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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Strong

Sleepless in Brooklyn.

You may have read my column about how sleep has been increasingly difficult since COVID-19. Well, nothing compares to what it's like to have a newborn. Continuing my week of resurrecting old Strong Buzz posts on the topic of new motherhood, I am including this one on Sleep Training. Think of it as the predecessor of "Go the F*ck to Sleep," if you will. Hope you enjoy.

Sleepless in Brooklyn—Originally posted February 5, 2010.

It’s not like I wasn’t warned. Technically, I knew what was going to happen when I had a baby. “You won’t sleep much,” friends with toddlers would say. “Get used to being exhausted,” others would warn. “You’ll be a zombie the first few months and then it will be better,” they’d assure me. Well, the thing is, warnings don’t work.

You have no idea what no sleep is until you’ve actually experienced it. What results is a crushing exhaustion, one that saturates your brain and your body, crippling you so that you feel dizzy, wobbly, delirious, and completely paralyzed, like you’ve got a half-ton of bricks on your back every waking moment. The ironic thing about sleepless parents is that for the first few months of babies lives they sleep upwards of 15-18 hours a day. No joke. So you might wonder why new moms all over the place aren’t extremely well rested, with glowing skin and bright eyes instead of what usually greeted me in the mirror every morning: a desperate sallow gray face, with under-eye circles quickly becoming the size of take out pizza pies.

Emily was a great sleeper, but there was just one small problem; she only slept during the day. At night, she was partying up a crying storm. As you know from last week, she was plagued with colic that took the form of The Witching Hour, a late evening curse of crankiness that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. Craig and I had a system worked out where we took turns sleeping about 4 hours each at night, and that sort of worked but after weeks of it, it was getting really hard to continue to function on such petty nocturnal crumbs.

When Emily was 8 weeks old, we had a visit to our pediatrician, Dr. Tholany (part of the Brooklyn practice of Tribeca Pediatrics). And that’s when she told us we were going to teach Emily how to sleep through the night.

“So, I’d like to discuss some strategies with you to help Emily learn to sleep through the night,” she said in her usual calm, cheerful manner. My face lit up like a kid who had just been given ownership of a Dairy Queen. I was all ears.

“Emily’s weight is great and she doesn’t need any more night feeds,” she said, “so she is ready to learn to self-soothe and get 11-13 hours of sleep a night.” I was apoplectic. YES!

“So, what do we do? How does this work,” I said, practically foaming at the bit to get started. I don’t know what I expected her to say, maybe something like, “You’ve passed 8 weeks of hell and now I will pass along to you the secret Lightsaber of Sleep,” and hand me some glowing lantern like something out of a prop from the set of LOST that would be waved over Emily’s head and cure her of The Witching Hour and of her desire to eat at 3:30am. Well, that was not what she offered us. Instead, we got this:

“We believe in Sleep Training,” she said. My brow furrowed.

“Sleep training? Sounds like boot camp,” I said.  

“No, it’s fine, it’s really hard for the parents but it’s good for the baby. Here’s what you do. At sometime between 7 and 9pm, you decide what works for you, you put Emily to bed. You follow your bedtime routine, whatever that is, bath, story time, feeding, and then you put Emily in her bed, sing to her or whatever you usually do, and then close the door, and then come back in the morning, but not before 6am.”

My mouth had dropped to the floor. What about the Sleep Lightsaber? I thought.

“Wait a minute, you don’t want us to go in all night long, what about when she starts to cry and wail?”

“It’s really hard, I know, but it works. It teaches baby to self soothe and they will fall asleep and every night the crying will get less and less until one night she will just fall asleep with no cries at all. It should take about 4-5 days at most to see the results.” I felt like she was talking about an acne cream, not my daughter. “I know it sounds harsh, but she really doesn’t need to eat anymore and you will be doing her and you a favor by teaching her early on how to sleep on her own.”

“What about swaddle blankets?”

“No more, unswaddle her.”

