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Sleep training my baby made me a more confident mom

Erin is a freelance writer living in the Midwest where she also works as an insurance navigator for a community health center. Erin is passionate about social service, and loves to write (and talk) about how to blend activism and parenti...

I was afraid to let my baby cry — turns out, it's exactly what he needed

My husband would be home in half an hour — just 30 minutes, if I could make it that long.

I paced the hallway with my crying 4-month-old as panic rose in my throat. It had been another day of fighting my son to sleep — nonstop rocking and bouncing trying to get him to nap, only to have him wake up as soon as I put him down. It was 4 p.m., he was overtired and I was losing it. I called a friend for support and sobbed to her on the phone.

“What could be wrong with him?” I asked her in desperation. “I’ve tried everything. He won’t sleep.”

 “I don’t know,” she answered. “You two just aren’t speaking the same language right now.”

As an anxious first-time mom, I had no idea what I was doing. I leaned heavily on the internet, Googling every little thing and spending hours scrolling through Facebook mom groups. Sleep-training was a hot topic I found on these forums, especially the technique known as cry it out.

More: Our sleep-training advice: Skip town and make your partner do it

Nearly every day, I read about the dangers of letting babies cry — about how babies left to cry feel abandoned and never learn to trust their parents. With only a negative perspective on something I really had no idea about, I jumped on the "I will never leave my baby to cry" bandwagon before my son was even born.

The fierce insistence from moms online of the harmful effects of letting a baby cry took up residence in my head and my heart. My baby’s crying devastated me. I truly believed letting him cry would harm him. So I jumped, literally, from wherever I was — in the middle of a meal or a shower, on the phone or in the bathroom — if he made so much as a peep. I rarely paused to observe and listen. I scooped him up and immediately fed, changed or jumped into the 5 S's of soothing.

"Never let him cry," I would say to myself, pushing anxious knots of inadequacy down into my belly as my attempts to soothe him resulted in escalating screams. I was convinced that I or my baby was broken, and with each difficult day, I was sure my inability to soothe him was a reflection of my poor mothering. I figured I just wasn't cut out for this.

He was around 4 months old when I realized things had to change. He was hardly sleeping, my husband and I were suffering and I had developed a debilitating depression. We were exhausted and frustrated by the process of putting him down to sleep every night. My husband and I would bounce or rock him to sleep only to have him wake up as soon as we put him down — and we would start all over again. It wasn’t unusual for this to take several hours before he finally stayed asleep. One evening, after three hours of attempting to put him to bed, my husband and I looked at each other, exhausted and numb.

“We can’t keep doing this,” he said. “I think we have to let him cry.”

I wanted to say no, but deep down, I knew he was right. Still, it wasn’t easy. My husband and I decided on two things: If our son still wasn't asleep after an hour, we would pick him up and if things didn't improve by the third night, we would abandon the method. But as it turns out, we never had to consider our ultimatums. The first night was difficult, and I wondered several times if we were doing the right thing. My husband did go into the room every few minutes to soothe our baby by rubbing his back, and the crying lasted about 45 minutes before he finally fell asleep. But every night since then has been an improvement, and now we put him to bed with ease.

I'm not exaggerating when I say this method changed my life. Not only did bedtime become a piece of cake, but I realized something important: Leaving my son to cry alone for a few minutes at a time would not kill him. It would not damage him beyond repair or sever our bond. There is actual neglect and abuse in this world, but for the most part, we’re all doing the best we can as parents — and we’re doing it all in love.

Looking back, I can see now I was stifling his attempts to communicate. Crying does not always mean pain or distress. It can mean any number of emotions — from frustration to being overwhelmed to needing to vent about a stressful day. After we sleep-trained our son, I started to hear the subtle differences in his cries and it became much more clear when he actually needed me and when he was displaying some other kind of emotion. Finally, we were speaking the same language.

More: 10 Mom-approved tips to get sleep with a new baby at home

I am not suggesting cry-it-out or any parenting method is the right fit for every child, but I do believe it was the right choice for my family, and I stand by it as one of the best parenting decisions my husband and I have made. Letting my son cry it out taught me to actually listen to him, and we are both better off for it. Our bond is stronger now than ever, and I credit that in part to giving him the chance to self-soothe. Both he and I needed a little bit of autonomy, and I think my son has thrived on the small amount of independence he has gained since I stepped back and gave him the opportunity to figure out a few things on his own. Now obviously, I'm not sending him off to fend for himself any time soon, but little by little, with each new day, he will need me less and less. It’s important to allow him that space, and eventually I’ll have to let him go.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in parenting is how to trust and listen to yourself. I’m thankful to my sweet baby and the cry-it-out method for teaching me how to do that.

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