Adventures in sleep training

A couple of weeks ago, during the first day of our stay with my parents, I was reading the excellent Nigel Latta book ‘Politically incorrect parenting’ and came to the chapter about teaching babies how to develop good sleeping habits. After I read it, I started thinking about our own approach to Hattie and Joe’s sleeping habits (which could charitably be described as laissez-faire) and realised that it was high time that we stopped buggering around and started ensuring that our babies got a bit more sleep. Regular readers may recall that I’ve recently made a decision to follow a routine again, after our days had become increasing unstructured, so I figured that improving the babies’ sleep habits would probably make life even easier. In particular, I knew that Joe was still getting insufficient sleep, and that this was making him a grumpy boy. He’s just like his mother: I’m a bit of a nightmare when I’m overtired. Hattie, on the other hand, is like her father and gets grumpy when she’s hungry.

Knowing that you should do something is quite different from actually doing it, of course. As Nigel says in his book, “there is no way around the fact that the road to good sleep is paved with tears”. And I still had an issue with leaving my babies to cry. At this point regular readers will be remembering how I recently ‘discovered’ that babies cry without being irreparably harmed, but I’m afraid that I hadn’t fully taken on board the message (because I’m an idiot). I’d been infected by the insidious theories of attachment parents who told me that I’d actually harm my children by leaving them to cry. Even though I knew that my wise friends were right, I didn’t keep following their advice, and I kept picking up Hattie and Joe as soon as they made a sound. Like I said, I’m an idiot.

Thankfully for me, Nigel addressed this very issue:

I know that there is very vocal group of parenting enthusiasts who believe it actually is very bad for children to cry. I regularly get emails from some of them in fact. Often these people will quote the ‘attachment parenting research’ and explain very seriously the ‘damaging effect of cortisol on the developing brain’. They will say that crying babies show elevated levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol and that this can have far-ranging effects on the growing brain.

All of which sounds a bit scary really, doesn’t it?

Well, like most times when people start using ‘science’ to justify their position, you’ll find that almost all of these people have sourced their ‘science’ from the internet and haven’t read the actual science directly themselves. Instead, they’re relying on someone else’s reading of the science posted on some bulletin board, or they’ve read a book written by other like-minded people who have themselves selectively interpreted the science to back up their argument.

I’m not going to go into a long discourse on the science of crying and children here – I’ll save that for another time – but let me just say this: I have read the science directly myself, the actual science in actual scientific journals. My unreserved view after reading all of it is that crying, in and of itself, never hurt anyone. Children are undeniably hurt from chronic neglect – such as the children raised in the horrific conditions of Romanian orphanages, where babies were left in cots with no human interaction at all – but that’s not we’re talking about here. Neglect very clearly hurts children, but a few tears at bedtime are not quite on a par with growing up in a Romanian orphanage.

At this point I reflected that Joe had started crying on my shoulder for at least ten minutes every night, before settling down and being put to bed: in effect, he was ‘crying it out’ on me. Clearly, my presence made absolutely no difference to him, and didn’t comfort him or prevent his crying at all. However, his crying presence on my shoulder made a significant difference to me: it wound me up and made me stressed and upset, which coloured my whole evening. Much as I love Joe, it seemed bonkers that we were engaging with each other in this way.

Nigel’s paragraphs also made me ponder why I was paying attention to the views of a group of parents with which I held few common views. If you’re not familiar with the attachment parenting philosophy, let me enlighten you: in theory, attachment parenting involves an approach that values empathy and connection, aiming to raise children without recourse to violence, and with a great emphasis placed on dignity and respect. That all sounds fantastic, and I doubt that anybody would argue with it as a concept, but in practice it looks a little different. Those who practise attachment parenting have strong views on a number of issues:

  • childbirth should be a natural, drug-free experience.
  • children should be breast fed, and weaning should be child-led.
  • co-sleeping should be practised, which either involves the family sleeping in the same room, or in the same bed.
  • children should not be disciplined physically.
  • children should always be treated with dignity and respect.
  • modern medicine should be avoided, and natural remedies should be used wherever possible.
  • childhood vaccinations should be avoided (the belief is that the possible after effects of the vaccinations themselves are too dangerous to mitigate the risk of the illnesses that they prevent).
  • children should never be left to cry.
  • children should benefit from constant, close contact with their primary caregiver (baby-wearing, in other words).

Now, I wholeheartedly embrace some of the attachment parenting principles – for example, we will not smack our children, and I’d hope that everybody would treat their children with dignity and respect. And I’m sure that many people agree about the benefits of breast feeding, and of the importance of close contact with their children.

