There’s a lot my kids and I have yet to master—peace between siblings instantly comes to mind—but one thing we seem to have gotten down is the art of a good night’s sleep (theirs, that is; I’m still up at 3 am after my third trip to the bathroom, and wake for the day at 6 am when the cat meows in my face for breakfast). It was an art learned the hard way, but the upside is that, since I’ve read almost every sleep book out there, I can now give you the rundown, letting you know what each book is about and what worked for us. So whether you have a 10-month-old baby who still wakes at night, a toddler who can’t find the Sandman without you next to him, or a school-age kid who jumps out of bed for something-or-other 20 times after lights-out, read on.
But first, a word of caution
If you believe in attachment parenting, think Dr. Sears is something approximating a prophet, or are committed to co-sleeping, the below books are not for you. (You might want to try Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution instead).
If you can handle some crying and/or are ready for your child to be in his or her own bed, here are some books that might help:
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. If you’re just starting out in your sleep quest, I highly recommend this book as a primer. Among the more helpful things it discusses are the benefits of early bedtimes and how to get your child on a regular sleep schedule. Weissbluth also has a book specifically for twins, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins.
Secrets of the Baby Whisperer and Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers by Tracy Hogg with Melinda Blau. Baby Whisperer was my baby care bible with both my kids. In both these books, Hogg gives a lot of good sleep advice, like putting your child down to sleep when he’s drowsy but still awake. It’s a good idea and worked like a charm for my firstborn, but it didn’t work at all for my fussy second-born. And Hogg herself admits that her “pick up/put down” method—put the baby down awake, but pick him up if he cries, then repeat until he falls asleep—can take hours if the child already has sleep issues. Indeed, if bad sleep habits are entrenched, Hogg advocates a plan that can take months.
The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight by Kim West with Joanne Kenen. Known as the Sleep Lady, West, like Hogg, advocates a gradual approach. So if your child is used to falling asleep with you in his bed, you should spend a few nights on a chair next to his bed; then spend a few nights on a chair a few feet away from his bed; then…. You get the idea. I apologize in advance to Ms. West and her many fans, but this just sounded torturous to me (for parent and child). I once saw a woman reading this on the NJ Transit platform and almost said, “Oh, honey, put yourself out of your misery and throw that book on the tracks,” but I was afraid her sleep-deprived brain would cause her to throw me on the tracks instead.
Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber. You’ve all heard of Ferber, and probably equate the term “Ferberizing” with “crying it out.” I confess, I haven’t actually read this book. When I started researching sleep books, I heard that an author named Jodi Mindell was described as a kinder, gentler Ferber, so I thought, why not bypass Ferber and go straight to Mindell?
And so, the moment you’ve all been waiting for:
If your child has sleep problems, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and get this book… —>
Sleeping Through the Night by Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D. If your child has sleep problems, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and get this book. Here’s the general idea of it: Like other books, it advocates putting your little one to bed drowsy but awake. If she’s currently in the habit of being put to bed asleep (e.g., you rock her in your arms until she’s sound asleep, then carefully transfer her to the crib), Mindell instructs readers to start putting her in her crib awake but drowsy right away. Naturally, your child will cry and scream for you; instead of going to her right away, wait five minutes and then go to her. When you do, don’t pick her up. Instead, gently pat her back and tell her it’s time to go to sleep. Then, leave the room. Stay out of the room for increasingly longer periods, giving your child a chance to fall asleep on her own. The idea is that if a child can fall asleep on her own at night, she’ll be able to put herself back to sleep during the night. (You can also use this approach with older kids. Mindell describes the “I’ll be right back” method, in which your child is in bed, awake, and you say you have to do something and will be right back, leaving for increasingly longer periods; or, tell your child you will be right back if she stays quietly in bed, again for increasingly longer periods).
Here’s how it worked with my son. I decided to sleep train him at 10 months. I chose this age because I knew he no longer needed the nighttime feedings and that he understood I was right in the next room.
The first night, it took two hours for him to fall asleep, much longer than the 45 minutes Mindell says is the average for the first night. She also says that the child usually will cry longer during the second night, so I approached the next night with dread. But, miracle of miracles, he cried for only 19 minutes—with my having to check on him only twice—before falling asleep on his own. On the third night, I walked out of his room and he fell asleep without so much as a peep. That’s right, ladies: It took a whopping three nights to solve the problem of his not being able to fall asleep on his own.
What about night wakings? In accordance with Mindell’s book, I continued to rock and nurse Frankie back to sleep when he woke during the night. Sometimes, falling asleep on their own at the beginning of the night is all little ones need to stop waking during the night, but sometimes they need to be sleep trained in the middle of the night, too. Of course, we fell in the latter camp. About a month after I sleep trained him to fall asleep on his own, Frankie’s night wakings were less frequent but still occurring. So I used the same method during the night. The first night, it took 17 minutes for him to fall back to sleep on his own. The next night, he woke and cried for under five minutes, which meant I didn’t have to go in to check on him at all. The third night, he slept through the night for the first time in his life, and he’s been doing so ever since (except, of course, in cases of sickness… or that one night I noticed his bedroom light on at 2 am and found him poring over Halloween costume catalogs).
While that’s the gist of it, the book is great in that it gives practical suggestions for what-if situations, like, what if your child can climb out of his crib, throws up, etc.
I’ve continued to use the principles espoused in this book throughout Frankie’s preschool years. For example, on the few nights he won’t go to sleep and keeps calling me into his room, I tell him it’s time to go to sleep, so he has to stay quietly in bed, but I’ll check on him in 5 or 10 minutes—which I make sure to do. More often than not, he’s sound asleep when I get there. If he’s still awake, I give him a kiss, say some reassuring words, and tell him I’ll be back again in 5 or 10, by which point he’s almost always asleep.
I know a lot of parents are opposed to letting their children cry at night, and I admit that I was once one of those parents, but I was inspired by something Dr. Weissbluth said in his sleep book: When your child wants juice instead of milk and starts to cry, you don’t then give him the juice to make him stop crying; you do what’s best for him. Sleep is just as important as good nutrition, and falling asleep on one’s own is an essential skill.
There will be lots of times when our kids will cry for something that’s not good for them. They may make us feel guilty for saying no, protest, scream, and accuse us of not loving them. But changing our minds to avoid the tears rarely works in the long run.
Now if only I could find a way to sleep train the darn cat.
More by NJ Family's Real Moms of NJ Blogger, Renée Sagiv Riebling: