7 Steps To Getting Your Baby To Fall Asleep, As You, The Parent, Descend Into Madness
Hey look, a new parent! Oh my gosh, isn’t that just the most precious baby you’ve ever seen in your life? You must be so happy! What? You haven’t slept in six months? And you and your partner are constantly plotting each other's doom Wile E. Coyote style? Parenting rules!
Okay, okay, let’s take a breath. Let me introduce you to the magical world of sleep training. This is how you get your baby to sleep. What’s that? You’re excited about sleeping? You silly, naïve fool. You still don’t get to sleep, you merely get to teach your baby how to sleep.
Learn To Be Apart From Your Kid Without You (Or Them) Freaking Out
There are lots of different ways to approach sleep training, and the internet is full of very passionate people with, ahem, conflicting ideas on childcare. With that in mind and for the sake of brevity (not to mention the comments section), I’m going to stick to my own experience, especially since this method really worked for my family. We utilized something called “The Ferber Method,” which is named after a dude named Ferber, if you can believe it.
The Ferber Method (we are not calling it “graduated extinction” like that article I linked to does, we’re just goddamn not calling it that) is kind of a modified version of “cry-it-out,” which is when you flat-out ignore your baby until they pass out. See, with Ferber, you only ignore your baby for a set amount of time before checking on them. That set amount of time gradually increases, and after what feels like the same amount of time and exhaustion the twins on Breaking Bad suffered crawling through the desert, your baby eventually learns to self-soothe and sleep on their own.
There’s a whole chart in that Parents.com article I linked to above that you’ll probably need to write down or screenshot or whatever. Basically, on Day One of Sleep Training: The First Sleepening, if the baby is crying, you check in on them after three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, and forever after 10 minutes until they finally slip off to dream about whatever babies dream about. (Giant boobs and shapes, probably.) On Day Two of Sleep Training: The Awakeness Strikes Back, you check in after five minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, and forever after 12 minutes. The times keep increasing until you get to Day Seven of Sleep Training: The Rise of Sleepening, when your check-in times have increased to 20-25-30-30 minutes.
Theoretically, your kid will gradually become adjusted to this new way of sleeping and learn how to lie in a crib and chill themselves out. It took mine a lot longer than seven days to get there, and that’s okay. The important thing is to be consistent with those time checks. But you shouldn’t rely on just the timer …
You Become An Automaton
One incredibly important thing is to have a set bedtime and routine. Babies need to know what to expect and when to expect it, and bodies naturally develop a sense of daily rhythms. Establish that shit early.
We put our kid down at 7 p.m. with the kind of religious fervor usually reserved for the most damaged cultists. The routine was more ritualistic than Catholic Mass:
1. My wife changed the baby into a fresh diaper and PJs.
2. I’d hold him in a rocking chair while reading a book.
3. I’d say the same goodnight message every night. Not a simple “goodnight” or “I love you,” but this little phrase I came up with. I thought of it almost like an incantation, like if he heard the phrase it’d be another signal to start winding down. Did it actually work like that? Who knows! But I liked the ritual.
4. My wife would breastfeed for a little while, maybe sing a song or talk softly, then she’d put him down.
Another trick I used was singing the same 1-2 songs as calming songs. When it was my turn to comfort our screaming-instead-of-sleeping progeny, I only sang those two songs. And they weren’t even kids’ songs! Just songs I could kinda sing decently (and I cannot sing). The goal, again, is to establish patterns and associations with being calm and sleeping.
If that sounds like a dystopian sci-fi movie where some nefarious villain figures out how to rewire people’s brains, well … yeah. It’s basically that. But congratulations! You, the parent, are the villain. And you shall relish your role with the vigor of a Lex Luthor-type, because it can never be forgotten that your baby, no matter how precocious they may be, still has a developing brain and is depending on you to be smarter than them.
The Baby Monitor Conundrum
Obviously, you can’t simply abandon your child to fall asleep and go fire up Fallout 3 while downing a bottle of wine and call it a night. For one thing, you’ve got to set a bunch of timers for when you may need to check on your kid. Your kid might have trouble getting to sleep, they might be scared, they’re going to poop—the kid might be put away, but you’re still on the clock, as a parent. So you’ll need some way to know when they’re upset, some way to, uh … monitor them.
For this, you can opt for a monitor that one-way radios the sounds from your kid’s room to a speaker, or a fancy camera setup that allows you to both see and hear your kid. It’s important to know that whichever decision you make, you’re going to immediately feel like it was the wrong one. My wife and I opted for the radio because 1) it was cheaper and 2) we were worried we might spend all our time obsessively watching the baby sleep, because being a new parent is a form of temporary insanity.
The radio worked perfectly fine because he was safe in his crib, but we couldn’t shake the nagging curiosity of wondering just what the hell he was doing there. We’d hear him sprinting from end to end (cribs give a surprising amount of runway when your legs are 12 inches long) or talking gibberish to no one in particular. That was when he was in a good mood, though. On the other end of the spectrum …
Prepare Yourself For CIA-Torture Level Crying Over The Baby Monitor
Back in the early days of the new millennium, horrific stories of US military torture started popping up like so many freshly-constructed dream homes for American military contractors. One method always stuck out to me: the CIA would blast the most garish pop songs they could find out of massive speakers at all hours of the day, hoping to annoy prisoners enough to … confess something? It’s never really been clear to me what the prison at Guantanamo Bay was supposed to accomplish. That particular method of torture just seemed so spitefully dickish. Everyone knows the specific revulsion of hearing a song overplayed, especially if it’s the Meow Mix theme song.
Now, I want to be extremely clear with this sentence: sleep training your baby is not comparable to being detained at Guantanamo. All I’m saying is that I thought about those poor souls a lot during sleep training.
