Desperate for Sleep

Yesterday morning I woke up to find the following e-mail in my inbox. Boy, did this sound familiar. All too familiar and I could easily relate to this mother writing to me at one o’clock in the morning…desperate for sleep. Desperate for some kind of solution. Just plain desperate.

I have been there. Her words could have easily been mine four years ago when I was dealing with my own midnight madness. I couldn’t type my response to her fast enough.

Hi Dr. Mom!

I don’t know if it is OK to write you an e-mail asking for advice…but I am DESPERATE.

Our daughter has always been soothed to sleep by us. Her 1st year we shared a family bed, where I nursed to sleep. As an infant she was very colicky and often slept on my chest for naps and/or I half-slept so she could peacefully sleep laying on my chest as I sat in a rocking chair.

I am at my breaking point; I haven’t slept for more than 4 hours in a row in almost 2 years.

I know part of it is my fault. I couldn’t ever bring myself to do the Ferber method, I preferred the Sear’s method and it would work for a while. She would fall asleep in her crib and stay there for several hours until 3 or 4 in the morning and then she would cry for breast milk. However, something always came up (like an illness, teething, etc) and the cycle would be broken. She’d inevitably end up back in our bed.

17months snuck up on us and now we both have demanding jobs that wake us up very early and have a schedule WE need to stick to. At this point I am feeling so guilty that I haven’t helped my daughter learn how to self soothe. All I want to do is hold her and rock her and nurse her to sleep. I KNOW she needs to sleep in her crib. None of us sleep well when she is in our bed now. She’s restless and too big. I am also afraid of her falling out and getting hurt. I am writing you at 1am because I googled “sleep training 17month old” while listening to her scream..and it led me to you.


Oh Amy, your story sounds so eerily familiar. My son (who is now 5) was the same way as your daughter. I remember those sleepless nights and the torture we both endured when I tried to “sleep train” him. I have to tell you, while sleep training does work for many babies and families, it did not work for us.

My son was what I like to call a high maintenance sleeper. He was otherwise completely delightful and a happy guy while awake, but oh my, did I dread bedtime. We ended up co-sleeping too. I talk about this in my post, The Accidental Co-Sleeper.

What I want you to know upfront and foremost is this: you are not a bad mom, you have not failed her. You are a mom who has tuned in to her child’s needs and provided comfort and love when she needed it most. With that being said, I can see how you have reached a breaking point and so did I. I believe it hit me right around the same age as you (17-18mos).

You and your husband now realize that you are at a point where you need to reclaim your sleep and your bed. Just as with most parenting issues, finding the right sleep arrangement for your baby and your family can be a bit of trial and error. And of course, just when you think you’ve settled into a wonderful routine, there will be teething and illnesses to throw everything off kilter.

Don’t beat yourself up over this. Unfortunately, there is no one way or method that will work for every child. Each child and each family will need to find the sleep arrangement that fits both the needs of the child and that of the parents. It sounds to me that you enjoy the nighttime cuddling but could do without the frequent night wakings and nursing sessions.

Don’t expect your daughter to give all this up without some tears. However, with that being said, sounds to me you could do without the blood curdling screams that make your heart ache. Here is how I handled my high maintenance sleeper and finally reclaimed some of my sleep.

When my son was just about your daughter’s age, I put a mattress on the floor in our room (next to my bed). This was a queen size mattress. I made sure to stick to a consistent bedtime routine that consisted of PJs, brushing teeth, a book, a song, and in your case a nursing session. I would help him fall asleep on that mattress. Once he was asleep, I would have a couple of hours before my own bedtime. That felt so nice.

Once my bedtime rolled around, I went to sleep in my own bed. When he woke up needing me, I would just hop down to the mattress and cuddle with him. Luckily, being on a queen mattress, I slept much more comfortably and he was happy to have me there.

I did have one very painful night when my cuddles and presence was not enough, he wanted me to get up, feed and rock him because that’s what he was accustomed to. I did have to break that cycle. One night, I didn’t get up, I just lay there next to him trying to soothe him to sleep. He screamed, wailed, threw himself on me until finally falling asleep. That was the first, last, and only time he did that. I suspect you may have to do this with your daughter if you want to break the midnight nursing session.

After that, we were able to sleep on that mattress on the floor. After a couple of months, I moved that mattress to his room. I did the same thing. I helped him fall asleep there and left to my own room once he was asleep. When he woke up crying or calling for me, I went in to sleep with him. The process was very gradual but after a few months, I was only going in once a night to comfort him and he went back to sleep much more easily.

Now? At 5, he sleeps through the night, on his own, in his own room. Not to say we’ve never had any setbacks, things do happen.

At age 3, I had to have a talk with him and remind him that sleep is important to everyone, including mommy and daddy. I let him know that if he wakes up at night and can’t fall back asleep, he is welcome to come to our room and sleep on the floor but to please not wake us up. We set up some blankets and a pillow on the floor next to our bed. He listened!

