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What I Wish I Had Known About Sleep Training

Photograph by Twenty20

Nine months ago, mom.me published an article of mine titled “I Was Shamed by My Mom Friends for Sleep Training My Baby.” In it, I told the story of my decision to sleep train my daughter when she was six months old and my shock at discovering that other new moms who I liked and respected were harshly disapproving of my choice. The response to the article was explosive. Hundreds of commenters raged against sleep training and accused me of abusing my child, proving once again just how judgmental parents can be and that sleep training is still one of the most polarizing issues. Many other readers had the opposite reaction, relating their own sleep training successes and refuting the idea that babies are traumatized by the experience.

But throughout this storm of controversy, there was one small detail that none of my accusers or supporters ever mentioned. A disappointing fact that I had no idea would become my ongoing reality: Sleep training doesn’t last.

RELATED: How Not to Sleep Train Your Child

While I was facing down my mom friends who were horrified by Cry It Out, I was secretly convinced that I had solved our sleep problems forever. "Go ahead and judge me, ladies!" I thought. "Sleep is the best revenge. I'll be sleeping soundly for the next 15 years, until my kid starts going to parties."

Except it isn't true. At all.

While the first six months post sleep training were indeed a magical period of 12-hour nights, rested parents, happy child, etc., the bliss only lasted until my daughter hit a major sleep regression around her first birthday. Then we had to do it again. “Just a hiccup,” I thought. “We’re back on track now.” But at 18 months, we were doing it again. And again at 23 months. And again at 27 months. Seeing a pattern here?

Newsflash: desperation can lead to bad habits. Thanks, sleep trainers!

The unfortunate truth is that cognitive or physical leaps, illness, teething, travel, or changes in routine can severely disrupt your kid’s sleep for anywhere from a few days to a few months. “Don’t change anything!” warn the sleep training books. “Don’t create bad habits! Regressions will pass!” Which is easy for them to say when they haven’t been woken by a screaming toddler every two hours, night after night, for weeks on end. Newsflash: desperation can lead to bad habits. Thanks, sleep trainers!

This is not to suggest that I regret sleep training. Not for a second. After attempting every other method under the sun, allowing our daughter to cry, as awful as it feels, is the only thing that has helped her to get the sleep she needs. And it is the only thing that has allowed her parents to be present, attentive, functioning human beings instead of exhausted zombies. Unlike many of those irate commenters, I do not believe that helping my child to fall asleep every night, all night, for as long as she would prefer is “what I signed up for” as a parent. And I don't believe that being completely dependent on me to fall asleep is healthy or useful for my child’s development.

RELATED: How to Ease the Pain of Toddler Sleep Regressions

But I wish I had known that it wasn't over the first time. I wish someone had mentioned that those 18 minutes of crying I had to endure when my baby was six months were nothing compared to the hours of screaming that a 2-year-old can dish out. Maybe our baby sleep consultant didn’t want to interrupt my happy dance?

A friend with three kids once gave me a wise piece of parenting advice. “Everything changes,” he said. “Bad sleep becomes good sleep. Good sleep becomes bad sleep. If things are going great, they will change. If things are going terribly, they will change.” At the time, I nodded and smiled at him, unconcerned. I think I get it now.

Parents, train away! But consider yourselves warned: Change is coming.

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