My oldest son wasn't a natural sleeper. I had been taught in my pediatric residency that newborns should sleep 18-22 hours a day. As I had planned on studying for my pediatric board exams throughout my brief maternity leave, I was counting on this dedicated sleep time while I could focus on my studying. He turned out to be a pitiful sleeper, requiring my constant rocking and feeding to get him to sleep, only to wake right back up when I lay him down. Thus began the constant cycle of feeding him in a carrier and pacing around my apartment with a stack of cue cards to keep him asleep while I tried desperately to study. So much for a relaxing and fruitful maternity leave.
When he turned four months old I was at my wit's end. I was exhausted and stressed that I wasn't accomplishing much on the studying front. I read five different parenting books to ascertain the best method of sleep training and dove in. One week I tried the classic Ferber method -- soothing him every five minutes in increasing duration. This failed pitifully, as every time I left the room he lost his mind. Next, the Pick Up-Put Down method -- even harder, as it seemed to be a huge tease for him. I tried the Shush-Pat method, where I stood over him and pat him back to sooth him to sleep. He thought I must have been kidding and wailed for hours.
On the verge of having a mental breakdown (truly), at my husband's suggestion I tried the dreaded Cry-It-Out Method. This was truly a last resort for me. It didn't make me comfortable. To this day I cannot stand hearing my kids cry and usually rush in to "save them" within moments of crying unless my husband holds me back. But he insisted and the sleep training needed to be done. I was going back to work in one short month and was exhausted. I started resenting my son and I wasn't enjoying our one-on-one time together as I had dreamed.
And so began our new bedtime routine with bath and stories, feeding and putting him down with soft white noise in his room. For three nights we put him down, on his own in his crib by 7 p.m. and left him in his crib till 7 a.m. save for a brief dream feed, preempting crying by sneaking into his room and feeding without waiting for him to cry.
The first night he cried three hours. Three hours! I thought my heart would stop. I left the house, literally. I went to stay at a friend's house and pumped there. My husband offered a dream feed of pumped milk. The second night was a huge improvement, at a mere one hour and 45 min of crying. The third night -- 2 minutes of crying! It was a huge success and has lasted till this day with only a few bumps in the road with illnesses and teething. It was horrible, the hardest part of parenting I've endured so far in my four years as a mom, but it was a means to an end.
Since this time we have sleep trained my younger son in exactly the same way -- with cry-it-out. The longest he cried was almost three hours. Lessening to an hour the second night and no crying the third night. I plan to train my next son the same way once he is four months old next April. I have suggested the same training method to over 1,000 parents so far in my practice, with the same results in 100 per cent of cases -- 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep for babies and parents. Two babies failed to train successfully in the first month, and after one week we resigned to trying again the following month. One month later these babies trained in two nights. Perhaps they weren't ready yet the first time, but it worked magically the second time around.
I have heard much controversy about the Cry-It-Out Method over the years. Mostly I hear that leaving your baby to cry leads to psychological damage for life. While I understand this argument and this makes theoretical sense to me, I have not noticed this to be the case. Once my kids (and countless others) are sleep trained, I find them happier and more relaxed. Parents uniformly tell me that their child changed dramatically for the better once they were sleeping through the night. Not to mention how much happier and more at ease parents are when they too can sleep. A well-rested parent is a more engaged parent, who is much better able to parent with love and patience. This is of obvious benefit to the child.
There is evidence that babies benefit greatly from predictable routines and long stretches of consolidated sleep. Emotional intelligence and cognition are enhanced (despite these first few hard nights). Babies are happier, more alert and more engaged if sleeping well. In addition, learning to sooth oneself is a life skill that will last a lifetime. I find that waiting till the baby is older leads to more difficulty with sleep training, as then the baby is more mobile and verbal. Hearing your baby call 'mama, dada', only makes this more difficult.
If you are a parent and in the uncomfortable situation of having a baby who is not interested in sleeping long periods at night, I suggest speaking to your physician about the options, including Cry-It-Out. I promise, you will not regret it!
For more on sleep training tips see this post.
And outfitting your child's room for sleep see this post.
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