parenthood

13 Women on What Sleep Training Feels Like

Every time my son’s father and I talk about sleep training, my husband is careful to say he owes everything to me. It’s true: The night I started sleep training our son, my husband left and went to a bar. In his defense, close friends from far out of town were in Brooklyn for just this night, and I told him it was fine to go. In my defense, the lack of sleep was driving me over the edge.

For some parents, it’s this desperation that drives them to do what I did: the cry-it-out, or “extinction,” method, which is exactly what it sounds like — letting your baby cry (scream) herself to sleep while you wait in a nearby room. Other parents sleep train more deliberately at a set time, or choose more gradual methods that involve some soothing (but usually still the crying). Overall, the aim is to “teach” your baby to sleep through the night. Some parents never feel comfortable doing this; others say sleep training saved them.

Over a year later, I remember little about that first night beyond hour-long blocks of uninterrupted screams and tensing my entire body around my phone. The next morning all my limbs felt gnarled, my mind felt like it’d been run through a shredder, and my son cooed with happiness. For me, sleep training was horrific in the moment, worth it end in the end. Below, 12 more women describe what sleep training was like for them, their reasoning, their recommendations, and their regrets.

Sarah

When I found out I was going to have twins, the first thing I did was call a mom who had 2-year-old twins and ask her for advice. “Sleep train the shit out of them or you don’t stand a chance,” she told me, like a character from Platoon talking about how to survive in the jungle. I ordered Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, and read it out loud to my husband. When the kids were born I put everything in the book into practice, gaining the nickname Nap Nazi.

The sleep structure made me miserable — but it also made me feel like I had some control over the chaos. My son took to it, while my daughter simply couldn’t do the bedtime portion. We all suffered her nightly crying sessions, which sometimes went longer than 45 minutes. I never once gave in. It’s one of my greatest regrets as a mother. I should have comforted her to sleep. It would have been fine. Now that she’s a teenager, it’s clear — she’s just more of a night owl, like her dad.

Later, when I had my third kid, I was completely relaxed about his sleep. He napped when he napped. He went to bed around 8:30, when I could get him to bed. Right away he was a super-sleeper and has continued to be totally well-adjusted and rested. He’ll fall asleep whenever and wherever and can sleep through literally anything. The main thing I learned is that there is no right way. Every kid needs something different, which may or may not work for your family. You muddle through and do your best and eventually it will all be fine.

Carla

We kicked our daughter out of the bassinet beside our bed around 4 months old, and discussed the possibility of sleep training, but could never commit. She would cry for three, maybe four minutes, and that was all I could take. Every time she cried, one of us was in the nursery, picking her up or rubbing her back until she quieted down. It was a complete failure. Luckily — and I do mean that; I have no illusions that any of this has to do with our parenting! — she quickly became a very good sleeper, and required very little soothing after we put her down. I expect a swift retribution for this good fortune in the form of our second kid one day.

Kylie

One of the things I associate most with sleep training is reaching the wall where I felt like I was going so crazy with all-night feedings and wake-ups that I was completely delirious. Like sometimes I didn’t know if I was awake or not. It was scary, being around a baby like that.

We came to this point right after a big move abroad, which I think just pushed us all over the edge. I actually felt like I didn’t have a choice — making the choice easier I guess. I think we had the sort of classic experience: I read a book, we implemented the recommended “routine” — bath, lotion, pajamas, stories, milk, songs, blah, blah, blah — and then we let Cecily cry, checking on her every five minutes and saying, “We love you Cecily, it’s time to get some zzzzz’s.” The book called this “The Sleep Wave.” If I remember right, the worst was over in three to five days, but those days were awful. I felt like my blood pressure and heart rate were through the roof. I cried, I paced, I yelled at my husband. The next morning our daughter was happy and well-rested.

Sleep training seems to be experienced very different between men and women. I mean, obviously, my husband hated it, but he didn’t freak the fuck out like I did and he never doubted what we were doing. He also isn’t ashamed about it the way I am. He’ll tell anyone “what we did.” I tend to beat around the bush.

