BurlingtonVT Moms Blog is partnering with Phoenix Physical Therapy to bring you our latest series titled “50 Shades of Sleep”, about…you guessed it….sleep. Like an elusive treasure, we find ourselves obsessing about sleep not only for ourselves but for our children as well. Although we may not consciously recognize it we are constantly making decisions surrounding the subject of sleep. Is it OK to co-sleep? Can babies really be trained to sleep? What are night terrors? When do you move your child from your bed to the bassinet or to his own crib or into his own bed? Does the thought of SIDS scare everyone? Is it normal for kids to wet the bed and up to what age? And does it all change when they get older? Our goal through this series is to invite you into an open conversation about all things sleep, and to acknowledge that no matter your struggles or choices, you are never alone.
Never Say Never: A Child Therapist’s Journey to CIO
I knew when I got pregnant with the twins that my profession was going to be a bit of a problem. Not a logistics problem (international business traveler) or a moral problem (drug runner), but an angsty, neurotic, obsessive, crazy-making kind of problem. I had been working with children, including infants and toddlers, for more than 20 years and have been a Child & Family Therapist, clinical supervisor, trainer and program administrator since 2002. My areas of specialty? Child development, attachment, trauma, and behavior.
Yeah. You can see what I was up against.
I said this sentence to Ang about 27 times while we were pregnant: “We are never doing Cry It Out. It saturates their brains in adrenaline and cortisol.” My training in trauma had taught me that hyper-activation of the brain’s alarm system can result in the over-wiring of neural pathways of “alarm” signals which can result in chronic anxiety as well as panic attacks. The limbic brain–which controls a body’s fear and stress responses, among other things–can become confused and over-taxed by excessive or severe fear or stress and can send both chronic, constant fear signals (anxiety) as well as random, overwhelming bursts of them (panic attacks). No way my babies were going to scream their heads off in terror for hours, period.
Fast-forward to 8 months later. We had babies who could stay asleep for the most part, but getting them to sleep at the same-ish time without waking each other back up had become an elaborate, delicate, and tense production: bouncing at certain speeds with head at a specific angle for one while rocking the other in a specific rhythm at the appropriate pressure with the sound machine at the right level and the temperature perfect. Most nights, one or both of us was invested in a 2-3 hour scramble of trying every trick we had in complete frustration, tag-teaming in futility, tears, sibling-waking defeats, and a sense of being a complete failure at soothing our children. The problem was getting worse with age as they became increasingly alert and interactive, wanting to play or otherwise engage with us instead of drift off. They began to actively fight it. We were exhausted, overwhelmed and in need of a new plan.
Ang had mentioned letting them cry several times, and I had shut it down immediately. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I was willing to at least research it. The one thing I knew about CIO is that parents swear it works, and within days. I never doubted the kids would learn to sleep with CIO, I was concerned about the impact that method would have on their brain development and our attachment. I hunkered down and read about one hundred million articles on CIO its many variations, everything from rigorous research data in obscure journals to pop psychology blogs and personal stories on message boards. I lost sleep. I cried. I couldn’t figure out if it was better to suffer the current situation to protect their little amygdalas but risk that it might take them YEARS to learn to sleep well (data supports this), or to put us all through the brutality of CIO for a few nights as a dice-roll toward the end of the sleep rainbow, potentially scaring them for life. I wanted someone to come tell us what to do. Oh, and I didn’t want any of my professional colleagues to know that I was even considering CIO. The stigma runs deep.
Then, one night after Ang and I went a few more rounds about it, I had a really peaceful moment of clarity. It wasn’t mom clarity, it was child behavior therapist clarity. Before I became interested in trauma, I was a Cognitive Behavioral therapist with an interest in how children learn behavior. More recently I had become interested in neuroplasticity (how our brain lays pathways or “brain code”, and how we can change old behaviors or learn new ones by laying new code). It was suddenly clear as day: the twins had not had the opportunity to “lay code” around calming down, self-soothing, going to sleep, staying asleep, and going back to sleep if briefly woken at night, because all of our soothing was denying them that opportunity.
We started the “check and console” method of CIO ( Check after increasingly long stretches of crying but don’t pick up, Weissbluth outlines this in “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”) immediately. I spent 3 nights in tears outside babies’ door begging Ang to let me change my mind and pontificating on how the kids would feel forever betrayed by us and we were destining them to a live of debilitating anxiety and low self-worth due to our cruel negligence.
But I didn’t open the door. They cried for less than 45 minutes the first night, maybe 20 the second, and 10 the third. Most of the crying wasn’t hysterical–although some was–it was more like whiny complaining. Today, at 16 months, my babies either roll over and go to sleep immediately or sing/babble for 10-15 minutes before falling asleep. They sleep through the night unless they are sick. They are champion nappers.
Also? They still love me. They still trust me. They show no signs whatsoever of anxiety in any form. Our attachment is thriving and beautiful and made better by the fact that all of us are sleeping soundly at night.
Shauna, yay for sleep! I admire your courage to share your experience, knowing all that you knew & knowing your colleagues may judge (hopefully not!). I have 4 children & I’m happy to say that I did a similar version of CIO from the beginning (a few months old, when I knew it wasn’t hunger related crying) & my kids are now 8, 10, 13, & 15 and all great sleepers and they love us very much! I’m so glad you were able to find peace and sleep with 2 babies at once.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I feel your pain. I couldn’t do CIO and LJ still needs help falling and staying asleep sometimes. I’m curious – do you think having two, so they had someone next to them through it all – helped with the future anxiety/long-term effects?
I have wondered this myself. I know that many parents who do CIO with single babies report no signs of anxiety or attachment concerns. I also know that knowing the twins would not be alone as they cried made it slightly easier for me to actually do it. All in all, the data seems to show that CIO babies who have otherwise good strong attachments to their caregivers have healthier sleep habits, but no one has been able to link longitudinal data on anxiety in children to having been sleep trained. The impact of sleeping near the sibling is kind of an unknown. So, hard to say, but good question!
I love how you explained the brain/behavior function here-so interesting! My story was so much like yours, but without a complete understanding of the science. I read a million books on sleep and ended up doing the CIO-sort-of thing when my son was almost a year old!! By then there was some desperation. Thanks for sharing!
OMG Shauna…sometimes ignorance really is bliss! I think I would have lost my mind with all that knowledge! We did cry it out and both of our sons sleep really well. Thanks for sharing!