When I welcomed my beautiful baby boy into the world last spring, I was sure of one thing: I would never, ever sit in a separate room from him, letting him scream and cry all alone. Never. A mere six months later — after eight solid weeks of trying to put in 40 hours at work while sleeping in one-hour increments at night — my husband and I sat down with a giant bag of Reese’s Pieces and a borrowed copy of “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems“ and did the very thing we swore we’d never do. Now that we’re both sleeping like normal people again (for now), I can say with certainty I’m a Ferber believer. I know it’s not for everyone, but here’s what I learned.
It’s actually called “progressive waiting” and isn’t as torturous as it sounds (for the baby)
“Cry it out” sounds terrifying. Which is precisely why Dr. Richard Ferber chose not to call his controversial sleep training method anything of the sort. In his book, he calls his technique “progressive waiting” — and it consists of putting your kid down, leaving for a few minutes, coming back to soothe, waiting a few minutes more, etc. There’s a lot of room for flexibility, and he’s careful to stipulate the importance of things like bedtime routines and nap consistency. Still, no matter what you call it, it’s never easy to hear your kid cry. (The aforementioned chocolate binge was no joke.) But the longest our son ever cried was 30 minutes. And while that was easily the longest 30 minutes of my life, it only happened once — and after two nights, he was sleeping like a champ.
Self-soothing is an important skill that takes practice.
Like crawling and walking and eating and talking, self-soothing is something that requires practice. That practice is what we call “sleep training.” When my kid was in the midst of his four-month sleep regression (which lasted almost two months), I read something that made a lot of sense: Night sleep takes either A) time or B) tears. I have the utmost respect for those patient parents who choose time — but because my husband and I both work full time, we reluctantly and exhaustedly opted for the tears route. Three nights later, the first time our son slept peacefully until morning, I can’t tell you how proud of him I felt. Even now, it’s right up there with the first time he ate food from a spoon or pulled himself up to standing. He did it. He learned to soothe himself to sleep without our help. We just created a safe environment for him to figure out how.
Parents use the “cry it out” method for basically everything else
The first time our kid took a bath, he screamed his head off. In spite of our soft, loving reassurances, he seemed convinced he was being violently murdered by a gentle sponge and the mildest of soaps. And though his blood-curdling baby shrieks are the undisputed winner of my most-heartbreaking-sounds-of-all-time competition, we still washed him. Because humans have to take baths. And, lo and behold, bath time quickly became one of his favorite things. The fact is, as parents, we have to fight through tears to get our kids used to a lot of things that seem scary at first — from diaper changes to car rides to childcare. It’s an awful, unavoidable part of the job. But it’s certainly not isolated to sleep training.
It’s all about trust
To continue the bath analogy, I remember a powerful parenting moment the first time it hit home that my kid was no longer afraid of bath time. I was pouring water over his head to rinse out shampoo, singing along with our special bath time playlist — and he was just looking up at me and smiling. In that moment, I had the wonderful and terrifying realization that the only reason he was able to enjoy this experience was because he trusted me. It was wonderful because I’d worked so hard to earn his trust. And it was terrifying because I had no idea what I was doing — and was thoroughly afraid I didn’t deserve it.
In my brief time as a mom, I’ve come to believe that parenthood is all about managing this weighty balance of trust. My fear about “crying it out” was that I’d break my son’s trust in me. What happened was quite the opposite. Progressive waiting is about showing up periodically enough to reassure your kid that he’s not alone, while giving him the space to learn a new skill. It’s about teaching our children to trust that we’re there even when we’re not there. And, for me, it was about trusting myself enough to step back and give my kid the chance to grow.
Have you survived some form of sleep training? Tell us all about it!