A couple of weeks ago we embarked on a pretty scary new venture – teaching Millie how to self settle.
We had reached a situation that we just couldn’t continue with, where she was waking a number of times every night, with no pattern to the times or frequency, sometimes going straight back down and sometimes up for hours. Having an extra bottle most nights, and also getting to the point where she ended up in our bed most nights too.
We were getting to be very sleep deprived, and also very achey from sleeping awkwardly around her. She’s been getting endless bugs or teething all winter so we constantly made excuses for her poor sleeping patterns but after five or so months we realised there was something more to it.
I did a lot of research and spoke to people in search of answers and a solution, and I was pointed to an article about children sleeping through the night which was really informative. There’s a time window which is ideal for babies to learn how to settle themselves to sleep, and we’d missed it. We’d always had a fairly relaxed attitude towards Millie’s sleep, doing whatever she needed to get her down. From very early on she protested if we tried to leave the room while she was awake, and she liked to cuddle to sleep, so we did it. Despite the wakings she was down for around 12 hours a night and her bedtime routine was pretty solid so we counted those as our positives.
In actual fact we’d misjudged the whole routine thing. By doing whatever we had to in order to get her to sleep at bedtime and through the night, we were confusing her. Children like predictability, and though they will of course test their boundaries, they need to know what those boundaries are in the first place. We were shifting the goalposts ever so slightly each night, sometimes lots of cuddles, sometimes in with us, sometimes sitting there for hours.
I have a friend who, at bedtime and nap time, puts her son in his cot and walks out of the room. No drama, no fuss, and he goes off to sleep in his own time. This is a completely alien concept to us and has literally never happened, and it’s where we want to be. For a long time I argued that I love the cuddles, because they’re delicious, and I love co sleeping, because it’s also quite delicious, but equally I can’t keep up the lack of sleep and lack of predictability. It had begun to seriously affect my wellbeing and I think was also affecting hers, so we needed a change.
When I reached this point a few weeks ago, I initially spoke to a health visitor. She explained how whatever we were giving her at bedtime, she would expect every time she woke, and because there was no set pattern to that, we were making it harder for her to settle. This is echoed in the article I linked to above, and makes perfect sense. If whatever happened when she fell asleep was not there or happening when she woke, of course she’s going to protest.
In an effort to figure out what to do, I also asked advice from a parenting group I’m part of on Facebook, that focuses on respect for children as individuals, and promotes better understanding of and response to their emotions and needs. I often find that in times of stress this group provides really sound perspective and ideas on how to handle difficult situations. I have always been dead against ‘crying it out’, because it seemed so harsh, but through discussion with this group I began to realise that, although not the answer, a form of this was the best way forward.
The bottom line was that we were going to change a habit we had been setting in place since day one, which is hard, and there was going to be a natural period of protest while we all adjusted. Our plan was to follow our normal bath, milk, cuddle routine, and then to tell Millie it was time for bed, put her in her cot, tell her we love her and then leave the room. If she really cried hard, we’d go back in, cuddle and settle her, repeat that it was time for bed and we love her, and then leave again. If she was just shouting or moaning, we’d stay out. I volunteered for the first couple of nights because I had been mentally preparing myself – I knew consistency was the key to our success, that it would take real determination, and I was committed to making it work. I couldn’t face the idea of continuing any longer without sleep, so I put all my energy into it.
I should also add at this stage that we were keen to remove any crutches to sleep we had put in place to allow Millie to fully learn how to settle herself, and also to save us all further problems down the line, so we also decided that this was the time to stop her using a dummy, cold turkey.
So night one, armed with the monitor on silent so I could watch Millie while I was out of her room. In the first hour after bedtime I went in ten times, with the gaps in between lengthening and the intensity of her cries lessening until she went to sleep by herself, which I was heartened by because I’d anticipated a longer effort. She woke three times in the night but went back down very easily, and between 5 and 6am was awake a lot but overall we were pleased with a solid start.
Night two and Millie went down at bedtime with minimum fuss, which I was astounded by. She woke a couple of times in the night and then from 3am was up for three hours, solidly shouting while we continued to follow our pattern. This was without doubt the hardest night, because no matter how strong your resolve, having to listen to your tiny daughter shout your name for hours on end is heartbreaking. At 6am we caved and brought her into our bed, where she promptly fell asleep, exhausted.
Since then we’ve seen progress every night, and we are now at the point where, after twelve nights, we can put Millie to bed and leave the room and she shouts for around 10 seconds before laying down to go to sleep. She still wakes two or three times in the night, and occasionally wants a bottle, or a cuddle, but often will call out and then go straight back to sleep herself.
Bizarrely the easiest part has been taking away the dummy. I dreaded doing that for so long but somehow she’s accepted it really well. Initially she would ask for it repeatedly when we went in to settle her but that stopped fairly quickly, and during the day now and again she asks but I say it’s gone and that’s it.
We are beginning to get more sleep, and better sleep, but we still have a way to go. My hope is that one day we can put her down without any crying out at all, but I know it’s a slow process. A side effect has also been that Millie refuses a bottle before she goes to bed now. Perhaps she’s reached the point where she no longer wants it, or she’s trying to exert some control where we’ve waded in and made such a huge change, but she’s never drunk a lot anyway and losing 7oz of milk a night means she’s been a little dehydrated, but we can work on that.
It’s been tough but I wholeheartedly believe we’ve been doing the right thing, and long term it’s what’s best for all three of us. Kids and sleep – way trickier than we ever thought!