The realities of self-settling

Baby SleepingThis post is by my sister Cat about her experiences of sleep training her 3 month old son. As she mentions, it’s not considered polite to talk about getting a lot of sleep when you have a small baby. However, I personally find it inspirational and motivational to hear such success stories as I think it’s important for new mums to know that it is possible to get to a point where your child sleeps through the night. I’m such a proud aunty to watch Cat’s son grow into such a happy-go-lucky baby who is an absolute delight. I know I’m inspired by Cat’s experience so I hope you find it inspirational too. 

My son is 15 weeks old. He has slept 12 hours at night (with a dreamfeed) since he was 6 weeks old.

There. I’ve said it.

I don’t talk about this with anyone but close friends and family. Newborns and sleep is such a hot topic of conversation but its considered taboo to talk openly about it when they are sleeping well.

I get it.

It’s akin to taking a Large Big Mac Meal to a weight loss seminar and eating it in front of overweight people whilst telling them ‘if anything, I have trouble gaining weight’. You wouldn’t do it, and so in the company of other parents, I generally keep my mouth shut.

So why am I talking about it now?

Because I want to clear up a few things.

First things first. I know I am LUCKY. But it’s not the sort of luck you receive when you win the lottery. Lottery luck is random. The only extent by which I’ve received random luck is that my son was born near full term with a healthy birth weight of 4.3Kg. I understand the fact he was born with ‘fat on his bones’ probably has contributed to his ability to sleep well, drawing on his stores rather than being constantly hungry like skinnier babies.

I am also lucky that he – so far – doesn’t have any feeding or health issues that preclude his ability to sleep well, such as reflux or ear infections.

But that’s where my luck ends.

The second thing is. My husband and I have undertaken sleep training.

First we sleep trained ourselves as parents and then we sleep trained our child.

And I am grateful. Grateful not for being lucky but grateful for the set of circumstances which led to us committing ourselves to sleep train our child.

Like all new parents we sought advice. We targeted family and friends who had young children who we knew for a fact were good sleepers and asked them what they had done so that we could emulate their success. Thank goodness we had these people in our lives. If we had been the first people in our group of friends to reproduce we would have been clueless, or worse than clueless, reliant only on the nutcases who give parenting advice on internet forums.

We read the books that were recommended to us by these friends.

Through the advice of these friends, and these books we learnt a lot about parenting before our son arrived.

We committed to the methods described to us. We believed when we were told that consistency was the key to success.

We vowed to start as we meant to go on.

So from day 1, our son was placed into his bed awake, and allowed to go to sleep by himself.

We determined his sleep times based on a mixture of tired cues and advice from routines stipulated in Tizzie Hall’s ‘Save our Sleep’ on how long a baby his age would likely stay awake for at certain times of day.

And sometimes he cried.

It was hard. No one wants to hear their baby cry.

Early on, it is difficult to differentiate between what is described as ‘distressed’ crying and ‘protest’ crying so we relied on our instinct. We learnt that even sometimes our instinct was wrong.

Sometimes when we put him down the scream was so urgent we ‘knew’ he needed something other than sleep. So we offered a top up feed or checked his nappy, or burped him again, and then put him back down. Sometimes we were convinced he ‘needed’ us but by the time we opened the door, he had fallen asleep.

Other times we felt the crying was definitely just protesting or line-ball enough that we set the timer and waited out the recommended time to allow him to learn the skill of settling.

At the beginning this was 2 minutes. 2 minutes is a long time. When your child is crying it feels like an eternity. If I wasn’t watching the clock tick over I would have thought it was 10, 15 minutes. When he stopped for 5 seconds then started again, the timer gets reset. Sometimes this made me hopeful that he was going to sleep, other times when he had reached 1 minute 55, I willed him to get to 2 minutes so I could satisfy my urge to reassure him, cuddle him, tell him I loved him and ‘Mummy’s here’. Nowhere on the planet is there a parent who doesn’t want to do this when their child is crying.

But I kept the faith.

He hardly ever got to 2 minutes.

Sometimes he cried for a minute and 50 seconds 4 times, 5 times in a row. I gritted my teeth. I shed tears, of frustration, and of guilt.

I felt bad. Articles about controlled crying, which linked it to some kind of psychological damage to the child, would fill my thoughts. The people, even some experts, who say babies can’t learn anything until they are 6 months old. Was I a bad mother? Was I a cold-hearted bitch? Will my son still love me if I let him cry?

A few other thoughts steeled me.

And when I say thoughts, I should say, beliefs. Because when you’re in that situation, letting your child cry, but not going to him, it is only your beliefs that will steel you. The advice you’ve received, the books and articles you’ve read, none of that matters if you don’t believe in what you’re doing.

LaughingI believe that his cries were not distress. I believe that his cries were at worst a frustration that he felt himself falling asleep but couldn’t quite achieve sleep. Like the way he would cry if a toy was out of reach once he’s old enough to sit up but not crawl.

I believe that if I resisted cradling / patting and shooshing / feeding or rocking him to sleep and picking him up each time he made a noise, then he would learn that he CAN fall asleep without an adult present, indeed, he would know no different.

And most of all, I believe that he needed sleep more than he needed a cuddle.

As he got a bit older, it got easier, with one exception.

It got easier because it became easier to spot his tired cues and because his cries naturally became easier to distinguish. Now his pre-sleep noises don’t even sound like crying (MOST of the time), it just sounds like whinging. Which is easier to ignore. The sounds is deeper and the gaps are longer. (Here is an example of his ‘protest’ cry and his ‘distressed’ cry).

