Child Led Sleep Training

by Lauren Matthies


If you're reading this post my hunch is that you are not one of the lucky ones who has a child who sleeps through the night.  That's okay, I don't either.  If you do have a good sleeper, congratulations.  Feel free to keep reading.  I wanted to talk a little bit about what I've decided to call "child led sleep training."

Sleep training talk is every where these days.  When our parents and grandparents raised kids I don't think "sleep training" was as big of a conversation point.  I think the evolution of sleep training has been largely due to social media.  We all know what everyone else is doing these days.  While our parents had heard of the Ferber method, I think they mostly trusted their parenting instincts and didn't expect to be getting a ton of sleep as new parents.

Henry has not been a great sleeper from the start.  At the beginning we had no pattern or schedule.  He was pretty nocturnal.  He slept a ton during the day and then was up all night.  The lack of sleep I get these days seems great compared to those newborn days.  Being honest, it all kind of seems like a blur.  I remember my husband would change Henry's diaper and then bring him to me.  I would nurse him and try and get him back down in his rock n' play where he slept next to our bed.  I wish I had known back then that I could nurse him whenever I wanted (or he wanted).  I nursed him a ton, but I also remember thinking I should be sticking to some sort of schedule.  I recorded all of his sleep, wake, and nursing hours on an app and, in hindsight, I wish I had just let it go and not worried about establishing any sort of routine in the chaos.  I also wish I had known that it was okay to nurse him whenever and wherever like I do now.  In the beginning I thought I needed to "know" what he needed and only nurse him when we was hungry.  Now I know that nursing is so much more than food and I allow him to guide me and provide it whenever he asks.

When he outgrew his rock n' play around 4 months old, we tried to put him in his crib, but that only lasted for about two nights.  I tried to nurse him to sleep in his room and then set him down, but he would wake no more than 30 minutes after I left.  And that was after hours of trying to set him down without waking him.  I decided it wasn't worth it and he wasn't ready, so he started sleeping in bed with us.  

During this time and for a while after, I would nurse him in our room in the dark and quiet.  It would take hours to get him down.  I started to become frustrated with the fact that I didn't get to spend any time with my husband in the evening.  We never got to watch TV together, an activity that helps me wind down and lets me connect with my husband.  So, we changed our plan.  We started nursing him in the living room while watching TV.  He really had no trouble falling asleep and I would hold him in my arms until I was ready to go to bed.  At that point I would try to set him down in our bed without him waking so I could brush my teeth and join him.  Sometimes I was successful at keeping him asleep, others I would have to nurse him again.  Over time this routine became draining because I literally had maybe two minutes apart from him all day. All my sleeping and waking hours were with Henry. This phase probably lasted the longest.

The next longest phase was probably the best set up for me.  I would nurse him to sleep while watching TV with Derek and then I'd put him in bed and run into the room to nurse him back to sleep if he woke up. During this time we set up another baby monitor in our room so that we could relax easier knowing we wouldn't miss him if he woke.  I always try to rush into the room before he gets upset or has time to cry.

Eventually we noticed that he would start to get distracted by the TV.  He wasn't falling asleep in the living room anymore so we had to return to me nursing him in the bedroom.  We always followed his sleep cues more than the clock when it came to bedtime.  Since two months old I have bathed with him every night after dinner.  That's the only consistent bedtime routine we've had.  During bath time I talk to him about our day.  We go through what we did, the most challenging part of the day for me, and my favorite part of the day. Sometimes we also discuss our plans for the following day.

Right around 14 months he started getting four molars at the same time.  We went through about a week of him needing to be driven to sleep every night.  Sometimes it's not worth the battle for me and others he seems almost scared to go to sleep.  On those nights sometimes he'll even refuse to nurse because he knows it will put him to sleep.  Driving does the trick.

At about 14 and a half months I decided that I should establish a consistent bedtime routine (I've always worried about this from the start).  We started a schedule of dinner, playtime, bath time, playtime in his room, reading Llama Llama Nighty Night in bed, and then nurse to sleep. The first couple nights he fought it, but then I thought we were getting into a good habit. He even brought the book in bed for me to a couple times, but then he started to get upset again.  One night he almost crawled off the bed looking for me.  I felt terrible because I hadn't noticed his motion on the baby monitor so I didn't run in the room before he became distressed.  By the time I got to him, he was so sad and scared.  I brought him out to watch TV with us and allowed him to just be with us until he got tired and I nursed him back to sleep with ease. 

Just like the above example, I've decided that it's okay to break rules. I've decided to follow his lead, trust that we will do the right thing, and have faith that he will learn to sleep on his own and through the night when he is ready. I have to put aside the guidelines others claim are best, and trust my gut, realizing that I do not always need to lean on "expert" advice.  I also highly recommend reading Kelly mom's website.  I have turned to her words multiple times for comfort.

