The cartoonish image of a bleary-eyed, zombified, sleep-deprived new parent is so cliché at this point it’s laughable. But it’s also true. As with pregnancy, all things parenting are unique, and there is very little in the way of one-size-fits-all solutions or approaches that work for every child. Our sleep journey thus far has been a mixed bag, and finding a way forward has been surprisingly stressful when considering all the warring schools of thought and the shame heaped upon parents (usually by other parents) for their choices.

Emmett is a relatively good sleeper. We’ve had friends whose kids refused to sleep lying down. Or they refused to sleep if they weren’t in immediate contact with a parent at all times. Or they’d sleep for only one hour at a time and require intense soothing every second they were awake. But we’ve also had friends whose kid slept 12 hours straight through the night without a peep at six weeks old. We hate those friends a little bit, but I make myself feel better by assuming that their kid will give them fits in some other area of their lives to balance the scales.

When babies are super young, they’re usually down to sleep anywhere, any time. Emmett did whatever he wanted for the first six weeks of his life and we just tried to survive it. No point trying to impose order when your squish is essentially a sea cucumber with no idea how to be a person yet, right? Some nights were decent and others were nightmarish, but we were working towards longer stretches of unbroken sleep. When he went from only sleeping 2 to 3 hours at a time to clocking 4 to 5 at a time, it felt like winning the lottery.

I was, however, noticing a pattern as the days passed: he was getting to be really garbage at taking naps during the day. The older he got, the worse it became. Babies can only stay awake a very short amount of time before they need to sleep again. They sometimes show signs of sleepiness, but they’re often subtle and easy to miss. If they don’t get to sleep in that preciously small window, babies hit a point of being “overtired” and then they become inconsolable fire-breathing dragons. It’s great.


Once we got back to New Orleans after spending some time in Alabama following my dad’s funeral, I set my sights on getting Emmett on some type of consistent schedule so that we could try to get him to a happier place. When he’s well-rested, he’s a complete freaking joy to be around. But when he’s not, it’s… challenging. I was also finding it incredibly hard to get any work done because I was spending all day consoling my fussy, overtired baby.

There are approximately eight million theories on how babies should sleep. There are folks who say that until your baby is at least a year old, you should allow them to set their own schedule and you should bend to their every whim. Wear them in a carrier for every nap if you have to. Strip your bed of all the blankets and pillows (to eliminate smothering hazards) and put them in bed with you every night. Allow them to nurse 24/7 if they want. The opposite end of the spectrum insists that you mold your baby to your schedule and you tell them what they do and when they do it. Put them down for a nap when you say it’s time and if they cry for a full hour, leave them alone and let them. Feed them only at certain times and don’t let them “manipulate” you into doing things their way. Neither of these extremes appealed to us in the slightest. They both seemed nuts and we wanted a middle ground.

What we realized, after tracking his daytime sleep for a while, was that while he went down for naps easily many times, he was largely incapable of sleeping for longer than 30 to 45 minutes at a time. He would wake up at that point wailing and be impossible to put back to sleep. And yet, when we got him up from his bassinet, he would yawn and show us incontrovertible signs that he was still quite exhausted. Realizing that babies don’t come pre-programmed to know how to sleep was a revelation. We, as parents, have to help him figure out one of the most basic parts of being a human.

A baby’s sleep cycle is typically just 30 to 45 minutes, so the problem we had is that he wasn’t making that “jump” from one sleep cycle to the next. Even adults stir in between cycles, but we know how to put ourselves back to sleep. Babies, on the other hand, panic. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective if you think about it. Very young infants like that have no sense of object permanence. So if you were there when they drifted off into dreamland and they wake up to find themselves alone, they’re going to freak out and sound the alarm. We have a running joke that Emmett vocalizes at this time because he wakes up alone and is convinced he will be eaten by bears if mom and dad don’t return to him immediately.

The thing was, though, that he was starting to consolidate his night sleep. He was sleeping 6, 7, or even 8 hours in a row at night! So we knew he was technically capable of putting himself back to sleep and stringing those cycles together. The real question was: how do we take that skill and help him apply it to his daytime sleeps? We read about four million articles on different methodologies and still felt as confused and helpless as ever.


After a few weeks of frustration and getting zero work done during the day, I was getting incredibly anxious about being able to carry my workload and care for my kid. Also, I could tell the lack of daytime sleep was really starting to affect him. He was fussier and less happy overall and I hated the thought of him missing out on vital developmental time during that sleep he wasn’t getting. I wore him in the carrier for some naps and spent others rocking and nursing him constantly so he would at least get some rest, but things were clearly untenable.

