How I night-weaned and sleep-trained my breast fed 14-month-old.
(That title? Above? The boring/overly explanatory one? With neither pun nor literary allusion? Yeah, well, desperate googlers trying to night wean your toddlers? You’re welcome.)
Henry was 14 months on May 1st. He is still nursing. He has never been a good sleeper; if you’ve read this blog for long you are well aware of this. Before about a month ago, he had slept through the night a handful of random times, but was generally waking 2-3 times a night (usually around 10 pm, 12 am and/or 2 am), at which time he was nursed and put back to sleep. He went back to sleep easily. He would then wake up at 5-effing-a-m most mornings, sometimes as late as 5-effing-fifteen-a-m. This means that, a year out from when this whole thing began, I was still sleeping in 2-3 hour chunks. NOT GOOD AT ALL.
So one fateful night (April 11th, to be exact) I had a little too much wine and fell into a deep snorey sleep on the couch while watching a movie with my partner. 10 pm and the baby starts howling. So Baby Daddy does what probably should have been done a million fucking years ago if we had been smart people, and goes upstairs, picks the baby up and comforts him until he stops crying, and puts the kid back in his crib. Whereupon said kid immediately goes right back to sleep, and BD closes the door.
And like that the spell was broken. OUR KID CAN GO BACK TO SLEEP WITHOUT NURSING! (I’m sorry, but I really do need the CAPS key for this. It’s warranted.) Since that night we just kept going.
We decided to night wean/sleep train in stages. You could argue this only served our own peace of mind, rather than necessarily benefiting Henry. You could probably go “harsher” than this and have about the same affect on the child, because no matter what there is a rough adjustment period for the kid; but I’m thinking our kid was ready. Your kid is probably ready. So you could go whole-hog-cry-it-out-extinction-etc. from the get-go. And if you are reading this? And you need someone to tell you it’s okay? I’m telling you. It’s okay. But, we did something else, something in phases, and we do dig our method, because so far it is working.
Stage One: Night weaning. We wanted to first get Henry adjusted to not eating (nursing) between bedtime and wake-up time, before we moved on to getting him to not require any other parental intervention. So initially, when Henry would wake up, his father would go to him (I, with the sleep inducing boobs, have typically been the night-time parent). He would pick Henry up, pat him and whatnot, and then put him back down again. It got to the point that the whole thing would take less than a minute, I am SO not joking. It would seem unfair if it wasn’t so miraculously freeing to myself. Because I drafted a blog entry about those early days of night-weaning, I’ll include those thoughts here:
- First night (the accidental beginning to night weaning). Henry wakes up at the normal times (10, 12, 2), but goes back to bed with a few minutes of comfort from his father and very little crying. He does not nurse from 6 pm on. He wakes up slightly later than normal (5:30 am).
- Second night. Henry wakes up a few extra times early on–once every hour between 8 and 11. He calms down more quickly than the night before, literally being picked up and put right back down. He wakes up at 2 am as per usual, but goes back to sleep easily after BD does the pick up put down routine. He sleeps until the unbelievably blissful hour of 6 am.
- Third night. Henry wakes at 10 pm and 12 pm. He is starting to lean back toward his crib when he is picked up. He sleeps until 6:30 am.
- Fourth night. Henry wakes only once, at 11 pm. He then sleeps through till 6:30 am.
Holy cow, right? I couldn’t believe it could be that easy. And ultimately it wasn’t, because there have been blips and regressions and such since then. Mainly: though the progression through the fourth night would indicate we would eventually just start sleeping through on his own, it didn’t happen that way. And we had traded one habit for another–we had determined that he could make it through the night without nursing (and with little protest), but he still showed no interest in making it through the night without intervention.
When we knew it was time to change strategy: Henry’s father runs the restaurant side of a popular bar-restaurant so he works days Tues-Sat and the back-half of the week he also works nights (sometimes he can be home by 10 pm, sometimes by 1 am). (Why yes, it WAS rough during the newborn period.) Luckily, we start night weaning on a Sunday, so the first four nights he was home to comfort Henry in place of me. This worked so well we were pretty fucking smug. Enter complications:
- We seemed to have successfully broken Henry of the need to be nursed back to sleep. But he now had a new association–dad.
