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The Sleep Trainer: How I came around to the cry-it-out method

This is an excerpt taken from the sleep chapter of American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland, a book part memoir and part history of parenting. It came out June 2, 2009, from Ballantine Books. You can buy it here.

Before Isaac was born, Jennifer and I decided that it would be best to have him sleep next to our bed in a co-sleeper. I was still occasionally having nightmares that left me flailing about on the mattress and I didn’t want to risk whacking Isaac in my sleep. But our decision ended up making little difference.

Although we put Isaac down for the night in the co-sleeper, Jennifer would take him out of it for his first nighttime feedings and most of the time – even on the nights Jennifer could have sworn she had put him back – we would wake up to find him lying between us.

When he wasn’t crying, it was a pleasure to share a mattress with Isaac. He was warm and mushy and sometimes his heavy breathing made him sound like a purring cat.

His cat sounds notwithstanding, Isaac’s presence in our bed wasn’t usually a cause for celebration. On a bad night, he would be up almost every hour. I would fall back asleep within minutes, but Jennifer wasn’t so lucky. Once he was on our mattress, Isaac ate nonstop and sometimes slept with his hand on Jennifer’s breast, as if to ensure that I wouldn’t take off with his loot. As he grew older, he began to pinch and claw as well.

“It’s like going to sleep every night at an S&M club,” Jennifer said.

If we failed to complain about our lack of sleep at first it was only because we were too overwhelmed by the crying and breast-feeding problems to worry about anything else. But during Isaac’s fifth month, with the breastfeeding going smoothly and the worst of the colic over, Jennifer and I began to talk about sleep training, the practice of letting babies cry until they learn to fall asleep on their own.

Neither Jennifer nor I particularly liked the idea of sleep training. We worked so hard to calm Isaac during the day because we both believed that babies feel real anguish when they cry, even if they can’t reflect on their unhappiness in the way that adults can. And, though we knew that letting babies scream at night worked out well for many parents, it was hard for us to imagine Isaac wailing for a few minutes and then deciding that he should call it a night and catch some z’s. If his daytime behavior was any indicator, Isaac was more than capable of crying all night long.

My resolve to try sleep training might have been stronger had I not remembered my own fear of sleeping alone. I shared a room with my older sister until age five, and when my father broke the news that Jessica was moving into her own room, it felt as though I were being placed in solitary confinement for life.

“You can’t share a room with her forever,” my father had said, trying to reason with me. “What would you do when one of you got married?”

“I wouldn’t care,” I said.

“But what if Jessica’s husband cared? Or your wife?”

“I know they wouldn’t,” I said.

Jennifer could also remember her fear of the night – although, unlike me, she’d had a cadre of Cabbage Patch Dolls to protect her.

And so after looking at a number of different books, we settled on a middle-of-the-road approach to sleep training: We wouldn’t let Isaac cry or put him in another room, but we would move him into a crib on the other side of our bedroom and stop feeding him throughout the night.

I thought the plan sounded great until we sat down to discuss the logistics. If Jennifer was no longer going to be feeding Isaac, someone was going to have to comfort him when he woke up in the middle of the night. And since Jennifer had already carried the burden for months, it was now my turn. I accepted my new responsibility without protest, and, as I expected, the transition to milkless nights did not go over so well with our new roommate. The first sign of Isaac waking up was typically the soft thumping of his swaddled feet against his mattress, and the sound alone could strike terror in our hearts. “Oh God, please no,” I would say at the sound of those first thumps.

“It can’t be,” Jennifer would say. “He’s been asleep for less than an hour.”

And then more thumps, now slightly louder – the footsteps of the approaching villain in the scary movie.

“It just can’t be.”

(Cue the haunting music.)

“No, no, no.”

And then the desperate begging. But here the movie analogy breaks down because rather than begging for mercy from the approaching villain, I would be begging for mercy from my fellow victim.

“Please just wake up with him this time,” I would say, fully aware that only hours earlier I had confidently assured her that I would be the one to get up and that it really wasn’t a big deal.

