Sleep Training My Baby Sucked. But It Probably Saved My Life

To have a baby that won't sleep — at all — is to know true anguish.

03/13/2018 17:14 EDT | Updated 03/13/2018 17:17 EDT

The most annoying symptom of pregnancy — aside from the insomnia, nausea, indigestion, hemorrhoids and tendency to pee when you bend over — is the open season on unsolicited advice and horror stories.

And when I was pregnant with my son, I heard it all. As soon as my belly popped, I felt like parents young and old were practically frothing at the mouth to tell me about the cracked nipples, the colic and the diaper disasters I'd soon have to endure. But the most popular tales people liked to bestow on a terrified woman pregnant with her first child were always about sleep deprivation.

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I hit my third trimester during one of the hottest summers on record, according to my official "I'm pregnant as hell so back off" meteorology system. And I couldn't sit on a bench to catch my breath and stuff napkins in my armpits without a stranger giving me a knowing smile and telling me to rest while I still could.

"You'll never sleep again" was another popular refrain, often expressed in a sing-song voice and with a knowing grin. And oh, the rage it gave me. I mean, I knew what I was getting myself into. I didn't decide to have a baby in the hopes that I'd spend my weekend mornings lazing in bed. I didn't expect to spend my future summer days lounging in hammocks, reading novels and sipping daiquiris.

I made the decision to start a family because I wanted more than that.

Then my son was born and I never slept again.

I'd expected to breathe a sigh of relief after finally giving birth. But the opposite was true.

It started out of fear. He was so small, and so delicate, and I was so terrified that he'd die in his sleep that I spent the first few weeks of my son's life watching him breathe, my hand on his chest to make sure it was still going up and down.

After suffering an earlier miscarriage and spending my entire pregnancy in a state of panic about losing this baby, too, I'd expected to breathe a sigh of relief after finally giving birth. But the opposite was true. I realized from the first time I held my son's warm, wriggling body on my chest that my worries about how to keep him safe had only just begun. The weight of that responsibility hit me like a piano falling out of a window.

It was also a matter of logistics. The week before my son was born, the public health nurse who ran our prenatal class warned us that it was no longer recommended to swaddle newborns since it could increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. The study she based this advice on has since been revealed to be widely misinterpreted, but that didn't help me as I was burning all my sleep sacks and swaddle blankets.

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My baby, like many newborns, wouldn't sleep unless he was swaddled — or held. So, I held him. All night, I held him. My husband would take over around 4 a.m. and I'd sleep until he had to leave for work or the baby needed to be fed, whichever came first (it was always the former).

After a few weeks of this madness, a new public health nurse, rightfully concerned that I was circling the postpartum depression drain, told me to stop messing around and swaddle my son at night. So, I did, and we'd place him in the bassinet that I insisted on keeping on my side of the bed, just a few inches from my own face, so that I could lie on my side and watch him breathe. He'd sleep for an hour or two between feedings, and I would, too, when I wasn't placing my hand on his chest to make sure it was still going up and down.

Interrupted sleep was still sleep, and my husband and I slogged along until our son outgrew swaddling, his bassinet, and hit the four-month sleep regression all in the same month.

Then the shitshow truly began.

To have a baby that doesn't sleep is to know true anguish.

We tried everything. Every sleep suit, every sleep sack, every sleep aid. My husband spent hours holding the baby under the hood of the stove, the fan whirring, convinced the white noise would help him nod off. We tried nightly lavender baths. Soothers. Swaying. Shushing. Co-sleeping so he'd never feel alone. Pausing before picking him up out of the crib so he'd learn to self-soothe. Putting the baby down asleep. Putting the baby down awake, but drowsy.

Some nights, we'd luck out and get two, three, even four hours of sleep — sometimes even in a row. Most nights, my son would wake up every 40 minutes and scream like he was on fire until someone picked him up (my husband) and put a boob in his mouth (guess who).

Then waking every 40 minutes turned to every 20 minutes, and every 20 minutes turned into him furiously snapping awake the moment his body touched a flat surface. All night. Every night. Until one of us would finally break and stay up holding the baby while the other slept for two hours, and vice versa.

To have a baby that doesn't sleep is to know true anguish.

Kevin Liu via Getty Images

I stopped talking to my friends, because all their babies slept better than mine, or because they didn't have babies and slept in fluffy, white clouds as unicorns pranced over them. I stopped answering my family's daily messages asking how I had slept, because the answer was always "I DIDN'T WHY DO YOU KEEP ASKING ME THAT OH MY GOD!"

I stopped engaging in Mommy Facebook groups, because those jerk moms were complaining about getting woken up every few hours, or at 5:30 a.m., and I wanted to scream at them that I would kill, KILL, to be woken up every two hours.

I started fantasizing about being hospitalized for exhaustion, like a celebrity.

I started fantasizing about checking into a hotel just to sleep for three days. I started fantasizing about being hospitalized for exhaustion, like a celebrity. Then I started fantasizing that I'd get hit by a car, just badly enough that I'd have to stay in the hospital for one week, maybe two, while a brusque but warmhearted nurse kept the baby alive and I slept.

Finally, one night, when my son was just over six months old, I fantasized about jumping off a cliff into a sea of warm, black water. I'd sink, slowly, and it would be so peaceful, so quiet, as I let the water fill my lungs and I slept, and slept, and slept.

So. That didn't seem quite healthy. Even to someone so tired I'd recently tried to breastfeed the cat.

With the blessing of my public health nurse, my pediatrician, and a study that it was unlikely to harm his emotional state, I started sleep training my son the next night.

Natalie Stechyson
Lying on my baby's floor in the misguided hope I might get some sleep there. We started sleep training a week later.

I still cringe when I admit that it came to this. As with most parenting decisions, there's a lot of shame and judgment when it comes to sleep training.

The first thing those looking to judge need to know is that sleep training doesn't necessarily mean abandoning your baby to cry alone in a dark room. It means teaching your baby how to fall asleep on their own and getting them used to routines and schedules to signal that it's bedtime. There are a variety of methods to do this. Yes, many of them involve letting your baby cry for periods of time as they get used to the idea. Yes, it feels terrible.

The second thing those looking to judge need to know is I don't think anyone sets out to sleep train. Does any parent really think they're going to have a baby so dead-set against sleep that they find themselves fantasizing about getting hit by a car JUST SO THEY CAN CATCH A FEW WINKS? Of course not.

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The third thing people who judge need to know about sleep training is not to judge.

It took time, a lot of effort, and I'm still a slave to routine and schedule, but I'm now one of those jerk moms who complains about getting woken up at 5:30 a.m. But when people tell me how lucky I am that my son goes to bed at 7 p.m. each night and stays there until morning, I tell them that luck had nothing to do with it.

And, yes, sometimes I find myself warning my pregnant friends to rest while they still can. I guess it really is a parent thing. I hate myself every time I blurt it out. But I also tell them that, if they wind up with a baby who doesn't sleep — like, at all — to give me a call.

I have plenty of unsolicited advice and horror stories to share.

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