Our first child wouldn't sleep more than two hours at a time. He only slept if someone sat up and cradled him in one arm, like a football. I felt like a zombie most days, passing through life, not sure where I was or what I was doing. To complicate matters, my wife and I were both in our early 20s. I was in college and working as a bartender, and Mel worked full-time at a hardware store, so there wasn't much time for napping or sleeping in.
This was in 2006. I complained to my older sister about it, and she gave me this advice. "Just let him cry. It's rough for a few days, but all our kids slept through the night at 3 months. It works. I promise."
This was the first time I'd heard of letting a child cry it out, but it wouldn't be the last. "Let your child cry it out" was the refrain of my first year as a father. I didn't like the idea, honestly. However, I hadn't slept more than about two hours at a time for five months. I was tired and miserable and ready to try anything.
I suggested letting Tristan cry it out to my wife, Mel. She was standing in the kitchen of our small two-bedroom apartment, holding the baby. She held him a little tighter, as though I was about to hurt him. Then she approached me with bloodshot eyes, and said, "No. I can't do that to our baby. I'm sorry."
At the time I didn't fully understand what she was so worried about. Everyone said it was safe. And these were people that I trusted. We argued about it for a few weeks. Finally I insisted and Mel said, "I want you to know that I think it's terrible. I hate the idea and I think you are going to regret it."
Normally I would've heeded Mel's objections. But after not sleeping for several months, I was miserable and desperate.
The first night Mel slept in our bedroom with headphones on, while I slept in the living room. Tristan woke up several times that night. Following the rules of crying it out, I never held him, and gave him minimal comfort. I did it for three nights, and I'd never felt such tightness in my chest. My heart ached for my son. Every time he cried, I felt a lump just below my jaw. I wanted to cry with him. After nearly 8 years now, this is still the most emotionally stressful thing I've ever done as a parent.
As promised, Tristan started to sleep through the night... for one month. Then he picked up the flu, and we had to hold him in the night again. Somehow everything I'd done was undone, and we weren't sleeping again.
One night, around 4 a.m., when Tristan wasn't sleeping and Mel and I were both up in the living room, I said, "I'm so tired. I wanted to let him cry it out again, but I don't know if I can."
Tristan was in Mel's lap, starting to doze off, and she said, "I'm tired, too. So I get it. But I don't want you to."
Suddenly I was faced with a choice. I could either let him cry it out again and struggle with all the emotions that surround that, or I could suffer through the next several months and hope that he'd figure it out on his own.
I thought about that lump in my throat, and decided that it wasn't worth it. Going without sleep was less painful than ignoring the cries of my child.
I let out a deep breath and said, "I can't do it again."
At the time, crying it out felt like a way to toughen up a child early, and I wondered if I was too lenient as a father. Perhaps I was going to be a pushover my whole life. And when I think back on those thoughts, they feel really silly. At the time my son was less than a year old. Little of parenting during the first year has to do with discipline and rules. It's about nurture and love and holding the child when they need it.
A few months later, when Tristan was just over a year old, he slept pretty well.
I'm not saying that parents who let their children cry in the night are doing anything wrong. But what I am saying is that when I hear other parents say, "Your baby would sleep through the night if you let her cry it out," I think to myself, You may be right, but the thing is, I just can't. I can't be that hard. I tried it once, and I found out that it's not in me. So I will suffer the extra few months of sleepless nights until she figures it out.
Tristan is 7 now, and we have two daughters, a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old. With my two youngest, letting them cry wasn't a question anymore. During those three nights that I tried to teach Tristan how to sleep, I was the one who ended up learning a valuable lesson.