The internet is flooded with child sleep recommendations, and after reading all of them I am still not sure I have the answer. However, I do know that there are two distinct teams: the co-sleep team and the cry it out (CIO) team.
Co-Sleep team vs. Cry It Out (CIO) team
Here is how the CIO team would describe the co-sleep team:
Co-sleeping with your infant is nothing short of attempted murder and child neglect. Sleeping in the same bed with your child will significantly raise the probability of SIDS. Your child will be deprived of any self-soothing ability if you constantly cater to their needs.
Here is how the co-sleep team would describe the CIO team:
Letting your infant CIO is nothing short of attempted murder and child neglect. Abandoning your child to cry relentlessly for hours will significantly raise the probability of SIDS and cause internal brain damage. Your child will be deprived of any relationship potentials if you subject them to neglect for more than half of their living time.
If you are feeling some tension, there is really nothing to worry about. Life isn’t that black and white.
Although both parties have categorized the other as inhumane, they agree that children do need quality sleep which requires the following:
- Safe sleep conditions
- A nighttime routine
- A dark room
- A room with predictable noise consistency (no sound or a sound machine)
They also agree that children will experience physical and psychological growth which will alter their sleep patterns. Thus far, that has been one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. Is our daughter crying because she is sick, teething, hungry, hurting, or something else? Maybe this is related to my question the norm type thinking, but it was pretty easy to find a variable to question as my daughter was crying relentlessly during the night.
Our Infant Sleep Experience
As we started the child raising journey we faced an immediate challenge of digestive system sensitivity. This made the first two months rather challenging. It wasn’t quite this extreme, but it seemed as if our daughter was always hungry but never wanted to eat. Therefore, laying her down in the tilted infant bed was rarely a pleasant experience. With the help of probiotics and the elimination of dairy and egg white proteins from breast milk, she was finally able to experience a more consistent sleep routine.
However, our daughter was rarely comfortable with the sleeping experience, and this was compounded when we moved her to her crib. To remedy the situation, we would help her to fall asleep, pick her up to soothe her if she woke up, and maintain night-time feedings for longer than what was recommended. We were doing the equivalent of co-sleeping in the uncomfortable standing position for too much of the night.
At the 6-month doctor appointment we were told that babies are fully capable of self-soothing, and it was time to let our daughter adapt. We tried the 15-minute interval Ferber method. For two nights she cried relentlessly for three straight hours before reaching a state of exhaustion. For the rest of the night she would wake every 1-3 hours followed by another 30-60 minutes of crying before falling asleep again. Each morning she woke up in a state of fear, sadness, and exhaustion. The fear I saw embedded within the eyes of my daughter during and after each night was a truly disheartening experience. After the second night we decided it was time for Co-Sleeping. The SIDS risk drops significantly after six months, our daughter was finally able to roll over, and we are both isolated sleepers. Even though the CIO group frowned upon our decision, we all needed sleep. Our goal was for her to be an independent sleeper, but after the two-night CIO attempt, we decided to join the co-sleeping team.
After three months of co-sleeping for at least the last half of the night, we were strongly encouraged by our doctor to attempt the Ferber method again. Children at nine months undoubtedly need to learn to self-soothe, and parents undoubtedly need to attain adequate sleep. Although the co-sleeping made things a bit easier, it is hard to get a good night sleep next to a baby, especially one who is very sensitive. After a three-hour period of intense crying enhanced by our ‘calming’ attempts at 15-minute intervals, we jumped ship again. The co-sleeping community welcomed us back with plenty of supportive blog posts and encouraging responses to our questions.
After another week of co-sleeping, we transitioned her to a floor mattress next to our bed. This resulted in more crying, so one of us ended up laying next to her for about half the night. Since the consistent night wakings disrupted everyone’s sleep, we moved the floor mattress back to her room. At least one of us would get a good night sleep while the other would sleep next to her on the floor.
Looking back, our thinking may not have been all that clear throughout this journey. In addition to our lack of sleep, the comments received from friends, family, coworkers, doctors, and psychologists lacked cohesion.
The Sleep Study
Because of our ‘child sleep’ related internet searches, we were the advertising targets of sleep teams around the country. We were planning to pay a group in Florida $400 for a sleep plan and a three-hour support phone call. This had us questioning reality since I often walk to the grocery rather than paying for the gas and mileage costs my car imposes. Fortunately, we stumbled upon a local research study for sleep training. We were quickly accepted into the study, and we were told the cameras would be installed on the crib within 3 days. One day before the team arrived we transitioned our daughter back to the crib.
She absolutely hated the transition, and on that night, she cried hysterically for at least four hours. After the first hour of hysterical crying, I literally climbed into the crib to console her. She was a bit shocked for about 5 minutes before she started screaming again. After another 30 minutes I finally picker her up out of the crib, rocked her to sleep, and then slept with her in the crib for about an hour. For the rest of the night I laid next to the crib, and she woke up crying every hour. Each time took about 15 minutes to console her back to sleep while she remained in the crib. Even though I was by her side for the entire night; it was almost like subjecting her to the CIO method.
The next morning, we decided that if it was that bad for another night, we were going to abandon the plan and fully join the co-sleeping team until our daughter could talk. Fortunately, both of her naps in the crib went better than anticipated. While we were still touching her in her crib, she cried lightly for only about 10 minutes until falling asleep.