[pullquote]If they don’t get to sleep in that preciously small window, babies hit a point of being “overtired” and then they become inconsolable fire-breathing dragons. It’s great.[/pullquote]

My friend had been insisting to me for weeks that Emmett was ready for some gentle sleep training. She used it on her kids at 8 and 12 weeks respectively and they’re great tots. They know how to recognize when they’re tired and they know their schedule. If kept up too long, they literally put themselves in bed. Her method is a tweaked version of the Babywise method, which is considered a modern twist on Ferberizing. The Ferber Method gained notoriety decades ago and is known as the ultimate “cry it out” option. It suggests leaving your child alone for increasingly long periods of time to cry in an effort to help them learn to self-soothe and not rely on you or other sleep props like pacifiers to get them to sleep (or help them stay asleep). The doctor who created it recommends that it not be used on children younger than five months. Plus, I simply don’t have the stomach for listening to an hour of my child wailing in fear, so the whole idea of cry it out (a.k.a. CIO) for an infant gave me hives.

My friend assured me that this method was much gentler, so I agreed to give it a try. We started on a Friday and the method is supposed to take three days to implement, so by the following Monday I was gonna be home-free, right? Day 1 was supposed to be the hardest, but for us it was Day 2. Day 1 had a few spots of true crying, but the intervals are so much smaller (four minutes to be exact) that it was tough, but I didn’t feel like we were harming Emmett in any way. By Day 2 though, he seemed to have figured out what was going on and he wanted literally nothing to do with it. He would scream the instant I laid him down and I was feeling both defeated and heartbroken.

I had read a lot of articles that say attempting to impose any sort of schedule on a baby under four months was impossible and I was beginning to believe that. But I also knew that we couldn’t keep going how we had been, because that wasn’t fair to my son either. So I took a slightly different approach to Day 3.


I meticulously documented every single thing that happened on Days 1 and 2, from when he was put down for naps to what he did while he was awake (length of nursing sessions, attentiveness during those sessions, types of play, etc.) hoping to find a pattern—some method to the madness. What I realized after poring over my notes was that despite our best efforts, he was still getting to that overtired point. The training method my friend used says a baby his age should be up for 1.5 hours and then sleep for 1.5 hours. But I was finding that Emmett couldn’t make it the full 1.5 hours of awake time without getting fussy.

I think that may have something to do with the massive sleep deficit he has from those weeks of not really napping at all, so it may level out soon. And in the coming weeks, as he exits the “fourth trimester” and enters into the next phase of babyhood, his awake time should expand and get closer to two hours. But for now, we felt like 1.25 hours was the sweet spot, so we adjusted our schedule on Day 3 to reflect that. The first nap of the morning, he fussed lightly and “talked” for about 20 minutes before falling asleep and clocking a solid hour plus of sleep. We’ve cracked the code, I thought!

Wrong. Always wrong. Babies are a wild mystery. Nap number two went much the same… at first. This time there were only 15 minutes of fussing before falling asleep and I thought to myself, “Ah yes, what progress we’re making!” But at the 40-minute mark, like evil clockwork, came the startled cry of my child waking from a sleep cycle and being incapable of putting himself back to sleep. I gave him some time to fuss about, thinking he might find his way back to slumbering on his own. As he began to escalate to a true cry though, I went in. I soothed him for just a few moments and put him back in his bassinet drowsy, but not completely asleep.

At first, I thought it had worked and we were primed to pat ourselves on the backs. But five minutes later, he made a fool of us again and popped up. “BEARS, you guys. Get back here!” he seemed to say with his plaintive, half-hearted mewling. We gave him another ten minutes and he never truly cried, so we let it roll. Eventually, he put himself back to sleep. But it was short-lived, so we went in to pick him up and start the eat/play/sleep cycle all over again.

My Capricorn tendencies collided with my husband’s Engineer mind and we just kept tweaking things throughout the day to see if we could improve outcomes. For our third and final nap of Day 3, we adjusted one final variable. We had purchased blackout curtains for the nursery and John hung them in our room—where Emmett is currently sleeping in a bedside bassinet—to see if blocking more ambient light would assist him in falling (and staying) asleep. This time, there was zero fussing or protesting when I left the room and I thought we’d hit the target. But just 13 minutes later, he started making small noises. This continued on and off in bursts throughout the nap period, but we let it go since he never truly started crying.

Was this a successful experiment? Who knows. It’s had the benefit of at least getting us into a semi-regular routine and hopefully with consistency and time, Emmett will learn to self-soothe and naps will become less of a headache. But it certainly wasn’t the magic bullet we’d hoped for. I’m glad it worked for all the other kids whose parents tried it, but it didn’t work for mine. And that’s OK.

In the end, finding the right pattern and tools for Emmett to sleep well during the day continues to be a work in progress for us. I’ve decided to keep reading as much information as I can and to listen to other people’s stories and methods and try to take from them what I can. Adhering to hardline stances from this expert or that one is apparently just really not my bag. So, much like every other decision I’ve had to make (or will have to make) for my kid, I’m just going to keep doing what feels right.

ERIN HALL | erinhall84@gmail.com

illustrations VICTORIA ALLEN

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