable to look after my self and my baby emotionally, performing my mother’s duties and meeting my needs quite mechanically (nappy change, bath, dressing, feed, eating, shower); and even our couple was suffering from constant arguments based on nothing, especially little things like “WHY DID YOU JUST SHUT THE DOOR?!? YOU WOKE THE BABY UP, WELL DONE YOU!!!”. Every time I wonder why we should go through this torture (as sleep deprivation is a method of torture after all!) when we are not physically able to cope with a constant lack of sleep through the months or the years… Anyway, why women don’t hesitate to ask for epidurals nowadays, instead of standing the normal labor pain, despite they are warned beforehand of all the side effects on their babies too and no one dares to criticize this new trend? On the other hand, letting our baby sleep in the same bed with us never worked for us to meet our sleep needs, as they would move a lot and we would sleep really lightly, scared to have suffocated them or made them fall off on the floor (not to mention that when a second arrives, both would want to sleep with you in the bed and we only have a queen size one due to lack of space!).
The other incidental consequence of young children being unable to sleep on their own is a practical but nevertheless essential one: nothing ever gets done in the household. If you are busy through the day as you want to give the best to your child who is learning so much about life and needs so much support discovering the world, you certainly have no time left for online grocery, washing up, filling the dishwasher, paying your bills, booking the next family holidays… Generally do you want your kids to eat a balanced diet, to go out dressed with clean and comfortable clothes, enjoying their grandparents at the next half term break, not to get the electricity cut for an unpaid outstanding…? I bet you do. If you have no time during the day because your kids attend childcare only when you are at work, therefore every time you are home, your kids are home with you, then the only moment you can do all those things is when they sleep, as they tend to need a couple of extra hours sleep at least than you do. However if your baby keeps on waking up every 20 minutes until you stop everything you were trying to sort out and go to bed yourself to keep them cuddling next to you so they can sleep, nothing from your to do list will be ever crossed. And we are not even factoring time for yourself as a human being right now, despite you desperately need to recharge your batteries every evening after a day of baby talk, poo smell and food in your hair, such as with a nice movie or a good book. In fact, if my kids were not sleeping at night, I probably could not even have started this blog in the first place I think… 😦 So at this point of the story you do not actually exist yet, apart from your basic physical needs, we are still only considering how lack of sleep influences the good functioning of the family. You may be able to finally start organizing a bit of ‘me-time’ when you master your family life so well that you know when to find a little space in it for your own hobbies (no worries, you will get there eventually 😉 ).
What about your child now? How is he/she behaving during the day when he has not slept properly through the night? Do they tend to be grumpy; fall asleep exhausted in the worst moment of the day, let’s say through their meal; are they moody with you? As if they gave you the impression they truly believe you are the only ones that can do miracles in their lives… OK, every baby and young child does so of course, but I mean more situations such as being the only one capable of making them sleep by rocking them endlessly through the whole night… What kind of relationship are you creating between yourself and this young creature (who is not a unique thing with you, despite you may be the first one to be longing it to be that way)? This same person that one day, sooner or later, will unfortunately have to leave your nest and learn ‘to fly’ or ‘to hunt’ on their own? I am not sure what concept you have of your child and actually why you wanted kids in the first place, so maybe we have completely different points of view for a start anyway, not only on sleep needs… I personally think I want my kids to grow into self confident and happy young people who will look back at us, their parents, with affection and esteem, as we were only there to guide their first few steps into their own lives, the most amazing adventure we packed for them, and teaching them tools to fulfill it, but never forgetting they are the ultimate authors of their own stories. So how can they do this if they don’t truly believe they will be able to make it on their own one day, if they don’t understand by now we parents don’t hold all the answers for them and one day we will sadly not be there to support them anymore, even if we wanted to? That is why I truly believe they need to acquire such a basic tool as self soothing represents from a young age, as long as they don’t live the experience as abandonment: this is actually the most important condition there is for it to work out well, which I will explain better in a minute.
