Sleep & Nap Issues: How To Cope While Sleep Training Your Baby

We’re doing our own version of Sleep Training around here, since baby #4 has proven to be immensely resistant — and LOUD — in our efforts to help her sleep through even a decent portion of the night. Adorable as she is, she’s the most rotten sleeper I’ve yet produced. Tough Love is in order.

Sure, she sleeps OK in the stroller.

Sure, she sleeps OK in the stroller.

But Tough Love is rough on me — and on the family. A fussing (or screaming) baby feels like a constant reminder of some kind of parental inadequacy, and is really grating on the nerves. Not to mention the fact that it often happens at ridiculous hours of the night when most other babies are surely sleeping soundly. And forget sleep for poor mom. I’m a zombie.

But persist I must. I won’t give in to an 18-pound 8-month old, no matter how cute she is (in the daytime, at least). It will be worth it in the end.

Here are my tips for getting through this rough time, if you’re going through Sleep Training:

Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. There’s nothing worse than arguing about sleep training techniques at 2 am, standing outside the door of a screaming baby. Agree ahead of time — or don’t attempt it.

Prepare the older kids for nighttime noise. I tell my lightest sleeper that he may hear the baby fussing at night. “But you’re a big boy and can roll over and go to sleep. Soon we’ll all get better sleep.”

Use a little reverse psychology on yourself. (You’re so sleep deprived it just might work!) Instead of preparing for a night of sleep, prepare for a night of watching “guilty pleasure” TV, listening to great music from your (childless) past, or even folding laundry. Fooling yourself into thinking you don’t really need to sleep somehow makes it less painful to be up at weird hours.

Take a deep breath, have a zen moment, do some mindfulness meditation, yoga, or pray – pick your version of expressing gratitude and relaxation. Having a non-sleeping, screaming baby at 2 am is really hard. But in the scope of things, not really that big of a deal. A few moments recalling the years when we feared we couldn’t get pregnant, or thinking of friends who have a baby who’s quite ill, and others who have God forbid lost a child, and I’m ready to get through another tough night of sleep training. Having a healthy, happy, non-sleeping baby is a high-class problem we’re blessed to have, quite honestly.

I’ve written other posts about getting through the sleep deprivation aspect of this, but let me also mention our friend caffeine here. Don’t overdo it. At my peak, I have a mug of java in the morning, some iced tea at lunch, and another cup of coffee around 2. That’s 3 servings a day. Any more and I get frazzled and nutty — and no more awake than if I had stayed with the 3 servings. Studies say that some coffee is fine for most of us, but too much will definitely make you feel worse.

Sleep Training eventually works — I’m writing this now as the baby sleeps nicely in her crib. Get through the rough nights and I promise things will improve!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather
The BabyShrink

Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Welcome to BabyShrink.com, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

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Posted in Baby Behavior Problems, Popular: Sleep Solutions, Sleep & Nap Issues
15 comments on “Sleep & Nap Issues: How To Cope While Sleep Training Your Baby
  1. Ilima says:

    I used to do a lot of internet shopping for baby books, clothes and toys while my baby was screaming in the middle of the night. It helped (kind of) alleviate the guilt of not giving her what she wanted right then. My tip for parents going through sleep training is to spend the “crying time” on other activities that satisfy your urge to nurture. Like preparing home made baby food, or making a playlist of songs you can play for baby later.

  2. Dr. Heather says:

    Love that idea, Ilima!

  3. jd says:

    Hi Dr. Heather

    Could you explain what your Sleep Training method is? Do you go in at all to comfort? Or do you just let her cry it out? We stopped going in since it only seemed to get our baby more worked up.

    Thanks,
    JD

  4. Dr. Heather says:

    Hi JD,

    It all depends on the specific age of the baby, and your baby’s temperament, AND the needs of you and the family. Some parents are fine with comforting the baby one or more times a night. Others aren’t.

    The issue with comforting is very much temperamental. Some babies freak when you go in, only to leave without picking them up. Others do very well with some reassurance. I’ve had both types in my bunch. The last one I spent 45 minutes soothing and hanging out until he fell asleep — for the whole night. I didn’t need to do more. This one will respond to nothing less than simply closing the door and going for the full CRY for about 20 minutes, some nights. Very different temperaments. Experiment with different styles and go with what seems best.

    If you like, post me some more info about your little one — age and temperament, plus the family needs and wishes, and we can go from there. I’m sure other readers would like to follow along as well!

  5. jd says:

    Thanks Dr. Heather. My toddler is 15 months old. We are first time parents, however I think he is a ‘high maintenance’ baby. When he’s at home, he is able to entertain himself for a quite and usually only wants to be carried if he wants something. I have no problem putting him down at night in his crib when he first goes down (between 7:30-8:00 pm) and closing the door behind me. The problem is when he wakes up for some reason and won’t stop crying until we get him and bring him to our bed! The time that he wakes up is random. We have tried to let him cry, but the last time it went on for at least 45 minutes and since we both have to get up at 5:30 am to get ready for work, we gave up and let him sleep with us. I know we’re not supposed to do that, and I would like him to sleep in his crib for the entire night.

