I Let my Baby Cry It Out. Here's Why it Works for Us
When I was pregnant, I envisioned my days at home with my son. We'd read books, sing songs, and go for long walks together. Sure, he'd cry sometimes, but I'd tend to him and he would calm down. When it was nap time, I'd lay him down in his crib and enjoy an hour or two to myself to tidy up or recharge while he slept peacefully in his crib.
Even through my screen, I can feel you seasoned mothers out there - at least those of you with poor sleepers - rolling your eyes. Needless to say, my naive fantasy was quickly shattered when my son, Luke, arrived. Our first few weeks at home were spent in a blissful baby bubble since, like most newborns, he was sleepy and cuddly, alternating between eating and sleeping.
Then things changed abruptly. Luke developed painful reflux, which made eating and laying on flat surfaces uncomfortable. While he wasn't a full-blown colicky baby, he was fussy the majority of the time. For the first 3.5 months of his life, I could rarely put him down. And naps in his crib? Forget it!
So, I walked with him, sang to him, rocked him, and nursed him to sleep - all the things you're "not supposed to do," according to baby sleep experts. Then, I held him while he slept. From time to time, I'd get brave (or sometimes I just had to pee!) and I'd ever-so-quietly stand up, tip toe to the crib, and gingerly place my peacefully sleeping baby inside. But, it never failed. Each and every time, his eyes flew open and he immediately let out the most gut-wrenching screams, as though he was physically in pain. Picking him up was the only way to soothe him.
We carried on like this until he was almost 4 months old. I'd browse Instagram while Luke was sleeping in my arms, jealous of all the mothers who seemed to be enjoying a hot cup of coffee during nap time. Part of me loved this quiet time, gazing down at this beautiful boy I'd created, watching him sleep. But as the weeks went on, it became harder and took longer to get him to sleep. When he finally did, my arms and neck ached from holding my growing baby. More importantly, I knew he wasn't getting the restful sleep he needed.
So, I researched various sleep training methods. I had a gut feeling that the pick up, put down sleep training method wouldn't work for my vocal and stubborn little boy. I knew Luke was capable of self-soothing because he was already putting himself back to sleep after nighttime wake-ups without a fuss. As much as it broke my heart, I knew there would have to be some crying in order to teach him how to do the same during nap time. However, I just didn't have the heart for extinction crying.
I settled on an adaptation of the Ferber Cry It Out method. In short, this method recommends putting your baby down changed, well-fed, and awake (but ideally drowsy) then leaving the room. If your baby cries, you wait 5 minutes before going in to say a few soothing words to reassure him or her that you are still there. However, you do not pick your baby up. Keep going back in every 5 minutes until your baby goes to sleep. Then, each night, increase the amount of time you wait by a minute or two. When used correctly, this method works for most babies within a few days to one week, though if your baby is struggling with it, experts recommend trying again several weeks later, when your baby is a little older.
As mentioned, I adapted this method a bit. To me, 5 minutes felt a little too long, but I also knew that Luke would easily cry for 2 minutes. So, I settled on 3 minutes. And, instead of increasing the intervals, I would keep them at 3 minutes. Finally, since I was nap training and not working on night time sleep, I would only let the crying carry on for a maximum of 30 minutes before calling it quits on that nap. If that happened, I would simply try again later.
I cleared our schedule so that we could be home for the week, allowing all naps to happen in the crib, and I mentally prepared myself for a tough couple of days.
After doing much research and talking to other moms, I also purchased a lovey. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous because the American Academy of Pediatrics Safe Sleep Guidelines recommends that infants have nothing in the crib. Again, however, I simply had a gut feeling that this was the right thing to do in our case, in order for my baby to get the sleep he so badly needed. I would never have left anything in his crib when he was younger, but at 4.5 months he had good head and neck control, he was able to roll over, and most importantly, we tested that he was able to remove small objects from his face on his own. Therefore, I was comfortable with the decision. I went with this Elephant Security Blanket from Carters, and we named her "Ellie."
Here's what I did
We already had a nap time routine in place, which consists of a diaper change, sleep sack, closing the lights and curtains, and turning on the white noise machine.
On Day 1, I explained to Luke that we were going to do things differently from now on, so that he could get a restful nap and Mommy could get some tidying up done. I told him that his room was safe and that I'd be right outside his bedroom if he needed me. Then I nursed him as usual. However, instead of nursing him to sleep, I placed him in his crib drowsy but awake, gave him Ellie, and said "Nap time, honey. I love you." Then I left and closed the door.
When I turned on the monitor, I was shocked to see that Luke examined Ellie briefly, rolled around and cuddled with her for a few minutes, and fell right to sleep. I didn't want to get my hopes up too quickly, but his was a huge step in the right direction!
Each of Luke's naps for the next three days went smoothly as well. I was beginning to think that we got lucky with nap training, as so far there hadn't been any tears. On Day 4, however, things took a turn. During his first nap of the day, I gave Ellie to Luke and left his room as usual. But instead of rolling over and falling asleep, he began to cry. So, I took a deep breath, looked at the clock, and waited three excruciating minutes. He was still crying when the three minutes were up, so I went in, rubbed his belly, said, "It's OK honey, it's nap time," then left again.
By this point, Luke was hysterical. I was upset too, but I could see on the monitor that he was physically OK. I reminded myself that he was changed, fed, and that ultimately the result - a well-rested baby - would be worth it. I did three checks (which was 9 minutes of crying) that first day before Luke calmed down and went to sleep. And you know what? When I went in after his nap he smiled up at me, cooing happily. That same day, he settled easily for his afternoon nap, but the next day he was crying once again, and we repeated the process. That time, I completed two checks until he fell asleep.
After about two weeks, he was rarely crying at nap time. Now, at 6.5 months old, he settles easily for his naps about 90 percent of the time. When he does cry, as long as he's not sick or teething, I use the same method. He always wakes up happy and is much less cranky overall because he's well-rested. I have some time to myself to recharge, which makes me a happier mama too!
Right now, Luke is sleeping peacefully in his crib as I write this post. I think I'll go enjoy a warm cup of coffee.
Brittany Van Den Brink is a PhD Candidate and freelance writer living in small-town Ontario with her husband, baby son, and their Golden Retriever, Chevy. She founded Motherhood Her Way to collaborate with other moms as they go through the ups and downs of motherhood. Say hi on Instagram @brittanyvandenbrink.