So isn’t this the actual reason why there is so much controversy over control crying vs close relationship as it represents the first little ‘trauma’ we go through as kids to start becoming a little bit independent? Why weaning with solid food after 6 months of breast comfort only is not perceived as a shock though? Why does it sound more natural that we are expected to potty train our child in a period between 18 months and 3.5 years old maximum? To me personally life is a lot about successful personal individuality rather than the so damaging codependency in a relationship with a parent…
Bad night habits
When I look back at the first few weeks of my babies’ lives I wonder: how did it all started? My son slept 8 hours in a row for the first time when he was only 4 weeks, my daughter was 6 weeks; and between then and 3 months old they would occasionally sleep through the night or usually wake up only once between 8pm and 7am around 2.30 or 3.30 am for a feed. Then it all started quickly regressing to twice a night, and a few weeks later it was already several times a night again despite their were now older babies. Bear in mind that first time around with my son, we almost had a bereavement, hence all of the energy we would have focused on our new baby and what could be the best routines to introduce around that age were all wasted as we were full of worry and anguish for our seriously ill beloved one. Second time around I had learned the lesson and taught my daughter to fall asleep on her own during the day and in the evening since a very young age (she would do so beautifully from 3 or 4 weeks old without crying at all). However around 5 months she would wake up every 2 hours as if she was used to fall back asleep on my breast only when it was dark. She seemed to have arrived to this conclusion: ‘Why falling asleep on my own as I do through the day when it looks to me that in the night it is a completely different routine all together, where mummy takes me in bed with her to feed me every time I cry a few tears?!’ Therefore both times I could not wait to start weaning them so I would know for sure it was not about being hungry at night as I was hoping that with their tummies full of solid food they would be able to finally sleep through the night… What an illusion!
Essential conditions for this technique to work and be safe for your child
– Your baby has to be at least 6 months old or more; you should definitively have started weaning them and possibly be already on to a regular schedule of 4 meals of solid food a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner. You can try the technique even later, especially if you are not sure why your baby is not sleeping well and if you feel that you need to get to know them a bit better or that sightly adjusting their daily routine or bed time habits could be a start for some improvement. Basically, use this resource as your last option, when you have tried everything else and you know for sure that the problem lies on to the fact that your child is simply unable to fall asleep on their own without your intervention, but otherwise well, therefore not hungry; not too hot, not too cold at night; with a clean nappy; without fever or any similar uncomfortable conditions; and so on. But bear in mind that the later you start, the more you child will resist to change his comfy habits and will be able to use more tricks to try and ‘talk’ you out of it 😉
– You have to be consistent and very confident with what you are doing. If you explain to your child (or baby as they do listen and understand most of what you are saying) ‘the new rule from now on is that you will fall asleep on your own’, this has to be happening everywhere, with anyone and at anytime. If you send a unique message it is more likely that the technique will have solid effects straight away. Instead if you start and stop several times you may loose the power of it as your child will not be confident in what you are trying to teach them because there has been several failures in the past and you have returned to the old ‘wrong’ routine. If they feel in your voice that you are gentle and loving but firm, this will boost their serenity in believing you are not abandoning them to their sorrow or fear, you are only telling them the truth about how life is in general. Don’t feel like you are doing it for yourself, forget the sense of guilt if you know that your child is well otherwise: you are providing them with an amazing tool for life, good sleep to live their daytime life with joy ❤ .
– It is very important that your baby or child does not feel abandoned through the whole new process he is going through. When a baby cries, it’s their own way to ask for help, to communicate they have a need. They have to know the world is a safe place to be in, after leaving their mother’s womb, and that those needs will be met. One day as adults, they will treat themselves the way you as parents treated them and they will hopefully have learned to meet all those needs by themselves: what do I do when I am hungry? I eat healthy food; what do I do when I am tired? I lay down and have a break, I book some holidays; what do I do when I feel lonely or down? I meet my caring and loving friends, I am able to ask for help; and so on. In the case of sleep it is about passing on the message that sleeping on their own is the first need they can start learning to meet themselves. But you still love them very much! Then they will soon learn to feed themselves, later to control their bowel, one day to keep their body clean and comfortable by washing themselves and getting dressed with appropriate clothes…
– If after a week you have seen no significant changes and you know you have been very consistent, you have avoided the abandonment issue and were organized to avoid any other issue around sleep as for the first 3 conditions, I would personally stop straight away and seek professional advice. Children centers have many contacts to share with you or may actually have a sleep adviser who works within their team. When I said forget about your guilt, I refer it only to the initial feeling when you will hear your child crying for the first times and you may wonder if you are just selfish by longing them to sleep through the night (you are not, you need your own basic needs to be met too to be a good parent for them as well: your children will benefit from a parent full of energy and on a good mood on a regular basis 🙂 ).
Said all that, I assume lots of people do not actually know what this technique consists of. Most of them may have this image of babies crying through the whole night, drowning in their own tears, permanently brain damaged by the shock of abandonment, with mothers that are heartlessly or simply lightly watching the Big Brother or X-Factor on TV. I personally don’t see myself that way, but maybe I am wrong, who knows 😉 .