“But you said – ”

“I know. I know. But . . .”

“But what?”

“I’ll give you twenty bucks.”

“Sam, we share a bank account. You can’t bribe-”

“One hundred dollars!”

At four in the morning, I would often be standing in the bathroom with Isaac and a hair dryer. Eventually Isaac’s cries would drown out my begging, and I would give in and try to get Isaac to fall back to sleep by laying him down on my chest and rocking wildly from side to side – a technique Jennifer dubbed “the mental institution soothing method” because both Isaac and I looked as though we belonged in a padded cell.

When my rocking failed, as it almost always did, I would get up, grab the sling, and for the next few minutes pace around the apartment in the dark arguing so vociferously for Jennifer to feed Isaac that we both began to refer to me as “Isaac’s agent.”

“This is crazy,” I would say. “He wants to eat.”

“But I thought we agreed that he wasn’t going to eat during these hours?”

“Yes, yes, but he really does seem hungry this time.”

“I just fed him fifteen minutes ago. He’s not-”

“Growth spurt.”

“You say ‘growth spurt’ every night. He should be twenty feet tall by now.”

“Okay, how about this: We let him eat for five minutes. You know, just to sort of relax him.”

“I don’t even have any milk left.”

“Two minutes and not one second more.”

Sometimes I would win these battles, and sometimes not. When I didn’t, my nights were maddeningly similar to my days. At four in the morning, I would often be standing in the bathroom with Isaac and a hair dryer, and as the noise whooshed through my numbed brain, I would wonder how it could possibly be that in the age of birth control, generation after generation of men and women continued to have babies. I knew that lots of parents experienced some form of this four a.m. despair, and at the time, this thought depressed me even further. I was prepared to be a clich’ in my happiness, but in my unhappiness, I wanted at least the Tolstoyan promise of exceptionalism.

I knew, of course, that it could be worse. It was worse, in fact, for our upstairs neighbor, Steve, who had to listen to Isaac scream throughout the night but got none of the benefits of parenthood. Almost every night we would hear Steve wake up after Isaac and then pace around his apartment. This made our stress significantly worse, particularly on the mornings that we saw him coming down the stairs looking as bad as us. After one particularly bad night, Jennifer emailed Steve an apologetic note, to which he replied kindly, and then asked if it would be possible for us to move Isaac to another room.

The next night we dragged Isaac’s crib into the kitchen/dining area of our one-bedroom apartment. We were happy to experiment with the new arrangement for Steve’s sake, but Isaac sleeping next to the kitchen created a new set of dilemmas. Specifically, we could no longer eat after seven p.m. We managed to avoid using the kitchen for the first few nights, but soon Jennifer and I were making night raids to the pantry on our tiptoes, both of us feeling as though Isaac were the parent, and we the mischievous children.

But the night raids weren’t our biggest concern at that moment. Our more serious problem was getting Isaac to fall asleep in his crib. We’d always helped Isaac go to bed for the first time of the night by letting him hold on to one of our hands. It wasn’t particularly difficult to reach into the co-sleeper, but giving him a hand in the crib meant standing hunched over the railing for as long as an hour. To escape from Isaac’s side, Jennifer and I would try to inch our hands down his body, but even when Isaac’s eyes were closed he remained on high alert for such shenanigans. Sometimes I would manage to slip my hand downward so that I was holding only the loose fabric on his pajama footsies and yet somehow he could sense when I let go. It was as though he had installed his own high-tech motion-detector security system in his crib.

“I think it’s time for Ferber,” Jennifer said. Unwilling to cede defeat, one night I tried a new technique to escape Isaac’s watch. Rather than standing hunched over the crib, I spread out on the hardwood floor and stuck one finger through the slats of the railing. To my pleasant surprise, Isaac accepted my meager offering and this trick allowed me to get away in less than half the time. I reported the good news to Jennifer and soon she too was lying on the floor every night with a finger in the crib.

