Learning without training

Baby Love’s sleep seems to be FINALLY (*knock wood…knock all the wood*) turning a corner (*frantic knocking*). With our new nanny, E, she is more happy and relaxed and that is translating to better sleep.

I never sleep trained Baby Love. I tried a variation of cry-it-out once, and half-tried it a second time, and both times decided it was not for us. I am a big believer in the philosophy that babies’ wants ARE needs, which does not go well with CIO. Even if Baby Love just wanted the comfort of my presence or my boob in the middle of the night, to her that was a need. She had no life experience or tools in her tool box to draw on to deal with discomfort or fear or loneliness in other ways. How could I deny her the one thing she knew she could draw on to calm down, me, and leave her with nothing? It was just not my parenting style. Even if she didn’t “need” to eat in the night after 6 or 8 months, she “needed” my comfort. And that need was just as valid.

I nursed her to sleep for almost every bed time. Whenever she awoke in the night, I nursed her back to sleep.

Within this framework, I set her up to succeed.

I made sure she was rested so she wasn’t so over tired she couldn’t sleep.

I didn’t respond to every little sound, a classic reason I hear people give that babies still wake 4-6 times a night after 6 months like Baby Love did. I understood this idea in theory, but it was pretty clear if Baby Love was going to need me or not: when she needed me she woke up screaming. When she cried for me, I went to her, even if it was for the 8th time that night. I might have been exhausted, but I went, and quickly. No leaving her to cry for minutes on end to try to “teach” her to self-soothe by leaving her without soothing.

I helped her learn to put herself to sleep by giving her the opportunity to do so, but I’d still go back if she needed me and was crying. One day I left her to play in her crib at nap time, something she would often do for as much as an hour before crying for me to help her come fall asleep, and when I checked on her on the video monitor she had fallen asleep on her own. From that day on she fell asleep on her own at nap time regularly. This falling asleep on her own, however, in no way affected her nighttime awakenings. For Baby Love, falling asleep and falling BACK asleep are two very different things.

Then, finally, all on her own, Baby Love was ready to sleep more soundly. She very suddenly started waking up in the night, crying out once or twice or for 30 seconds, shifting to a new position, and going right back to sleep.

I was astounded.

By this point, at about 9.5 months old, I had resigned myself to the idea that we were in for the long haul and her sleep would likely be bad until she was around 2 years old, when children’s sleep habits are supposed to become more adult-like. I had tried all of the gentle methods to get her to sleep better, none of which made a difference, and that was as far as I was willing to take it. I had given up on the techniques weeks or months before and settled in to our apparent normal. I continued to set her up to succeed and nurture her so she knew she could count on me, but I refused to do any overt “training”.

And yet, she taught herself.

When she was ready, she did it.

Since this epiphany on her part a few weeks ago, her sleep has been improving markedly. Even though she has been the sickest she has ever been in her life with an icky head cold over the past week, she is sleeping better than she ever has. She only needs me twice a night much of the time. Any more, four wake-ups is a bad night, instead of a great one. I am getting more, continuous sleep. She is getting more, continuous sleep. It is a beautiful thing.

As her sleep has improved I better understand all of the sleep tips I received. I now don’t go to her as soon as she wakes, because even with an initial loud cry she’ll often put herself right back to sleep. In the past this wasn’t the case, and waiting 5 minutes just led to 5 minutes of continuous screaming (I tried it once for 3 days, not once did she “not really need me” or would I have been responding too fast). I can even understand cry-it-out at this stage, though I still wouldn’t choose it, because now she has the tools she would need to be able to put herself to sleep even when she doesn’t want to. Before this point in her life she did not have these tools, and leaving her to cry and cry would only have taught her that she was utterly alone and could not count on me. Now it might force her to access these skills. (Again, I’d rather let her learn to access them herself, but at least now I see that it could work even if it’s not my preferred path.)

Watching her develop on her own has been a great lesson to me:

I do know my child best.

I was given all of the sleep advice under the sun. I got judged left and right by parents with every age of child. I got told I was doing it wrong, I was coddling her, I was harming her, I just needed to try x and our sleep problems would disappear.

I listened to the advice and the judgement, and then continued to do what felt right for Baby Love.

Looking at where she was from birth to 9 months, and looking at where she is now at 10 months, it is night and day. That sleep advice would NOT have worked before now on her (which is probably why it didn’t). Now it could. Other babies may be ready for it at 6 months, or even 4 months, but mine wasn’t until 9.5.

Just like with every other development that our children go through, variation is normal. I would never strap her into a walker and force her to try to walk for hours a day so she would learn that on my schedule. Trying to force her to conform to sleep training techniques, even gentle ones, before she was ready for them would have been similarly pointless and detrimental.

I’m glad I decided to trust my baby and follow her lead. For us, it worked. Now not only am I sleeping better, I am trusting my mommy superpowers more. I know my child.

We will have sleep regressions. I know that. But we are progressing. And there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And if I do end up needing to do some gentle training down the line, I know, now, that she is ready for it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Baby Girl, Life

One response to “Learning without training

  1. Liz

    Thank you for writing this! I completely agree that with all things, you can’t teach a baby something that they are not ready to learn, and that includes sleep skills. I’m so glad that you are turning a corner now!

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