A few months ago, I put out a call on the SlumberBaby Facebook Page for guest writers interested in having their stories published on this Blog. I have received so many amazing stories since then! This one, though, really stood out. Kim, who has asked that I leave her last name out, is so brave to tell this story; yet, her story is the story of so many other moms. We hesitate to really talk about how desperate it can feel to be pushed beyond exhaustion, how it feels to resent your own child, or how it can seem like there is no way out. I always tell parents that sleep-deprivation is a torture method for a reason! In her story, Kim, now a mother of three beautiful (and rested!) children truly captures those feelings and why, for her, sleep was the most selfless gift she could have given her kids. Thanks so much for your story, Kim!
Don’t Call Me Selfish For Sleep Training My Kids
I sit cross-legged on the grass, one among many moms, holding my 8-month old in my lap while my two year old and five year old play with the other small children in our little playgroup. Anne, a mom who is new to our group sits next to me rocking a car seat gently as her baby who looks about the same age as mine drifts in and out of sleep.
“This is the only way she’ll sleep!” she says, somewhat exasperated. “All day, all night, this is me—rocking her in one contraption or another, nursing her, walking her. I don’t think I’ve slept more than two hours in a row since she was born!” She laughs, kind of.
I nod in mama-solidarity. “Sleep is hard,” I say, and I mean it. Sleep is hard. Really hard.
“How do you do it? With three? I’d be comatose!” Her eyes widen.
“They all sleep great,” I say. Which is true. My kids all sleep really well.
“You’re so lucky. I can’t wait for her to sleep through the night,” she says.
I take a deep breath, not really knowing how she will react to what I’m about to say. It’s always a mixed bag usually oscillating between unequivocal understanding and horror.
“It’s not luck,” I say. “I learned with my first that most babies don’t just magically sleep through the night one day. I sleep trained them,” I say.
She’s silent, taking it in.
Then it comes: “I don’t think I could do it,” she says, “I would just feel so selfish making them cry like that just so I can get some sleep. All I care about is that she is getting the rest she needs. I’ll survive.”
“It’s not for everyone,” I say, wanting to say so much more, but knowing this mom will have to find her own way, just like I did. I remember thinking that exact same thing, I’ll survive…until one day, I didn’t think I would.
It’s not until later that night that what she said starts to needle itself under my skin, painfully. I tuck my oldest, Jasper, into his big-kid bed and kiss him goodnight. He rolls over and I know he’ll be asleep in five minutes. I turn on the video monitor that switches from Caroline’s room to Edie’s, they’ve both been down for an hour and still peacefully snooze.
How is this selfish? I say to myself, tears filling my eyes, my heart about to explode with how much I love them. For a moment I’m so desperate to rewind the clock and explain to that mom at playgroup how sleep training my babies was the least selfish thing I have ever done for my them, but to do that, I’d have to go back to the beginning…when Jasper was just about to turn one.
Fantasy Vs. Reality
I was the mom-to-be who read all of the books, met with a lactation consultant, had a doula and a midwife, even though I was destined to give birth at a hospital due having a high risk pregnancy. His nursery could have been featured in a Pinterest post, it was so perfectly color-coordinated with his zoo-animal theme. Soft light filtered through gauzy curtains. I couldn’t wait.
Besides knowing about safe sleep for babies, I didn’t know anything about infant sleep. I thought they cried and ate and slept, and one day he would just sleep through the night and that was that.
The first four months of Jasper’s life were exactly that. He slept in a bassinet next to our bed, he cried, I fed him, and after a nice big burp he would go back to sleep. Little by little, it would take a burp and some walking. Soon, it took a burp, some walking, and some time in the rocking chair for him to fall back to sleep. He started waking more frequently. Before I knew it, we were spending more time getting to sleep than actually sleeping. It’s a growth spurt, I told myself. Maybe he’s teething, maybe he’s sick. So we kept at it.
Some nights he would sleep for more than an hour in my arms in our bed, but I was so afraid of accidentally suffocating him that I never slept during those hours that he was tucked in between my husband and me. His sleep became my priority and if I had to sacrifice my own sleep, so be it. That was motherhood, right? Exhaustion and love—I had plenty of both.
