Welcome to Mommy Mondays. Where the simplest solutions are somehow the hardest.
A few weeks back I wrote about my two-year-old’s sleep problems. That very night we decided to nip it in the bud, and by “nip it” I mean that we decided to try something.
When I was pregnant with my firstborn, the only parenting books I was interested in were the ones about sleep. (My favorite ended up being Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.) When to feed a baby solid foods, instructions about tummy time, I could care less about that stuff. I figured the actual raising of a child would come with instinct, or else I could quickly call any number of other mothers in my life about the daily humdrum of parenting.
But sleep, now this was a topic I wanted to be prepared for. I was terrified of “never sleeping again” and took to heart all those devious parents who came before me and warned to “sleep while you can.” I really dreaded it and tried to read everything I could get my hands on about infant and child sleep.
And then Pigtail slept through the night at ten weeks, mostly on her own, and The Gorilla and I thought we were awesome as this whole parent thing. I thought moms who complained of children’s sleep problems were doing it wrong. I became an advocate of Cry It Out, even though we didn’t have to employ that method more than a handful of times, and then only for a few minutes.
When Pirate stopped sleeping just before he turned one, we blamed it on a number of things. The Gorilla was traveling a lot for his latest movie. I thought it was molars or a growth spurt. More than anything, we were worried about him waking his big sister, the champion sleeper. So right from the get-go we slapped a bottle in his mouth or picked him up or whatever needed to happen to get him as quiet as soon as possible.
That fall and winter was a particularly busy season, and the time sped by with one or both of us up in the night dealing with the now one-year-old and thinking that it was all just a phase. When I took the kids with me to the lake last summer, Pirate had been having sleep problems for over six months and I was on the edge of an emotional break and in my heart of hearts I didn’t correlate those two things.
There was just a lot of other stuff going on. There were so many stresses in our life last year that getting up a few times a night for just a couple of minutes each didn’t register as unusual or as something to be overly concerned about. But then at the lake, in a bed he hated in a room we couldn’t keep warm, sleep struggles rapidly became sleep nightmares.
In June and July, Pirate woke five or six times a night, each time requiring milk or attention. I was solo-parenting for weeks at a time and pretty quickly my brain function failed me and I literally could not problem solve. I won’t go fully into what a mess it made me, but when people tried to offer a solution to his nightly waking, I just stared blankly. I tried to make his room warm or his bed more comfortable, but I was helpless. As in, I couldn’t help myself. Things got really bad.
After seven weeks, I moved him to a pallet on the floor in my bedroom with couch pillows as boundaries. It worked better than anything else, and he backed down to waking only once or twice a night. This felt like a Godsend, and we lived in that rhythm for months.
After we returned to Los Angeles in the fall and I got better and we all got more sleep, we still didn’t address the real problem. Was he feeling anxious? Was he actually hungry, meaning we needed to adjust how we eat during the day? Was there a milk intolerance? Was it just a terrible habit?
My instinct was the latter. I do think that my son doesn’t thrive 100% with our sometimes chaotic schedule, but there was nothing else to make me believe he had an allergy or anything else that might need medical treatment. Finally, finally after we realized that we were shooting ourselves in the foot as a family, we decided to let the boy cry.
I posted vaguely about the sleep problems and that week we resolved to let Pirate soothe himself back to sleep. He’s two, he has reasoning ability. We talked to him about it, we talked to our daughter about it. We tried to prepare everyone for a few rough nights.
The first night, like clockwork, he awoke at 2am and started calling for us. I grabbed my phone and started the timer. I told The Gorilla that I’d let him cry for 10 minutes, then if he started to sound panicky or scared, I’d go in there and pat his back. At the impossibly long 10 minute mark, his cries hadn’t strengthened or lessened. He wasn’t even really crying. Just yelling for us over and over, sort of whiney like.
We decided to press on and not go in his room at all. He cried at roughly the same decibel level for 35 minutes and then he drifted back to sleep. I braced myself for another round within a few hours, but it never came. He awoke in the morning and proudly announced to us all that he “slept all night!”
The next night, more of the same. But this time I let The Gorilla run the timer and after what felt like nearly an hour, I asked how long he’d been crying.
Gracious, those seconds creep by. It was the same each night, his cries never reached full urgency, he almost sounded like he was half-asleep. Every night the time lessened until it stopped completely. We woke up on day 6 to birds chirping and a happier world.
Under a week. It took less than a week to train him to sleep until morning. I feel embarrassed and ridiculous. We really let this thing get away from us mentally until it was built into a mountain and we’d never even taken the first step.
I almost didn’t want to write this update on the blog because the transition was so relatively painless, and I know that some families are dealing with much more complicated issues and my directive to “just let ‘em cry” could not only be unhelpful but also damaging.
But for those of you who are putting off some level of sleep training for any number of reasons, take my lesson: do it now. You’ll be so glad. And more rested.