Dad Files: Why All Parents Should Sleep Train Their Kids
My wife and I were childless at the time, still trying to start a family of our own. I was still as much afraid of being a dad as I was excited. And I was deeply skeptical that dinner with friends, who had recently become parents, would be any fun at all. My impression of parenthood, built over many years’ observation, was that the first few years of the parent-child relationship consisted of tearful, nightly negotiations over when and even if said child would sleep.
As a result, I expected our dinner with friends we’ll call Claire and Joe to consist of frequent interruptions and forced smiles. But they had other ideas. Joe offered me a beer and opened an accompanying bottle of wine. Claire professed to be well rested and as happy as ever. Gallows humor, I thought. A stiff upper lip before the war. It was nearing 6 p.m, when Claire said she would put her little one to bed. Clearly, they were girding themselves for the sobbing sure to follow. But Claire was boastful.
“He’s sleep trained,” she said, of her six month old son. “We’ll put him down. He’ll play by himself for a little while and go to sleep.”
Externally, I offered what I thought of as the night’s first forced smile, a tone setter. But internally, I was saying something like “Wha-huh?”
Surely, if there is such a thing as “sleep training,” which can render bedtime easy and predictable, everyone would be doing it. But sure enough, she took her boy upstairs and what followed was… silence. After a few minutes, I asked to see the baby monitor and watched, mystified, as the beautiful little lump rolled around his crib, happily flinging a small stuffed bear around before falling slowly, gently to sleep.
We stayed for several hours. We polished off that bottle of wine. The boy never made a peep. And every 15 minutes or so, I’d pick up the monitor and look at him—cherub cheeks, steady breathing, a portrait of peace.
She suggested a book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, by Marc Weissbluth, and I did my own research. The Weissbluth method is often described in brutal terms: Parents take an otherwise healthy, happy and beloved baby and begin to treat it like an ugly orphan: When the baby shows signs of tiredness, some time after 6 p.m., tuck it in its crib, turn out the lights and shut the door. Then don’t return. Till dawn. Pretty much no matter what. The child could scream, theoretically, for many hours, till it despairs and falls asleep. But our friends didn’t have the heart for this particularly rough form of sleep training, and neither did Lisa and I. So, after we had our fraternal twin boys, Eli and Jack, my wife and I used one of the alternative methods Weissbluth suggests.
When they were about five months old, if our boys cried after we put them down for the night, we no longer raced down the hall to scoop them up. Instead, we waited for 10 initially excruciating minutes. If the same boy kept crying for that long, we offered him comfort, calmed him, and put him down again. This time, if he cried, we waited 20 minutes before going into his room a second time. In a few instances our boys pushed up toward the 45-minute mark. But within a couple of weeks, our whole world had shifted.
The boys quieted, drifting off into sleeps that quickly began to extend through the whole night. And I mean, the whole night. In fact, today, our boys usually go to sleep around 6 p.m. and sleep till 6 a.m.
Now, critics call sleep training cruel, claiming it traumatizes babies and even deals permanent damage—their little developing brains flooded by an abundance of stress related chemicals that are destructive in large amounts.
I took this criticism seriously, having written a story on how post-traumatic stress disorder effects a larger portion of the adult population than we’d expect. But I could find zero studies to show any ill effect of sleep training on babies and now I reject any and all criticism of the method my wife and I used—without qualification.
Our life at home is a kind of peace, joy and love fest. Our babies, far from being traumatized, squeal with delight every time they wake up from a nap to play. They look at my wife and I with sweet, unmistakable baby love. At 36 weeks old, they are beginning to interact with each other, taking turns smiling and squealing at one another in an early version of twin-glish and no, I don’t think they’re plotting their escape. In fact, while my wife and I have precious little parenting experience, the two women we’ve relied on for extra child care have nannied and mothered dozens of babies between them. They tell us Jack and Eli are “easy” and they think the reason is that they’re well rested.
So, hey, if sleep training works this well, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, I think one of the reasons the Weissbluth method comes under such fire is that it’s misunderstood. For one thing, a lot of people don’t realize he advises parents to find a way of training the kids to sleep, without the need for constant comforting, for the sake of the child. A cleaned, fed and healthy baby who comes to understand they are perfectly ok lying there on their own is a lot more relaxed than one who thinks it needs to be held or tended to pretty much every second it’s awake.
Moreover, I now feel the Weissbluth book gave me a better understanding of what our babies are going through. The little moppets sure are cute but they cannot speak! So it’s up to us to learn the various cues they provide as to what they want and need. And what they want, mostly, is consistency. This means feedings and naps occur at the same regular intervals each day. This also means mom and dad will stay alert for signs of a sleepy baby: a child who disengages from his goofy dad and stares off into the middle distance for long seconds at a time is most likely feeling drowsy. And by the time that baby rubs its eyes, it’s overtired.
The problem, for most parents, is that “reading” your baby is a little counter-intuitive. In this sense, it isn’t the baby who is getting sleep trained: it’s mom and dad.
The child who doesn’t seem to want sleep is often the sleepiest child of all. Babies and toddlers fuss and cry and squawl at bedtime not because they want to stay up and enjoy the fun. They complain because they should have been put to bed a while ago. An overtired baby will eventually pass out from exhaustion, but first it will stay awake, agitated by excitatory chemicals. The human machine, if not provided required downtime, has an internal pharmaceutical factory designed to keep it functioning. When we’re older, we can learn to channel that extra energy into studying for a final or hopping to that one extra bar. But a baby lacks that capacity. That’s why an overtired baby will veer from smiles and giggles and attempts to play to fits and caterwauling like some bi-polar cherub.
Now, my wife and I have sort of laid low on our experience, largely because sleep training generates so much controversy. But like sleepless nights, we’ve put that silence behind us. Sleep training has proven to be the most important and beneficial parenting decision we’ve made thus far.
In fact, these days, with their constant smiles and playful personalities, we feel like they’re always thanking us. But we got lucky, and learned about sleep training at all only because we had the chance to see it in action—at a dinner with friends that turned out to be way more important than we knew.
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly. Read the series from the beginning.