I remember the severity of his cry. It was lusty, desperate, and terrible. Hearing it made my insides writhe. I knew that he knew that I was right outside the door, and he was terrified as to why I wasn’t coming back in.
Though I had been advised to let my baby cry alone, to self-soothe, I couldn’t do it. I flung the door open and we were reunited, tears streaming down both of our faces. I held his small body against mine and, while he calmed down quickly, it took a while for me to deescalate.
This, of course, is not an affective way to sleep-train your child. I had tried because Levi had stopped sleeping through the night, and I was told I needed to let him figure it out on his own. But I realized I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just because I couldn’t bear to hear my child cry, as traumatic as it was in itself. It was because I was empathetic to his plight.
My Own Sleep Troubles
As a child, and teen I had trouble sleeping through the night. I would look at the clock and wait. Cry and wait. Pray and wait. Plead and wait. Sometimes it took me hours to fall back asleep.
But sleep had never been so hard for me as it was about eight years ago when I was battling some severe anxiety. The daytime hours were hard, but the nighttime seemed unbearable. I took melatonin, Benadryl, anything to help me sleep, but my body was so set into fight-or-flight mode, I couldn’t calm myself down.
I remember one night, waking up feeling like my heart was going to burst from my chest. My eyes darted around the room, and I tried various techniques to calm my racing heart, but nothing seemed to be working. I remember feeling in particular like God was right there, able to intercede with comfort and peace, but refusing to do so. I hurled my Bible against the wall that night, angry with God for breaking my trust, feeling as though he had betrayed me.
With a lot of counseling and time to heal, I was reminded that God didn’t betray me in that time. I’ve clung to verses like Deuteronomy 31:8: “ It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” He was present with me during those dark times. I know that he is a good Father, the giver of all good things. But sometimes, I still doubt if he is good. I still remember that moment in the dark, the horrible vulnerability, the terror of feeling alone.
There was no way I could allow my child to go through that. Hearing my baby cry was a trigger for me. I couldn’t stop putting myself in his little body, couldn’t stop looking out from between the crib slats with his eyes. I questioned if following the sleep-training advice would indeed help him to become more independent, or if it would break trust. Was it worth it?
For me, the answer was no. It just felt wrong to me. I realize that a lot of it was because of my own projecting onto him, but I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t let him cry it out alone.
Still feeling as though I needed to do something, I tried various ways of gentle sleep-training, though most didn’t live up to the name for us. I tried removing “negative” sleep associations, establishing a consistent routine without nursing, sending Kevin in to him when he cried at night (the first and only time we did that, Levi screamed for over an hour while I wept downstairs), but this mostly left Levi confused and desperate for stability, i.e. me. I tried positive associations with nap time, commending him when I’d leave the room and he didn’t cry, returning only when he was calm. I was advised to sit next to him while he fell asleep, but only pat his back and reassure him quietly when he cried (whereas Levi would usually greet me with a big smile after a nap, he literally wouldn’t look at me after the first and last time I took that advice).
In any regard, sleep training wasn’t working out for us. I felt like it was causing intense stress on my relationship with Levi, and it also was creating stress in general. I would spend up to an hour getting him to fall asleep, only to have him sleep for a maximum of 45 minutes. The more sleep training I did, the less he actually slept.
I felt like a failure. The first question everyone seemed to ask was, “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” and I’d always answer, “No.” I was in so much turmoil as to what to do to get him to sleep, that my own sleep deprivation was catching up with me. I became moody and emotional and irrational.
Until, finally, I gave up. I surrendered to the idea that Levi may never sleep through the night, that in my heart, I didn’t really want to sleep train, and I was finally broken enough to just accept the reality of defeat.
With Kevin’s support, I ended up doing the opposite of what I was advised. I chose to nurse my son to sleep in my arms. I chose to pick him up every time he cried, often whispering in his ears the words that were a comfort to me: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you. Do not be afraid.” I eventually stopped laying him down in his crib and started bringing him to bed with us. I expected his middle-of-the-night cries, and accepted them.
And a strange thing happened. I started sleeping better. My sleep was still interrupted, sure, but I felt well rested, happy even. And Levi woke less and less.
When Lucy was born, I just chose to co-sleep with her from the very beginning, and we’ve been doing a variation of it ever since. Now, both children begin in their own beds; Lucy in a Pack-n-Play beside me, Levi in his room or in a mattress on the floor. At some point before dawn, all four of us end up in our queen sized bed. And other than getting kicked a few times by flailing legs, it’s not a problem. It works for us.
I know sleep-training is a polarizing thing. I know there’s a lot of guilt that goes around with whether or not people do it and why, so I want to tread on this topic lightly.
I think the important thing is to not only know the decisions we make, but why we make them. A mother and grandmother once gave me a piece of wisdom: every choice we make has a consequence, for good or for bad; we have to decide if we can tolerate the consequences, and if the answer is yes, go forward in confidence.
We all have a story as parents. We all have a journey that leads us to the decisions we make. I want to strive to be a person who understands your journey, even if we arrive at different destinations.
What has been your nighttime parenting journey?
Thanks for listening to mine.