Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
Baz Lurhmann: Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)
When I moved to Jozi as a grad in 2003, I wound up in sales (recruitment). My boyfriend (now husband) had many years of sales experiences under his belt and gave me a piece of advice he’d picked up on a training course: “Clients/ customers only buy goods or services when they feel pain.”
In the months following the departure of my first child’s night nurse, I realised that this was how I had come to view sleep training. It was something I knew I probably needed to buy into at some stage. Although I was in pain every time we had a bad night, the agony wasn’t consistent enough for me to attempt sleep training. The idea of sleep training was something I instinctively experienced as a kind of physical fear: the terrorised crying, the guilt of abandoning your helpless infant, the fear of inflicting permanent psychological damage, the self-doubt as to whether the child might be physically ill… it all just seemed too barbaric a concept for me to face. And, in a nutshell, too hard, really. It somehow felt easier to just suffer through four hours of rocking my child and begging her to sleep every three or four nights. Because in between those hellish nights, she’d mostly sleep through and I’d have a chance to recover – physically and emotionally.
But when my daughter, Chiara, was 15 months old, something cracked. We just had too many three or four hour stints where I could not, for love or money, get her back to sleep in the middle of the night. (To this day, I don’t know why she sometimes woke up, but I do know that she had no idea how to put herself back to sleep because she had never been given the opportunity to learn that skill). A few hours cradling a baby in an armchair in the middle of the night might not sound like the worst thing on earth – especially if you have the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom in privileged South Africa. But there is something absolutely soul destroying about the experience when you are going through it. I repeat: soul destroying. Perhaps you have to have experienced it yourself to know what I mean…
I’m glad I finally reached rock bottom because I would not have had the determination to attempt sleep training otherwise.
A few months earlier, I’d had lunch with a friend who was regularly spending an hour and a half putting her one year old to bed. She wasn’t pushy or evangelical at all on the topic but merely stated that sleep training had “changed their lives”. She described how, after the training, her daughter would point to her cot after only a few minutes. It seemed almost too good to be true and I wasn’t ready to put her advice into practice, but I secretly fantasized about a child who pointed at her cot.
So, when I was ready (read absolutely desperate and in emotional pain), I emailed my friend and asked her for her “method” for Project Sleep Training. To date, at 15 months old, Chiara, had only ever been rocked to sleep, pushed to sleep or fallen asleep on her nanny’s back or in a moving car. My mother-in-law first mentioned “putting her down awake” when she was six months old. I’d never heard of such a crazy concept in my life and I though my mother-in-law was mad. It was only later that the information started to sink in…
My friend’s method was gleaned from a range of online sources and she explained it to me in simple terms:
- Put baby in cot (yes, awake! Imagine?)
- Leave room
- Time three minutes on your phone
- If s/he is still crying after three minutes, go in and lay your hand on him/her to reassure them for less than a minute. Don’t pick them up.
- Leave the room and time four minutes on your phone
- If the baby is still crying after four minutes, go in and lay your hand on him/her to reassure them for less than a minute. Don’t pick them up.
- Leave the room and time five minutes on your phone…
The next day, you start by leaving the baby for four minutes, then five, then six etc. You’ll be surprised at how fast these kids catch on…
For me, sleep training was indeed life changing. It took about two or three days of applying the above method by the book before my daughter got the message. I never experienced another night of being up for two to four hours on the trot – which had previously happened about three times a week.
Of course if your baby isn’t completely well, sleep training is not a good idea. Rather wait till you feel confident that your child is healthy. As for teething, it can be hellish for some babies but teething goes on for two years so it’s worth fitting in sleep training somewhere along the line.
Going away did disrupt my child’s sleep somewhat, but not to the same extent as it had prior to sleep training. I did find that when we got home, it was helpful to re-start the training for a night or two.
When my second child came along, I cuddled and rocked him to my heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that I could train him to self soothe as soon as he – or rather, I – was ready.