“What if she cries for hours and hours,” I asked, hoping she would say, well then I’ll give you the Sleep Lightsaber. “Just be strong, don’t go in. Let her work it out.”

“I don’t know if we can do that, Dr. T,” I said. She was understanding. “If it’s something you can’t manage now, try again at 3 months or 4 but I think you can do it.”

I asked her if I could check into a hotel and she could do it instead. She didn’t bite. Shocker.

I was still shell-shocked when we got home. I started Googling “Cry it out,” and “Sleep Training,” and posted on our local parents group online. “Tribeca Pediatrics recommends sleep training at 2 months – anyone else do this? I got a wave of responses from “it’s the best, works great,” to “hardest thing I have ever done and I made my husband do it and stayed at a friends until it was done,” to “I did it and my child has socializing issues to this date because of it.” I knew it had to be my decision and one I could only make after trying it. Craig and I discussed it. We talked it over, read the blogs and the books on the matter (Marc Weissbluth’s “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” is great), talked to other parents for whom it had and had not worked, and decided we would try it. We were heartbroken listening to her colicky cries every night and we knew we needed to sleep soundly and so did she. We figured we’d give it five nights and if it wasn’t working, we’d abandon until 3 or 4 months.

So one night during her 10th week of life, we hunkered down decided to give this Sleep Training thing a go. Around 8:30 we started our bedtime ritual with Emily. We bathed her, got her in her pajamas, I nursed her, and we read her a story and then put her into her crib. She had already started crying during story time because we were in her prime Witching Hour time, so it was a mess from the beginning. We patted her tummy, kissed her little head and told her we loved her and then closed the door. She cried and cried, then stopped. Wow, that was easy, we thought, triumphantly. Then, just as we were about to pop the cork on the champagne, the wails started again, furious and viral. She cried, and cried, for over an hour. We held each other in bed, desperate to go in and rescue her from herself, but committed to the plan. This crying continued for several hours. Yes, several hours (as in five).

Looking back, I have no idea how I lived through that night, but at some point Craig and I could not take it anymore and went in, picked her up, swaddled her rocked her and when we put her back down, she was out until 9am the next morning. Amazingly, she was happy and giggly, with no outward signs of torture we’d inflicted on her the night before. As for us, we felt terrible about the whole thing and didn’t sleep the whole night anyway. I called Dr. T as soon as the office opened.

“She cried for five hours and then we went in and swaddled her!” I cried. “It was the most awful night of my life!”

“I know it’s so hard,” she said, “but that amount of crying is normal. Don’t go in and swaddle her tonight, and it will be better every night I promise. You are doing great.” I felt like I was on some sort of 12-step program and Dr. T was my sponsor.

That day, as evening approached, I got so tense I was practically sick with stress about that night. Would she cry less? Would it work? What was I doing to her? Would she hate me? Would we be able to get through this? I remember feeling like I might crack open.

Night two netted one and a half hours of crying to get to sleep and a wake up cry at 3:30am, which hurt more than anything. I knew she was probably hungry and my breasts started leaking, just hearing her cry. But I had Dr. T’s voice in my head: “Andrea, if someone offered you a pizza every night at 3am you would get up and eat it, but you don’t need it, it’s the same with Emily. She doesn’t need night feeds anymore.” Note to Dr. T, yes I would gladly eat that pizza. Well, apparently Emily wanted it, too, but I was trying to be strong for both of us. I made a deal with myself (you do this a lot as a new parent): if she cried for more than 20 minutes, I would go in and give her a little mini-feed, but I would first see if she would go back to sleep. I started at the clock as 3:30 became 3:40, 3:45, 3:50 and as I was getting up to go in and nurse her, she feel silent, back to sleep until 5:30 when I raced in and fed her as much as she wanted. “I’ll let you eat till noon,” I told her, to assuage my guilt. I felt like a criminal.