For the sleep study, cameras would record baseline data for the first three nights before we were assigned to a group. The control group would allow us to keep doing the same thing, and after the study we would receive a sleep plan. The first intervention group would be given a bed time CIO plan, and we would follow the same night-time practices if she did awake during the night. The second intervention group would be given a bed time CIO plan and that would be followed throughout the night.
Even though our routine didn’t change as the baseline data was collected, the first night of the sleep study was a significant improvement. She cried lightly for about 30 minutes before falling asleep. We also consoled her back to sleep for three night wakings, and she consoled herself back to sleep within 2 minutes of a few other night wakings. Our daughter realized that she would be sleeping in the crib, and she was able to accept that fact. This is the foundation of a rational CIO plan, and we had made the first small step in implementing a working CIO plan.
The second night of the sleep study was even better. For the first time she was laid in her crib awake (but exhausted) and fell asleep without crying at all. She was able to console herself back to sleep during all but two night wakings, one of which was a ‘necessary’ feeding. On the third night she again fell asleep immediately, but she was up a few more times during the night. After her feeding at 3 a.m. she was awake until 5 a.m. There were hundreds of variables to ponder, but I chose not to worry about it since there was a 66% chance we would be put in an intervention group.
We were selected to be in second intervention group. We agreed on a bed time plan, and we would not re-enter the room to console her during the night. We also chose to not implement a dream feeding for that plan. In the past, she would certainly drink plenty milk if it was demanded, but then she would refuse milk in the morning. We were pretty sure our daughter would re-experience another full night of relentless crying, but we were lucky to be incorrect. Since we weren’t in the room her crying was closer to a calm whining rather than a plea of relentless hysteria. The following table shows the amount of time she cried or lightly whined before falling asleep for the first seven nights:
She continued to have a few night wakings, but she put herself back to sleep each time. It was light crying because even with both doors open we only faintly heard a few of them.
Even though it still took her 42 minutes to put herself to sleep, by the third day of the sleep training we were 100% committed to the CIO team. By the third day of the sleep training we were both fully rested for the first time in 10 months. After the first three days of sleep training our daughter was finally sleeping for an adequate amount of time to be rested and content during the day. She was not aggressively screaming for help each time she rolled over in her crib, and she was not demanding immediate consolation following each sleep interval.
Her body was finally able to synchronize with a schedule. Rather than six ‘attempted’ feedings randomly dispersed over a 24-hour period, she is drinking 6-8 ounces of milk exactly four times per day. Rather than naps ranging from 20 minutes to over two hours, she is consistently taking two 45-75 minute naps per day.
At this point we are only one week into the sleep study. I planned on writing this article when it was completed, but there is no reason to wait. We might implement the CIO method for naps after the two-week study is complete, but that matters much less than I thought it might.
There are certain cases when co-sleeping might be the better option, but for our daughter the CIO method was what finally worked. We start her last feeding 4-5 hours after she wakes up from her second nap (around 6:40 pm). She still fights the bottle every once in a while, but she usually drinks 6-8 ounces of breast milk within 20 minutes. By 7:00 we change her diaper, give her a light coconut/lavender oil massage, put on her pjs, read two books (5-10 minutes), and then put her in her crib. She is content during the time we read the two books. However, she is slightly discontent when we dress her in pajamas, and she is also discontent for the last few seconds as she is placed in the crib. Maybe that will improve after a couple more weeks, but it doesn’t really matter. The night-time routine lasts 15 minutes, so she is in bed at 7:15. In the morning we planned to get her out of her crib by 6:00 if she was awake. That happened on the first night, but for the rest of the first week she slept until between 6:30 and 7:30. We all needed a more consistent schedule, and the consistent schedule is what finally allowed our daughter to sleep independently.
All situations are unique, and this is certainly not an article meant to apply to everyone. From 4-9 months our strategy evolved into a situation where our daughter became too dependent on us. It was a difficult cycle to break, but we realized our relationship had to be modified. She was not getting enough sleep, and it was not healthy for her development to be deprived of sleep. We were not getting enough consistent sleep, and it was not healthy for us as individuals or as parents.
Here is what I learned from the experience:
- If your 6+ month child is not hungry in the morning, the child may not have needed a night feeding.
- If your child is waking multiple times during the night, the child will eventually want to be fed.
- If the child anticipates soothing during the night, soothing will be requested multiple times per night.
- If the child understands that night soothing won’t be provided, eventually it won’t be requested.
- If the parent is not in the same room, it is easier for the child to understand that night soothing won’t be provided.
- The more acclimated to co-sleeping and/or night soothing the child becomes, the harder it is to break the cycle.
- It is extremely difficult to break the extra night feeding and extra soothing cycles requested by the child when co-sleeping.
I am not advocating for CIO methods for children under six months old, and I am not advocating for CIO methods as the solve everything solution for all families. However, I am thankful for the CIO as well as the co-sleeping community advocates. I hope that advocates from both groups remain focused on family support rather than criticizing the other side. Looking back, I still don’t think she was ready for CIO at six months. Our situation might have been slightly (only slightly) easier if we would have transitioned her completely back to her crib for two full weeks, practiced a consistent bed time routine, and implemented dream feeding rather than demanded night-time feedings all before implementing a CIO routine at nine months.
People asked me how I felt about having a child, and I always said that I was 100% confident that she would be perfect. Raising a child is not quite as easy as I proclaimed it would be, and I was certainly lacking some sleep for a short period of time. However, I still stand by my original proclamation. She is perfect. It just took some time and strategy for her to become a perfect sleeper.
Please share any comments you may have!