I followed the method by Eduard Estivill, a famous Spanish specialist in sleep medicine, however you can find many similar versions of it under the definition Controlled Timed Crying Technique that you can easily find on internet as well. I will not go on to all the information he provided in his book (though I would recommend you read it for yourself as I found it full of humor, reassuring you as a parent and very wise at the same time), such as having a fulfilling day with your child, being very present with them to avoid abandonment issues or that it is good to have a bed time routine, so your baby knows what to expect anyway around that time of the day and their body clock will synchronize to sleeping time. This is because I already mentioned that this method should be your last resource when you are quite confident you can exclude any other issue if not the inability to self sooth and fall asleep on their own.
So, now you have to get ready to follow this method for up to a week, making sure that you and your partner are confident and agrees on the technique to give a unique message to your baby. Then set a week day you will be more comfortable to dedicate time to this method, by loosing, if possible, a bit more sleep than usual but just initially. When the chosen evening comes, once you have put your baby down in their bed, tell them just a few sweet words in a low voice and smile to them to indicate you are wishing them good night and then leave the room. If your baby expects you to do something at this point, as it has always been case, they will certainly cry and can sound very upset, wondering why tonight you have decided you are not going to give them the comfort they need to fall asleep. That is why I mentioned earlier you can also explain during the day to a child as young as a baby that things will be different tonight, so they know what to expect, even if they will still ‘complain’ about the change.
Don’t rush back in there, despite it feels heartbreaking hearing them crying and not taking any action to help them… Return in the room only after 1 whole minute has gone. Check again that your baby is well, not too hot, not too cold; not in an uncomfortable position; that they have not just filled their nappy or be needing to burp. Then wish them gently good night once again and leave the room. Don’t expect miracles, they will still be crying as soon as you leave them alone at this stage! But now you cannot return before 3 minutes have passed.When you re-enter the room, don’t look desperate or guilt, just show yourself and if you want repeat a few peaceful words to calm them down but reiterate it is now time to sleep. Once you leave the room again, you will have 5 minutes before you can show yourself again. And it will stay on 5 minutes intervals for the rest of the night (!).
The pain is now excruciating and you start wondering if you have made the right choice, but now that you are in, remember, it works only if you are consistent, so once you start you will have to give it a go for at least a week to really say that it has not worked for you, don’t give up too quickly (though in most cases you should have resolved the issue in a couple of days)! In my understanding, the reason why you always go back in, despite it seems to make them cry even more, is a proof of love. You are showing to your child you care about them, you are not simply watching TV or sleeping with some earplugs. You are living this moment with them, you are aware they are distressed, you simply cannot do anything to help them in this circumstance and you try and boost their self-confidence by showing you are not panicking at all, you know they can make it! The reason why you return after a slightly bigger gap of time though, is to avoid escalating, where your child keeps on crying believing they will get what they want in the end if they insist a bit more.
My personal outcome
For my own experience, I could not believe it: after 2 hours crying, my son fell asleep on its own and woke up once only the first night (unfortunately I had to repeat the same ritual around 3am but for a much short period of time). Then the following day he would quickly fall asleep for his naps, and after 3 days he was sleeping through the night, without even crying when I put him down on his own. Because I had to start the method twice with my daughter, it took a bit longer in her case. What sightly complicated the problem was that after having learned so well to sleep through the night for a month, I had to put her in the same room as her brother and he woke her up crying when he had nightmares, therefore to calm her down after the scare of hearing him shouting, we had to take her back in our bed to comfort her as we felt it was not depending on her since she had been terrified by her brother. As soon as we managed to be constant with her too (by moving her back in our room though – sorry I don’t have good solutions for children sleeping in the same room apart from waiting they have a few months good sleep routine before putting them together) she was sleeping through the night too, despite she tends to sleep less than her brother at her age (a bit as if she had taken from my husband’s side and my son from me maybe…).
The first few days my sleep was back, I felt a miracle had happened! I was suddenly joyful and optimistic about life in general, I was more cheerful with my kids and more willing to spend good quality time with them! I started feeling I was myself again and I was in love with my family life, having the energy to go through any impossible routine during the day 😉 Now that you know my story, it is up to you to decide what opinion you have on this method. I am not arrogant to pretend that you will now love it if you have been against it so far! I am hoping you will have a different insight on it though, where there could be more room for you to understand who decides to use this method and not simply judging them monsters or believing these are just parents without the ability to realize what their kids go through. It may also be that you work a lot and therefore are willing to make up by giving time through the night, which is absolutely understanding and goes well with avoiding any abandonment issue. Because I gave a lot of my day time to my babies, by staying on maternity leave a full year and then working part time, I did not feel it was right for me and my family. And if you are simply out there and desperate with your sleep deprivation but have not made your mind up about this technique yet, this is a short account of my own experience, hoping that what worked for me, my joyful kids and my happy husband ( ❤ ) can work for you too. Just give it a try if you finally feel up to it 🙂