- So, night five, the first night that dad wasn’t home for Henry’s initial wake up (which came around 8 pm, if my memory serves) I had to decide what I was going to do–I knew that we couldn’t “go back” and thus I couldn’t nurse him. I stupidly thought I could more-or-less replicate the circumstances of the last four nights and just go in, pick him up, pat him, and put him back down.
- When I went in the first thing Henry did was stop crying, a good sign! Then: “Dada?” I picked him up and hugged him close. “Dada? Dada?” *points at door* Starts to get insistent. “DADA.” Tears return. Tears escalate. Henry goes all boneless-tantrumy in my arms. I keep patting. Then, Henry gets an idea: *points at rocking chair* “Nurse? Mama? Nurse?”
- I end up telling him I love him, putting him back in his crib, closing the door, and listening to him scream for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, however, he did go back to sleep. My heart and nerves were shattered, but he went back to sleep.
Henry’s father was thankfully home by the next wake-up, but something had broken–Henry didn’t go back to sleep as easily, he seemingly remembered that nursing was far superior to this daddy-patting business and was no longer content to go back to sleep with so little comfort. We decided to try a few other items from the sleep-training toolkit.
Stage Two: Introduction of a comfort object. Just a few days after beginning this process I’d written here about Henry’s lack of enthusiasm for comfort objects, despite our efforts in the past. But in conjunction with night weaning, we decided to drag out one of his many gifted stuffed animals and see if we could drum up some interest. We started acting like this blue homemade stuffed bunny (expect a post on Mark the Avant Garde Rabbit soon) was the most amazingly wonderful thing to carry around and snuggle and Henry, surprisingly, took the bait. I started bringing the thing to Henry’s crib and it became part of the routine. When I put him down in his bed and when/if he is visited by one of us at night, we make sure that Mark is in the crib and sometimes mention him to Henry to remind him that he’s not alone (I know, sounds kind of stupid, but it’s been working). Now, a few weeks later, the kid is attached. We can’t really know, but do think that this object has eased the transition as things have steadily improved, and recently he has started to sing (presumably to Mark) until he falls asleep at night, and chat (presumably with Mark) as soon as he wakes up (which is rather nice, as I wake up to a baby chatting rather than a baby crying, not that morning wake-up crying is all that tragic). Now, this is again swapping a habit for another habit, to a degree. I’m sure we’ll be kicking ourselves later if Mark becomes the magic sleep talisman and we need to somehow wean Henry from him. Things have great potential to go wrong, seeing as Mark is homemade and so less hardy, and irreplaceable. But, as a “transitional” object in many registers, we’re pleased with Mark’s role.
Stage Three: Ferber-like. Out of necessity (see: dad not always home, miracle “pick up, pat, put down” method no longer working) we decided to ratchet things up a bit and start “controlled crying” (this has so many names: cry-it-out, controlled crying, Ferber checks, “let cry” [a very carefully rhetorically selected phrase, that, to distinguish from the idea of "make cry"], probably more). Basically, upon waking Henry would be allowed to cry for 10 minutes. While we would allow ourselves to restrain each other from running to his room. And pace the sidewalk outside our house if one of us was at work. And tear our hair out by the fistful. Okay, you get it, listening to your kid cry is the worst thing ever, and you should understand that people who “can” sleep train are not evil monsters who are insensitive to their children’s needs.
I think the “Ferber method” starts with smaller intervals–2 minutes, then 5 minutes, etc., but based on his age, his basic understanding of bedtime, bedroom, sleep, etc., his (assumed) understanding that we are still there on the other side of his door, etc., we figured the “10-minute rule” would best suit our purposes. Give him enough time to realize no one is responding, so we could gauge if he would just go back to sleep on his own.
