Sep 26, 2011

Self Soother

If you're a parent and have read any sleep books in the last few years you know that if your baby is a self soother, they will put themselves to sleep at night. Both at bedtime and anytime they may wake in the middle of the night. It sounds good doesn't it, self soother. Especially when you're talking about your child. I mean, really, who wouldn't want their child to be a self soother? It sounds like self control, ease, and for a new mom with nerves frazzled by lack of sleep something soothing sounds idyllic. I have, however, come to abhor the term self soother. I felt judged since my baby wasn't self soothing. Who were these book writers (who I chose to read) to tell me what kind of baby I had? Plus, secretly, I wanted my baby to be a self soother so I could sleep at night, but I didn't have the cajones to deal with it somehow. I didn't want to admit that I needed to be selfish in this area of my life.

Since I am a new mom I have read my fair share of baby sleep books, 6 of them actually, and there are many many more out there. The one's I've read have varying methods of how to get your child to sleep through the night, and each one of them stresses that if your child doesn't get the required amount of sleep, you're probably going to raise a psychopath or at least some lesser form of human being. Needless to say, there is a HUGE pressure for parents to get their baby to sleep regularly. When you're a tired mom you'd give anything for your baby to sleep for an entire night (not just the requisite 5 hours that constitutes sleeping through the night either) you really want your baby to be a self soother.

When I was a wee babe, I co-slept with my parents for years. It worked for my parent's little family and as a baby it certainly worked for me. Nestled next to my mother was exactly where I wanted to be, without a doubt. That is, until it ended in a few angsty nights between my 2 year old self and my dad, who was ready to reclaim his bed, rightfully so. It was because of this experience (which I only remember through stories I've heard) that I thought as a new mother I would also enjoy co-sleeping with my little family. To an extent I did.

For the first few months, through the dead of winter, I couldn't imagine my new tiny baby sleeping on his own. The only place I felt he could be kept warm enough was next to me. And who wants to get out of bed in the middle of a cold winter night to feed a baby that needs to eat every three hours? We were content. Then my baby grew. He got stronger and started to move, a lot, with kicking and punching movements directed mostly at me. I found it increasingly difficult to sleep, and by 5 months my husband gently asked if maybe it was time to move the baby to his own bed? But how? He was still so little and neither of us were ready to let him out of our room yet. We decided over the next month to get a bigger bed, surely that would be the solution, and it was. Only, Porter ended up sleeping in his own room on the old queen mattress while I leap frogged every night between the two beds.

This arrangement worked for awhile, but as Porter got older (we're talking weeks here) he inevitably got more mobile. I found myself sleeping with him all night long because of my overwhelming fear that he would crawl over my barricade of pillows and land head first on the floor. Which he did incidentally, during the day, while I was a foot away. He was fine, I felt pretty crappy, but I was once again reminded that this wasn't a safe place for him to sleep alone. It was still difficult for me to sleep through the night, constantly nursing this active baby boy and contorting my body in an effort to get comfortable. My chiropractor noticed my nightly circus act too. It felt like I had a newborn again, nursing every three hours, and I got increasingly less and less sleep. Then there's the relationship with my husband to consider. Let's just say he's a better and more considerate bed partner than my son.

A truth that I have learned since having a baby kept ringing in my head, "I am not my mother and this is not her baby." This is a lesson I've been learning over and over since Porter was born and here it was again. I couldn't co-sleep with my baby for the next two years and feed him on demand all night long, it's just not healthy for me. Then it happened, mind and body wasted on baby love and lack of sleep, I hit bottom.

There is always a disclaimer when you read the sleep books and talk with any wise older parent or doctor, and it sounds like this: Only do what is right for your family. This is true for any parenting job, not just sleep. It's another one of those comments, like self soother, that sounds so nice. Sure, of course! I'll do what right for my family, duh! Now what exactly is right for us again? Not as easy to answer once your faced with difficult decisions, like how to get sleep in this case.

Anyway, I hit bottom. Porter got off the very loose schedule that he had been keeping in the first place, and mama didn't get any sleep for 2 days, not at night or napping during the day. Hell broke loose on Monday and I had a tired mom breakdown. It involved crying sobbing at my 8 month old to please, please, PLEASE go to sleep. He thought I was hilarious and laughed right in my face. Then I did it, like a hurt 4 year old I sobbed back, "Don't laugh at me, it's not funny!" I felt like an idiot child crying uncle to an older brother. I had had enough, mama needed a mental health day. I called my husband Luke when I calmed down (ha! still crying!) and like a modern day white knight, he rearranged his afternoon at the office and came home to watch the baby so I could sleep. My hero! It was then and there that I realized I could not be the kind of mother that my baby deserves on the sleep schedule we were keeping, and we can't afford for Luke to start working part time either. It was time for sleep training, ugh.

