"I could never do 'cry it out,'" said one mom, as she disentangled her son's fingers from her hair. "I can tell how miserable Evan is when I don't respond to him."
"We tried it once," another mom admitted, "but it was horrifying. I've never seen my little one so unhappy."
"We've never missed a single night of sleep," said another who co-slept with her daughter.
"We get such beautiful sleep snuggled up together," said a fourth mom smugly. "Have you guys considered getting a king-size bed?"
I looked at the members of the Mommy & Me parenting group that I had recently joined in shock. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as I waited for someone to say something sympathetic or at least tactful. The room was silent. Glancing around the circle of women, I could read the disapproval on every face.
"Sleep training is a controversial issue," the group leader interjected. "Some people believe that babies feel abandoned and lose their sense of trust in you if they are left to cry."
I looked down at my 6-month-old daughter who was lying on her blanket, chewing on Sophie the Giraffe's leg and smiling up at me. She kicked her chubby legs and giggled.
"I'm no expert," I said, "but does this look like a traumatized baby?"
Someone laughed, and the conversation moved on, but the collective judgment had left me stunned. This was a group for new mothers. We were all learning to care for our amazing, demanding infants. We were all struggling daily to figure out this parenting thing. Weren't we supposed to support each other?
I knew that my parenting style (did I have a parenting style?) was slightly different from several of the other moms, who favored holistic medicine, extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping. But hey, this was California. To each her own, sisters! How could they criticize me so harshly for making a different choice?
He was right. We were at the end of our ropes. I wanted to scream with frustration, "This wasn't the plan!"—which, of course, is pretty much the definition of parenthood.
My sleep-deprived breaking point had come a week earlier. It was midnight, and after four solid hours of nursing, rocking, bouncing, shh-ing, singing lullabies, swaddling and re-swaddling, punctuated by tears and misery (both hers and ours), our baby was finally—please, dear God!—asleep. Infinitely slowly, I laid her down in her crib. Hardly daring to breathe, I inched away from her and tiptoed out of the room, checking that the fan, humidifier and white noise machine were all at the right levels.
I collapsed onto the couch next to my husband who opened his eyes to give me a grateful look and then closed them again. We lay there, wondering if we would have time to brush our teeth and crawl into bed for a little while before our daughter woke again and the cycle would repeat. My husband finally spoke:
"This can't go on."
"I know," I mumbled.
"We can't function like this. We're miserable. She's miserable. I know you don't want to sleep train her, but we've tried everything else."
He was right. We were at the end of our ropes. I wanted to scream with frustration, "This wasn't the plan!"—which, of course, is pretty much the definition of parenthood. I had imagined sleeping close to our baby. If not in the same bed (too risky for my anxiety-ridden brain), at least in the same room where I could nurse and soothe her, as she sweetly slept for five- or even six-hour stretches. Some babies do that, right? Right??? Maybe.
But not ours.
Our baby was impossible to sleep with from day one. As a newborn, in her tiny sidecar bassinet, she sighed, snuffled, moaned and whimpered in her sleep. I lay awake, listening to the symphony of noises, just a few inches from my head, or sat up in a panic every time the rhythm of her breathing paused for that heart-stopping second. Why doesn't anyone tell you about that?
As the weeks passed, I ordered books about baby sleep from Amazon. I scoured parenting websites for articles and techniques. I pored over Elizabeth Pantley's "The No Cry Sleep Solution," a title that said everything I desperately wanted. "Sleep"! "No Cry"! "Solution"! It didn't work. Nothing worked. And so finally, there we were, about to devastate our child and scar her for life by letting her cry in her crib, alone, uncomforted, hating us, the horror!
After the shock of their shaming response, I stared at the women I had tried to support through this life-altering experience of new motherhood.
I decided we needed guidance on this. I found a baby sleep consultant. Who knew this was a job? She arrived at our house, took one look at our three exhausted faces, and took control of the situation. She looked me right in the eye and said, "I'm a mom, too, and I know how horrible it is to listen to your baby cry."
"It's like being stabbed in the heart," I sniffled, starting to tear up at the thought.
"But your baby needs to learn how to fall asleep on her own. You know how tired you are right now? That's how tired she is, and crying is the only way she can express it. So, if you think you can handle it, I can help."
I took a deep breath. "I'll try," I said.
"Sign us up!" said my husband.
The sleep consultant wrote out a detailed plan for us to follow. We could call or text her any time we needed help or encouragement. The first night, my texts looked like this:
7:00 – She's crying.
7:04 – She's still crying.
7:08 – Ahhh! I can't take the crying!
7:15 – PLEASE MAKE IT STOP
7:18 – It stopped.
7:20 – I think she's asleep.
7:25 – She's asleep!!! OMG!!! She did it!!! DOING THE HAPPY DANCE!!!
It was true. Within days, our baby had learned how to fall asleep on her own. Within weeks, she was sleeping six, eight, ten, twelve hours a night. It was bliss. Not only because my husband and I began to feel like human beings again, instead of reanimated zombies, but because our baby was suddenly alert, energetic and clearly, unmistakably happy.
Walking into the parenting group a few days later, I was bursting to share the good news. After the shock of their shaming response, I stared at the women I had tried to support through this life-altering experience of new motherhood. There was the mom who wept when she learned that low milk supply would prevent her from nursing her son. The one whose daughter refused to drink from a bottle, forcing her to give up her plans to return to work. The one who felt like a prisoner in her apartment because her daughter screamed whenever she was strapped into her car seat.
I considered leaving the group and seeking out other mom friends who didn't believe that sleep training was essentially child abuse. But I valued the group leader's parenting approach. She seemed like a voice of reason in the storm of conflicting baby advice from relatives, friends, in-laws, total strangers that I passed in the baby aisle at Whole Foods, etc. Should I give up that lifeline? I debated this obsessively for a few days and finally decided—screw it.
One year later, I am still a member of the parenting group, and some of the moms have actually become close friends. We bonded over all the joys and horrors of parenting, the diaper-change tantrums and picky eating, travel nightmares and interfering mothers-in-law. And we discovered there were more things that drew us together than kept us apart. For several moms in the group, the charm of co-sleeping is beginning to wane. Now, as they complain about feeling trapped ("I'm the only one who can get her to sleep") or frustrated ("I never see my husband anymore"), I simply smile. We get such beautiful sleep all by ourselves, I think to myself. Have you guys considered sleep training?