How I learned to stop cosleeping and love the crib (an experiment with gentle sleep training)

As I struggled through one final night of being climbed on and kicked while my baby babbled and headbutted for four hours solid, I realized: This isn’t good for him either.

Just the essentials: binky, lovey, and tiny Jabba the Hutt.

This is a hard post to write. At risk of losing my crunchy mom cred, I’m here to say I just had the best night of sleep I’ve had in months. I feel just a little more alive than I’ve become accustomed to. My eyes opened easily after only one cup of coffee, instead of the usual two or three. I woke up feeling rested and ready to start the day, not ready to curl up in a ball and die hibernate. I woke up at 6:30 to the sound of my baby’s cry — from his crib, where he’d slept since his 11 pm feeding. Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.

I actually love cosleeping. My parents coslept with my sisters and me, and their four year old still joins them most nights. I’ve read about its benefits and always planned to do it. We even splurged on a king size bed to make it more comfortable as Wyatt gets bigger. It just makes sense to me. We’ve happily brought Wyatt into our bed since day one. We all snuggled and slept sweetly, and I was thankful to be able to breastfeed in bed, half asleep, rather than sitting up in the other room, It worked really, really well for us, and then it started working less well.

Things started getting rough when Wyatt rolled over at three months old. Breastsleeping with a baby who is trying as hard as he can to roll over isn’t as easy as it sounds. And the more active he got, the harder it became. Each night was interrupted by long stretches of rolling, kicking, grabbing, pinching, etc. At around six months he started waking regularly to play and practice crawling. He especially enjoyed crawling toward our heads, putting his mouth on our cheeks, and eventually bashing his forehead into our noses. It was cute and funny, but it wasn’t peaceful. And it definitely wasn’t restful.

I love cosleeping, when we sleep. And I mean all three of us. As it got harder to sleep well in bed together, Wyatt started sleeping in his crib more. But that was exhausting in its own way, too. Bedtime could take ages, rocking or bouncing for what felt like forever until he was deeply asleep, tiptoeing to the crib, painstakingly lowering him to the mattress — only to have him wake and cry, beginning the process again. We had tried setting him down awake several times, and failed miserably. I’m not sure if he wasn’t ready, or if we weren’t desperate enough yet. We had developed a special, silent SOS call — open the bedroom door wide when you can’t take another minute bouncing in the dark, so the sounds of the loud white noise machine fill the house and call the other parent in to take a turn. I rarely had the energy to do it all over again for a midnight waking and feeding, so back into the bed he came, sometimes after only a couple hours in the crib. Not restful for anyone.

I had studiously avoided sleep advice from even my closest mom friends, because I didn’t want to be told I was doing things wrong — or worse, make my friends feel judged when I didn’t take their advice. “The longer you wait, the harder it is,” one friend said. “Hmmm…” I responded. “We only had to let her cry one night,” another friend started. I changed the subject. But I knew we needed help. I was really tired, and about ready to throw something at the next person who asked “is he sleeping through the night?”

As I struggled through one final night of being climbed on and kicked while my cheerfully playing baby babbled and headbutted for four hours solid, I realized: This isn’t good for him either. I’m not showing my love to him by letting him stay up all night.

It took most of the morning to recover from our night of “sleep,” and then I got to work. I texted every mom friend. I read up on every sleep training method I could find. I drove my (equally exhausted) husband up the wall, saying frantically “we need a plan!” as bedtime grew nearer. I don’t think I could’ve survived another 2 am playdate. It’s hard to find sleep training methods that fall in line with our attachment parenting ideals. If you stay in the room while baby screams, you’re “camping out,” which sounds like hell, or if you leave the room while your baby screams you’re “Ferberizing,” which sounds like something you do to get your barbecue ready for winter. Dr. Sears, the expert on attachment parenting, advocates cosleeping and has lots of good advice for peaceful days and nights, but none of it was helping anymore. He does offer helpful advice for choosing a sleep training method:

  • Does this advice sound sensible?
  • Does it fit your baby’s temperament?
  • Does it feel right to you?

We knew our main goal: for Wyatt to sleep more/most (or all?!) of the night in his crib, and for us to get some quality, deep sleep. We wanted to accomplish this without letting him cry for hours, potentially damaging his trust, our bond, and his developing communication skills. We had tried setting him down wide awake as some methods recommend, and we knew that was a recipe for a very bad time. We also knew that at seven months old he does not necessarily need night feedings, but was very accustomed to them and would likely wake for at least a couple. So sleeping all the way through the night wasn’t realistic.

We weighed our options and agreed on a plan:

  • We would calm our baby down by our usual methods (nursing, rocking, bouncing), but for a shorter amount of time.
  • We would put him into the crib calm and sleepy, but awake.
  • If he cried we would allow him to cry for up to five minutes. Then we would go back and quietly comfort him however he needed (holding, rocking, jiggling, patting etc.) for one or two minutes until he was calm, and lie him down again. Repeat as needed.
  • When he wakes at 11 or midnight, I would nurse him for a shorter amount of time, lie him down sleepy but awake again, and leave. If he cried I would let him cry for a few minutes, go calm him, and repeat as many times as needed.
  • We agreed that at some point if he was waking a lot, not able to get back to sleep, or we were just too exhausted, we would bring him to our bed and try again tomorrow. I think we said if we set him down and he cries four times in a row. Five nights in, it’s the waking between 3 and 5 am when we usually just bring him in to snuggle. Not because we’re giving up — more likely because we’re disoriented from actually sleeping and running on auto pilot!

It was like magic. Almost a week in, we are still shaking our heads in amazement and high-fiving after every nap and bedtime. He has gone down easily almost every single time, and hardly cried at all. The first time we tried it for his morning nap he cried and had to be calmed three times — then conked out for over an hour. Remember my thirty minute napper?  I have been getting at least one nap per day that is an hour or longer. High fives. For real. And we have never let him cry for the whole five minutes. He rarely cries when we set him down, and when he wakes and cries it’s pretty easy to tell whether he’s going to calm himself down. We’re just giving him a chance to figure out how he feels, rather than rushing to him at the first sound.

We’re not necessarily off cosleeping permanently. I don’t consider him joining us in the bed midway through the night a failure, even if it continues when he’s bigger. After all, we don’t even expect adults to sleep alone. And there is nothing like a snuggle nap. Sometimes you just want to hold a sweet baby close and cuddle him until you both drift off to sleep. And then put him in the crib when he wakes you up by headbanging on your face.

If I’ve learned anything over the last seven months, it is that as soon as I get something figured out, it’s guaranteed to change completely. Here’s hoping we can ride this little revelation out for a while. I’m starting to really enjoy this whole sleep thing.

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