So, a while ago I wrote about our adventures in sleep training, and how Nigel Latta’s settling technique, when combined with Sharlene Poole’s settling technique, had significantly improved the baby sleep habits in our house.
A few weeks later I wrote about the nightmare that is four month sleep regression, and the way that it had caused us a few problems. In truth, we hadn’t recovered from it, and two months later we’ve been struggling to regain some decent sleep habits. I had become convinced that Hattie and Joe were increasingly reliant on our resettling techniques in order to get to sleep, whether at the start of a nap or a night’s sleep, or when they woke up after a sleep cycle. And the nights, in particular, have been a bit of an issue recently. The babies have been waking for an evening feed at any time from 9pm onwards, and have then woken again at 1ish and 4ish for feeds. We had an inkling that they really didn’t need to be fed three times a night anymore – that 1am feed seemed to be surplus to requirements – but resettling them seemed to be taking longer and longer. And, once again, having two babies made life harder: they’d tag team throughout the night.
It seemed like a long time had passed since I had slept for more than two hours at a time, and this was beginning to take its toll: I felt myself getting increasingly more short-tempered. And it seemed that the babies were grumpy and overtired by the end of every afternoon. That’s no way to live, so last Sunday I decided to research alternative sleep training options.
I started and ended my journey at The Sleep Store – a source of sleep-related products and advice. I had already made my peace with the uncomfortable fact that babies cry, so I was ok(ish) with the prospect of more bed time tears in the short term, if it resulted in more sleep for all of us in the long term. My reason for veering away from the Nigel Latta approach was because it suggested revisiting and calming the crying baby, and this seemed to be where we were failing (and not for want of trying – Tristan, in particular, would try to resettle for up to an hour, even in the middle of the night). A lot of the time we’d end up giving in and feeding instead.
The Sleep Store recommended a technique it called ‘verbal reassurance’. Here’s how it works:
What is the Verbal Reassurance Technique?
The basic idea is to check in on your baby at increasing intervals and provide a verbal prompt for them to go to sleep. You are going to stop any assistance to help your baby get to sleep, as your objective is to teach your baby to self settle as fast as possible. Within a few nights your baby will learn they can get back to sleep every time they wake in the night without your help.
How to do the ‘Verbal reassurance’ technique:
Put baby into bed awake (at least 5 minutes after last feed finished), dressed in an appropriate sleeping bag or sleepsuit so there is no loose bedding.
Turn on the white noise, ensure baby has plenty of dummies if she uses them and baby has a comforter to help her self settle.
Say your ‘verbal reassurance phrase’ such as ‘night baby baby, see you in the morning’ and leave the room.
Wait for 5 minutes then do your first ‘check-in’.
Wait for 10 minutes then ‘check-in’.
Wait for 15 minutes then ‘check-in’.
Repeat every 15 minutes until your baby has gone quiet. If baby is quiet and settled, there is no need to check in as this may disturb her in the process of falling asleep.
Do the same thing every time your baby wakes in the night.
Also use for day sleeps if your baby has issues with catnapping, getting to sleep or has been relying on feeding or rocking to get to sleep.
What is a ‘check-in’
The check-in is the key part of this technique, so make sure you are super effective! You are going in to check your baby is OK for your own peace of mind and to reassure your baby you are there keeping an eye on her. You are not aiming to help her calm down…she needs to learn that for herself!
Doing effective check-ins means:
Go only half way to the cot.
Do not pick-up, cuddle, pat etc…no physical contact or attempts to calm your baby down.
Say the same verbal reassurance phrase every time you go in.
The verbal reassurance is not likely to calm your baby down…so don’t stand there saying it over and over, or thinking the technique isn’t going to work as your baby is still screaming at you! The phrase gives you a simple plan and ensures you give your baby a consistent message, it’s not magic!!
Leave the room within 30 seconds…the check-in is very quick.
How often will I need to go in to my baby?
Over 5 months of age, all babies wake fully between sleep cycles (about every 2 hours during the night). So it’s very common for babies to wake 4-6 times or more each night and you will need to use the technique each time baby wakes. So for the first night you may need to use check-ins multiple times during the night, which may initially take longer than your current technique of getting baby back to sleep (eg put in dummy, quick feed etc). Within a couple of nights, the number of times your baby wakes will reduce and the number of check-ins you need to do will also drop quickly.
I know that natural parenting advocates who might stumble across this blog post will be horrified by this point. This is hardcore sleep training, without doubt. It’s not as full-on as a pure ‘cry it out’ method of shutting the door and not returning, no matter what, but it does require you to steel yourself against the sight of your sobbing baby or babies. I think that this is the kind of approach that you resort to when the prospect of continuing with terrible sleep and associated grumpiness is a far worse prospect than feeling like a cruel parent for a couple of days, as you listen to you precious child or children cry.
Anyway, I had definitely reached breaking point, and Tristan wasn’t loving the bad sleep either (and, more to the point, wasn’t loving the way in which his ordinarily cheerful wife was turning into a miserable harridan), so we decided to give verbal reassurance a whirl. We laid our plans: Joe would decamp to the portacot in the office until both babies were sleeping well; and our reassuring phrase would be “I love you, and it’s time to go to sleep”.
This is what happened.
Day one: Sunday
We decided late on Sunday afternoon to forge ahead with verbal reassurance, starting from that evening. I posted about it on a very small twin mothers’ Facebook page and got some very reassuring feedback about how other people had used this technique successfully, and without their children showing any obvious signs of lasting psychological damage.
