Saturday, February 19, 2011

Super Dad Versus Sleep Training -- The Showdown

Like any problem you have, admitting that you have it is the first step towards solving it! My most recent pressing problem – I was finally forced to admit to myself – was that 9 month old Max could not fall asleep on his own.

In the months before Max was born, I was newly laid off from work, and therefore I had plenty of time to prepare to become Super Dad, including reading one parenting book after another. All of them devote considerable content to sleep training, which was my first warning of what was to come by becoming a new parent: many disjointed, sleep-deprived nights with my crying baby! But donning my imaginary Super Dad suit, I vowed to have Max sleep trained at 6 months old.

Why by then? Pediatrician Dr. Ari Brown declares in her book, Baby 411, that “100 percent” of healthy 6 month old babies are perfectly capable of falling asleep on their own. Indeed, she notes that even “your four-month old baby is aware of his surroundings.” Therefore, if you allow him to “fall asleep in your arms and you sneak him into bed, he will awaken at the end of his sleep cycle (every 90 minutes) looking for comfort” – i.e. will wake up crying until you comfort him asleep again. But, “if your child is put into his crib at bedtime still awake and you leave the room,” he will eventually learn to “fall asleep alone and content.” Boy did I like the sound of that! Hence, my Super Dad pledge to get Max to this nirvana by 6 months old. Most of my parent peers hadn’t accomplished this feat before 7 months at the earliest, and I was determined to beat them by a month (not that I’m competitive or anything!)

Then . . . Max was actually born.

In Max’s initial months, I was no longer thinking about sleep training – it simply wasn’t an option. The Baby 411 book states that at this age babies are defenseless, and therefore need to be comforted whenever they exhibit distress. Fortunately, by 3 months old Max was beginning to sleep through the night. First thing we did at his bedtime was swaddle him like there was no tomorrow (which Stewart blogged about here). That done, Stewart and I then diverged in our methods of getting Max asleep. Stewart rocked and bounced Max to sleep in his arms, and I bounced Max in his Fisher Price bouncy seat. In the beginning these were painless processes. Max was light weight, and it would take us ten minutes at the most to get Max asleep and smoothly transferred into his co-sleeper or, later, his crib. I was feeling pretty proud, and I knew my parenting peers were pretty envious (to whom, of course, I had bragged about our magical methods).

Bouncy seat sleep . . . ahhh!

Unfortunately, over time, as Max became more and more cognitively alert, putting Max down for the night became more and more of an ordeal, so much so that Stewart and I would negotiate on which one of us was due to put Max down that evening! Stewart, who once was able to get the job done by easily gliding around the apartment with Max swaddled in his arms, now had to frantically pace about for what seemed liked hours with a 22 pound, 6 month old Max weighing down his arms. By the time Max finally fell asleep, Stewart’s back killed and he wasn’t in the best mood. My method had also broken down. Max had grown quite a bit vertically and was much more mobile, which made bouncing him in his bouncy seat much more difficult. His feet were now hanging out of the bouncy seat and he was constantly turning over and trying to climb out of the chair. Hopelessly bouncing Max in a dark lonely room for what sometimes felt like eons to get him asleep certainly did not feel like a Super Dad moment! And if all of this were not bad enough, getting Max to fall asleep was just one bedtime issue. Once he was asleep, in the seat or Stewart’s arms, we could no longer easily transfer Max into his crib without risking him waking up, which would require us to have to start the process all over again. Yikes! Max was also waking up at least once, if not multiple times, during the middle of the night, crying to be fed. Getting up and feeding him was not so bad. But starting the whole demanding process of getting him back to sleep – now in the dead of night – was nothing short of brutal.

Sleep in the crib?  Who me?

Many mornings after these rough nights with Max, Stewart and I would have the same familiar conversation:

Me: "Hun, this is no joke, it is seriously time to start sleep training."

Stewart: "Okay, let’s read up on it to refresh ourselves about the process, and make a plan."

