My daughter is now 26 months, or for those of you annoyed by the continued counting of months like I am, she is 2. We have always had sleep issues. She was born at 3:15 on a Thursday afternoon after 28 hours of arduous labor that ultimately ended with an emergency C-section. By that evening, we were already in over our heads. Lara, my daughter, would cry if she wasn’t being held. As new parents who had just gone through a traumatic experience, the last thing we knew how to handle was a nonstop crying baby. Despite the nurse arguing with me that I shouldn’t hold her, she allowed me to put pillows against the railings of my hospital bed so I could hold Lara while we slept. I didn’t know what else to do.
For the next several months, we’d wake every few hours to breastfeed and diaper (if needed) the baby. Lara slept in a bassinet next to my side of the bed and my doting husband would wake up, walks round the bed, get the baby, change her and hand her to me for feeding. When after nursing, and she’d fallen back to sleep, we’d put her back in her bassinet.
We were freaking exhausted.
Then, when Lara was 4 months, she didn’t like our routine anymore. We’d put her in the bassinet and she’d cry and cry and cry. We moved the bassinet away from the bedside in case, somehow, that would help. I’d lay on the floor and rock her. That didn’t work. The only thing that soothed her was to hold her. So, then began our bedsharing for the next year and a half. And honestly, this worked. If we traveled, we didn’t need a pack and play, all she needed was my arm to sleep on and a boob.
I should point out that we did try alternatives. We tried co-sleeping (crib next to the bed without a rail), we tried a floor mattress, we tried variations of cry it out but I wasn’t ready. I consulted with our pediatrician who also recommended cry it out and I promptly asked to have another doctor in the practice. The only thing that helped us all to sleep was bed-sharing. So that’s what we did.
Meanwhile, I was struggling with my mental health. I was in severe postpartum depression. I was still waking every few hours to nurse the baby and constantly Google searching how to fix our sleeping situation among other infant-related concerns like feeding, pumping, developmental milestones, and on and on and on. I decided to go to therapy.
Upon the initial meeting with a therapist I was told that if I didn’t stop nursing my baby and bedsharing, my marriage was going to fail. That I’d created a rod for my own back. I was angry and I never went back. I started to scroll Instagram searching for similarly-minded influencers talking about bedsharing and gentle parenting. I needed to find an echo chamber that would reinforce my beliefs about sleep. And I found another therapist.
This new therapist was a lot more like me in that her children were in the same, small town, Montessori school as my own. She seemed to come from the same mindset when it came to raising kids; follow the child. However, after a year and a half of bed-sharing with Lara, my therapist suggested that it was time to let her sleep on her own. Because I trusted her judgment, I did it. After a few nights of crying, it was over. Lara was sleeping on her own but not yet through the night and not yet late enough into the morning. But it was enough of a break that I was willing to allow it.
With time, Lara started to sleep longer stretches and needed less and less intervention during the night. It seemed to help that my husband would go in and give her a pacifier instead of me trying to soothe Lara back to sleep. It also seemed that the less that was said, was the most helpful.
Now, Lara is over 2 years old and our bedtime routine is pretty well established. Bedtime begins around 7pm, we put our jammies on, brush our teeth, read stories and go to bed. She is still in a crib because I haven’t yet figured out how to do the transition to a “big kid” bed. A few months ago she figured out that she could climb out on her own. So now, we use a sleep sack I found on Amazon. She wakes up every morning around 4:30a and I haven’t yet had the guts to try to push it further. Because despite what I know to be true, that it is okay for her to cry, I’m just not willing to do it yet in the early morning, that’s why I have an automatic, timed coffee pot. I will try soon though.
So what exactly did we do to get her to sleep? Beyond the routine I mentioned, we use a loud sound machine with beach waves. We have two blackout curtains on her windows so that when we turn out the lights, it is pitch black in her room. It is so dark in there that it doesn’t matter if my eyes are open or closed, I can see nothing. My husband says “goodnight”, and turns off the lights. I stay behind and pat her on the back for a few minutes and say “goodnight” myself. Some nights she is OK with me leaving, others she is not. I’ve found that if she cries and isn’t trying to climb out of the crib, I can let her go for a few minutes and she will settle herself down.
What I know is this, children need boundaries. Lara needs me to tell her what is going to happen, and how, and then stick to it. She cannot have a mother that wavers. She needs me to give her a routine.
What I also know is that it is OK to let a child cry. The theory of attachment parenting tells us that our child will not be harmed by the cry-it-out method of sleep training, nor will they be harmed by sleep training at all. In fact, it will help them. When everyone is able to sleep, everyone will be able to function better emotionally. The child will be able to grow and develop as they should when they’re able to sleep.
What’s really frustrating is that there are a lot of people out there trying to capitalize on tired parents, offering them paid sleep plans or courses. Here is a good article on sleep training from the people at What to Expect.
Sleep seems to be a universal issue for parents. So just know, if you’re going through sleep struggles, you’re not alone. Somewhere, there are other parents awake in the middle of the night, just like you. And if that isn’t reassuring, perhaps look into sleep training?