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To Train Or Not To Train, That Is The Question

The results of last week's poll are in, and we seem to be all over the map on the big Sleep Issue.

The majority of voters said they sleep-trained, but didn't stick to it strictly. Several people weighed in as co-sleepers with no plans for changing that, while a couple of die-hards were by-the-book sleep-trainers.

I'm not surprised that this has been the most scattered poll yet. Few topics can ignite a parent like the whole sleep-training thing: the only subject guaranteed to be even more inflammatory in some circles is breastfeeding.

Why does this issue seem to be such a hot button in parenting? A couple of obvious answers spring to my mind -
1. Your entire first year of parenting revolves around sleep, and the fact that no one in your house is getting any. Several months of little sleep is enough to make anyone cranky and short-tempered. Let alone a woman with hormonal soup running through her veins.
2. You're not just talking about how to deal with your child's sleep habits. You're talking about how to deal with your child's anguished crying at night, and that ain't easy.

Purposefully choosing to listen to your child cry and do nothing about it can make you feel like the biggest monster in the world. We're going to a deep, gut level and dealing with how you comfort your child, how you suss out your child's needs when they can tell you nothing except that they are unhappy. We're only human; some of us choose not to go that route, while those of us who do, spend most of the time second-guessing our decisions, replaying the arguments over and over in our minds, and setting aside copious amounts of cash in our heads to pay for all the therapy our kids will need after being sleep-trained.

Just a couple weeks ago when we finally reinforced Maddie's sleep training, we were lying in bed listening to her cry and willing the clock to move faster when my husband said conversationally, "I can say one thing about sleep training. During these times my prayers take on extreme clarity." And it's true; every cry-filled second I'm not beating myself up about what I'm doing, I'm praying without ceasing for a comfort and protection that I cannot (or, even worse, am choosing not to) offer my daughter.

Obviously, Brian and I are cry-it-out parents. I read several books and returned to Ferber's classic Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Let me say here that I don't advocate doing any method - even attachment parenting - without reading up on it, understanding the whys and mechanics of it. Hearing a girlfriend nonchalantly mention leaving a child to cry to learn to self-comfort is not my idea of research. Get in the trenches, talk to people and learn what worked for them, what they read, and why they chose that method. Then read up for yourself. Baby 411 has a terrific chapter on sleeping and breaks down several popular methods into a one-page summary that can help narrow down the reading field for you.

In the end, it's up to you, not your friends or pediatrician, to decide how to approach your child's sleep habits, because every child is different and every family has to make its own sleep decisions. You know your child better than Dr. Spock or Dr. Sears does, and your gut's not often wrong. You know your spouse, and your tolerance level for listening to your child cry. So make your own decision and don't let family or friends pressure you one way or the other. Truthfully, the hardest part will be coming to a mutual decision: rarely are spouses in complete agreement over how to handle a baby's sleep issues.

I can't count the number of furiously whispered fights we've had in the middle of the night, when tempers are high and sleep surplus is low. Lying next to your spouse, afraid to do anything but whisper directly in his ear for fear of waking Baby once again is not the optimum time for making decisions about such an intimate and emotional subject. When Maddie goes through a bad patch and there are extenuating circumstances, we talk during the day about what plan of action we'll be taking for the short-term future, decide who has veto power over leaving her to cry, who will be going to comfort her, and so on. This is incredibly important and a lesson learned the hard way; many of our biggest fights have arisen around sleep training.

When I say that Brian and I are cry-it-out parents, I am speaking truthfully. But I am a stronger believer in it than Brian is; he lands much closer to the family bed camp than I do, and has a horrible time listening to his daughter cry. I, on the other hand, believe strongly in most of the theories behind Ferber's book and feel that learning to self-comfort is the best thing my daughter can do. I also believe- personal opinion here- that every parent eventually becomes a cry-it-out parent. At some point you are going to want your child to learn to put himself to sleep, preferably before high school starts, and it usually will involve some level of crying. When you go through that is your choice.

But back to our family differences - we've worked hard over the year to come to something we can both support and agree upon. Brian supports the Ferber method but can't be around to listen to her cry for more than ten minutes. So he leaves, and that is the best way he can participate and I think that's fair. I, being the masochist that I am, believe that if I'm going to make my daughter go through this I should not tune her out so I listen from the next room the whole time. I know many parents who head to the other end of the house or put on headphones and to them I say - do what you have to do. God bless you.

We've been incredibly fortunate in that she's never required "a lot" of sleep training. The most she's ever cried at a stretch is 15 minutes. I've heard stories from moms of trying to sleep-train their children and listening to them cry for two hours at a time. I don't honestly know if I'd still be a Ferber parent if my child had that temperament; the point is you don't know yourself until you get in the middle of it. And we've not been by-the-book strict about it, either. We got ourself into our last bad patch of sleep problems completely innocently: I'd been sick and dehydrated for several days and Maddie began waking up hungry. Did I leave her to cry it out? No I did not. I knew my child was hungry and I felt complete peace about taking care of it. Our problem came from not knowing when her need became a habit and letting it go on too long, not from caring for our child and going with our gut instincts.

If you're trying to decide how to handle your baby's sleep issues there are a ton of books out there. Ferber's classic is still available and I highly recommend it, as it deals with other sleep issues like night terrors and bedwetting. Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is similar to Ferber in theory. The No-Cry Sleep Solution has worked for several people I know, though I don't have the patience to take two months to sleep train her. And of course The Baby Book by Dr. Sears will go into detail on sharing a family bed and its benefits.

So let me end with this - solving the sleep issue is complex, personal, and highly individual. Give your friends advice if they ask for it, give them anecdotes about what works for you, and then give them a break and respect their decision if it's different from yours. We're all trying to do what's best for our babies.


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