A Different Approach to Sleep Training Your Baby

A Different Approach to Sleep Training Your Baby

Photo courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones

“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.”
-Leo J. Burke

Sleep is quite possibly the biggest battle you’ll face as a new parent and you will have to fight it on two fronts.

On the one side you’ll have your little bundle of joy, who isn’t going to seem quite so joyful when she simply refuses to go to sleep. I don’t know why kids fight sleep so hard, but they do, and you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

And on the other side you won’t be getting anywhere near enough sleep yourself. It’s hard to describe what this is like if you haven’t lived through it yet, but have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re trying to run but your legs feel like lead? It’s kind of like that, except you feel it in your head instead of your legs.

Put it all together and you end up with moments in the middle of the night where you’ve been up for a couple of hours, you still can’t get your son back to sleep, and you not only feel like a crappy parent for not knowing what he needs but your body feels like its about to collapse from fatigue.

Good times!

We had a heck of a time sleep training our first son. We finally got him sleeping through the night at about 18 months old, but 3 months later our second was born and that all went out the window. We’re still trying to work our way back to where we were.

Through it all we tried some things that definitely didn’t work before finally finding something that at least kind of does. And now we’ve started using that same approach with our second son from a much earlier age, and while it definitely hasn’t been perfect, it’s been much better this time around.

So in case you’re struggling too, here are the two big approaches we used that didn’t work, and the modified approach we use now that does.

The two sleep training approaches that didn’t work

Sleep training will be different for each person, and definitely for each child, so either of these approaches might work for you. But they didn’t work for us, and for very different reasons.

The “sleep with us” approach

This wasn’t something we chose purposefully. It’s just what we fell into by default.

Basically, this involved either Casey or I getting Aiden to sleep before trying to put him down in his crib. Sometimes it worked and he would sleep on his own for a while, but sometimes he would wake right back up and we’d have to do it all over again. There were a lot of times that he just ended up sleeping with Casey (his favorite option).

It had the advantage of actually getting him to sleep, and when he slept with Casey he usually slept for longer stretches than when he was on his own.

But it had a few big drawbacks too:

  1. We weren’t getting enough sleep. Because he wasn’t learning to get himself back to sleep, we were up multiple times each night trying to get him back down. It wasn’t long before we were feeling pretty zombie-ish.
  2. We were fostering dependence. A big part of parenting is teaching your kids how to be independent and we weren’t doing that. We were teaching him to rely on us rather than helping him figure out how to do it on his own.

Eventually we decided that this approach wasn’t sustainable and we started looking for an actual sleep training method. Which led us to…

The cry-it-out approach

This is one of the more popular sleep-training approaches out there, and you can read about it in detail here. Basically it involves putting your child into her crib awake, and letting her cry for progressively longer and longer periods before going in and checking on her. The thinking is that you’re giving her the opportunity to learn how to sleep in her own particular way, rather than doing it for her.

We tried this for about a month and to be perfectly honest, we hated it. It didn’t seem to be working for Aiden, and we just hated leaving him alone to cry for extended periods of time. I get that it works great for other people, but for better or worse it just didn’t mesh with our style and we needed to try something different.

Our modified approach. The one that at least kind of works.

We couldn’t stick with the cry-it-out approach, but we also knew that we couldn’t go back to us getting him to sleep every time. Luckily, Casey found this article that described what felt like a happy medium, and we adapted it for our own use.

Here’s what our process looks like:

  1. Have a pre-bedtime routine. Ours involves reading books and brushing teeth. This helps set the stage so he knows bedtime is coming.
  2. Sing him a few songs while holding him. This gets him to the point of drowsiness. (Also we just kind of liked those moments).
  3. Put him in his crib while he’s still awake.
  4. Rub his back and keep singing until he’s asleep. Sometimes this happens without a fight, but sometimes there’s a decent amount of crying involved. When we first did this with Aiden, this would occasionally last an hour or more (that kid has some ridiculous willpower!).
  5. Once he’s in the crib, there’s no picking him up. We’ll rub his back, but he’s going to fall asleep in the crib.
  6. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, we start from Step 4 (when they’re younger they might nurse first, but then it’s right back into the crib).

Over time we progressed to cutting out Step 2. Then we modified Step 4 to stop rubbing his back and just sit or lie next to the bed. And eventually we were able to put him down awake, leave the room right away, and he would fall asleep completely on his own.