There are many books and theories out there on sleep training. We decided to go with the “Ferber method” which is explained in Dr. Ferber’s bestselling book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Ferber states that you should have the same nightly ritual to prepare your baby for sleep (such as reading, cuddling, and singing to him). But, directly opposite to what we were doing, Dr. Ferber declares that you should not let your baby fall asleep during this routine, i.e. by feeding, rocking, or being rubbed by you. Instead, once he is relaxed and sleepy – but importantly, NOT asleep, you should put your baby down in his crib to fall asleep on his own, while you leave the room. Ferber believes in “progressive waiting” which is once you have put your baby down, when he starts howling (and, believe me, it is a “when” and not an “if”) you should briefly return to the baby’s crib at increasingly extended intervals to reassure him (and make yourself feel better) that you have not abandoned him. Eventually, after a couple of crying jags by the baby and visits by you, Ferber assures that he will fall asleep on his own. This “sleep training” is supposed to last a few nights, after which the baby learns that crib-time at night-time means sleep, and will fall asleep on his own with minimal fuss.

So we knew how to sleep train Max, but we kept finding different reasons to put it off, as Max at 6 months old turned into 7 months old, turned into 8 months old. Max was sick for portions of those months, and we didn’t want to start when Max was feeling vulnerable. My being sick for the month of January was another excuse. And Stewart also had one: if he had to get to work early in the mornings, or on the weekends, we didn’t want to disrupt Stewart’s sleep, as we knew sleep training Max would do for at least the first few nights. We also feared the very process of sleep training. Stewart couldn’t bear to hear Max cry out for us in the dark when Max was used to being rocked to sleep. I feared sleep training, not because I hated to hear Max cry (though that’s certainly no fun), but because I worried we would fail at it and then have no options left to get Max sleeping through the night in a sane way.

Last Friday we finally bit the bullet and started sleep training Max. We had run out of excuses, and even Max’s very mellow pediatrician informed us at Max’s 9 month check-up that it was time to begin. So far, the process has gone much smoother than expected. The first night was by far the worst. Max cried for 20 minutes before he went down, which was tough to sit through, no matter how often we checked on him. But miraculously, once he fell asleep, he didn’t wake up even once during the middle of the night. A full night’s rest for us? We had forgotten what that felt like! The second night Max only cried for 5 minutes before he fell asleep; but, life not being perfect, he did wake up during the night. After feeding him though, he amazingly went back to sleep for good within minutes. Yes! Okay, so Dr. Ferber and others declare that you shouldn’t feed your child when he wakes up in the middle of night, because it gives him an excuse to do so. But hey, one step at a time for us!

Now a full week into sleep training, both Max and his parents are getting better sleep, making for happier mornings (and noons, and nights) for everyone. Max has been as cheerful as ever, which I take to mean he doesn’t hold his first night 20-minute cry-a-thon against us. Frankly, we are kicking ourselves that we didn’t do this earlier. While Max does not always fall asleep in 5 minutes, getting him down for the night has gotten relatively painless, and certainly nothing like the grueling procedure it was before.  For you parents out there who are skeptical or afraid of sleep training, give it a chance -- it may just drastically improve the quality of your family’s life.

The Winner, by TKO: Super Dad!


  1. Congrats, Jacob and Stewart! That's wonderful that Max is now sleep trained. Wonderful piece, too, and great photos :) --Joy and Franck

  2. Yay for finally getting Max sleep trained, imagine it was horrible for you and Stewart just listening to your son cry while he was trying to fall asleep. And thanks for sharing pictures of your beautiful baby boy. :)

  3. Love the story and the humor. When I was raising my boys (now men) we didn't have anything like this. But my grandsons have benefited greatly by being sleep trained and even at 6 and 8 years old, it still pays off. You will see! I'm sure Max is happier too.

    Susan Berland

  4. Congrats to Max on acing his sleep training (and to you guys, too).