  6. jd says:

    Sorry, Dr. Heather. In my previous post, I meant to say that he is NOT a ‘high maintenance’ baby.

  7. Dr. Heather says:

    JD:

    How long has he been in your bed? Breaking that habit can take quite awhile, but if you decide it’s what’s best for the whole family, stick to your decision. Plan with hubby about who will handle your son on each night — who will be “on call” for your son on a nightly (or partial nightly) basis. Try putting a cot in his room and staying with him until he settles down — don’t get him out of the crib, but offer reassurances. He may get nuts about it, especially at first — at this age it’s especially important to TALK WITH YOUR SON about your need for him to sleep in his crib — talk in confident tones, not desperate or blaming, just matter-of fact. “You’re a big enough boy to sleep in your crib all night, so even though you don’t like it, daddy and i will make sure you’re ok, but you will stay in your crib until morning. You may cry and not like it, but you’ll be OK.

    Then the parent who is “off duty” gets to use ear plugs or an ipod during the crying spells, knowing that the other parent is making sure your son is OK.

    This is the “kinder, gentler” method of sleep training that your son may respond to…let us know how it’s going!!

  8. jd says:

    Thanks Dr. Heather. He has been in our bed for about 1 month now. We’ll give it a try and let you know how it goes. I really appreciate your advice!

  9. jd says:

    Hi Dr. Heather,

    My son has slept through the night for about a week now! He has woken up a couple of times and cried, but the crying didn’t last long and it wasn’t a big deal – I even had to ask my husband if our son really did wake up. The first week was difficult, my son went nuts seeing one of us in his room when he wanted out. Now I just need to work on his naps!
    Thank you for your help. I’m really excited to hear about your Parent Coaching. I think you’ve already been doing that for us!

    JD: Wow! You did it! Of course he didn’t like it at first, but once he got the message he really settled down easily. YOU knew what was best for him — and the whole family — and you set about making that happen. Awesome job!! Keep up the good work — great example for the many families out there suffering like you were. Aloha and thanks for posting your update!

    Dr. Heather

  10. AH says:

    Dr Heather,

    I came across this posting in my struggle to search for an answer. I guess I am needing what most moms need and that is the okay from another mom that crying is okay sometimes! I am a mom of 3, my other children were breastfed and slept in a bassinet beside the bed until 4 months then moved to their crib with no issues. Small cries here and there and easily passing out asleep:)

    HOWEVER, our 3rd and last, is a TOTAL different situation. I feel completely out of control on how he sleeps. As soon as taking him home he refused and I mean refused the bassinet, swaddling, incline, you name it! He has been in bed with us for 8 months now! I love my little man however, his need to fall asleep on mommy’s breast has made it impossible to move him to sleep. I am in process of completely taking the breast away. He refuses a pacifier and his crib as well. I tried to let him CIO last week (he’s 8 months old) and he went on for 45 min. and I finally broke! I have white nose, he’s dressed comfortably for his crib. I just don’t know what else to do. I try during the day for naptimes and go in tell him I love him etc and it does not help. He cries in hystarics until he gets picked up and then goes to sleep on me.

    I can try putting him in his crib fast asleep and within 5 minuted he is awake again.

    Do you have any ideas or suggestions. I love your little boy, but I fear I am hurting him for later in life not letting him sleep anyother way but on mommy or daddy.

  11. Dr. Heather says:

    I’m so sorry — you must be exhausted!! I’ve been there. What you notice is true — temperament makes a big difference. So while some of our babies are easy sleepers — others, not so much. Have you tried the more gradual methods I have suggested in my posts and comments — sitting by the crib with your hand inside, patting and reassuring him? Letting him play in his crib for fun while he is awake so he gets used to the crib? Pressing him to use a “lovey”?

    Your question about CIO is a good one — and each parent has to answer this question individually. YES, it seems that most babies can handle CIO. And yet — there are some babies whose psychological temperaments make them more sensitive and in need of reassurance. Usually, these babies are sensitive in general, not just in the area of sleep.

    That said, this may not be the best time to both wean him AND get him into the crib. If you must do it, that’s fine — but if there is any way to take it step by step, I think he might respond better. Maybe think of nursing less — giving more bottles (and by other people) — and gradually easing into weaning, instead of all at once.

    The other important factor here is YOU, and your relationship. You both need rest and time away from the little guy. No matter how cute he is, you need time to re-charge. Can you make a plan so that at least one of you can catch up on some sleep while the other works on sleep with the little guy? You must find a way to get some rest for yourself. You’ll be better able to think through a solution when you’re well-rested, too.

    Make sure to read all the posts and comments here about sleep — there are several — and try out what feels right. If you can’t make any progress let me know — we can arrange a Parent Coaching session, if you like. Good luck!!

  12. angelique says:

    I often wonder why it is acceptable to ignore your child’s needs at night? I have read studies on both sides and while I understand that there is no “evidence” of harm to let your child cry it out, I also realize that actual studies specifically aimed at this subject are prohibited by law. So you cannot really say for sure on both sides of the issue. No evidence of harm in my opinion is being confused by parents to mean “evidence of no harm” and that is definitely not the case.