When Jasper was seven months old we moved him into his own beautiful room, thinking that would change things magically. All it changed was the location in which I spent most of every night, holding Jasper while he slept in my arms in the rocking chair. Often during these nights, I would quietly cry from exhaustion. My husband would relieve me once in a while, but the guilt I felt from waking him to help was overwhelming.
By the time Jasper was nine months old, both of us were spending most of the night awake and most of the day in tears together. I was paralyzed by exhaustion, my husband and I were not communicating—I resented him and the rest he was getting in our big, comfortable bed, and he kept looking at me like I was a crazy person. I was too tired to do anything other than hold and feed Jasper. I wasn’t eating, I was dehydrated, my hands shook constantly. When Jasper did sleep, I could never sleep myself and instead spent those 30-40 minutes zooming around the house doing long-neglected chores.
I thought something might be wrong when I loaded him up in the car one day and got behind the wheel, looking out of the windshield my eyes wouldn’t focus, the garage door swam before me, I felt drugged. I got us both out of the car and called my husband to pick up some groceries on his way home from work. I couldn’t even do that right. I was sitting on the floor with Jasper in my lap sobbing when he arrived home; he unloaded the groceries and gently lifted Jasper from my arms, a worried and pained expression on his face. All I could see was that I was letting everyone down.
I went to see my doctor where I was diagnosed with post partum anxiety and exhaustion. The doctor recommended that I find any way I can to get some rest. Ha! For fear of him turning me in to family services, I didn’t tell him everything…I didn’t tell him the dialogue that looped in my head for all 24 hours of the day: I’m a bad mom, I’m a bad wife, I’m failing at everything, no one understands, my baby is broken, I am broken, he’d be better off with another mom, sometimes I resent my own baby so much, I sometimes hate my husband, I hate myself, I want out, I can’t do this anymore.
Really. I can’t do this anymore.
None of these thoughts were what I imagined I would feel as a new mom—the mom I’d imagined being was the mom who made up silly songs, prepared homemade baby-food, went for long walks around our neighborhood or met up with other moms at the park. I’d imagined myself as a good mom. Instead, I wasn’t healthy or happy, I was living moment-by-moment, I sang lullabies to my fussy baby through tears while rocking on the floor in my bathrobe looking down a long and never-ending tunnel of things always being this way.
At the same time, I was like Anne. I could not put him in his bed and let him cry himself to sleep. Nope. That was out of the question. I’d feel like a monster. I’d really fall apart if I did that.
I was in love with my son, but I also resented him. That’s so hard to see in writing.
“I wasn’t healthy or happy, I was living moment-by-moment, I sang lullabies to my fussy baby through tears while rocking on the floor in my bathrobe looking down a long and never-ending tunnel of things always being this way.”
Of course I knew that motherhood was a sacrifice. Of course I knew it was hard. What I didn’t think was that it would leave me as a shell of the woman I once was. I wasn’t asking for my old life back, because Jasper was my dream come true in so many ways—I was asking for my will to live back.
Social media didn’t help—anywhere I turned posts and endless comments from moms about babies and sleep told me that sleep training my baby would cause permanent damage, that it went against what nature intended, and that it was (as Anne had said) selfish—something mothers do who would rather spend their evenings watching Netflix than actually caring for their children. My exhausted brain, body, and heart were so sensitive to the guilt and judgment coming from every corner that I was paralyzed.
I managed to coherently express my desperation in an email to a mama-friend who lives in another state. I told her that I was scared that it would never get better. I told her that I spent most of each day in tears, I told her my shoulders and back were in excruciating pain from holding my son for every sleep, I told her that I was starting to think I couldn’t be a mom and that sometimes I wanted to just walk out of my house and keep going. She quickly responded, with something akin to, “Yes. I was there. You are not alone…” and the contact information of a child sleep consultant who actually lived in my town. What the…? I thought. This is not a thing.
I reached out, asked for help, and began one of the most difficult journeys of motherhood thus far. I called the sleep consultant and I started from the beginning—I told her everything through my sobs…all the ways I was failing as a mom and how guilty I felt that I just wanted my son to sleep so I could sleep, so I could bathe, so he would stop being so sad all day, so I could have a moment of peace. She listened so patiently to my rambling and when I was finished she said something I will never forget: Your son’s health and well-being is inextricably linked to your health and well-being. If you are not healthy, he is not healthy. There is nothing selfish about wanting to rest—because in the wake of being rested, you are able to be a mother, and he needs his mother back.