We were delighted with our progress, but the finger trick also came with a problem of its own. Once we managed to work our respective fingers free from Isaac’s clammy palm, it was far too risky to stand up and let him see us. It was too risky even to rise to our hands and knees. And so we did the only thing we could. We army-crawled back into our bedroom on our elbows.

Painful though it could be, a part of me enjoyed the crawling. For a few seconds I could forget that I was a thirty-year-old man on the floor of my own kitchen and pretend that I was a Navy SEAL on an undefined but extremely important mission. But with no military fantasies to fall back on, Jennifer found little to redeem the act of traversing her own apartment on her stomach. One night after crawling back into our bedroom, she stood before me, brushed the lint off, and said the words babies would dread if they could understand them.

“I think it’s time for Ferber,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer was referring to Dr. Richard Ferber, the name that has become synonymous with the “cry it out” method of putting babies to sleep. In 1974, while a fellow at the Harvard Medical School, Ferber noticed the scarcity of research on the sleeping habits of small children and took it upon himself to fill in the gap. A decade later he published Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, the book that would make him famous.

In his book, Ferber argues that if parents comfort them every time they cry in the night, babies will associate the comforting with falling asleep and become dependent on it. To break their nighttime comforting addiction, parents need to let babies cry themselves to sleep and should begin to do so as early as at three months, when infants begin responding to the circadian rhythms of day and night.

Ferber’s research and Harvard degrees added authority to the idea that letting a baby shriek was the best solution to sleeping problems, but he was far from the first person to suggest the method. Baby experts, including Benjamin Spock, had been encouraging American parents throughout the century to let their babies cry. In fact, Ferber might be viewed as the final chapter in a much larger story about how Americans thought about babies in the twentieth century.

Ferber argues that sleeping alone in cribs teaches children to see themselves as independent individuals, and that even if babies seem happy sleeping in bed with their parents, it’s probably not a good idea to allow it to continue. In drawing this link between sleeping alone and independence, Ferber was perhaps unknowingly regurgitating a uniquely American myth.

In a 1997 attack on Ferber, the science journalist Robert Wright makes a good point that somehow rarely came up in twentieth-century America. “It isn’t obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while being confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment,” Wright notes. “I’d be willing to look at the evidence behind this claim, but there isn’t any.” Nor, for that matter, is there any reason to assume, as Ferber does, that the fear of sleeping alone indicates an emotional problem. Wright can barely contain his dismay at Ferber’s insistence that “there must be a reason” why babies are afraid of sleeping alone.

Yes, there must. Here’s one candidate: Maybe your child’s brain was designed by natural selection over millions of years during which mothers slept with their babies. Maybe back then if babies found themselves completely alone at night it often meant something horrific had happened – the mother had been eaten by a beast, say. Maybe the young brain is designed to respond to this situation by screaming frantically so that any relatives within earshot will discover the child. Maybe, in short, the reason that kids left alone sound terrified is that kids left alone naturally get terrified. Just a theory. But then Wright, who writes regularly about morality and evolution, would be the first to say that there is no reason to assume that what’s natural is also what’s good.

In the end, exhaustion prevailed. And this is where Jennifer and I found ourselves during Isaac’s fifth month: on the one hand thinking that sleep training was not only harsh and unnatural but also a product of an outdated individualistic ethic we didn’t subscribe to, and on the other hand desperately needing to sleep.

In the end, exhaustion prevailed. We decided to Ferberize our son. The key to the Ferber method is letting your baby cry for increasingly long intervals and resisting the urge to pick him or her up. On the first night, you can go into the baby’s room after three minutes, but then should not return again for five minutes, and so on. The next night the intervals should be longer.

Jennifer and I decided that we wouldn’t ever let Isaac cry for more than fifteen minutes. If he passed the fifteen-minute mark, we would just accept army crawls as part of life.

On the first night of Ferber, we prepared ourselves with a pep talk, like a sports team before a big game.

“We can do this,” I said.

“And in the long run, he’s going to cry less,” Jennifer said.