Putting the babies to bed was as easy as always, but we said the magic phrase in addition to the usual kissing good night and tucking in of blankets, and we didn’t do any shushing and patting to help them on their way. Joe grizzled for a couple of minutes, as is his wont, and then fell asleep. Hattie went straight to sleep, as is her wont, but woke an hour or so later. Tristan went in with the phrase, and after a couple of minutes of crying she was asleep again as well.
We’d realised that to go from three night feeds to nothing for 12 hours would be too much, and I had no problem with giving night feeds – it was the frequency that was bothering me, and the feeling that at least one of those feeds was borne more from habit than from necessity. I also suspected that the frequent night feeds was making them more wakeful overall and contributing to the general unsettled behaviour. We decided that we’d still do the late evening feed, and a feed at any time from 4ish onwards, but that the milk bar would remain closed for the rest of the night.
We woke the babies for the late evening feed; first one, and then the other. Feeding them separately seemed to enable them both to feed more efficiently, and I was pretty confident that try were going back to sleep with full tummies, and should be able to sleep soundly. This proved to be the case with Hattie: she slept through from 10.40pm to 4.35am.
Joe, on the other hand, gave us ample opportunity to try out the new technique. He woke up at 3.40am and Tristan visited him and said the phrase. He cried for five minutes; Tristan visited him again. He cried for ten minutes; Tristan visited him. He cried for 15 minutes; Tristan visited him. He cried for another 15 minutes; Tristan visited him. He was ten minutes into his third 15 minute crying stint when Hattie woke up – it was 4.35am by this stage, so I fed them both. Joe needed another visit five minutes later, but in the end he fell asleep (as did we).
Day two: Monday
Although I was dreading having to cope with crying babies alone, I knew that we needed to be consistent and use the same strategy for all sleep sessions, including the daytime naps. Both babies went down for their morning nap with no trouble, and Hattie slept for an hour, and Joe for an hour and 15 minutes (anything over an hour is a good nap, in my opinion). The trouble came with the lunchtime nap. Joe needed three visits (five minutes, ten minutes, and fifteen minutes), and Hattie? Well… I had always suspected that she’d be the real challenge, both because the girl can cry with the best of them, and because I detect in her a very wide stubborn streak. Sure enough, she didn’t go to sleep until after visits at five minutes, ten, minutes, and twice at fifteen minutes. When I visited her, she honestly sounded like she was going to pop a gasket. Joe was crying like he was heartbroken, which was hideous enough, but Hattie was behaving as if she had been tortured. And when she finally went to sleep it was with the occasional hiccuping sob.
It was all so upsetting that I was almost ready to just accept a lifetime of sleep deprivation, rather than have to deal with this kind of drama ever again. I was greatly relieved when both babies woke up later and were happy to see me, and didn’t seem to be suffering from any lasting ill effects of my refusal to pick them up when they were wailing. It was a very close-run thing – it took every ounce of self-control I possessed to not give in and comfort them beyond the repetition of the phrase (which, let’s be honest, obviously had no impact).
I had to pop out after the babies went to bed for the evening, but Tristan reported no settling problems – I think he visited them once each. Hattie woke at 9.55pm, so I fed her and then woke Joe for his feed. They both went to sleep quickly, with no fuss.
Overnight, we heard from Hattie at 1.30ish, but she only needed one visit from Tristan before going back to sleep. And then suddenly it was 5am, and we were awake and the babies had slept through! Amazing! We woke them both so I could feed them together, and then they went straight back to sleep until 7am. Tristan and I were feeling so freakishly well-rested that we couldn’t sleep anymore!
Day three: Tuesday (today)
Well, this is magic. Hattie and Joe each slept for over two hours this morning! Joe barely grizzled before snuggling down with Larry. Hattie was in a bit of a grumpy mood this morning, so I wasn’t optimistic about her going to sleep without a battle, but when I steeled myself to leave her in the cot, she promptly grabbed Betty, plugged in her thumb, and fell asleep – no visits required. She looked just like this:
(that photo was taken a couple of days ago, but today’s sleeping pose was the same)
Both babies went down easily for their lunch time nap as well. It’s a miracle! I’m looking forward to seeing how they get on tonight.
Now, I know that this kind of self-settling won’t sit well with every parent, but I certainly haven’t noted any ill effects with either baby – they’re as happy as ever, and certainly more rested. And there’s no denying that it works. They’ve really struggled to transition through sleep cycles until the last couple of days, and suddenly they can do it. And when I put them to bed they just kick their legs and gurgle until they’re ready to go to sleep, and when they wake up they lie and gurgle and entertain themselves. If you’re of a mind that this because they’ve learned that their cruel mother won’t come when they cry, so there’s no point… Well, yes, you’re probably right. However, it’s pretty clear that they’re perfectly happy, despite this development – or maybe because of it!
All I know is that our household is immeasurably better now that we’re getting enough sleep. And it’s lovely to think that we may now be able to go to bed at night without dreading the inevitable five or six wake-ups.
I know that many people won’t take this step, and will put up with disrupted nights for many, many months. Good luck to you, I say, but I’m really glad that we’ve tried verbal reassurance.
I wanted to tell you how we’d got on during our third night, and today (Wednesday). Here are the highlights:
I know that I sounded quite defensive about choosing this technique – I don’t love leaving my babies to cry. However, it has worked amazingly well, and we’re all benefiting from the extra sleep. It’s been hard, but it’s been worth it.