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Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Sleep Training Sucks. Here’s the Secret to Making It Suck Less

There's no way around it: Sleep training can be hell. This is how to make it a bit less hellish.

Jeff Brown and Kim Cole’s daughter, Eliana, is about to turn 8, so the Cleveland, Ohio, couple is hazy on what they did for her sleep training. One thing for them is clear. It did not go well. 

They did variations of crying-it-out, either putting her down and leaving incrementally each night, or just putting her down to sleep and leaving. Cole says that she’d listen by monitor in another room. Brown went into the basement with a pillow over his head. “I would have gone in. I wouldn’t have been able to take it,” he says.

Eliana never fell asleep. There were pauses, but mostly “she was just screaming,” Brown says. They’d stay out of the room for at least an hour and a half, but when she threw up, Brown saw no reason to chase the promise of success within three days. “I kept waiting for the third day,” he says. “I kept waiting for the third day after the fourth day, and after the fifth. When it didn’t happen, ‘Okay, fuck you Ferber.’ ”

Cole says that she didn’t need convincing to stop. Her preference was to have Eliana know that she’d come in when she cried. “If I’ve conditioned her to think of that, I’m fine with that,” she says. They found a routine that involved the typical stuff of brushing teeth and books. During the summer, she’s been asleep by 8:30 p.m. and, as with the school year, “98 percent of the time” she’ll have a 2 a.m. wake-up, where after Cole takes her to the bathroom and sings two songs, she’s back out in under 10 minutes.” 

This situation is not exceptional. Sleep is unlike other new parent jobs. Success is measured in hours, and no one asks, “How’s the baby bathing?” And, it involves sleep. Babies need it — the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a 4- to 12-month-old get 12 to 16 hours over 24 hours. And parents need it; exhaustion makes every decision that much harder. 

There’s a bigger issue in play as well. Mothers are essentially hard-wired to respond to their infants’ cries. Father often have the ability to be more detached, and often they push for training, with the rationale of: The baby needs to sleep. I need to sleep. We should sleep train. Problem solved. “Men get practical, but it’s not that clear cut,” says Quentin Hafner, a couples therapist in Orange County, California.

Moms might go along — exhaustion, remember — but the conflict is set and resentment can bubble up later on, spurred by regret and worries of whether a hardline approach might have affected attachment.

Here’s another issue: Go to any playground and you’ll hear stories of bad nights, but rather than say, “I’m with you,” parents will offer, “You gotta Ferber,” tagged with, “Ours got it in three days.” Like with advice on exercise or nutrition, the attitude is: This worked for us, so it will work for you. “It’s the evidence of one,” says Beth Grams Haxby, sleep and parenting consultant in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

It’s not that training doesn’t work, and there’s no parent who doesn’t want their baby to sleep. But it doesn’t always take, and it’s hard to remain confident when everyone else is seemingly in control of everything, which, Hafner says, is not the case, since, “Everybody is struggling.”

Sleep training has been Grams Haxby’s business for almost 10 years. She’s a proponent, but she also offers perspective. You’re teaching self-soothing, which the baby doesn’t necessarily want to learn — it’s a big switch from the first three months. It takes reassuring your infant, and that requires being comfortable with your approach, because, “Babies can sense their parents’ ambivalence,” she says. 

There’s no one way to get there. Books are fine, but treat them as guidelines, more than rules, and, at a certain point, stop reading and searching for advice. While you want to establish consistency, you can experiment, going with what feels right and discarding what doesn’t.

“Parents’ instincts are pretty good,” Grams Haxby says. “However you can make it work, do it.”

And, if something doesn’t work for three nights, stop doing it.

“Don’t make yourselves miserable and put the baby through it,” she says. Here’s one more thing about what success looks like. It’s six hours of continuous sleep in the early months. After that first stretch, “The rest of the night is a catch-all,” she adds. “Do whatever you know works to soothe your baby.”

It’s a hard time. You’re still accepting that pre-baby life is over. “We have to think about surviving for two years,” Hafner says. It also helps to stay unified as a couple. Share the stories that make you question your judgment, and then say to your partner, “I’m sorry that happened. We’re doing the right thing,” for the always-needed validation, he says. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s easy to focus on problems and dismiss what your baby does well, whether it’s riding in the car, staying on the changing table, or just smiling big. None are a given, and whatever you have done, or didn’t do, played a part. 

When they decided to stop sleep training, Cole says that she knew that it would have been easier if Eliana would have taken to it. She didn’t, but rather than be discouraged, Cole just saw it as one facet of her child. “I felt it was a matter of how she was wired,” she says. “Sleeping is just not her thing.”