I think a specific “plan of action” is really REALLY necessary for parents who are sleep training just so that they have something to focus on (and to displace their fears, guilt, etc. on to–for reals). When your kid is crying for you your brains are scrambled, your blood pressure spiking, your heart breaking. A rigid “system” is often necessary in the same way specific rules in a diet are necessary: to keep YOU on track, to give you something to stick to. And so that you can actually determine if something is working. So establishing that we were NOT going to go back to nursing at night was the first step, and the 10-minute rule was the next.
That said, we kept things a bit flexible, while trying to remain more or less consistent in our responses to Hank to help him understand what was going on. There are different kinds of night-time crying, and the nature of Henry’s cries would often determine our response. Instant screaming? A parent would go immediately. Henry has had night terrors before (lord help you if your kid has these regularly–they are SO not fun for anybody), so we had to rule this out. The slow ramping up cough-ing kind of crying (you know that cry? the weird cough-cry, that has nothing to do with actual coughing? what is that?) would be “ignored” (such a funny idea, that. like you can ignore your kid’s cries, really).
This is the thing about Stage Three, for those looking for a program they can actually follow: We really did go in (either immediately or after 10 minutes, depending), pick him up, pat him, tell him we loved him, say “night night” and put him down. And close the door. In other words, our night-time response to him was consistent, and brief. We’re here; now go back to sleep. And sometimes there were no tears at all. And sometimes there was chatting with Mark. And sometimes he sang himself the night-night song before going back to sleep. And sometimes he SCREAMED HIS FREAKING HEAD OFF.
…Or so it sounded, we couldn’t see his head separating from his body from the sheer force of his screams, because we are terrible, awful, neglectful parents who closed the door on their crying child. And we don’t have a video monitor, which some might say makes us even worse, as modern parents go.
Stage Four: Full “Extinction.” Who came up with that term? Could you choose something a little less scary and guilt inducing? Seriously? Basically this is the Marc Weissbluth deal, though don’t hold me to all this because I read all the sleep books when Henry was like 6 months old and still waking up 8 times a night and my memory of those dark days and all information consumed during them is…foggy. There is a lot more to that book, much like Ferber’s book, than what it gets boiled down to on the Internets. And though it makes me chuckle, the comparison of his “method” to the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie (“Set it and forget it!”) is less than fair. Though we obviously haven’t bought in to any of these systems or Henry would have been sleeping through the night 6 months ago, or earlier.
All that said, the basic idea behind extinction is no parental intervention. No Ferber checks. After setting regular routines and making sure your child is ready and whatnot, you really do put the kid to bed at a determined bed time, and not go to him/her until the determined wake up time. Many friends of mine swear this is the least confusing for the child and I have to say there is some pretty tight logic to this.
But for Henry it seems to have really helped that we worked toward this. It was certainly less painful for us, in the long run, as we never actually made it to full-fledged extinction, as after the 10-minute rule phase he basically slept through the night. On occasion he would wake up, cry out for less than a minute, and was asleep again. So it was easy to not go, as I couldn’t physically make it upstairs to his room before the crying stopped. We did have a few instances where, after a check, he protested when we put him back down and continued to cry for about 20 minutes. At this point we did just let him go. The initial reassurance was just to let him know that when he woke up there were parents around, but after that reassurance it was time to go back to sleep. At that point we judged that going back in a second time was a really bad idea. It wasn’t teaching him anything.
But we never had the hours of crying that parents often do have to endure when sleep training. And that kind of extinction is what we would have done, if he was continuing to wake up crying multiple times a night and hadn’t responded to what we did in the other three stages. With the other stages we had firmly established with him that nighttime is for sleeping and not nursing, and that it’s okay to just go back to sleep without mom or dad checking in. And he went with it. But if he hadn’t started going back to sleep on his own with those easier (on us?) methods, it would have been where we went next. Because we weren’t going back. Because I needed to sleep after a year of hell, and Henry was ready.
- Bedtime routine. Henry had a set bedtime and bedtime routine, in our case since he was 4 months old. If you’ve done any investigating of sleep training or sleep issues at all, you know that you cannot attempt to manipulate any of your child’s sleep habits if you don’t already have a routine in place. Henry is the champion of bedtime, actually–he initiates the portions of the routine himself if I’m running behind or forgetful. Like pulling out his pajamas or grabbing books himself, or pointing to the bathroom if I forget the important step or letting him turn that light off before we head to his room. Seriously, we have that detailed of a routine. It’s also flexible, as we don’t do a bath every night and we do skip some things depending on time, and this hasn’t seemed to upset him.