We talked more and she explained to me that there is no such thing as a one-night cure for teaching a baby sleep skills, and that many parents give up because change takes time. She said it is a process and one that isn’t necessarily easy, which is doubly cruel because she was going to ask me and Jasper to do a lot of hard work in an exhausted state. “Remember when you were in labor and the doctor told you that you had to keep pushing, even when you didn’t think you could?” she asked. Oh yes, I remembered. “Then you did it. You gathered everything you had left and you pushed and you pushed and your little boy was born because of you and the strength you didn’t know you had. I’m asking you to push, even though I know you have nothing left, even though I know you are depleted. You can do this, because on the other side is a mom and son who are thriving together, not just surviving in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion.”
That was it: on the one hand was life continuing indefinitely as it was—my son not sleeping, our bond becoming filled with resentment, me not sleeping, my marriage crumbling, my identity nonexistent, my mental health deteriorating, living minute by minute between desperate attempts at normalcy that I could never quite reach. Feeling like a failure as a mom, wife, and human. Feeling like, maybe, I could just turn it all off if I walked away. On the other hand was a difficult road that, if I did the work, would lead towards something better—even one percent better—and I knew I had to do it—for my son, for myself and my husband, for the life that we imagined when we learned we were pregnant.
“I’m asking you to push, even though I know you have nothing left, even though I know you are depleted. You can do this, because on the other side is a mom and son who are thriving together, not just surviving in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion.”
“I can’t just leave him to cry,” I told her.
“You won’t just leave him to cry. It’s common for people to equate sleep training with crying it out, but there is a lot more to it and we will set him up for success in an incremental way. That’s not to say he won’t be upset,” she said, honestly. She saw me flinch. Just then, my overtired son began to cry in my arms. “But it seems like upset is how he spends most of his time now anyway, right?”
Right. What did we have to lose?
Saying yes to the sleep consultant was the easy part. She wasn’t lying when she said that I would have to dig deep, trust her guidance, and forge ahead one step at a time. She also wasn’t lying when she said that day-by-day it would get a little better, and in three weeks time I wouldn’t believe the difference. Yes, three weeks.
Before we began, my husband and I sat down with our sleep consultant to talk about our goals. She told us to aim high, so we did: sleep through the night in his own bed, take naps independently, allow dad to do some soothing, and so on. Our list was really long! Then she took us through what she called our foundational sleep prep: she made sure that Jasper’s sleep space (his room and crib) were optimal and safe for sleep. She told us to black out his windows and purchase a sound machine. As sad as I was to turn his pinterest-perfect nursery into something different, I was at a point where I would have nailed his crib to the ceiling and painted his walls orange if someone told me he’d sleep better.
She helped us develop some simple routines around sleep that we could both be consistent with, and guided us through some adjustments to his schedule—all the while explaining why she was making all of these changes. She talked about how we communicate with Jasper through our actions and that the clearest way to show him love is by allowing him the comfort of prediction: when a baby knows what is going to happen, he is able to relax into the consistency of it. Living moment by moment with Jasper was not only wreaking havoc for me, it has been doing the same for him. No wonder I felt like was in a constant state of chaos.
Our consultant told us that Jasper would protest any change we made that was away from what we were currently doing, because he didn’t know any different. To think of his cries as cries of protest helped, but I knew my willpower was pretty threadbare at that moment. So, we decided on a method where we would give Jasper increasing amounts of time to practice his soothing skills in his crib before I would go in and comfort him by snuggling him while standing beside his crib, then putting him back down in his bed. I was able to pick my starting wait time, and so we began with three minutes. I would add a minute or two each night, depending on how I was feeling and on how Jasper was progressing. On paper, this looks really easy, but in practice it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
The first night, after Jasper’s bedtime routine and after nursing him I laid him in his bed awake and drowsy, something I had never done before. I’d always waited until he was unconscious, then detached him from my breast and laid him down like a little time-bomb, only to hear him wail twenty minutes later. He looked at me for a moment as I said, “Goodnight sweet boy, it’s time to rest,” then turned and left his room. The moment the door closed he began to cry.
