My daughter has recently turned 18 months old and I really can’t quite believe it. But the thing that actually shocks me more than her ever changing age is the fact that she has finally learnt to self soothe and put herself to sleep. For some people this will seem an odd thing to say. There are the people whose babies have been settling themselves to sleep since day dot, then there are the people who did sleep training to achieve this result and then there are the rest of us. The ‘I can’t bring myself to do sleep training so I’ll just accept a lifetime of little to no sleep and hope for the best’ gang.
I feel I have to put a disclaimer in here that I truly believe that there are many different right ways to parent and I know babies that have learnt to put themselves to sleep in a variety of ways and at different ages. I’m not here to say there is a right or wrong way, I just want to share my experience. So, to all my fellow members of this ‘not sleep training, just hoping for the best’ gang, I am pleased to tell you that at the grand age of 17 months my daughter has started putting herself to sleep. She was ready, she didn’t want me to cuddle her, smooth her hair, rock her or sing to her anymore. She just wanted to be left alone. And as much as that hurts on a sentimental ‘I can’t cope that my baby is growing up’ kind of level, it’s also pretty freaking amazing. Because it means that I haven’t spoiled her with cuddles or been so soft that she won’t ever fall asleep independently. I was right to wait it out so she didn’t have to cry it out. It worked for us and I’m so glad it did.
If we start at the beginning, it was the breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is wonderful but the thing about breastfeeding is that you will undoubtedly end up feeding or cuddling your baby to sleep. There is no getting to the end of a bottle and putting them down ‘drowsy but awake’ as you are always advised. With breastfeeding, the milk will just keep going until they fall asleep and it is inevitable that it will always be mum doing bedtime, because mum’s got the milk. Some people see these things as bad things, bad habits that you really wouldn’t want your baby getting used to. But I don’t see it like that because the way I see it is that surely this is how nature intended it to be? So how can it be bad or wrong? Sure, sometimes it will seem inconvenient to have to be the one there with the milk or to be the one needed at bedtime but mostly it’s really not so bad, it basically just means lots of baby cuddles and letting nature take it’s course. (I know that some people express and then Dad can share bedtime duties, but that didn’t work for us. I can’t stand pumping!) Once I stopped breastfeeding at around 16 months and she started having a bottle of coconut milk before bed, I could see the difference immediately. I could give her a bottle and put her in the cot and she would be happy as Larry. She wouldn’t fall asleep, but she was happy just drinking her milk. However it soon became clear that although now we were in a position where technically anybody could give her her milk and put her to bed, she didn’t see it that way. She had become totally reliant on me being the person with her to fall asleep, it’s all she’d ever known so you really can’t blame her for that. After a few painful weeks of Dan trying to put her to sleep, I realised that it would actually be easier to teach her to fall asleep herself than to teach her to be happy with anyone else. So one nap time I decided to try. She’s always been more flexible with nap time and generally falls asleep quicker and easier so I thought it was a good place to start. We’d been to playgroup so she was nice and tired out and when we got home I just put her in the cot with her milk, left the room and watched the baby monitor in disbelief as to my total surprise she fell asleep. She was asleep within five minutes; no tears, no crying, nothing.
My first thought was why haven’t I tried this before? But of course the reason for that is the breastfeeding, you can’t detach your boob and leave it in the cot no mater how much you might wish you could. I decided to push my luck that night as see if it worked for bedtime too, of course it didn’t! But still, I’d had my breakthrough! She could fall asleep by herself. We carried on with her setting herself at nap time for a few weeks and then after a couple of weeks I noticed that bedtime was getting harder and harder. She would wriggle and writhe as I tried to cuddle her to sleep. Previously she would just lie in my arms until she drifted off but now she seemed uncomfortable and it just wasn’t what she wanted.
We had one really awful night. She cried in my arms and she cried in the cot. No matter what I did she was sad. She clearly so badly wanted to just fall asleep in the cot but I think she was so tired and agitated that she was struggling. I gave in as I always do and rocked her, held her, sang to her but she still just cried in my arms. My heart broke because I couldn’t help her, and in the end I put her in the cot in despair, and then she fell asleep.
The next night I gave her her milk as normal while cuddling her and then put her straight in the cot. I sat in the room on the sofa waiting for her to fall asleep and eventually she did, it took about an hour of wriggling and drinking more milk but there was no tears, no drama, she just drifted off eventually, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. Now it generally takes her around ten minutes to fall asleep, and those ten minutes are just wriggling and drinking more milk, crying doesn’t come into it.
So I’m pleased to announce that I didn’t spoil her with cuddles, I haven’t made her clingy and totally dependent on me. I’ve had a good look but I can’t find a rod in my back. I just waited until she was ready, and although sometimes it felt like she never would be, suddenly she was.
I haven’t written this to make anyone feel bad for sleep training their baby, or to make anyone who is rocking their three year old to sleep at night jealous. I have written this to simply say to any mums out there who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel that is bedtime and sleep regressions, that things do get better. Eventually your child will learn to put themselves to sleep, it doesn’t have to be a stressful transition and they all do it at a different age, but sometimes these things simply fall into place. And don’t let anyone make you feel like you are being ‘too soft’ for not doing sleep training with your baby. It saddens me that I would never shame a mum for sleep training her baby and yet I have been made to feel I was doing something wrong by still cuddling her to sleep at 17 months. Mama does know best, so do what’s right for the both of you and just smile and nod when somebody wants to give you their expert opinion on how to get your baby to go to sleep.
You got this!