Cry it Out? Screw That. Or, “Sleep Training for Dummies”


“I’m not sleeeeeping!”

Boobaby is almost 2 and a half and she won’t go to sleep by herself more than once or twice a week. At best, she’ll let me or Working Mom lay her down and rub her back until she drifts off.

In very rare circumstances involving a level of precision that would make Swiss Olympic timers proud Boo will let us leave the room with her still awake. But she can’t be too awake, or too tired, or not tired enough, or too hungry, or … well, you get the idea.

Sleep is depressing.

* * *

I am a younger brother, so back in the day I suffered the dishonor of the “earlier bed time.” I knew for certain that everything cool in the living room happened after I went to bed.

“Good night, Doo!” they would call as I slumped down the hall, and within five minutes I heard the big people laughing riotously at all the jokes they’d been saving. The good jokes, too, I was sure, the slightly profane (or even sexy!) kind that would have made my 11-year old self the star of the schoolyard. My cool friends told such jokes, having heard them from their dads, dads who had no scruples about bedtime for younger brothers.

So I would keep myself from falling asleep, straining to hear the family laughter from the next room, and while it was silent I would read endlessly with a flashlight under my blanket.

And so, I became a crappy sleeper. Add to that early experience the massive coffee addiction I acquired in my 20s and you get the sleep habits of a nervous bat. Even after I force myself into bed by 2 in the morning, I read or work crossword puzzles for another hour. (I tell myself I’m waiting for the sheets to get warm. It’s a ploy.)

With all that, it’s no wonder that Boo is a crappy sleeper, too.

* * *

So we’ve finally arrived at the the “cry it out” system. For those of you not familiar with this particular version of assuring your child’s future need for therapy, it basically runs like this: after your bedtime ritual, you put the child into her crib and leave, no matter what her protests, screams, or cries.

The first time we tried “cry it out,” Boo cried out at us for an hour without a breakdown — well, we broke down eventually. I picked her up and let our floret of a 40-pound toddler drift to sleep on my lap as if she were a helpless newborn again.

The books all tell you to give it a few days, that the crying will go away when she teaches herself to fall asleep. Well, bull pockey. If anything, it got worse. Maybe “cry it out” works with a little baby, but with a toddler, with this toddler, not a chance.

So last night I went in to see Boo after just 20 minutes of crying to have a chat. Here’s what I said, best as I can remember:

“Hi, Boo. Can you think of something for me? Think about going to the playground tomorrow. Imagine that you’re riding in the saucer swing with Joey. Think about the swing in your head, and think how you go up so you can see the ground, and then down and you can see the sky. And all your friends are there riding on the saucer swing together. You ride so high that I can’t see you, and you close your eyes, and go back, and forth, and back and forth…”

I kept going like that for about five minutes. I used to do this kind of thing in my job as a naturalist all the time — it’s a kind of guided imagery technique that was really useful for describing, say, the life of a turtle without sounding all scientific.

“Now the swing is starting to slow down. You’ve kept your eyes closed and you can hear the jays and the hawks, and you can hear the other kids finding roly-polies. But you just stay there as the swing goes lower and lower and lower.”

Damn me, but it was actually working. She’d stopped crying, took a sip of water, and was actually closing her eyes. The little muscles of her face were relaxing and she was breathing deeply.

“Now I’m going to go out of the room. Try to close your eyes and sleep now, but if you need me to, I’ll come back in 20 minutes. OK?”

Boo usually protests that she needs food or a diaper change or “just one more ballet dance,” restarting the cycle of challenging and cajoling and crying. But last night, she just replied “OK” in the tiniest of voices and closed her eyes.

Maybe it was a fluke, but it worked, and we avoided the dreaded “cry it out” method for something a little more subtle. If it keeps working, then my soon-to-be-released sleep advice book will be called this:

“Cry a bit, and know your cries will be answered, maybe not in quite the way you’d hoped because there’s no way we’re going out for pizza right now, but at least I came in and talked you down in a supportive, meaningful way that will with any luck help you learn to sleep at least as well as your dad does, no let’s hope better than that” Sleep Training Method

It’s a bit wordy for the cover, I suppose. Isn’t it funny how real parenting is always more involved than the too-clever titles of parenting books imply?

* * *

It’s past 3 a.m. and Boobaby is asleep now, mostly under her own power. For two days now, at least, the system has worked. And if indeed we’ve finally set Boo on a course to good sleep habits — well, then, I suppose, it’ll be time to work on mine, too.

Maybe she can teach me.