Now, this didn’t happen in anywhere near the 9 days they talk about in that article I linked to above. For us this was a very slow progression over a period of months. Some of that was probably because we started it late and Aiden was already used to something else. And some of it was probably because we just didn’t move on to the next step as quickly as we should have. But it took us a while.

But we like this approach for a few reasons:

  • He’s falling asleep in his bed. Even when we’re rubbing his back, he’s getting used to the process of lying down on his own and falling asleep. This was the big problem with our first approach.
  • We still felt like we were supporting him. Our issue with the cry-it-out method was that we just hated the feeling of leaving him unsupported. When we could be in the room with him, and sing to him and rub his back, we just felt like better parents.
  • We started it with Nolan earlier and it’s working. With our second son Nolan, who’s just about 7 months old now, we started doing this much earlier and we’re already seeing the benefits. Now, it could very easily be that he’s just naturally a better sleeper, so there’s certainly no proof of anything here. But most nights he’s going to sleep pretty easily and he’s starting to learn how to get himself back to sleep in the middle of the night. We’re not all the way there for sure, but it feels like we’re further along.

Find your own way

Your kids are going to be different, and maybe one of our failed approaches will end up working for you. Or maybe you’ll find something completely different that suits you better. You’re going to have to try some different things out and find your own way.

But for me, the fight against sleep was one of the hardest parts of becoming a parent and I really appreciated finding and using this alternative method. Hopefully it can help you too.

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11 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Kirsten @ Indebtedmom July 7, 2014

    We co-sleep. My husband initially said “never”, but it got t the point I was hallucinating from lack of sleep and my midwives got stern with him. We thought it would only last for a little while, but it lasted until we converted her crib to a toddler bed at 18 months. Then she felt in control and was happy to sleep by herself. Kiddo #2 just started off in the bed with us 😉

    • Matt Becker July 7, 2014

      Yep, we ended up doing a lot of co-sleeping too even though we didn’t think we would. For us it was just kind of the only thing we could get to work for a while, which is what it sounds like happened with you too. We’ve transitioned our 2nd out of the bed sooner than our first, but I think that’s because we wasted less time messing around with other approaches.

  • Done by Forty July 7, 2014

    Have you tried whiskey? It worked on me when I was a baby, with no ill side effects. Except now I really like whiskey, so, you know, win-win.

    • Matt Becker July 7, 2014

      Haha, I hadn’t thought about developing their taste for liquor but that’s a good call! I’m not a big fan of hard liquor and maybe it’s because my parents just didn’t give me enough as a baby. Shame on them!

  • Brian @ Luke1428 July 7, 2014

    I think routines are huge for kids. We had one set up for ours that we really tried to adhere to, even if it meant leaving places early so we could get them in bed on time. All of ours turned out to be great sleepers for which we were very thankful.

    • Matt Becker July 7, 2014

      Yeah the routine is really big. Even a small one is really helpful. We’re not real strict about sticking to it when we’re out, but that also isn’t all that often. As long as we’re home it’s always the same thing.

  • Kate @ Money Propeller July 7, 2014

    I had a different style of putting my daughter in sleep training before. Usually, I always sang her a lullaby song and rub her back, in this way she easily fell asleep. It’s funny that she can sleep easily when she’s listening to a music.

    • Matt Becker July 9, 2014

      Nice! Singing has been a pretty big part of our routine too.

  • Andrew@LivingRIchCheaply July 10, 2014

    Wow, can’t believe Nolan is 7 months…time flies! Our son just turned one. We did co-sleep back when he was a lot younger…now he’s pretty good generally about sleeping and we pretty much follow what you guys do too. Now with napping…he seems to be having trouble with that…too much excitement and distraction during the day I guess. But then being too tired also disrupts his sleeping at night…

    • Matt Becker July 10, 2014

      Wow, congrats on making it a year! Haha. Only kind of kidding. Napping has always been a lot tougher for us too. It’s pretty rare for Nolan to nap by himself, or at least go down by himself. And we could never seem to figure that out with Aiden until just recently. 2 years isn’t too bad, right?

  • Martha October 31, 2018

    I love how you write about working together, as parents, as partners. That is amazing!
    In fact I used another method – the Hold With Love one, it is very gentle one – you might like it: start in first weeks, have a routine, at 4mo start the main training totally without CIO (you may check http://www.parental-love.com). And I did it with my husband. He was patient and supportive but still it was more like him helping me, than we doing the thing together. But I guess we started wrong…

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