"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sleep Debate: and the winner is...

Previously on "The Great Sleep Debate":

Dad starts to lose his cool after waking up at 3:00 in the morning for the five-hundredth time in a year.

Then I remembered that back when the boy was still the size of my forearm and his whole head would fit in my palm, my wife had picked up the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. At one point she told me in this totally incredulous way, "This book says if you put your baby down to sleep at six o'clock, he'll sleep straight through until six in the morning." We scoffed out loud together, for what did I care, anyway? Xander needed sustenance every two hours. Sleeping through the night would have to wait.

We waited too long. I was beginning to feel like it would just be better to lie down on the hardwood floor of the nursery while the boy rattled the slats of his crib with his bottle all night.

So I made an agreement with May. If I read this book, which she only ended up reading part of, and understood the process it espouses, we would give it a try. And she would be on board. (See the previous chapter of "The Great Sleep Debate" to witness the results of May not being on board.)

The theory is simple: Babies need sleep. If their sleep patterns are interrupted, they get overtired and can't relax and sleep. If they sleep well, they learn to be able to relax and sleep. Sleep begets sleep.

Extinction is the way to go. Set a pre-bedtime pattern. Soothe him, calm him down. Then before he's actually asleep, put him down and don't look back. At least, don't go back. If you go back and he's awake, if he makes any kind of contact with you before morning, he becomes stimulated and he'll know you'll come. The next night he'll scream all that much more because he knows you'll come. Extinction is about doing what's right for your child, and what's right is allowing him to relax and to learn how go to sleep by himself. Otherwise, a lifetime of poor sleep awaits him. And rested children are smart children.

The book says that gradual extinction can work, but by nature, it takes longer. My first instinct was to try this, but I did this with my daughters and it took 18 months. With full-on extinction the baby learns in mere days.

As you can see, I read the book. And the debate continued. I tried to explain to May that if she put Xander down for his nap and left him alone, even if he cries for an hour and doesn't nap, at least she'll have an hour to get her work done. But she still wasn't on board. She couldn't stand hearing him cry and not go to him. And I'll tell you, it was no picnic for me, either. It's not a pleasant way to spend two minutes, let alone an hour--or longer, if it's night and he needs to sleep but won't--to sit twenty-five feet away from your son, listening to him pour his heart out to you the only way he knows how.

We tried it once or twice between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No luck. Or, to be precise, no consistency. One thing or another would prevent us from working it more than one night in a row, and even that one night was never quite successful. When your spouse is in tears because you're child is in tears, you don't have much recourse.

Apt? Or inappropriate?
Then on Christmas, we spent the day at my sister-in-law's place where another set of in-laws were visiting and Xander could frolic the holiday away with several other cousins. But he needed an afternoon nap, or he would melt down like a Nazi opening the Lost Ark. I sat with him in a quiet room for a few minutes, but it wasn't home and we didn't perform the soothing routine and he wasn't calming down, so I made the executive decision to put him in the crib and kiss him goodnight. I took the baby monitor with me, but you could hear him throughout the house. He did not like being left there.

Fortunately, May had family to distract her and support her through the ordeal. If it were just me, I would have caved under the pressure. It was a rough thirty minutes or so, but eventually no more crying emanated from the bedroom.

Despite this success, the debate continued at home for the next week or so, as my school break neared its end and we attempted to put the boy down at night and let him cry at inconsistent times and for inconsistent amounts of time before someone--and when I say "someone," I mean Mommy--would have to soothe him.

So it was more than just a few days' learning curve, but the night before I was supposed to go back to school, I completed the ritual: bath, jammies, books, then a warm bottle in a dark nursery while Dad watches Fraiser. And when I put him in his crib, he looked up at me and pulled at his blanket while he turned over to get comfortable. I said goodnight, and that was the last I heard from him that night.

It's pretty much been this way every night since. If we don't bathe him by six o'clock in the p.m., he pulls one of us to the bathroom on his own, anticipating the beginning of the bedtime routine. He goes to sleep sometime before seven, depending on the time and duration and existence of his afternoon nap. If he cries when I put him down, it lasts about 60 seconds, then it's sleepy time all night long. He wakes up around seven in the morning, happy and noticably smarter. I think he's stacking blocks at a third-grade level now.

Just the other night, then, after another successful bedtime routine, May solemnly conceded defeat in the Great Sleep Debate of 2011 and 12 or something. She said, "Brent, you were right. I'm sorry I fought it for so long. But my life has been a lot easier since we've been putting him down to bed like this. Thank you, I love you, you're the smartest person in the whole world and I my only hope in life is that Xander grows up to be exactly like you."

It wasn't a fair fight. There was really only one outcome, unless Xander was to end up 18 and still waking up at night asking for his mommy, which is a little too creepy to consider.

Now, what do I do with my extra waking hours?
You can't argue with these results.


  1. Try to get her to say you were right on video, might be the only chance you ever get.


  2. Wow! It's a challenge to get them to figure it out. My No-No who is now 22, still hasn't figured out that night time is for sleeping. Thankfully, she doesn't scream at the top of her lungs anymore.

  3. Yay! Hooray for a good night's sleep! He is so cute in the sleeping picture. Congratulations on getting him to bed and earning yourself some extra hours of sleep, peace and quiet.

  4. We attempted the "let them cry" method with Enoch. I understood the method and wanted it, so did Joe. It's even more difficult when you live with your child's grandparents and they think you're abusing the kid. ; ) Enoch didn't do so well because of the grandparents but by the time child number 2 entered the picture, we didn't care and Travis has slept through the night since 7 days old. Hooray for you guys!! Both you and Xander will be better off for it. And he is by far the cutest little guy at church!!

  5. Now you can start catching up on your sleep. Having Dad well rested is just as important in his life.

  6. That would be so hard as a mom. I'm glad you got things settled! Sleep is a beautiful thing.

  7. I'm glad you finally got what you needed. Sleepy time is good time.

  8. However, I think they should have picked a different word besides "extinction" to describe their method. I'll bet that word alone makes people subconsciously shy away from trying it.

  9. I was about to say that "extinction" seemed like an odd choice of terms, but Rev beat me to it. I have a hard time understanding what it means in this context. Care to elaborate?

  10. Thinks Much Like A BrickJanuary 22, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    If it has anything to do with a comet or a meteor falling on my head, I'm against it.

    That stung enough the first time. Not keen on going through that again.