We would sometimes wake up in the morning to find him sleeping on the floor. He didn’t wake us, so that was fine with me. This only lasted a few weeks. After that, he pretty much stayed in his room.

I share this all with you because I want you to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It often doesn’t seem that way when you are in the depths of sleep deprivation. Just know that it will get better. I sincerely applaud you for relying on your mothering instincts. You are in tune to your daughter’s needs but you also realize that now is the right time to make some changes.

A plus side to this seemingly tedious process? I never had to deal with the crib to toddler bed transition. Finally! We caught a break.

I hope this is helpful to you. Just an aside note; my second child, my daughter, was a much easier sleeper. I never had to endure blood curdling screams while trying to get her to sleep. I listened to her cues and at 6 months, I was able to lay her down to sleep in her own room. She whimpered for a very short time but no wailing or full on crying. She was able to self soothe much better.

Every baby is different. That much is clear. What works for one may not work for another. Just remember, you did everything right by listening to your baby’s cues. Some babies are not amenable to “sleep training”, however, you can still “wean” her off some of the dependence she has on you for sleep.

Sleep training, co-sleeping, or some combination of each…how did you finally get your baby to sleep through the night?

15 Responses to Desperate for Sleep
  1. Alex
    January 26, 2011 | 6:00 am

    I feel her pain. My son was very colicky. They way I got my son to sleep in his crib was I would set him down on his crib awake I would turn on soft music and I would tell him it was time for bed.. we had an extra bed in his room and I would lay in it and tell him see mommy is going to bed too. At first he would cry because he wanted me to pick him up and I gave in some days because I wanted sleep but after about 3 weeks he would fall asleep all by himself and if he woke up in the middle of the night I would sooth him without picking him up.

    Good Luck Amy, your not alone, we have all being there!

  2. angela
    January 26, 2011 | 7:05 am

    Bolstering to read this today. We are working on sleep issues in my house (which are pretty much on-going since both of my kids are difficult nappers and not much better night sleepers!) I actually have a sleep post coming up tomorrow, because I have mixed feelings about cio, but not such mixed feelings about needing more sleep!

  3. MJ
    January 26, 2011 | 8:36 am

    It feels like only yesterday I was in a zombie state myself with a newborn. I hate to admit I never had a sleep problem with my kids. I realized my child craved not only my touch but my smell. They would have their eyes closed and nuzzle their noses as babies to smell me or their dad. So as babies I HAD to train them early through the wails and all for my sanity and my husbands well I figured the sleepless night training them would be well worth i,t and lets face it I was not sleeping anyway. With my 4th baby we actually used her boppy pillow and wrapped a shirt of her dads or mine from the day which had our scent. We would wrap her tight and lay her on her side face towards boppy with breathing room, believe it or not this worked for her. We would rock her to sleep and lay her in her crib at first until we eventually let her self sooth next to the pillow. Now she is 18 months sleeping on her own with her favorite binky, pillow, and glow worm. I realize your baby girl is older maybe try something similar with her favorite stuffed animal or make it an event and go out and buy one and dress it in mommy or daddies shirt with your scent. I am sure this will not work right away but think back as a kid. I remember loving to be in my moms room just to smell her to feel close. We have 5 senses try them all out, 4 other than touch, be creative. It doesn't hurt to give anything and everything a try. What have we got to lose, right!?
    Good Luck!

  4. Audra
    January 26, 2011 | 9:50 am

    I feel your pain! I have 2 poor sleepers. With my oldest (2 1/2), I had him in his carseat beside my bed until 6 months. He ended up sleeping with us most nights. We made the transition to the crib at nap time and then at bed time. The thing was – he would need to be sound asleep before being put down and we'd need to have a good transfer and not wake him or we started that process all over again. It was so tiring! By 15 months, I was pregnant again ad exhausted. I needed to sleep longer than 3 hour stretches. We added in a bedtime bottle. I had dried up by then but my son was still dry nursing. We started with a milk bottle in bed and once he was sleeping better, switched to milk, brush teeth, and water to bed.

    I also did something similar to dr mom. i made a bed on the floor of his room for myself (an egg crate, pillow, and blankets). I slept on the floor where I could just reach in to comfort him. Over a few weeks, I moved farther away and stayed in the room shorter amounts of time. In about a month, he was sleeping through the night with me just putting him in the crib awake. Bliss!

  5. Funky Mama Bird
    January 26, 2011 | 9:51 am

    I was lucky – my kid loves to sleep. I paid attention to his cues and had him sleeping through the night next to us at 10 weeks, in his own room by 4 months.

    Now, however, we are enduring the dreaded 18 – 21 month sleep regression. After a solid month of 3am wake ups for Mama, I instinctively wake at that time now – even when he does not-like last night. *sigh*

  6. Crystal
    January 26, 2011 | 2:44 pm

    Oh man! I feel her pain. I totally do NOT miss sleep deprivation.

    I'm new to your blog…so excited though! I hope I can resist the urge to inundate you with questions. I have 4 boys…..let your imagination go! We are ALWAYS at the Dr (or the ER!!)