I decided to use the Ferber method called "The Progressive Waiting Approach" that is very popular among different groups of mothers I know. It involves letting your baby cry. Something I, like most mothers, cringe at the thought of. Then a parent goes to the baby at progressively longer intervals and reassures yourself and baby that everything is alright. The goal is that your baby will fall asleep on his own and then sleep through the night. This is not the warm cuddly mothering approach that I had anticipated for myself and my baby, sometimes reality sucks.

Let me tell you, this has been the hardest bridge I've had to cross so far as a mother. I essentially had to tell my baby no. No sleeping nestled next to your mother's warm breast (sorry dude!), no midnight snacking, no overnight cuddles (my heart is breaking just writing the words) and then I had watch and listen to him throw tantrums until he fell asleep. It was as bad as I imagined and I couldn't have done it without Luke to go in and reassure Porter. I certainly couldn't have let him cry if I was in the room. The first night it took 30 minutes at bed time and another 40 in the middle of the night. The second night it took 10 minutes at bedtime and he put himself (dare I say self soothed) back to sleep in the middle of the night. For the last 4 night's he's gone down with 2-3 minutes of protest and slept for a solid 10+ hours. It's true and quite surprisingly has worked consistently. Porter wakes up happy and is the same smiling, boisterous baby he's always been. Oh happy day he doesn't hate me!

Every night we stick to the same bedtime routine and bedtime. Hopefully it sticks indefinitely. Who woulda' thought? Now I understand all my friends with children who practically run out of gatherings when bedtime rolls around, consistency works, for my family. Would I have done it sooner? Nope. For my family 8.5 months was the right time, not 5 months or 2 years.

The justification in my mind goes like this. I pictured my son at 35 in a therapists office, under hypnosis. He says,"I was abandoned as a baby by my parents." The therapist responds, "Okay, where are you and what's happening?" Porter, "My parents bathed me in a warm bath, rubbed me with oil, dressed me in pajamas, read me a book, my mom nursed me and held me and then she left me alone in my bed to fall asleep, ALL BY MYSELF! While I got my dad as a consolation prize every 5 minutes until I fell asleep." This is a scenario I'm willing to accept, I'll even pay for the therapy if that time comes. It's better than going to therapy because his mother had to be committed for going crazy because of lack of sleep and couldn't actually be a good mother, right?

I knew it was the right time because I had reached a critical point in mothering where my hand was forced and it was time to make the hard decision for me and my family. Before I had a baby it was those parents who made the difficult, but correct, choices that I admired. For the crying and pain that I forced upon my child for a couple of nights, that he may only remember subconsciously, the benefits were marginally better than the cons, but overwhelmingly important. No one can be a care giver without taking care of themselves. To be human, to be a mother, is to be selfish in this way. This mothering job gets easier and harder simultaneously. Sheesh, we've only just begun! Here's a video of Porter from today, just to show you what a lovely baby he still is, only more rested.

Update 4/24/2012: When I wrote this post, Porter was 8.5 months old and he's now 15.5 months old. I'm happy to say that he consistently sleeps through the night (10.5-12 hours) in his own bed. The exception is when we go on vacation. He doesn't sleep as well on vacation in new surroundings and when we return home we have to go through the whole sleep training process again. Thankfully, it usually takes less time then the first and I found Jodi Mendell's book Sleeping Through The Night, it is similar to the Ferber method, with the initial bedtime routine except instead of letting your baby cry in the middle of the night, you put them back to sleep any way you know how. For Porter, that's nursing. It takes a little longer to get back to sleeping through the night, but I prefer less crying in general. I will also say that since Porter has gotten older, and I'm getting more sleep myself, the whole process seems a lot less daunting and less stressful. Nothing like experience, time, and decent sleep to put it all in perspective.


  1. thank you for this honest post. I am going through it right now with my 7 mo son. We are trying some modified sleep training. Thank God my husband is amazing and willing to do most of the work, since if my son sees me he cries harder...for husband, he actually sleeps (for an hour or two). Oh some day...

    1. Good luck LisaElizabeth! Porter is 21 months now and even though we've had to sleep train a couple of times (after travel and sickness), it's so worth the months of regular sleep we get. This morning he slept an hour later than usual and I didn't know what to do with myself, oh how times have changed. And AMEN for supportive husbands. I know I couldn't have done it without mine too. You WILL sleep again :)