One night, when my youngest son was around 6 months old, I sat down on the couch and sobbed. I actually did that a lot, but I want to talk about one time in particular. On this specific night, I was white-knuckle-gripping a baby monitor, as it vibrated in my hand with the grating sound of my baby crying. Don’t worry, my baby was fine. It wasn’t a distressed cry. It was a defiant cry. A cry with a tone that said, “COME BACK HERE, WOMAN, AND BRING THINE BOOBIES!!” You see, we were accidentally sleep training.
Accidentally sleep training?
Yep, accidentally sleep training.
I never wanted to sleep train. I was going to attachment parent. I was going to baby wear, breastfeed, gentle parent, make my own baby food, and teach my baby to read auras. Just kidding, well… sort of. None of those things are bad or silly (except the infant aura reading, obviously), but what most new mothers don’t take into account is that we can’t do it all, and we can’t anticipate it all. New moms don’t say, “When I have my baby, I am going to ask for help, so that I can get a full night’s sleep at every opportunity. I am going to communicate my needs, so that my support network knows how to best help me. Most importantly though, when I have my baby, I’m going to be fluid in my expectations, because I don’t want to over-burden myself during a time that I already know will be overwhelming.” Ahhhh, if only. One of the first lessons that new parents are forced to learn, is the subtle art of letting go of expectations.
We hadn’t planned to sleep train. Unfortunately, my son was developing a flat spot on the back of his head, due to the fact that he had been sleeping exclusively in his Rock N’ Play sleeper. That thing was a lifesaver, until the flat spot, that is. Our son hated sleeping flat on his back from the moment he was born, so the gentle incline of the Rock N’ Play was perfect. However, it didn’t allow him to turn his head, so after several months of sleeping in it, and despite the fact that we were doing regular tummy time, he started to develop a flat spot on the back of his head. On top of that, I was nursing my son to sleep every night, which was, unbeknownst to me, creating a tiny, little boob monster who could not fall asleep without nursing. I loved nursing him to sleep, though. It was comforting for us both. I would cradle him in my arms and feed him, riding that oxytocin highway, until his long, beautiful eyelashes would slowly begin to flutter and close. His sucking would become irregular, and eventually, full bellied and safe in my arms, he would fall asleep. This was our nightly ritual and I was loathe to let it go, however, when our doctor directed us to start putting our son to sleep in a crib, in order to correct his flat spot, I also mentioned that he couldn’t fall asleep unless I nursed him. Our pediatrician replied, with only a gentle hint of accusation in his tone, “Well, that’s because you don’t let him go to sleep without nursing him.”
Our doctor recommended that, since our son was already going to have to learn to sleep in a crib, we might as well teach him to fall asleep without nursing while we were at it. So basically – sleep training. It was either that, or allow him to develop a flat spot on the back of his head and require a corrective helmet.
So we, the wanna-be Attachment Parents, “Ferberized” our baby. In case you are unfamiliar, “ferberization” is a sleep training technique developed by Dr. Richard Ferber. It is a version of “cry it out”, but one that does not, despite common misconception, just encourage you to abandon your baby to cry themselves to sleep or cry until they make themselves sick (cuz seriously – no). I’m not going to explain it in detail here, but I do want to take a moment to say that you should discuss all choices like this with your pediatrician and make an informed decision which is in the best interest of your child, and you. For us, a version of the Ferber method was it (I say a version, because I don’t think we followed his recommendations to a T). It took us about 1 week, and I don’t think we ever had to let our son cry for more than 5 minutes, if even that. But, those tiny accumulations of seconds, were the most awful, most excruciating minutes of my life, at the time. I felt like my heart was being crushed, slowly. A battle waged in my mind between my motherly instincts and the advice of our pediatrician. My mind screamed “Go to him, GO TO HIM!”, while the advice of our doctor rang counter-point in my head, “Failing to correct his sleeping position will result in a flat head, he is old enough to fall asleep on his own and you will BOTH be better off, and more rested, by teaching him to do so.” That last point was perhaps the most important, and one that I did not realize the gravity of until much later. At the time, my Postpartum Anxiety was un-diagnosed, but running full throttle. I wasn’t sleeping well, or occasionally, at all. I was having panic attacks. I was barely functioning. Having a 6 month old baby who was incapable of even the tiniest nap without first using me as a pacifier, did not help matters. While our pediatrician did not realize it at the time, he was actually giving me some of the most helpful advice I had received to date, in terms of prioritizing my self-care as a tool to manage my anxiety disorder. Teach him to sleep, so you can sleep.
This accidental sleep training was my first lesson in making decisions that benefited my son in an indirect manner. Our decision to sleep train not only allowed his flat head to correct itself, but it made way for me to get more rest, which meant I was more stable and available to mother him. It was also my first lesson in expectation adjustment. I did not set out to be a parent that sleep-trains. I never judged parents who chose that path, I just didn’t feel like it fit with the parental identity that I had designed for myself. What I’m learning though, as I get further along in my parenting journey, is that my identity as a parent is not so much a precise recipe that I’m following, with exact measurements and temperature settings. Instead, it’s more like a blank coloring page. The lines are there, but I’m choosing the colors as I go. So far, it’s turning out beautifully.
Peace, love, and vibrant color choices to you, friends.