The next night, we were at it again. She cried for an hour as Craig and I suffered in the living room, wondering whether this was all for nothing. It was already night three and she was still putting up a hard fight. A whole hour of crying! And it’s not like you know when it will end when it starts. It’s not like Emily says, “Look mom and dad, I am going to cry from 9-10pm, and then I’ll go to sleep so just grin and bear it.” Unfortunately she just wailed and wailed and we waited for it to end. An hour may not seem like a long time while watching a Judd Apatow film, but is a long time when you are listening to your baby cry. It’s really horrible and we were so unsure of whether this was going to work. We kept walking toward her room to get her, then turning around. We were really holding on by a thread. But then, an hour later, she stopped, and all was quiet and she was on her back, hands above her head in what we came to call “hammock pose” soundly and sweetly asleep. She woke again around 3am. I did the same 20-minute test, and it worked. Those twenty minutes lying awake in the dark listening to her cry were no fun, but I kept telling myself this was the first of many times it would hurt me more than her. She was back asleep until 5:30am.

By the fifth night of Sleep Training, she was down to 45 minutes of crying before bed, and just an occasional wake in the night. And every morning when she woke at 5:30, she was ravenous, but happy and bright eyed. She seemed to really be learning to enjoy sleep without the swaddle. She could suck her fingers, and roam all over the crib. She was growing up!

Eventually, Emily learned to go to sleep without crying, but it took much longer than 4-5 days of sleep training to break her of the colicky Witching Hour. It was more like two weeks and even then she would still cry for about 15 minutes before finding her fingers and soothing herself to sleep. But then she would sleep through until 5:30am, and that was a blessing for everyone, well, other than me. You see, unfortunately after almost 3 months of Emily waking up every few hours, I couldn’t sleep through the night. My body was trained to wake up every two hours and without her to feed, I still woke up. I just stared at the ceiling praying for sleep. Craig joked that he would swaddle me. But nothing helped. I had horrible insomnia, and on top of that my breasts were completely engorged (no more night feeds had them all confused). It took until she was about 5 months old for me to learn to sleep through the night, too. But by then both of us were good sleepers.

Over the months, we slowly moved her bedtime up from 8:30 or 9, to 7pm, and as her bedtime got earlier, her wake up time got later (it’s crazy but it’s true). Now, at 9 months, Emily sleeps 12-13 hours a night and plays in her crib happily every morning (other than when she is teething badly) until 7am when I pick her up for breakfast.

Letting her “cry it out” was the hardest thing I have ever done as a parent. I am sure more challenges are on their way, but that was the worst so far. I still have to listen to her cry at times because she’s not the greatest napper, but after months of sleep training for naps, she does take them pretty well now, too. I guess if we do have another baby, at least I will know that it works, and that it doesn’t do any harm but I am not sure it will be any easier.

My friend Deanna gave me some advice when I was going through this process that I found really valuable so I’ll share it with you all. “You’re really helping her learn to a life skill, to deal with situations and soothe herself,” she said. To be honest, not much helped in those dark hours, but that did a little bit, and while it may sound hokey, I do think it’s true. At nine months, Emily is very adaptable, loves new people, new situations, and sleeps well when we travel (and we have traveled a lot since she was born). She is independent and happy and loving.  As for me, I am still sleeping better (though a full night’s sleep is RARE, I am always waking up thinking I hear her cry, but they are just phantom shadows in my head. I have finally returned to one of my passions lost to early motherhood: reading. A nice stack of books is now on my nightstand. I’ve just finished “Olive Kitteridge,” and I am reading “The Help” now and loving it.

My advice is to make sure you are committed to the process and have a partner who is as well. It won’t help to bicker in the midst of this hell. Make sure to talk to other parents who have had experience with Cry it Out and check with your pediatrician. There are other ways to go about it, Ferber’s method calls for periodic checks after prescribed intervals of time, and there are other variations on this theme as well, but they all go to the same goal: teaching baby to soothe herself and learn to sleep. She will do it. And eventually, you will too. Though a Sleep Lightsaber would be nice.

Here’s to our mothers.

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