However, the attachment parents lose me when they become too extreme with their views. For example, I don’t support breast feeding by telling people who choose to formula-feed their babies that formula is akin to poison. And I don’t think that somebody is a neglectful mother if they refuse to have their infant strapped to them 24/7. And I happily embrace the many wonders of modern medicine – unlike many attachment parenting supporters, I don’t believe that almost every ailment can be cured by either breast milk or coconut oil. And I think that the purpose of childbirth is to produce a healthy infant without damaging the mother – it’s not an ‘experience’, in my opinion; it’s a means to an end. And my opinion about vaccinations is fairly clear-cut: I believe that those who don’t vaccinate their children are careless about the welfare of their offspring, and are also terribly lacking in basic social responsibility. And I think that co-sleeping sounds hellish – it must do your sex life with your spouse no good at all, for starters (and attachment parenting people regularly tell would-be co-sleepers that, if Dad rolling on the little one is a worry, Dad could sleep on the sofa instead – never mind that most people quite like to sleep with their spouses), and I don’t think that I’d sleep well with three other people in the bed, all breathing funny and farting in the dead of the night.

And I’ve just realised that I have a deep-seated unease about attachment parenting as a concept because many of its elements – constant breast feeding, constant baby wearing, sleeping practices that prevent anybody from getting much rest – actively conspire to make the primary caregiver (the mother, in 99.99% of attachment parenting cases) entirely enslaved to her role as a parent, with absolutely no option of having a moment to herself, let alone combining motherhood with a fulfilling career. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Anyway, Nigel’s words made me reflect on how little I really agreed with attachment parenting as it is currently practised, and that made me realise that I didn’t have to believe their views that I would be torturing my children if they cried in their cots for a few minutes. It may sound a bit stupid, but letting go of this attitude was very liberating. With this new-found confidence in the merits of common sense over doctrine, I had a chat with Tristan about Nigel’s approach to sleep training. We decided to give it a go, right then and there, with bedtime that day. I mentioned this on Facebook and a friend wondered whether we might be better off delaying it until we were back home and the babies were in familiar surroundings, but I knew that the time was right to give it a go. There were three main reasons why:

  1. We were in a big house, so we could get some physical distance from the crying (because nobody likes to listen to their baby crying);
  2. We were both on holiday, so we could handle some disruption, and there was one of us per child for resettling purposes (I’m quite sure that our efforts would have failed early on if I’d had to apply the sleep training principles unaided); and
  3. I wanted Joe to get more sleep and for all of us to have a nice, relaxing holiday – Tristan and I included. After nearly 12 weeks of having our evenings totally dominated by ever-grizzly, over-tired children who wouldn’t settle, it was time to get things sorted.

This is the plan we followed, as recommended by Nigel and in his words, aside from my square bracket comments:

  1. Go through your normal bedtime routine. [Routine helps babies and small children to know that bedtime is fast approaching. Our bedtime routine is now set in stone: feed at 5.30ish, baths at 6ish, top-up feeds straight afterwards (if required), cuddles and bed.]
  2. Settle your wee one down into bed with much quiet cooing, soothing murmurs and the like.
  3. Quietly retreat.
  4. When the crying starts (and it will), wait five minutes before you go back. [When you’re listening to crying, one minute sounds like ten! We time these crying periods with our phones, so we don’t throw in the towel prematurely.]
  5. When you do go back into the room, do not make eye contact or talk. Simply pat or rock them until things settle, then exit again. [We’ve been using Sharlene Poole’s shush/pat settling technique when we resettle.]
  6. Wait for six minutes after the crying starts before you go back in.
  7. Repeat the cycle, gradually increasing the time between visits until sleep ensues.
  8. Collapse into a chair, emotionally exhausted, and worry about whether or not your child will grow up feeling unloved and neglected, then read step 9.
  9. No, they won’t.

Gentle reader, this sleep training malarkey works a treat. For our first couple of attempts we had to endure a few crying spells (during one memorable afternoon nap on the second day, Joe made it to a mighty ten minutes of crying, and when he was at nine minutes Hattie started up, so we were at five minutes with her… once again, twins make things immeasurably more complicated), but for the most part we had to resettle the babies no more than once or twice. Now, nearly two weeks later, Joe – always the less easy one to put to bed – will sometimes grizzle for a couple of minutes before drifting off to sleep, but as often as not a bit of immediate shushing and patting when put into his cot will enable him to settle straight away. Hattie took to it all very easily, particularly after we followed some more of Nigel’s advice and eliminated unnecessary ‘props’ – in her case, her dummy. She definitely didn’t need her dummy in order to sleep, but we were often giving it to her anyway, and then having her wake up and crying when it fell out. By not giving it to her in the first place she fell asleep just as easily, and stayed asleep.