Still, I maintain it was a good idea. She sleeps well now — she likes being in her own crib and she doesn’t appear to have brain damage. My dad sent me this article, which I liked because it was basically like, whatever you do it doesn’t really matter.

Patricia

Sleep training is one of those things that sounds great in the parenting books you read before giving birth. But then you realize you live in a one-bedroom apartment and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends sharing a room with your infant to avoid SIDS. It’s kind of impossible to let your kid cry it out if you’re just going to come in later and sleep in your nice bed across the room as they wail. We briefly considered sleep training but ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. All three of us get more and better sleep when we safely co-sleep.

Susan

My son was 3 months old when I went back to work. He was still waking up every two or three hours to nurse. At first I didn’t want to deal with sleeptraining because if he was actually hungry every two or three hours I wanted him to eat (he’d been born early and was really small for a while). By the time he was 6 months or so, though, it stopped feeling like he was waking up because he was hungry — and I was tired of being a zombie. We did a pretty low-key kind of sleep training — but it made me crazy and I cried a lot. Even sometimes when I just had to wait five minutes before going into his room, I would spend those five minutes crying. But after a week or so, when it started working, there was something magical about being able to get, like, five uninterrupted hours of sleep.

Mary-Andrée

We did sleep training efficiently the first time around. We attended seminars, read the Weissbluth and Ferber books, and did sleep train our first son. We’re in the early stages now with our second son. There are pros and cons to sleep training — but the pros outweigh the cons.

To me, the pros are: (1) Mentally, I felt more relieved when our son was down by 8 p.m. (because I was able to be an adult and catch up with life), (2) if you have to have a babysitter, it’s much easier to have a sleep trained baby than one dependent on co-sleeping, and (3) feeding can improve (it did for us). The cons: (1) It requires time and commitment, (2) you need patience to endure crying (but you can go in and gently soothe, depending on the method you choose), and (3) everyone in the home has to be on the same page, which can be more challenging with a sibling in the home.

Overall, there are benefits to doing it and not doing it — it all depends on your lifestyle. Sleep training can help with maternal mental health, honestly, especially for those who experience a lot of stress and pressures.

Liz

I decided to sleep train when my little guy was about 11 weeks — I wanted to focus on getting him down first and dealing with the night wakings later. Getting him down was wearing me out. And my husband wasn’t home during the workweek, so I needed some time to myself and my baby needed to sleep. It was winter and incredibly dark outside, even early in the evening. It was depressing as hell.

Throughout it all, I texted my friend while crying. She has a baby nine months older and assured me it would be fine. If he starting sounding hysterical I would run in and nurse him. Each night was different — it wasn’t fair for him or me. Eventually, I found what worked for me: waiting five minutes before going in and reassuring him. Then I would have a shower and wait out the next interval. He usually fell asleep after about 25 minutes. If he was still crying in between I’d wash my hair again. And again. I was lucky — the worst night I had was 1.5 hours on and off. Had it been worse than that, I don’t know what I would have done. My hair would have fallen out from all the washing.

Now, he goes down awake and plays a little — sometimes sings! — himself to sleep. I’m so glad I put in the work and so proud of him and me. You have to do what’s right for you and your baby but you also have to remind yourself that no one else thinks the crying is as bad as you do.

Elizabeth

My only wisdom on sleep training is that no parent does it if they don’t have to. I held out about five months with each of my children, but at that point the pain of listening to them cry for a few nights was less than the pain of nobody in the house sleeping over two uninterrupted hours at a stretch. Another thought that comforted me: thinking of sleep training as the moment parents can decide what sleep will look like in the household. Some families go for a “7 p.m. to 7 a.m.” approach, but I was happy with nursing once around 3 a.m.

A funny little thing I did while waiting out the terrible crying was to list all the ways my babies were cared for during the proverbial “three nights” that it takes to cry it out: their clean sheets, their little beds, soft pj’s, their parents.