After all, the first night in hospital after giving birth to him, I remember that I needed to be touching him in order to feel relaxed. I think it's a similar feeling for both of us.  We shared a body for nine months and found comfort, life, and security in each other.  My belief is that it's okay, and even good, to allow that relationship to continue naturally as needed. I'll also never forget how on his first full day of life I was holding him in our hospital bed and I could tell he was tired and needed to sleep yet didn't want to close his eyes.  He's always made incredible eye contact with me and looked to me to help direct him.  I closed my eyes to assure him that everything was okay and to help model for him how he could let go.  As he watched me, he allowed his eyes to close and fell asleep in my arms.  I still do that to this day.

When Henry was 15 months, we moved to another state again (our first cross country move was at 10 weeks old).  We were in our house on a Saturday and had his big boy bed set up by Sunday.  We started nursing and lying in it together by Tuesday and and we would practice fake sleeping in it.  On Friday or that week, Henry took his first (albeit short) nap in the bed with me.  He had fallen asleep in the car and I transitioned him into that bed.  The next day started his nap in there and even slept there some by himself.  We only tried this a few times because he wasn't sleeping very soundly and as a result neither of us were getting the daytime rest that we needed.  Eventually I decided that there was no need to work so hard to force it.

Moreover, I've always felt torn about transitioning him to own bed.  On one hand I want more space, better sleep for everyone, and alone time with husband.  At the same time, I know I will terribly miss him being cuddled up next to me, sleeping with my baby, and know that one day he won't want to curl up next to his mama anymore.  As with every part of parenthood it's a fight between wanting certain tough phases to end while simultaneously not wanting to lose time.

Around 18 and a half months we had another sleep breakthrough.  It was the first time I felt like we were starting to get our sleep somewhat under control.  We had started a regular 8:30pm bedtime every night with a countdown leading up to it (sometimes we'd go a little earlier and sometimes a little later, following his cues and trying to find a time when he was tired enough to give in but not so tired that he was losing it). He also began regularly waking up between 6:30-8am.  For the first time we were beginning to establish some consistency.  I also let go of the need to have an exact "bed time routine."  Sometimes we read books, sometimes, we play, sometimes we watch TV, sometimes Henry plays on his iPad or watches a movie on it while Derek and I watch TV.  I trust that he knows what he needs and I allow it to develop naturally.  The only "structure" is that I try to have him up from his nap no later than 3pm (again sometimes things happen, I try to go with it), we eat dinner right when daddy gets home, we play until between 6-6:30pm, do bath time, and then have free time until bed time.

When he was almost 21 months old Henry and I took a trip to visit my family in Colorado.  I wanted to keep his schedule the same so, with the time change, I had himgoing to bed around 7:30pm.  When we came home, we kept the same 7:30pm bedtime in spite of the time change. Bedtime started to became so much less of a fight. Although we were still sometimes nursing a lot at night or having early wake ups, sleep was feeling like less of a problem, especially in comparison to where we once were. 

Just after turning 22 months he had a night where he came to bed with out any struggle at all. After our countdown I told him it was time for bed.  He handed me his iPad, said goodnight to daddy, came to bed with me, and nursed to sleep within thirty minutes.

The next night he slept in his own bed for the first time ever.  He was really tired and wanted to read some books in his bed.  A couple times I've said to him recently that he can let me know if he wants to sleep in his bed or our bed. When we were reading, he said he was ready for "night night." I asked if he wanted to stay there and he said yes so I turned on the sound machine, turned off the lights, and shut the door (I was shocked when he didn't get upset and want to leave because before he's said he wanted to stay there and not really meant it). I got in bed with him and nursed him to sleep like I normally do in our bed. He woke up once around 10:30pm to nurse. He does this almost every night and I never knew if it was because I was disrupting him by coming to bed. Then he slept through the night!!! He woke a little before 5:30am (which has been his regular wake time lately) calling "mama." When I reached him he told me that he wanted to nurse. We cuddled and nursed until he was ready to get up. I told him that I was so proud of him and he nodded his head in agreement.

While I know we may have more ups and downs ahead, I will celebrate the small successes and feel gratitude for how far we've come.  The thing that I think is most important to remember is that each child follows his own path.  We've had wins and struggles on our journey, we choose to breastfeed to sleep, and I will always have my bed available to Henry (or sleep in his with him) if he needs.  Ultimately, I think any success we have is not necessarily because of anything I've done but because he's ready.  We will always experience changes based upon stages, development, and what's going on in our lives. We have had times when we woke up in the middle of the night and spent hours watching TV and nursing on the couch. We've slept on couch together many nights.  We've shared a bed, and now, we've slept apart.  We've driven him to sleep and taken midnight fast food runs for our sanity.  I've almost lost my mind spending hours nursing him to sleep and I've laid next to him with him still latched in awe of how lucky I am.  It's all been a part of our journey.

Years from now I will look back and remember the beautiful moments and forget the challenging ones.  I can all but guarantee when I'm 98 I will not, for one second, regret the time I spent nursing my baby (or babies) to sleep and holding them in my arms. Even when I want to give it up, I find that there is nothing better than watching him doze off feeling completely at ease and comforted against my chest.

I wrote it over the course of several months because I wanted to document our sleep journey and share it with anyone who may be going through similar struggles.  I figured it was fitting to finally finish this post the day after his spent his first night sleeping in his own room.  Remember, there is no one path.  My journey is only one way.  Here's to restful nights and many more beautiful moments.