My hands shook as I started the timer on my cell phone, then slid down the wall next to his door and buried my head in my knees and cried. My heart raced, my whole body ached, my breasts leaked, and I felt like I was going to throw-up. Those three minutes could have been three days. When the timer went off, I took a deep breath, opened his door and went to him. I scooped him up and fought the urge to return to the rocking chair. I soothed him for a few moments, then laid him in his bed. “Goodnight sweet boy,” I repeated our mantra, “It’s time to rest.” I turned and left. Another three minutes went by, and I went in again. And again. And again.
“If you want to tell me that this is the picture of a selfish mother, that this is the picture of someone who doesn’t care when her baby cries, the picture of a mom who has no feelings, or is able to harden her heart against her baby’s needs, then I need a lesson because it felt like the most selfless act I’ve ever committed all in the name of my baby’s needs.”
But then, something happened. After my fifth visit, I looked at the monitor and somewhere between minute two and three, Jasper stopped crying, he rubbed his eyes, found his lovey blanket, and rolled to his side.
Then he fell asleep.
My son. Fell asleep. On his own.
My husband who had been in the hallway with me looked at me in disbelief. We silently high-fived, I cried some more—because everything was making me cry then—and we tiptoed to our room and went to bed, together. I sent a text to our consultant: He did it, it read. You did it, she replied.
Jasper woke up three times that night. Every time we would repeat the process. Sometimes it took one visit, sometimes three or four. Did he hate me in the morning and push me away as I’d feared? No. He did not. Not even a little bit.
Our consultant had warned us that the first three nights are the longest. Could I sacrifice three nights? In comparison to doing what wasn’t working for the rest of Jasper’s baby-hood, yes.
The next night we gave Jasper 4 minutes and he was asleep after three visits. The next night, we gave him 6 minutes and it took him two visits…a total of twelve minutes…to go to sleep. That was the third night, the same night that Jasper slept from 7:00pm until 6:15am without waking up once. I will never forget that night.
During the entirety of Jasper’s sleep training, I would spend his wait-times sitting beside his door. I always felt like I wouldn’t make it. Sometimes I would text our consultant that I couldn’t do it—she would often respond with a very kind reality check, “You can. You are the only one who can guide Jasper to better sleep. You are also the one who can guide him right back to where you were…which I know is not something you want to do.” Then the timer would sound and I would go in, comfort him, put him back to bed, and give him another chance.
We did the same for his naps and soon he was a pro at sleeping in his bed during the day, too, especially once his naps were at the right times during the day. After his calm bedtime routine, he began to go down for bed without any protest, rolling to his side an going to sleep, which was a big turning point for me: an enjoyable and loving bedtime with my son? I’d only dreamed of such a thing.
Our sleep consultant was with us every step of the way—I’d send her notes on his nights and naps and she’s send back any adjustments she thought we should make the following day. In this way, at the end of those three weeks every single one of our goals had been met. I don’t want to downplay it: it was HARD WORK. It was really frustrating at times and sometimes it seemed like our progress had stalled or backslid. I wanted to give up repeatedly. It was three weeks of some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but, I kept reminding myself, so much better than another year or more of the life we’d been living.
In all honesty, I don’t know if I would have made it another year. I really don’t, and that terrifies me.
If you want to tell me that this is the picture of a selfish mother, that this is the picture of someone who doesn’t care when her baby cries, the picture of a mom who has no feelings, or is able to harden her heart against her baby’s needs, then I need a lesson because it felt like the most selfless act I’ve ever committed all in the name of my baby’s needs. Selfish would have been to keep going down a road that wasn’t working. Selfish would have been not asking for help. Selfish would have been giving up. I think that I loved my son enough to help him get healthy, restorative sleep, I loved my son enough to give him a joyful mom who can provide everything he needs to thrive, to give him two parents who love each other, to give him a mom who doesn’t have a shred of resentment in her heart for him or his sisters, to give him a mom who doesn’t want to walk out the door, ever.