“Much less,” I said. “We just need to take things one day at a time.”

Jennifer kissed Isaac good night, and then I carried him into the other room and put him down in his crib, feeling like Abraham putting Isaac’s namesake down in the sacrificial pit.

“I love you so much,” I said, bringing my hand to Isaac’s face so that he might experience one little gesture of warmth before being left to fend for himself in the dark of our kitchen. I meant to just glance his cheek, but before I could pull my hand away from his soft skin, Isaac reached up and clutched it.

Two minutes later Jennifer walked out of the bedroom and found me hunched over the crib.

“What’s going on?” Jennifer whispered, clearly exasperated.

“He caught me.”

“He caught you?”

“He’s got my hand. I can’t get it out.” I shrugged with my free arm. “We’ll start tomorrow.” The next night, knowing that I couldn’t let Jennifer down again, I put Isaac in his crib and raced back into the bedroom, as though I were running from enemy fire.

“Quick, turn up the TV,” I said. “We can’t listen to the screaming.”

Jennifer turned the volume almost all the way up, but behind the roar of The Simpsons we could still hear our son wailing. “I can’t do this,” Jennifer said. “I’m going out on the balcony.”

“Okay,” I said. I spread out on the floor and tried to watch The Simpsons. Then I got up and opened the door to the balcony.

“I think it’s been five minutes,” I said.

Jennifer checked the time on her cellphone. “It’s been less than two minutes,” she said.

“Right,” I said. I lay down again, listened to Isaac, and got back up.

“Is it five minutes yet?” I asked.

“It’s not even three,” Jennifer said.

“All right, well, maybe I should just go. I mean, by the time I get there . . .”

We both appreciated that it took only ten seconds to walk to his crib, but Jennifer could hear Isaac through the open door and she was breaking down along with me.

“Okay, just go,” she said.

I returned to Isaac’s crib. My plan was to reassure him that he was not alone, put his pacifier back in his mouth, and then walk away.

On the second night he cried for a total of ten minutes. Two minutes later, Jennifer appeared and found me hunched over the crib.

“He got me again,” I said, grateful that I could not see Jennifer’s expression in the dark. “We’ll start tomorrow night.”

The next night it seemed as though Isaac might not be feeling well and we both agreed that we couldn’t let him cry. And then we lost our momentum. Isaac might have been ready for Ferber, but Jennifer and I weren’t ready to Ferberize.

We didn’t give up altogether. Every month or so, after a bad night, I would catch Jennifer flipping through Ferber’s book. And midway through the ninth month of Isaac’s life, we decided to give it one more shot. Jennifer went out onto the balcony again and I turned up the TV.

I only made it to four minutes, but after giving Isaac his pacifier, I managed to get away. Isaac cried for a total of thirteen minutes that night, much less than I had expected. On the second night he cried for a total of ten minutes.

On the third night, he was silent even before the initial five minutes were up. And on the fourth night, when I put Isaac down and walked away, he didn’t make a sound.

I stood by the door and waited for the scream for another minute but there was only silence. It felt so miraculous that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a rainbow when I walked back into our bedroom.

Jennifer and I hugged, and then looked at each other.

“I’m worried something is wrong,” I said.

“Me too,” Jennifer said.

“Maybe I should go check?”

“No,” Jennifer said.

A minute passed, and still silence. “Okay, maybe you should go check,” Jennifer said.

I waited a few minutes and then opened the door and stepped out. Isaac was standing in his crib in silence, gazing at me. I could barely breathe.

“Okay, just, um, uh, good night,” I said. I turned around and raced back to the bedroom.

“What’s he doing?” Jennifer asked.

“He’s just standing there.”

“Just standing there?”

“Yeah.”

Jennifer looked like she might faint from amazement.

“We’re parenting geniuses,” I said.

This is an excerpt taken from the sleep chapter of American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland, a book part memoir and part history of parenting. It came out June 2, 2009, from Ballantine Books. You can buy it here.

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