How Sleep Training Made Me a Less Anxious Mother

IMG_2111I have a confession to make: letting my baby cry has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made as a parent.  I can now listen to his cries without tensing up, clamping my hands over my ears, or experiencing the very strong desire to curl up in the corner and die.  For the first four and a half months of John’s existence, I couldn’t hear his cries without immediately jumping up to soothe him.  When he dropped his toy and began to cry while I was doing the dishes, I would drop everything in the sink immediately so that I could return his toy or pick him up.  When he got bored with his position on his floor mat and would cry to let me know, I would leave piles of half-folded laundry so that I could change his position or move him to his Bumbo or bouncy seat.  I would leave sandwiches half-eaten on their plates if I heard him whimpering in his swing after waking up from a nap.  Every day, I left countless projects unfinished because John had cried and I felt that I needed to attend to his needs immediately.  And to say that I left projects half-finished would be a huge exaggeration.  Half-finished tasks seems to be an inevitable part of motherhood.  I was not leaving behind half-finished projects when John cried.  I was leaving two bites of sandwich, a single pair of socks in the hamper, a single spoon in the sink.  I had been just ten seconds from completing countless tasks, but I felt like I couldn’t leave John crying for those ten seconds- I had to rescue him immediately.

I felt like my value as a mother counted on it.  I felt like I wasn’t being a good mother if I left my child to cry for just a minute.  I had read countless parenting websites that informed me that newborns only cry when they have a need that they cannot meet on their own, and the speed with which I met those needs shared a direct correlation with the love that I had for my child.  I was convinced that John would know if I chose to eat that last bite of sandwich, or fold that last pair of socks, or wash that last spoon before getting him.  I was convinced that John would know, and that he would feel abandoned by me as a result.  He would think that I didn’t love him.  He would somehow be ruined for life if I let him cry for a second longer than absolutely necessary.  I was absolutely terrified that I could somehow “break” my baby, causing irreparable damage because of my selfishness.

IMG_2094These websites, added to my own anxiety as a new mother, were a recipe for disaster.  I was barely able to sleep at night, as I listened for phantom cries on the monitor.  During the day, I was constantly anticipating his tears, even when he was happily playing on his mat.  Eventually, he would get bored, or tired, or hungry, and I would need to meet his needs as soon as they arose.  I ate quickly, showered quickly, answered emails quickly.  I did whatever I needed to do quickly to minimize the possibility that I would be in the middle of something important (or just inconvenient to interrupt, like a shower) when he cried.  So much of the baby literature seemed to suggest that a delay in meeting a newborn’s needs was akin to child neglect.  After reading so much of it, it should come as no surprise that it all made me a tad neurotic.

It didn’t help that John spent a good amount of his days whimpering.  It seemed like my days were dedicated to rocking a teary, bleary-eyed baby to sleep, soothing him when he woke up from his naps prematurely, and trying to distract him with toys and games between too-short naps.  It seemed like John spent most of his days on the verge of tears, so I spent my days on the verge of the breaking point.  It’s hard to meet the needs of a sleep-deprived baby who just doesn’t want to nap more than thirty minutes at a time.  None of the baby literature considered the possibility that there were infants who would cry even when you were doing your best to meet their needs.

After four and a half months of trying to live a “tear-free” existence (it’s impossible, trust me), Andrew and I were desperate for change.  John had become a pretty awful sleeper, which made it very difficult to prevent fairly regular fussy periods throughout the day.  In my need to avoid all unnecessary tears, anxiety had become a constant companion for me.  We began to consider our options, hoping that by helping John to improve his sleeping habits, he’d be happier throughout the day and less prone to crying.  We had already identified the three habits that we needed to change with John’s sleeping arrangements: (1) he needed to start sleeping in his crib, (2) he needed to start sleeping without his pacifier, and (3) he needed to learn how to fall asleep without massive amounts of bouncing and rocking.  It seemed like a huge feat, and many websites agreed that there was only one way of removing pacifiers: sleep training.  Apparently, the only way to reduce John’s overall crying throughout the day was to make him cry.  It was a logic that I did not at all understand.

IMG_2068And yet I couldn’t ignore the positive feedback from parents who had opted for one of the Cry-It-Out (CIO) methods.  After about three very rough, sleepless days, sleep would improve dramatically.  After several hours of accumulated crying, crying would decrease dramatically.  The results were incredibly attractive; the method, not so much.

But we did it.  We committed ourselves to two weeks of sleep training with the Ferber method.  Each night, the amount of time that we allowed John to cry increased a bit.  First, we’d wait three minutes before going in to calm him down, then five, ten, twelve, and so on.  Each night, I’d have to listen to John cry for a longer stretch of time before I would be allowed to go in to him.  It sounded like an awful arrangement, but with Andrew’s support, we decided to commit ourselves to it.

In the end, I was not left to listen to John cry for longer stretches of time each night.  The first night, he cried for thirty-five minutes before falling asleep.  Then it was twenty-five.  Then twenty.  Then just fifteen.  By the end of the week, John was falling asleep before we made it to the first check, after just ten to fifteen minutes of crying.  Now he rarely cries at all.  His crying was never hysterical; amazingly, I did not find myself wanting to curl up in a corner to die as I listened to him cry.  With each passing day, the urge to jump up and soothe him faded until I was finally able to listen to his cries without feeling like I was going to be sick.  When he woke up crying at night, I didn’t want to start crying myself, knowing that he would probably wake up like this at least a few more times before morning.  As I listened to him cry, I no longer felt like his whimpers and tears were all proof that I was not a good mother.  They were just reminders that John is a baby, and babies cry.

IMG_2099In the end though, it wasn’t the crying that made me a relaxed mother.  It was the smiles.  I was amazed to see that John could still smile after an hour of crying through a nap.  I was amazed to realize that John clearly still loved me even after I left him cry.  As much as I still hated to hear him cry, I knew that I was not “breaking” him.  In fact, John has given me more smiles in the days since we started CIO than ever before.  There is not a doubt in my mind that he is the happiest that he has been in his entire life, even though he cries daily.  A crying baby does not make you a bad mother.  A crying baby just means that you are a mother.  It’s a regular part of motherhood.  Crying does not mean that you’re hurting your baby.  It doesn’t mean that your baby is going to feel unloved and unwanted.  Sometimes crying is inevitable.  Sometimes crying even leads to incredible, beautiful results.  Like a little boy who is sleeping for hours at a time through the night for the first time ever.  Like a little boy who has more smiles to share than his mother ever thought possible.  Like a little boy who will certainly survive if his mother takes those last two bites of sandwich, folds that last pair of socks, or washes that last spoon.

Andrew and I chose to sleep train because we thought it was the best way to tackle our son’s sleep issues.  Now he normally wakes only once a night to eat, waking up each morning with a big smile on his face (the perfect thing to see when all you want to do is go back to sleep).  Now he spends his waking hours smiling, playing (sometimes independently), and cuddling with Mommy.  And now Mommy isn’t afraid to eat her sandwich, take her shower, fold her laundry, or wash her dishes.  Now Mommy isn’t stressed and anxious.  Now Mommy is relaxed, and she’s reveling in this new side of motherhood.

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

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