"Don't do it," people warned us throughout my pregnancy. "You'll want to, but don't rock him to sleep. If you do, he'll never be able to fall asleep on his own." Terrified of this dreaded consequence, we followed these instructions exactly. I nursed him and put him in his bassinet, where he fell asleep promptly.
But when he was 7 weeks old, he developed colic. The cure? Bounce him to sleep in our arms. Sing to him. Let him sleep sitting up. Whatever it took. He kept waking up, and when he didn't need to nurse, we would gently bounce and sing to him until he closed his eyes. Then, we'd carefully lay him in his crib, trying not to wake him. Sometimes, our little boy didn't want to lie down, so we had to put him in his chair and rock him until he slept. Sometimes, we co-slept. I have to admit, I loved cuddling, but I knew all these variations of sleep had to stop eventually.
By four months, the colic had improved, but bedtime was a disaster. We'd fallen into the bedtime hole. An hour, hour and a half, and he still wasn't asleep. When he finally closed his eyes, he woke up five or six times a night. We did everything the books said. Establish a bedtime routine, nurse him in the dark, put him to bed at the same time each night, and still he would cry when we put him down and wake up all night long.
"Lay him down slightly awake and he'll fall asleep," we were told.
If we did that, he screamed. And I just couldn't let him cry. My husband wanted to 'sleep train' him, but to me, it was heartbreaking. But then, when I'd pick him up, he'd fall asleep within seconds on my shoulder. Somehow, I thought, he'll eventually outgrow this. I read Dr. Ferber and Dr. Sears, and everything in between. I spent time on mommy boards learning about various 'sleep training' techniques, and even the thought of saying the words 'cry-it-out' made me almost physically ill. I talked to friends and family. "How did you teach your child to fall asleep?" I asked.
"We sleep trained him," they'd whisper and cringe. Ugh. I kept hoping he'd just outgrow this.
"He can't come get us when he needs us. All he can do is cry." I would say to my husband. "Why would we just ignore him?"
My husband would argue back. "He's relying too much on us for falling asleep. You're overdramatizing the crying. He needs to be given the opportunity to teach himself."
Finally, one night, my husband went to a work party and I stayed home with the baby. The routine had gotten so difficult that if my husband wasn't there, the baby didn't fall asleep unless he was in the bed with me, and that only lasted an hour or so before he woke up again, and we had to start over. He was a little over six months old. I decided that I was going to try to see what happened if I put him in his crib awake, but full, warm and happy.
I walked out of the room, wanting so badly to pick him up, but also needing to see if we could change this pattern. I thought, maybe he's crying because he's learning. Maybe I'm just giving him a chance to teach himself.
After a couple of minutes, I thought I was going to have a meltdown, so I called my cousin, a veteran mom. "You're not leaving him. You're giving him an opportunity to learn. Watch him on the monitor," she said.
I watched him and he cried. He turned from side to side, curled up and stretched out. I felt tears wet my face. I watched intently and decided that if he got really upset, I'd go get him. I was conflicted about what I was doing, but deep down, I think I knew I needed to do this. I stayed out of his room and his cries softened, but didn't stop.
At about ten minutes, I picked him up, and almost immediately, he fell asleep on my shoulder. I put him back down, walked out of the room and picked up the phone. "See?" said my cousin. "He just wants what he's used to…he can do this. Just give it a few more minutes." I was still crying. I felt awful. But five minutes later, he was asleep. Did I just teach him that he was all alone? Did he think I was never coming back? Or, had I just given him an opportunity to teach himself to fall asleep? I didn't know. But then the next night, he fell asleep in seven minutes. The night after that, five.
Now, half the time, he nurses himself to sleep. The other half the time, I put him down after he nurses and watch him on the monitor as he rolls from side to side, cries a little, and settles down. He sleeps longer and wakes up less. That first night I let him find his way to sleep, (I still can't say cry-it-out,) my cousin said something interesting to me. "You have developmental windows of opportunity to teach your kids things. It's like introducing solid foods and bottles. Six months is the window for sleep. If you miss the window, it's 100 times harder when you decide you want to do it." I don't know if she was right or not, but I do know that my son falls asleep a whole lot better now, stays asleep longer and wakes up happy. And I also know that if after a few minutes he's still not asleep, he's usually still a little hungry, needs to burp, or needs a little extra hug before going back to bed.
So here's what I learned from this whole process. For my son, six months was the right time to teach him to fall asleep. The funny thing is that now, when nursing doesn't send him into dreamland, he just looks up at me, waiting to go to his crib. I do miss rocking him. But it's okay. As I'm learning, these stages go by way too fast, and letting go is always just around the corner.Sarahlynne is a Parenting Guru, a freelance writer and working on a novel for young adults.