Guest Post: We’re Not Building Character Here

daddy sleep

 

 

Here’s a guest post from my better-half about one thing that all parents are obsessed with– sleep. You can read more about my husband’s adventures in fatherhood here. Also, if you have any topics that you’d like to write about or you’d like me to write about, let me know.

 

 

We’re not building character here.

That was a regular refrain in our house during the first three(ish) months of Mae’s life. It was an all-purpose justification for behaviors that bordered on parental misconduct: five quiet minutes of pointing her toward the television. Three hours of blissful sleep as Mae snoozed on my chest,  ignoring the risk that she could tumble off or I could roll over and crush her.

“We’re not building character here,” Megan and I would tell ourselves and each other. “You can’t spoil a newborn, and we’re just supposed to keep her alive at this point.” It felt like real parenting — the books may advise this or that, but when the rubber hits the road, you do what you must, dammit.

Now that the unspoilable fourth trimester is over, though, I’m feeling the burden of character-building. Sleep is at the heart of the issue (and of everything else in our lives now). Our plan for sleep training has always been to try no-cry solutions around six months and, if Mae didn’t respond to them, attempt cry-it-out methods.

As is often (always?) the case, our plans shifted or disappeared when reality interfered. Mae’s colic subsided around 14 or 15 weeks, but it gave rise to long, nightly bouts of exercise-ball bouncing to get her to sleep. Bedtime slipped from 8 p.m. to 8:30 to 10. Mae’s never been fond of daytime napping, and Megan and I worried about her diminishing nighttime sleep. We also worried about the total lack of interaction between us. The bedtime bouncing left us too spent for more than cursory exchanges.

Eventually, we decided to accelerate the sleep training schedule. After brief, ineffective flirtations with gentler approaches, we’ve done two bursts of cry-it-out “training.” Each emerged the same way: one night, Megan and I were taking our customary turns bouncing with Mae to get her to sleep. After an hour (or two), we gave out, put her in her Rock-and-Play and (gulp) let her cry.

That first time (in mid-June), we did three nights. Mae was 16 weeks old. The first night, we sat on the porch with the monitor and took turns checking on her. At 2-, 5- and then repeating 10-minute increments — just as Dr. Ferber advises — one of us went into her room, told her she was going to be OK and walked back out.

She found our reassurances unconvincing.

After 45 minutes, she fell asleep and didn’t wake until morning. Each of the next two nights, she cried for less than 10 minutes before falling asleep. One night, she woke briefly at midnight; the other, she slept straight through.

Not bad, right?

mae sleepin

Those three days were the most self-righteous of my still-brief tenure as a father. I’m not a cry-it-out advocate, but I don’t object to it, either. I don’t believe it teaches kids to expect abandonment. I do believe that, for babies, self-soothing is the first step toward developing higher-level coping skills down the line. Self-soothing is a step toward character-building.

Letting Mae cry was physically wrenching. It also felt like real parenting. We were putting Mae’s long-term interests — her need for good rest, her current and future coping skills — ahead of the short-term pain of crying. “Let other parents coddle their kids,” I thought. “We’re teaching ours.”

But crying it out was less successful with naps. Mae cried as long as she slept, and those diminishing returns led us to back off on sleep training.

Since then, Mae’s sleep has been all over the place. She’s had nights where she awoke every two hours. She’s had nights where she woke up only once. Some days, she takes multiple 60-, 90- and even 120-minute naps. Other days, half-hour naps come only with sweat-drenching struggle.

The four-month sleep regression is real. And it’s craptacular.

The nightly grappling led to our second impromptu round with crying it out. On a Saturday night, Mae fought with both of us for more than an hour. We laid her down, again retreated to the porch with the monitor, and let her go. The check-ins seemed ineffective in June, so we bypassed them.

On the first night, I went into her room after 45 minutes, soothed her for a few minutes, and she slept through the night. Night two: 30 minutes of crying, 10 minutes of soothing, a full night of sleep.

I’m feeling less self-assured this time, though. Something happened the first night that … I’m not sure if it’s changed my perspective on cry-it-out. It’s stuck with me, though. When I picked her up, the crying stopped almost immediately. But her little body couldn’t calm itself so quickly — for two or three minutes, she alternated sniffles with barely audible whimpers.

That pitiful sound — the heave in her throat, the whimpers that couldn’t quite escape her windpipe — has haunted me. I hear it when I lie down to sleep, in the car, when I’m working. I’m not sure what that means for our sleep training plans. But I’ll be less self-righteous about whatever we do.

 

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