I sleep trained my two other children as well, albeit well before things got as out of hand as they did with Jasper. Sleep, in our house, is a priority. We treat it like healthy eating or like exercise—it’s a practice that takes precedence as part of overall health and it’s something we’re always working on, always adjusting. Bedtime is 7:00pm for the girls and Jasper is down by 8:00pm (he’s four now), they all sleep somewhere between 10-12 hours a night. During the day we are active and adventurous and joyful together, something I couldn’t have even fathomed during Jasper’s first year. Now I look back and I wish I could give us that time back–all that time we spent sobbing together.
“In all honesty, I don’t know if I would have made it another year. I really don’t, and that terrifies me.”
Are there times when my kids need me in the middle of the night? Absolutely! Don’t let any of this convince you that there aren’t times when we pull all-nighters. Illness, teething, travel, potty training…you name it…it’s all disruptive and sometimes sleep comes off the rails a little bit. But what we know is that rested babies recover faster from sleep disruptions, making it all the more valuable to help them learn these skills. Now I’m someone who protects naptimes and bedtimes with the passion of a mother wolf protecting her cubs. Late nights and skipped naps happen, but rarely. I might be a little fanatical about it, but it’s only because I’m all too familiar with the other side of the coin. Best of all, my husband and I treasure bedtime with all three kids; it’s the sweetest, snuggliest time in our house.
After Jasper was sleeping through the night it took me another month to start to feel normal. At first, when I started getting more sleep I felt ill and jet-lagged. I began working on my own sleep in an intentional way, again with the help of our sleep consultant who also helps adults get their sleep in order. I visited with a counselor to help me with my post-partum anxiety, which rarely flares up now that I’m rested enough to cope with it. I began getting up an hour before Jasper and doing yoga in the early morning, which helped my body and soul. I scheduled date nights for my husband and me, knowing a sitter could easily put Jasper to bed using our routines.
Jasper also immediately showed signs of being well rested; little had I known that while asleep in my arms Jasper was never really reaching a deeply restorative sleep. When he slept independently he was locking in the kind of sleep that allows for mental and physical growth to occur much more easily. He was far less fussy during the day, his appetite improved, and he seemed more full of joy than I’d ever seen him. Of course, coupled with that was his newfound freedom in climbing everything and learning the word “No!”
I felt myself and my family being propelled forward again, rather than just treading with our heads barely above water. I was no longer gasping for air, but taking deep, full breaths. We were able to go out, we were able to make plans, we were able to live our lives. This was the motherhood I’d dreamed of.
When we got pregnant with our 2nd and 3rd children, I knew to think about sleep early on, things I could do when they were newborns that would help them become good sleepers later on. I kept our sleep consultant on speed dial and hired her a few more times when things like naps had me utterly perplexed.
I know there are moms out there who will always condemn the fact that I sleep trained my kids. They will read “sleep training” and believe that one day I just decided to plop my babies in their cribs and shut the door while they screamed for me until they fell asleep from the exhaustion of needing their absent mother, rather than take a moment to understand where I was before, and the deeply thoughtful journey I made with my baby. I know because I’ve sadly been that judgmental myself. There are moms who don’t believe that their babies should ever cry and their toddlers should never be upset and they will do anything in their power and will sacrifice anything and everything to get their babies to sleep.
I was that mom. I had sacrificed everything, given everything of myself, to my son and I had nothing left to give him. Nothing. Despite him needing more, I had nothing but vast emptiness. I have a hard time even writing about that time in my motherhood because I was in such a dark place.
Often at playgroups or in other settings when the topic of sleep comes up I tend to stay quiet. But I see them…the moms with deep purple circles under their tear-filled eyes, their nervous hands and shoulders slumped in defeat, and I know where they are and I want to tell them that it’s okay to do something about it, that it’s possible to love your baby with wild abandon and teach them to sleep. That it’s okay to want things for yourself: to rest, take a break, shower, read, spend time with your spouse, to eat, to get some exercise or respite, to care about your kids through caring about yourself. It’s okay to want to feel better, to want your babies to feel better.
In the end, I hope that those reading this can understand how—for me, and for so many other moms out there—sleep training is actually the least selfish thing they can do for their kids. If you would have told me that the only option for me and my son was to continue living the way we had been living, my son would have a shell for a mother right now. Instead, I’m able to give him and his sisters the best of myself: I’m fun, goofy, patient, caring, interested in them, a good role model, a good partner to my husband, and best of all, I’m alive. There is nothing selfish about that.
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