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A Flip-Flop on the Sleep Training Front

It’s almost 11 pm. The lights are dimmed, the dogs are snoozing on the sofa and my son, all zipped up in his sleep suit, is on my lap staring at a book. I’m cranky, tired, frustrated and stressed; every consecutive minute of sleep we’ve worked toward over the last 10 months has suddenly shattered to bits.

Only a few weeks ago, all I needed to do was place my son in his crib, say “I love you” a few times, switch off the light and leave. He’d lie there smiling, looking at me through the bars with droopy eyes. Then he would roll over and put himself to sleep. Life was good then. Really, really good.

And that goodness had been hard won. I had never thought of myself as the kind of mother who would sleep train her child. I may have even harboured the thought, “How can you leave your child to cry their lungs out just so you can have an extra hour to yourself before bed?” That was in the early days, in the first three months of my son’s life, when he slept like a dream.

But somewhere in the fourth month, things started to go pear-shaped. He started waking up once, then twice; soon, almost every hour. I’d feed him and if, I was lucky, that would put him to sleep. If I wasn’t, he needed to be rocked back to sleep. If I was too tired or my arms couldn’t take it, I’d prop him on a pillow and rock him on my legs. Sometimes I’d fall asleep like that until my husband noticed a few minutes or a few hours later.

Then, he started expecting the same kind of rocking and feeding combination during the day as well.

Some parents might not have minded this nightly (and daily) routine. But for me, the very idea of rocking-feeding-repeating for another year – during which time my son would go from 3 to 12 kgs – was demoralizing. I’d sit in my room with the lights turned down and nothing to keep me company but the cries of my son, wondering where I had gone wrong. Hadn’t I done everything by the book(s)? I’d followed Dr Harvey Karp’s 5 Ss to the tee in the first few months. I had given Gina Ford’s Contented Baby routines a go. I had even read every book and piece of literature I could find on how to put your child to sleep without distress to either party.

And yet, there was distress. A lot of distress.

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When I had nothing left to read, when I was holding my crying son in the darkness, my mind started going over my worst regrets and memories. I started beating myself up about my career, my life choices and people I had done wrong. Some nights I’d go even further back and relive all my worst memories from school. I sat there in a prison of darkness and could not move until the baby was asleep.

I realised I needed help the night I first wished I could smother him with a pillow.

So, at 9 months old, I sleep trained my son. I used the Ferber method and left him to cry for increasingly long intervals of time. Voila! In three days everyone was happy. He slept on his own, he slept longer, and he did it again and again and again for every nap.

“That’s really harsh,” a friend told me. “Just put him in bed next to you and pat him to sleep. It’s what works for me and it’s wonderful.”

She didn’t know that I’d already tried that. #notallbabies.

“You do know that you’re letting your child cry until he realises that no one is coming for him, don’t you?” said another friend who staunchly opposes any version of the Cry It Out method (of which Ferber is one), no matter how gentle. “It’s practically abandonment.”

But the deed was done, and no one could deny how great it was that my toddler could self-soothe, relieving me from the biggest of bedtime anxieties. Everyone envied my sleep. And while I didn’t become a sleep training advocate (“It isn’t for the faint hearted,” I’d tell friends), I stood by my decision. It had moved me back into the light.

Ten months later, I’m scanning Google on my phone for terms like ‘sleep regression,’ ‘separation anxiety,’ and ‘night terrors.’ My groggy old brain is registering none of them. Once again, I just want to sleep.

A few months shy of his second birthday, my son is refusing to be left alone. I panicked, remembering the dark days of my sleepless depression and yes, desperation. The Ferber method does state that such relapses take place during developmental changes and that the best thing to do is just restart the course.

But somehow, I can’t.

Yes, he’s refusing to put himself to sleep. Worse still, he’s refusing to sleep entirely. But something had changed this time around. My husband is more confident in helping put our son to sleep. He sits and pats him to sleep, so I don’t have to go through the endless rocking again. And when my son wakes after midnight, I bring him into bed with me to sleep until morning.

I’m discovering that while life was great after sleep training, isn’t so bad right now either. The best of both worlds might just be possible – sleep training, and not.

My son is older, more assertive in his demands now and expressive of his feelings, even if he cannot talk. He makes me feel like the most most important person in his life even on days when I don’t deserve the ‘Mother of the Year’ mug. Most of the time, I know what he needs. All of this makes it easier to bear, even appreciate, the sleeplessness that seemed like such a sign of failure when he was younger.  Every evening at bedtime, when I walk out of the room and he stands and stretches out his little arms, I just don’t want to let him down.

Sleep training isn’t our way forward, but it’s how we got here. Which is why, if I had to go back and do it again, I would.

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