The hardest part of the process was dealing with the sound of our babies crying. In the first couple of days we rewarded ourselves with chocolate every time we stuck to our guns and didn’t succumb to the urge to go into their room early and grab them when they were making a racket. We also made liberal use of the mute button on our baby monitor – we switch it to mute when we start timing a crying session, and then turn the sound back on to reassess the situation when the time is up. However, our monitor is very judgemental and likes to give us a bit of a hard time – if the crying reaches a certain pitch it will beep at us in a disapproving manner, as if to say “I know that you don’t want to hear them cry, but they’re really upset now!”

We’ve also followed some advice from other sleep experts and introduced a bedtime toy for each baby: Joe has Larry the lion, and Hattie has Betty the bear. The idea behind this that, as they both get older (Hattie and Joe, that is – Larry and Betty are ageless), they’ll associate their toys with snuggling down and going to sleep. Of course, they’re still swaddled at the moment and can’t really cuddle them, but we’ve had some sweet baby and lion/bear interaction during afternoon naps:



We use our sleeping technique at the start of every sleep now, including daytime naps. It’s meant that we now get the babies into bed by 7.30 each night, and often a bit earlier, and they don’t tend to wake up for their first feed until after midnight, which is wonderful. It’s doing wonders for us to have our evenings back, and the babies are so much happier and more settled now that they’re getting a lot of sleep. We’re also noticing that they can self-settle without our help now. While I’ve been writing this both babies have been asleep – Hattie on a cushion on the sofa, and Joe in his cot. I heard Joe stir about 90 minutes ago, but he gave a little grizzle for a couple of seconds and then obviously fell back to sleep for another hour, with no help from me. Clever little boy!

13 thoughts on “Adventures in sleep training

  1. Been following with interest your views on babies sleeping. I vividly remember me going through the same thing at 3 months with Bree much to the horror of my fellow new born baby owners! I decided with just me and Bree it had to be done! She still 9 years later goes to bed at 7 and mostly is asleep by 7.30, can take her anywhere and we still have the same thing going on. Go you and go Nigel Latta, love is common sense approach to child rearing.

    1. That is SO great to hear! I tend to think that one of our jobs as a parent is to teach our kids independence, and that this is an example of that, whereas the attachment parenting crew seems to continue to foster dependence from their children. They seem to want to be essential to their kids’ ability to go to sleep.

  2. Woohoo! Go the self-settling! What fast little learners you have there! Fab advice for others here πŸ™‚ Can’t think of anything else to add except…..if you can, get those sleep toys in duplicate or triplicate (is that a word?!) as apparently it can be a complete nightmare later on if one gets lost!

      1. Not that I’ve had this situation as my older son has/had a range of toys he would sleep with rather than a regular favourite, but I’ve heard from other parents in that situation that it’s important to rotate the spares so that they are all equally well used/worn. Apparently some kids won’t accept a brand new looking substitute to their well worn/chewed on/ ripped/matted version.

      2. I had heard that, but wasn’t sure how big a deal it actually was – very useful to know! I slept with Larry and Betty tucked down my pyjama top for a couple of nights, so they’d smell like me, so I will do the same with Lottie and Barry, and then keep them in one of my drawers to maintain that special ‘mummy scent’ and swap them around occasionally!

  3. Enjoyed reading your blog very much, laughed out loud at a couple of points (‘breast milk and coconut oil’ and the ‘disapproving baby monitor’), and admire your writing style (great balance of concise but detailed).

    I too own that Nigel Latta book and I agree with most of the advice contained within it but not all. I find it very ironic and annoying that he criticises others for summarising and vaguely referring to research to support their views and then he does the same so the reader is no more the wiser! I should check whether or not he’s referenced the studies at the back of the book, but even if he has, he’s failed to explain them in a meaningful way to back up his views within the book itsefl.

    Also, while there are many fanatical attachment parenting advocates and they are vocal and fairly extreme in their views, there are probably many parents like myself who would describe themselves as fairly middle of the road with a leaning towards attachment parenting. I breastfeed on demand, and refuse to consider any form of controlled crying/crying it out techniques (which is as much to do with the possible effects on my own mental state if I was to trial it, as well as any (debatable) potential effects on my children), I literally would be beside myself, distraught, at trying it. The one thing that has repeatedly got me down while being a twin mother, are the moments when a baby is crying and I am too busy with one of his siblings to be able to respond to him in a timely manner. It usually results in me being in tears as well. I don’t wish to deliberately subject myself to those experiences by using any sleep training which involves crying. However a lot of that is down to both personality (my own and my childrens) and luck. I am lucky that I cope relatively well with broken and small amounts of sleep. If that was not the case I might be forced to re-think my approach. I have been lucky that gentle ‘no cry’ sleep training techniques have worked well for my kids (really bloody lucky in fact that the twins got the hang of it far more easily than my first singleton as I’d never have had the time or availability to put the amount of work into it with them as I did with the first).