- Early bedtime. You know what works for your kid, and many have tried the early bedtime and it has not worked for them at all. So I’m not going to try to preach the gospel of the early bedtime with the fanaticism that I know annoys many of you…
- …Except the early bedtime is truly your salvation. Accept the early bedtime as your savior. There has been nothing better for Henry’s sleep than the early bedtime. He went from waking up 8 times a night to 4 times when he moved his bedtime earlier in the evening when he was much younger. And whenever we’ve monkeyed with his bedtime moving it earlier in the evening has ALWAYS had the desired effect of getting him to sleep later. That little infant sleep paradox has been entirely true, in our case. Again, I know us early-bedders can come off as TOTAL DICKS sometimes, and I totally believe you if this doesn’t work for your kid (or your schedule, or your family), but I will IMPLORE you to not knock it until you’ve tried it. BTW, Henry was going to bed at 6 pm when we started this. When he started sleeping through we moved it to 6:30 pm because we felt like he was getting too old for a 6 pm bedtime. He started waking up earlier, so we moved it back to 6, and he slept later.
- Teething. Such a difficult issue to wrangle with when you’re thinking about sleep training. Henry has been teething more or less constantly since he got his first tooth, and was still cutting his molars when we started this process. You can make the decision how you like. You should be flexible if your kid is showing you he/she’s in pain and this is disrupting sleep. You might go back to nursing for a few days, or you might offer some replacement comfort. For us, Henry never seemed to indicate that teething was behind his wake-ups, and we didn’t alter our strategies. If you wait for all the teething and milestones and whatever else can impact sleep to be over? You’re just not going to sleep train. Because that’s the first years of your child’s life, uninterrupted. So my suggestion:
- MOTRIN. Or generic Target brand infant’s ibuprofen, as we’ve always used (and thus luckily avoided the “particles,” whatever that means in the name-brand stuff). Once your kid is over 6 months this is something you can use for pain relief. It lasts 6-8 hours instead of the 4-6 of acetaminophen (though it doesn’t seem to take the fevers down as effectively as acetaminophen, if you have teething-related fevers). For any night that we are going to attempt to ignore crying, we have given Hank a dose of ibuprofen before bed. This makes sure that he has the pain relief he needs if his teeth are bothering him, and it eliminates for us a potential reason for waking. We can tell ourselves it’s okay to let him work it out, because we know he has some help with the pain (if that’s the source). You may have your own opinions about managing pain in toddlers, but dosing Henry for those few weeks worked for us. We have ceased doing so, as he’s sleeping now and not showing signs of teething. I’m just saying cover your bases if you’re going to let your kid cry. For him/her and for you.
- Daytime calorie intake. One thing you might worry about when sleep training is if your kid has eaten enough during the day to not be waking up hungry. It’s another in that list of fears you go through while listening to your kid cry. Are they hurt? Teething? HUNGRY? And it’s the fear that probably breaks your heart the most. I’ll just say this–we paid pretty close attention to what Hank ate and how much milk he drank during the day in those initial two weeks when he was still waking up, and you know what? There were no discernible correlations. And now? He can eat two strawberries for dinner and still sleep all the way through the night. There may come a time where he’s going through a growth spurt and wakes up asking to nurse or something, and we’ll assess things then, but for now, we’re pretty sure that his intake during the day is not affecting his sleep at all, so we do not live in fear of his performance at dinner affecting his night’s sleep, nor did we worry he was hungry when he woke up. This is one of the nice things, I think, of waiting until your kid is a year to sleep train (not that I’m necessarily saying you should). I’m not freaked out anymore that he’s going to starve, I witness that his eating/drinking fluctuate, and he can communicate with me (a little) so he’s not such a scary inscrutable and always hungry mystery.