It got easier because I knew that he was getting his required sleep, and that was worth the whinge at the beginning or after one sleep cycle.

And finally, it got easier because he got better at it.

The exception was overtiredness. I have now learnt that the tireder he is when he gets put down to sleep, the longer he will protest for, both at the beginning of the sleep and after sleep cycles.

The trick with overtiredness is it can creep up on you. If his morning sleep has been a write-off but his afternoon sleep has been normal, it’s easy to assume the evening will be fine because ‘he just didn’t need to sleep in the morning’. In my experience the ‘he just didn’t need to sleep’ doesn’t work. He always needs at least 4 hours of sleep in the day and sometimes gets 6 hours. It’s best if he can get it in blocks, but even six 45 minute ‘cat naps’ are better than nothing. If he gets less than 4 hours total, and more than 90 minutes of awake time between day sleeps, he can get overtired very quickly. The result of overtiredness is he finds it very difficult to settle and in the evening can get what we describe as ‘completely over it’, which generally means a lot of fussing, crying and is difficult to feed or settle.

Avoiding overtiredness is a daily goal whereby his day sleeps are managed by his parents. Left to his own devices, he would never achieve enough.

When he has slept well, he is a delight during play times, and it seems the better he sleeps the better he sleeps.

Occasionally we have failed in our consistent approach to sleep training. A few times, usually when there are other people around, I have gotten him up after he’s woken after 1 sleep cycle, even when I knew he would likely go back to sleep quickly. A few times I have even gotten him up and moved him into the pram or car to try to get him to go to sleep in the first place. I have never listened to him protest on and off for more than 30 minutes, but I could count on one hand how many times he has lasted that long. If I haven’t been in a position to have him in his cot, pram or the car, for bedtime, I have struggled to get him to sleep any other way than putting him on the boob and letting him fall asleep in my arms, where he remains for his whole nap. I know this goes against the sleep training so I am careful to keep these instances to a minimum.

A couple of weeks ago it dawned on me how proficiently my son had learned to self settle.

I had realised that his tired cues were cutting in after 90 minutes of awake time. Although I had been following the routines in ‘Save Our Sleep’ since his birth, and finding his feed and sleep times were mostly appropriate, I now realised that he couldn’t stay awake for the 2 hours of awake time stipulated in the current routine, so I modified it to become a basic ‘eat, play, sleep’ pattern based on his tired cues which included general whingy-ness and sucking his thumb. I guess you could say we used to do routines but now we ‘sleep on demand’. My husband also developed a ‘two yawn rule’ where he is put straight to bed after the second yawn, which generally occurs exactly 90 minutes after he last woke up.

As soon as we zip up his sleep suit, turn on his white noise machine and put his blanket up to his chest, his thumb goes straight to his mouth, the sucking begins and we turn off the light. The result? Either silence, or at most, 30 seconds of very tired-sounding protests. Then sleep, glorious, sleep.

On Saturday night we took our son to a friend’s home to be babysat for a few hours in the evening while we went out to a party. She had insisted that rather than bring him over to go straight to bed, we must bring him earlier so they could have some awake time. She missed her babies who are now teenagers.

I briefly explained to her what time I’d expect him to want to go to sleep and that he would likely go to sleep on his own after some thumb-sucking and possibly a little protest crying.

Around bedtime we received a text message advising us that he was asleep. Phew!

When we returned to collect him a few hours later, she described how he had become whingey like we’d said so they’d gotten him ready for bed. They had then tried rocking him to sleep in their arms, but he had gotten more whingey, they then had walked him up and down the corridor in their arms, which also didn’t work. At this point I was wondering if they simply hadn’t heard me when I’d suggested that he would fall asleep by himself. Maybe they heard me but didn’t believe me. Eventually, they said, they’d put him in his bed, crying, and he’d gone straight to sleep. She said to me ‘my sons loved being rocked to sleep but your son wanted to sleep on his own.’

That comment struck me. The truth is, I believe, babies don’t ‘like or dislike’ any way of going to sleep, they are simply trained to go to sleep one way or another. The glorious part about self settling is that he doesn’t need his parents to help him go to sleep, whether that be at 7pm, 2:30pm or worse, 1am. Hallelujah to that!


2 thoughts on “The realities of self-settling

  1. […] As pointed out by my sister in her post about her experiences training her son to self-settle, sleep training is not just for Lottie; I am learning as well. So I am learning not only which cries need attention and which don’t, but also what action to take if ‘tears’ crying does happen; usually a top-up feed, maybe a burp or a nappy change. And the key point is I have learned that I should not go in to attend to Lottie unless the cry is insistent, or if the protest yelps have reached a point where Lottie is overtired and needs help to go to sleep (a limit of 20 – 30 minutes for day sleeps and 60 minutes in the evening). That’s the hardest part of the training. Not going in when Lottie is clearly frustrated and whinging. But I keep reminding myself of a very simple and obvious fact which is the entire basis behind the idea of self-settling: just because Lottie is crying, doesn’t mean she needs me or my husband. This has become my mantra as I sit and listen and watch on the monitor and wait for Lottie to find sleep: whingy, protesting crying is not Lottie calling out for mum and dad; I am not ignoring my child when she is in need. What Lottie needs, and desperately wants when she is whinging in frustration, exhausted, swaddled and snug as a bug in her cot, is to go to sleep. […]


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