    I do have MANY views in common with you, even though I do think of myself as a semi-attachment parenting type of parent. The views we have in common include vaccinations – I COMPLETELY agree with what you’ve written, and I also agree about childbirth (the aim is for healthy mother, healthy live baby, not to be insistant on the need to have a certain type of experience which could potentially place health of either or both at risk). Modern medicine/drugs are great! I personally have very little time for ‘natural remedies’ especially when they cost a fortune and are not effective, grrr!

    I did a bit of baby wearing with the first but has been totally impossible/impractical with the twins to do it on a regular basis. And we don’t exactly co-sleep in that my babies have always been put to bed in their own beds, but sometime after 4am when I am a complete zombie and unable to do anything else, I will take them in to my bed for breastfeeds when they wake and we end up dozing together. So they do get to co-sleep for up to about 1-3 hours per day at times. I did the same with my singleton and my now toddler is still in the habit of coming into our bed at times. Many nights he doesn’t at all, and usually if he does it’s an hour or two before wake up time. I really DO NOT approve of me taking the babies into bed for a feed due to safety concerns but am powerless to engage my brain to do otherwise after the labotomy-effect inducing hour of 4am, I kind of like my toddler coming in to bed some of the time (snuggly cuddles for the last hour or two of the night and don’t have to worry about SIDS, in fact he’s more likely to smother us!) but I’d hate it if he was in the bed the whole night long (no privacy and not enough room!). As you can read, I am very much a mild-moderate attachment parent-er. Just wanted to put it out there that there are those of us who are just a little into this stuff without going the whole hog!

    Also wanted to say that I truly think that parenting is and should be a very individual path; only you know your children, only you know yourself and your spouse in the sense of what you all need and can cope with. I take my hat off to you for being so organised and achieving so much already with your babies and your parenting. While it seems we see eye to eye on many things but not all, I do very much respect your views even when they differ to mine. And I think you’re doing a great job with your babies! First time parenthood is bloody hard and to have to do it x 2 would be a major undertaking! You and your babies are doing so well! πŸ™‚

    1. I totally agree with your entire comment, Kate! Despite my disparaging comments about hard core attachment parenting people, I would also place myself on their parenting spectrum (or at least I would be if I had a singleton). I relied heavily on baby wearing in the evenings of those hideous early unsettle weeks, and we’ve also had a few early morning feeds of one baby in bed that have ended with the baby and me snoozing together (and there may be few sights sweeter than a little baby asleep next to me like that). And I also have a VERY hard time coping with one baby crying while I tend to the other one, particularly now that they’re old enough to know that they’re having to wait (and yes, this has resulted in tears from me as we’ll!) I do find it incredibly difficult to listen to them cry, so I’m bloody thankful that our sleep experiment has succeeded so quickly! I feel like we had little choice in the matter: we had to do something, as Tristan was utterly fed up and tired, and I was exhausted and stressed. And the babies were overtired and miserable. It was very much a case of short term pain for long term gain!

      And I agree re the book – I would like to know more about what research he has relied on. Have you read his ‘Mothers raising sons’? It’s also very good, and in that he does refer to research.

      Thank you so much for your lovely comments! Much appreciated.

    2. I also meant to say that I’ve been feeding on demand more recently – it’s probably a 50:50 split between following a loose feeding schedule and feeding on demand. Hattie is not a girl to wait for a feed if she decides that she’s hungry!

  4. P.P.S I just re-read my novel above and wanted to clarify a couple of things;
    – I am happy with some of my parenting decisions/techniques but not so happy with others (the after 4am co-sleep for example). Also, I’ve been lucky with being able to no-cry sleep train the kids for settling to sleep for naps and bedtime, but I’ve had no luck (cos I haven’t bothered to try maybe!) with through the night re-settling back to sleep, I just breastfeed back to sleep. This is both ok with me and not ok with me, just to be complicated and difficult. if they woke 1-2 a night for a breastfeed back to sleep that’s ok with me, when they wake more than that it’s not ok with me. But I haven’t done much about it. Am thinking of using my 2nd SKype consultation with Sharlene Poole about the overnight waking. Decided to keep a record of their overnight wakings this week as useful information for this and ironically (but fantastically) the babies have been waking a lot less so that my ‘record’ looks a bit undramatic but obviously I’m much happier about that! I guess I wanted to say I think I’ve got some things sussed and some things totally not sussed at all! And I think I’m always going to be like that as a parent. Didn’t want you to think that I was saying that my approach to things is necessarily the ‘right way’ or that I’ve got it all under control (far from it!). πŸ™‚

    1. Don’t worry, Kate – I totally get where you’re coming from! That sounds like an excellent way to make use of your Sharlene session. We’ve got some hours banked and I’m waiting to see what new challenges inevitably present themselves in the coming months before we use them…

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