    I found you via "a belle, a bean, and a Chicago dog".

  7. AnnaNova
    January 26, 2011 | 8:29 pm

    I feel bad for the mom that asked the question. I am a great believer in the family bed, and I think she did a great thing by letting her child experience that wonderful arrangement (and yes, it doesnt work for all, but it was the biggest blessing when my son was born).
    I actually never was sleep-deprived when my son was newborn, and for that I thank the family bed, we both kind of half woke up in the night for him to nurse and when back to sleep without being fully awake.
    Now that he is a toddler I do experience a sleepless night here and there, but I have come to treat like any other learning curve… sort of like potty training.
    Our son is also too big for the family bed now. He has a toddler bed next to our bed right now. We have a pretty set bedtime routine and always read books before he falls asleep. Sometimes it happens in our bed, sometimes in his. If he falls asleep in ours, I just move him into his when I go to bed. There are days when he doesnt sleep in there all night, there are nights when he still comes to our bed at some point, but those happen more and more rarely.
    While I know that self-soothing is important, I don't believe that letting your child cry him/herself to sleep is the right way to achieve that skill. I dont believe that the child learns to self soothe that way, I believe that they learn that noone will respond and eventuallu give up trying.
    I dont want to offend anyone, but that's just my opinion and so far the research I've done on this topic supports it.

  8. Making It Work Mom
    January 26, 2011 | 8:56 pm

    We also did the co-sleeping and then the transition to the bed in our bedroom and it worked really well. And we did it for each of our three children, though it was absolutely needed for my girls.
    I would absolutely give it a try. At this point it can't hurt!

  9. Practical Parenting
    January 26, 2011 | 9:01 pm

    Sleep issues are so difficult. My daughter had a severe dairy allergy and very bad reflux, and projectile vomited her way through her first year. Needless to say, sleep training was not an option! My son was also much easier and sleep trained himself at five months. They are all different. There is so much pressure put on moms to just let them scream, but that doesn't work for every child and can leave these helpless little babies feeling scared and alone. They have feelings too…

    Great advice for this tired mommy.

    Practical Parenting

  10. 30ish Mama
    January 26, 2011 | 9:04 pm

    I am very lucky not to have any sleep problems with my daughter (10 months). She started sleeping through the night at 6 months and just recently started waking up a couple times but I think that is due to her teething. I didn't do any sleep training, she just sleeps well. But I do have to rock her to sleep every night and many moms tell me that I am setting her up for lifelong sleep problems. I find that hard to believe, but I guess only time will tell.

  11. Cheryl D.
    January 26, 2011 | 10:17 pm

    My daughter will sometimes move to bizarre places to sleep. I once found her sleeping on the floor of my office, under her bed, and on our family room couch. She'll get up during the night and "camp-out" someplace strange. The one place she hasn't gone to sleep is in our room!

  12. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    January 27, 2011 | 8:18 am

    Bribery. She wouldn't stay in bed until she was old enough to understand a reward system. If she stayed in bed and went to sleep, she got to watch a TV show in the morning. Any trouble? No TV.

    Now she sleeps like a champ.

  13. Cameron
    January 27, 2011 | 8:36 am

    I did do sleep training. Although, before that, at 2 weeks old, we put her in her own crib in her own room because she just wasn't sleeping well at all in our room. We tried a bassinet next to our bed and a co-sleeper thing in the middle of our bed. She woke up all the time – it was like we were too stimulating or something. Lo & behold, she slept 5 hours straight the first night she was in her own room! I think from the very beginning, she's been really independent. She just wanted her own space, I guess!

    It's so funny how every baby is so different! We did a consistent bedtime starting at 6 weeks old & we did a modified cry-it-out with lots of pats & shushes & stuff like that. She was sleeping through the night 12 hours at 12 weeks old. She was a thumb-sucker & I think that played a MAJOR part. She would wake up in the middle of the night at about 11 weeks & we'd hear her sucking her thumb & then she would go back to sleep.

    The interesting thing that I've found is that everyone has their own version of sleep issues. Isis was sleeping through the night really early, but we've had our own brand of issues. For example, she will only sleep in a pretty much pitch-black room. So if there is light coming in her room around her black-out curtains, she won't go to sleep. This, of course, means I don't have a flexible sleep-on-the-go kind of baby. We have to be home by nap time or it can be a mess. So every baby is just so different! You've got to find what works for you & that in itself can be so hard because babies are changing so much! Teething, illness, growth spurts can all just throw a wrench in the process.

  14. Ameena
    January 27, 2011 | 2:44 pm

    My heart goes out to you Amy! I have been in your shoes. The only difference is that I was so desperate for sleep that I finally resorted to the "crying it out" method. It was the only thing that worked for my daughter – she was an all or nothing kind of kid. She still is! I realized that every kid is so different and if thats what worked for her than that was what avenue I needed to pursue.

    Great advice Dr. Mom!

  15. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    January 27, 2011 | 8:22 pm

    What a great idea! I love your advice and your honesty!