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Figuring Out This Sleep Thing by Trial & Error


To sleep. Ever since I became a mother last May, that’s all I’ve wanted.

Lila started life as a good sleeper. But our beginners’ sleep luck ran out during her third month, in the run-up to our Boston-D.C. move.

We clung to the notion that Lila was osmosing our pre-move stress and hoped that everything would resolve itself post-relocation. Instead, things deteriorated.

We introduced sleep modifications slowly, but changes snowballed. Lila still shared our bedroom and slept in her carriage. Yet, she was now facing an unfamiliar ceiling. She began flipping while sleeping, so we ceased swaddling. We moved her to the Pack-and-Play in her room. And at the pediatrician’s recommendation, we tried an 8 p.m. bedtime. Lila rebelled, refusing to sleep.

For the first time, we had nighttime feedings–up to four nightly. Lila was a wreck, and so was I. I would hold her, rock her, sing to her, and breastfeed. On especially bad nights, we used Tylenol.

I was baffled. My husband and I decided to ask doctors about it during our pediatrician interviews.

The first doctor prescribed bedtime oatmeal. Lila was enthusiastic about the breastmilk-soaked oatmeal; I had to restrain her, while my husband fed her, lest she fly off our bed. It was amusing, but Lila’s sleep remained rocky.

I explained to the second doctor that we were interested in any solution, short of Cry It Out (CIO). (I understand CIO works for other families but also knew it wouldn’t suit us.) This perky doctor insisted that CIO was the only solution. She recommended more fully researching Weissbluth’s method, which she acknowledged sounded even harsher thanks to his tin-eared writing. I nodded, having already skimmed the book. She assured us that many parents at her practice had succeeded with Weissbluth, because its being firmer than Ferber meant faster results. She also advised that well-rested, happy parents meant a happy baby. This became a crucial decision point for two exhausted parents.

My husband asked if I wanted to try Weissbluth. I refused. The thought of leaving Lila to cry–potentially for hours–made me ill. Instead, I emailed the mothers from our Mommy and Me classes to ask how they were handling sleep. The first valuable thing I learned was that we weren’t the only ones facing sleep troubles. We were apparently slogging through the Four Month Regression. The second: there were other gentle sleep methods, such as pick up/put down or stand nearby and reassure (without picking up), which other pediatricians had suggested. That strengthened my resolve not to leave Lila to cry.

I also emailed a college friend-turned-pediatrician and asked whether Weissbluth’s method was medically sound. Unlike the other doctors, he began by noting the many adjustments we’d recently made to Lila’s sleep, explaining those likely knocked her for a loop. He reassured me that CIO wouldn’t result in Lila’s having abandonment issues. Lastly, he recommended letting Lila cry for 10 minutes, just to let her practice self-soothing.

So one Monday in early October, this incredibly underslept Mommy conducted an experiment. After our bedtime routine–singing and reading–I put a Woombied Lila in her carriage. She cried for 10 minutes, so I held her and sang for a few minutes. Then I hopped in the shower for 10 minutes. She conked. The next night, she fell asleep within 10 minutes.

Within days, we had reverted to no more than one meal overnight. Lila also began voluntarily moving her bedtime backward, typically falling asleep by 9:30 p.m.

Then one night last fall, Lila slept all night. My engorged breasts woke me at 6 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, Lila hadn’t stirred. I crept into her room and felt her chest; she was breathing. Rather than wake her, I did my first early morning pump in months. After two steps backward, we were finally crawling forward.

Our experience taught me that pediatricians aren’t omniscient. They may have excellent medical training, but on issues like sleep, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

New parents are constantly showered with advice, but rarely does anyone recommend trial and error, which worked for us. New mothers: build a support network you can count on for supplementary information, and most importantly, trust yourself. You don’t have a generic baby. So if your goal is to be a happy parent, evaluate expert opinions as opinions (rather than gospel), and remember, you know your baby. Your instincts are worth more than a whole bookstore full of strangers’ advice.

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