Sleep Training for the Sensitive Mama

*a long post about getting a baby to sleep

For most of Cyrus’s first year, he napped in my arms. He spent most of the night in my arms. 

The first six months involved the 5-S dance (I was told this would lead to my having the Happiest Baby on the Block. LOLz.). Some nights Koan would be the shusher, some nights I would. We’d try so hard to make it easier for one another; one would offer to take over while the other would be so determined to push through the screaming to the eventual silence. Those daytimes at home, I’d sit somewhere comfy for the duration of the nap. I made it through all 7 seasons of The West Wing and did a lot of phone scrolling. All of that sitting, rocking, and back-patting, I was suffocated and I was so blissful. The sweet weight of his resting self, no longer arching from reflux pain or flexing from general baby muscle-building, would trap me and it would rejuvenate me. 

Somewhere along the line, I managed to shift to putting him down on a bed, then lying next to him. At night, I’d put him on his cushion and read or scroll or type next to him on the bed, laying my hand on his belly and shushing when he stirred. We were in Alabama after Christmas when Cyrus was 6 1/2 months old when he first nursed to sleep. No more shushing and swinging, just relaxing in my arms. 

But, shortly after falling asleep, he’d wake again, crying or searching or, eventually, signing for MILK. Then an hour or two later and then an hour or two after that and so on. Some nights, just every single hour. 

We sought wise counsel and learned we needed to eliminate the first feeding, so that we would not stimulate digestion and re-waking. By just not giving in. By extinction, the nearly impossible procedure I’d prescribed to my own clients in the past. A few months later, I was ready. One night, without warning to Cyrus or to a very bewildered Koan, I just decided I was going to push through. My sweet, snuggly, determined baby cried for 70 minutes. He hadn’t started sleeping in his crib yet, so to keep him from falling off our bed in his distress and to feel like I was doing something in my doing-nothing-ness, I just held him. I told him he was going to be ok and he would be able to have milk again after a few hours and that I loved him. I sang all our good night songs while he arched and screamed and clawed at my chest. He whimpered and almost fell back asleep then ramped it all back up to level 11 out of 10. And then he fell asleep. After 70 minutes. 

The next night he cried for 15 minutes. The next night for 5. After that, he would still wake before midnight, but would easily go back to sleep with a few minutes of cuddles. 

After his first birthday, I started placing him into his crib at night. When he was tiny, Koan and I would sit in the dark on the couch, Cyrus in one of our arms, and watch a show - very quietly. Then came the months of me sitting in bed with the babe, Koan working or watching zombie shows or reading on the couch. Now, Cyrus was in his bed and we were sitting on the couch together, finally using that fancy video monitor. 

After 1 or 2 AM, when he woke for the second or third time, I’d bring him back into our bed. And the frequent waking and crying or signing or INSISTING on milk would start again. I knew it was time to start having him fall asleep in his crib on his own. We were ready, but I wasn’t sure I was ready. After all that time, I had, in fact, become attached to those sweet, sleepy moments. I wanted to move on to less frequent night wakings, but I didn’t want to lose that pure, connected time in our chair, free-flowing oxytocin and rhythmic rocking. 

Without a real plan, I started telling Cyrus that “soon” he wouldn’t fall asleep with me in the chair, but in his bed. I told him I would stay with him until he fell asleep, but that I wouldn’t pick him up. I told him he would be safe and I would be there with him. Koan told him that he would do the same, that we loved him very much, and that he would be ok. 

While working a shift at The Family Room, I overheard bits of sleep group and realized we needed to come back. We needed a real plan if we were ever going to pull the trigger. Cyrus and I went to group. We made a plan. 

Add solid, discrete, external cues. Nurse for the length of x, cover up and talk about milk “going to sleep,” cuddle for the length of y. Place baby in bed, shush and sing and pretend to sleep until he nods off.

3 days later, after more describing and warning and gearing myself up, I was up for the task. Nurse (“You Are My Sunshine” - chorus, verse, chorus), change into crew neck Noah’s Ark shirt, read books, snuggle (“I Love You Lord” - singing once, humming once), whisper “I love you just the way you are, no matter what,” then place into bed. 

The first night was hard. I was prepared for it to be hard, but my baby is such a toddler now and I wasn’t prepared for how well I would be able to empathize with him. He stood and cried and reached for me as I lay next to his crib, clapping his hands and bouncing up and down for emphasis. Being able to label this an extinction burst did not make it easy to push through. His nose ran ferociously and I sat up to wipe it. I knelt next to his crib and hugged him, his arms wrapped around my neck, his body weight collapsed against me, sniffling and catching his breath. I reminded him that I wasn’t going to pick him up, that I loved him and he was going to be ok, that it was time to lie down and rest. Three times he held the edge of the crib and tried to lie down on his back, each time hitting his head against the side, then standing again and crying angrily. Finally, after only 30 minutes, he sat in the center of the crib and lay back, sniffled hard a few times, then bravely fell asleep.

The next night he protested for about 3 minutes before lying down. Every night since then, I’ve unnecessarily lain next to him, as he’s been perfectly content to lie in his crib and fall asleep almost immediately. The duration he stays asleep has been different every night, but it’s been a success. Easier than Koan and I ever expected. 

My heart aches and swells with pride over the progress we’ve made. My baby is learning through hard work to do what some babies do naturally before they can sit up on their own. We are teaching him. We are using the resources at our disposal to make educated and loving decisions for our family. We are doing hard things. Sometimes I realize we really have no idea what we’re doing; sometimes I am so proud of what we’re doing anyway.