    Look at it this way – if you were to leave an elderly person in your care to “learn to self sooth and cope” when they are having issues at night, you would be sent to jail for neglect. So why is ok to treat a baby like that, whose brain is still being wired up and affected by internal and external circumstances? Wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of caution on this one – or do the needs of the parents outweigh the possible risks?

    If you hit your child you will leave an external mark as well as an emotional one – but the external mark reminds you that you have harmed your child. Unfortunately when it comes to issues like CIO – babies do not come with emotional meters which alert parents to the infliction of harm. Parents take this inability to see into the brain and emotional intelligence of their child as a green light that everything is A OK.

    I read some of your articles which place the needs of the child as most important. So why is that not the case with this subject? Why place your child under undo stress when they really shouldn’t be dealing with it at this young age when their brains are most susceptible to it. Just being a baby and toddler is stressful enough. How do you know that basically abandoning your child at night isn’t going to come back and create issues with them later? Our children didn’t ask to be born and everyone is unique and that includes how and when they sleep. So it is a parental imperative to take on the FULL responsibility of that child – not only when it is convenient for you.

    You blasted an article from Psychology Today which stated the potential harm of CIO because there is no concrete evidence based on tests that CIO causes harm – but again I would like to stress that that works both ways – like I stated earlier – there is absolutely no evidence that it doesn’t harm either.

    This is not an “us against them” or a giving in vs. “sticking to your guns” issue. It is the privilege of parents to GUIDE their children through difficult times and give them the strongest sense of security during the start of life so that when they are ready, they have the sturdy emotional foundation that is needed – not “train” them like dogs or circus monkeys.

  13. Dr. Heather says:

    Angelique,

    Well, I’m sorry you’ve misinterpreted my post. As I’ve said elsewhere, parenting is the utmost in life’s gifts. And of course this isn’t about “training” babies like circus animals, or about avoiding any parental inconvenience. That’s frankly insulting to me and parents like me who are struggling mightily with various parenting challenges. It’s about finding a livable balance that helps us all to be healthier and happier — that’s the motivation here.

    But there IS evidence that parents have needs too — and that includes the need for sleep.

    There is a vast spectrum of what it looks like when babies cry at night. I have the feeling you envision that I’ve recommended parents slam the door on a screaming, terrified, needy baby. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    But I’ve had enough conversations with folks who sound like you — who don’t listen to the actual words parents like us are saying — but instead make a lot of assumptions and misinterpretations (and accusations) — to know that explaining this point of view AGAIN won’t make any difference.

  14. Nikki says:

    Heather,

    I’ve never posted on one of these sites – this is m first time and I want to thank you for your post. I’m a mom for a 4 month old day angel but he’s a miserable sleeper. We did sleep training two weeks ago and after three nights of crying, it seemed to work for about a week and then he started to wake again and the screaming was so bad and so long I figured something was wrong and finally went to him, screwing up all our work. We’re going to start over but it’s so hard but I absolutely must sleep. I want to thank you for speaking what’s true for me – the thought every time he wakes that I feel some sort of parental inadequacy. And panic that I’ll never sleep again! It can lead to depression and is certainly is the source of a ton of anxiety for me, exacerbated by sleep deprivation. So we have no choice – we have to try again knowing he could go on for a very long time before he gives it up and goes to sleep. We know he can do it too, because he already DID it. But I do worry about making it through the night and your recommendations are helpful. They gave me the confidence and almost permission to not have to suffer through the screaming by laying awake in bed and just listening to it. I loved the idea of planning the evening as if you aren’t planning to sleep. It changes everything mentally. Thank you again for the post. I found it at exactly the right time for me. PS- How long did it finally take for you little girl to “get it?”
    - Nikki

  15. Dr. Heather says:

    Nikki,

    So glad to help. I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but the simple fact is that some babies go on to “learn” by CIO — and others never do. They are the temperamentally poor sleepers — meaning, they were born that way, and there’s very little we can do to change that. One baby of mine slept through at 12 months, another at 3 years, and 2 others at 4. I think mine are worse than the average babies in terms of sleep (in other ways, they are spectacular!) — but SURVIVAL was the name of the game. Get help, get someone to stay for a few hours at night while you get a good stretch of sleep (5 hours minimum for health), and make arrangements ahead of time with your partner so you can figure sleep into your life.

    Stay in touch and let us know!

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"Calling all parents who are about to embark on the wild adventure of potty training their child -- this is your must-read! With authoritative practical advice, playful tips, and a spirit of connection and love, Dr. Wittenberg gives us an easy-to-read gem of a resource that can lead your family to a diaper-free finish line with minimal fuss -- and a big helping of laughter. Enthusiastically recommended."

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About Dr. Heather
About Dr. Heather
I'm Dr. Heather Wittenberg, child psychologist and mom of four. I specialize in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers -- and parents! Here, we solve your child's most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. My advice is based in neuroscience, but written in grab-and-go terms you can use immediately. I've been featured in national parenting magazines, as a television guest expert, and as a parenting writer. Welcome!

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