My memories are admittedly hazy, but they usually involve endless, staticky screaming that made minutes feel like hours. My wife and I taking turns asking each other “are we child abusing” and reminding each other “let’s just stick to the method.” It’s hard to stay sane hearing all that crying. In your head, you know that the baby needs to figure out self-soothing sooner or later, but you’re also hard-wired to be sympathetic toward your child when they’re in distress. You try to distract yourself with reading or watching TV, but all you can process is that your kid’s upset and you can’t help them for another *checks timer* four and half goddamn minutes. I usually ended up thousand-yard staring into my (unused) fireplace and trying to guess which specific part of my brain was breaking.
Then, if it was my turn to do the check-in, I’d go into the baby’s room, use a lifetime of restaurant and customer service job training to immediately switch on a cheery sing-song voice, and try to comfort my son. Ferber recommends no more than a 30-second back rub and minimal, quiet talking, which was surprisingly usually right. At least until I left the room, and the cries started again.
Expect To Touch Poop At 3 A.M.
Don’t be defeated, though! Eventually, your baby will settle down. Sometimes because they’re ready to sleep, but sometimes because crying takes a shitload of energy. Enough crying is enough to make anyone, even six-month-olds, resign themselves and say “forget this, I’m pooped.” Anyway, they’re finally asleep, and now you can go pass out on the couch in front of your 80th rewatch of Dumb and Dumber or Bridesmaids. Man, lotta scatalogical humor in this paragraph. Hope that’s not foreshadowing.
Anyway, kid’s asleep, you’ve watched a third of a movie before passing out, waking up, and dragging your tired ass to bed before passing out again. Good job! You finished the day! Haha, not so fast, idiot! Be ready to wake up before the sun to the discordant tones of more crying.
It’s no secret that babies poop a lot. That’s like, the third fact people know about babies, behind “they’re helpless” and “you have to say they’re cute even when they look like melted toads.” But damn do under-12-month-old babies poop a lot. And then they do it in their sleep. And then they get mad about it.
At this time of night—the 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. range—you’re going to be groggy. And under-12-month-old baby poop is a messy mix of milk and partially-digested fruit. But you don’t want to turn on too many lights and risk waking the baby fully up. So you tiptoe into the room, cooing all the way, lift the baby gently onto the changing table, undo their surprisingly complicated pajamas, and calmly—how did THAT get THERE?! There were more than a few times when my wife or I would call over the monitor for reinforcements (and more than a few times when the other person honestly slept through those calls). Between the smell, the mess, the crying, and the inspection to ensure no poop has gotten on the pajamas, these are among the worst diaper changes you will endure.
It’s a mess, is what I’m saying. A whole-ass mess. Or a whole ass-mess, to be more accurate. Keep your soap dispensers stocked.
Enjoy Your First Good Night's Sleep In A Year
Fast forward a bit. Days have passed. Maybe weeks. Maybe months. It varies from baby to baby, how long it takes for them to learn to go to sleep. But you’re a new parent, what do you know about the difference between days and weeks and months? The point is, all of this agony pays off eventually. Your kid settles in for the night and goes to sleep. Like on a regular basis. Maybe it takes a little bit, like they decide they want to play for an hour or whatever, but at long last, you can finally bank on a set amount of time when the baby’s asleep.
At this point, my advice is to come up with ways to treat yourself. You give all of yourself to your baby, it’s important to mentally decompress, maintain your sense of self, and maintain your relationships, whether that’s with a partner, family, friends, or all of the above.
My wife and I, for example, clung to dinner-and-movie rituals. One night a week, we’d either order takeout or I’d make a huge pile of chicken wings and we’d just let a movie or show wash over us. HBO usually has a good show with a new episode on Sundays—Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, and White Lotus come to mind as recent weekly appointment viewing. An underrated part of Marvel’s success is you can throw on anything they have to offer and enjoy it without thinking too hard. Do I have any takes on Loki? Probably, but I haven’t bothered to think those thoughts yet—I just enjoyed the show while making jokes with the love of my life as buffalo sauce dripped down my chin.
It’s bliss when your kid figures out how to sleep, and it’s worth allowing yourself some time to appreciate how far you’ve come since the days nervously placing a half-swaddled one-week-old in a bassinet next to your bed. Congratulate yourself. You taught a human being how to sleep.
BONUS ROUND: Your Kid Can Climb Out Of The Crib Now
Ah damn, we have to fast forward again. Turns out, kids grow. Like, their legs and arms get longer, they get more mobile … and they start climbing out of their crib.
One day, I put the baby down for a nap, and then went to my office. My wife was working in the other room. I had the baby monitor, and felt like I heard the baby a little closer than I should’ve. His little pitter-pattering feet are pretty unmistakable on our hardwood floors. Then I heard my wife walking into the kitchen and yelp “Hi baby! Why are you out of bed?”
This mischievous child I sired had finally gotten big enough to climb all the way out of his crib, even with the mattress on the lowest setting. Now he was happily prancing about the house. We asked how he got out and he didn’t even say a word, just gleefully scampered over to climb back in and show us exactly how easy it was to climb out.
So some two-plus years after we’d finally gotten sleep training down, we had to convert the crib to a toddler bed, which comes with a whole other set of brand-new sleep training strategies. That’s a topic for another column, though. Parenting is an ever-evolving mess of complicated adjustments. For now, just focus on the small victories.
Chris Corlew is the father of precisely one (1) child, and that is his only qualification for this column. If you really run out of options for getting your kid to sleep, feel free to try playing his extremely boring music or even worse podcast. Yell at him about how none of this helped on Twitter.