- Treat the early am wake-up as a night-waking. This is the best advice I ever got, and I cannot remember if it was from a sleep book or a friend. But it really, really helped me out in approaching the early am hours. We decided on a reasonable “wake up” time: 6 a.m. Wake-ups before then have been treated as night-wakings. So our response to a 4:45 a.m. waking would be the same as to a 12:35 a.m. waking. In the early stages, comfort and back to bed. In the later? 10 minute rule. Then extinction. This one is hard, because you get stuck in the “If I let them cry, then what if they don’t actually go back to sleep, but just cry until 6 am? Do I go get them then?” Our answer is yes. Day 1, it seems weird. What am I teaching them? Because they aren’t going back to sleep, just crying until I get them. But the second day, the kid might decide it’s not worth it, and go back to sleep. Then the next day, just go ahead and sleep till 6. And that my friends, is worth your trouble. We didn’t have to deal with this exactly; we did have early a.m. wake-ups that we treated like night-wakings, but were lucky and never had the hours+ of crying. And for the most part, once he was sleeping through the night Henry started sleeping later and later. Which makes no sense, right? When he was being nursed 2+ times a night he would wake up at 5. When he was no longer getting those calories he would sleep until 6:30 most mornings. Doesn’t make sense but sure makes life easier. Shrug. Setting a reasonable wake-up time is another way to keep you, the parent, on track. When it’s between 4 and 6 it is really tempting to read the wake up as hunger or ready-for-the-dayness and you just have to stick to your guns (unless you truly believe it’s hunger or a diaper or whatnot, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities). That said, after some rigidity to get Henry used to the whole sleeping through the night thing, we now trust that if he wakes up at 5:45 am, which he does on occasion, that he’s ready to be up. Some days he sleeps until 7, some days until 5:45. If he starts waking in the 5 am hour routinely, we’ll re-assess.
- Nursing to sleep. One thing I really like about Weissbluth’s book is that he doesn’t go after nursing to sleep like most “sleep trainers” do. We do not see nursing in the last step in the bedtime routine as incompatible with Henry’s understanding of how to sleep on his own (nursing throughout the night, however, was). We nurse for 15 minutes in the dark in the rocking chair before I put him down for the night. Sometimes he falls asleep at the breast, but rarely. Some of the time he’s sleepy, and is out like a light once I put him down and he cuddles into his blanket and Mark. Most of the time he’s calmed and drowsified by the nursing, but his eyes are wide open when I take him from the breast and put him in his bed. And he “puts himself to sleep” as they say, meaning he goes from awake to asleep on his own. Half the time he does this by singing, which is unbelievably adorable.
Conclusion. We are a month from beginning this process. Henry sleeps through the night. All the way through. Most nights we don’t hear a thing from 6 pm to 6 am. Some nights we hear him roll over (small house, funny acoustics) or kick the sides of his crib and mumble before settling back in. Very rarely he cries out, these days, and like I said before he’s done crying before a minute or two has passed. At this point, if he were to wake up crying for more than a few minutes, one of us would go check on him, because it would be out of the ordinary. What’s one of the best things about being here, on the other side. Aside from actually sleeping myself which I can’t begin to thank the universe for. I’m no longer living in fear. Fear of wake ups. Of every noise. Wondering when it’s going to happen. Staying up late just to avoid being woken up five minutes into sleep. Fearing leaving Henry with my partner or a babysitter at night because what if he wakes up and wants to nurse? Etc. Now he might wake up. And it won’t be the end of the world. Even if there is a little crying.
Ultimately the real training has been of US. My partner and I have an entirely different relationship to Henry’s sleep now. And it’s not a pscyho-disciplinary one. Like I said, we are very flexible. But we have a basic framework in place that we are comfortable with and that he seems to understand (at a rudimentary level). Nighttime is for sleeping. In his bed. In his room. By himself. Not for playing or eating.
He’s taken to it well. I’m not afraid to tell the Internet about it because even though things will inevitably change, I think we’ve made great progress. I can only say to you, if you are struggling with this stuff: good luck. Send me an email if you want to talk strategy or just commiserate. I’m not an expert, but it worked. (So far.)