Jean

I think my only thought on baby sleep is that I wish someone had told me to stop trying because nothing would ever work — no book, no technique, no nothing. Acceptance might have helped.

Madeleine

You know how, in Harry Potter, if a Dementor attacks you, you lose all sense of happiness and perspective and go plunging into a pit of despair? That is exactly how sleep training feels to me. I believe in it; I even wish we’d done it sooner with my older son. (He was an especially tough case — we had to do it multiple times, and the first time took 14 days.)

But the part where you have to hang out in the next room while your sweet, helpless baby screams is an absolute horror show.

My husband does not know what a Dementor is (he’s cooler than I am) and so I’ve never been able to communicate to him how much it sucks, which actually brings me to the other nightmare thing about sleep training: As the breastfeeder in the family, I always felt like I was doing it alone. My husband tried to help, but ultimately I was the only one dealing with months of crisis-level sleep deprivation and also the only one whose boobs were leaking.

And! Whenever I went online looking for solidarity, I found forums and comment threads and articles by Dr. Fucking Sears about how sleep training is abuse, and about how the best way to get your baby to sleep through the night is to set aside your entire life until they spontaneously become better sleepers as toddlers (or until you accidentally walk in front of a bus because you’re too tired to be trusted on major roadways).

Reading this stuff would always make me furious, and I’d already been furious at my husband for not understanding the true depths of my misery, and also furious at myself for not being able to come up with a metaphor that wasn’t from Harry Potter, and so basically by the time the kid went back to sleep I’d be flooded with adrenaline and twitching with rage — ideal conditions for going back to bed and trying to maximize your own sleep until the next bout of screaming.

But it works. It definitely works.

Laura

Sleep training my daughter was the first step in getting some semblance of my sanity back after having a child. Once she was sleeping all night, and I was back to sleeping a human amount, I felt like both of us were in better moods. We got to really enjoy our time together, rather than constantly feeling down in the dumps from exhaustion or the low-grade irritation that comes when I’ve not had any sleep for days or weeks.

Lucy

Right before my son was born, I read somewhere that babies could be sleep trained at 5 months and immediately decided that we would sleep train our son ASAP. I didn’t understand parents who couldn’t stomach sleep training. Just let your baby cry for a few nights and you’ll be rewarded with years of blissful, uninterrupted sleep.

Then we had our baby. Five months passed, six, seven, eight. The sleep training I originally envisioned did not happen. Our son seemed very judicious in his crying. (He didn’t even cry when he came out!) He cried when he needed something specific. He didn’t just cry for the hell of it, which is what I always thought babies did, before I had one.

Letting our son cry for more than a few minutes seemed almost cruel. Surely, he would think we abandoned him! But around 11 months, it became clear that he wasn’t going to magically sleep through the night on his own. He needed to learn how to soothe himself to sleep — no more rocking him to sleep in our arms as he downed a bottle of milk.

The new bedtime routine was pretty standard, in theory: pajama change, read a few books to wind down for the night, then off to bed where he would fall asleep on his own accord. But things are never standard or simple when you live in New York City. We live in a small 1.5 bedroom, which means the nursery room is more like a walk-in closet with a window. You can only access it through the bedroom.

Our sleep training plan went like this: My husband would do the new routine, and I would retreat to the bedroom, where our son wouldn’t be distracted by my presence. After pajamas were on and books were read, my husband would text me a heads-up that he was going to put our son down for the night. It’s basically a 30-second warning to make myself scarce — so my son doesn’t notice me en route to the nursery.

The first night of sleep training went according to plan. I got the warning text and flew under the covers, lying as flat and as still as possible. I think I even held my breath as they walked through the bedroom. It felt ridiculous, but it worked! Our son did cry for a few hours, and it was rough. It took three nights to sleep train, but now there aren’t any bedtime tears and the three of us sleep through the night. Yesterday, my husband was home a bit earlier than usual, so I sent the text and he ducked under the covers.

13 Women on What Sleep Training Feels Like