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3 Baby Sleep Strategies

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It's time to give the sleep wars -- cry it out vs. soothe to sleep, co-sleeping vs. crib sleeping, etc. -- a rest. Two moms (and best friends) show how vastly different snooze strategies can have the same result: a well-rested family.

Stephanie Triplett is a mom of two in Atlanta. She loved breastfeeding, she returned to her career in marketing after maternity leave, and she co-slept with her babies for years. Sara Ellington is also a mom of two who lives in Charlotte, NC. She decided breastfeeding wasn't for her, gave up her job as an advertising copywriter to be a SAHM, and put her kids to sleep in their own cribs. Though these two women agree on almost nothing when it comes to parenting, they're best friends. They even wrote a book together, The Must-Have Mom Manual. So they're the perfect pair to prove that different strokes work for different folks when it comes to how and where your baby sleeps. Because in the end, we all want the same thing: a little shut-eye for everyone. Here, Stephanie and Sara share what worked for them.

Cry it out vs. Soothe to sleep

STEPHANIE: My husband and I tried letting our daughter, Sara, now 9, cry it out once when she was a baby. It was agonizing: She cried for so long and worked herself into such a tizzy that she eventually threw up all over the crib. That's when I (literally) threw the parenting book I was trying to follow into the trash can and decided to do whatever was going to allow both of us to get some sleep. As a working mom, I was away from my baby five days a week. Cuddling with her and nursing her to sleep at night was the perfect solution. We both fell asleep quickly and easily and got some much-needed time to snuggle and reconnect.

SARA: If you'd asked me when I was pregnant with my first child if I'd let her cry it out, I would have gotten on my high horse and said "Of course not!" My vision was to rock my baby to sleep, gently place her in her crib, and tiptoe out of the room. But I soon realized that my vision was a fantasy, not the reality of motherhood. No matter how hard I tried, sometimes my baby girl (Anna, now 9) would not fall asleep, despite the fact that her tummy was full, her diaper was dry, and it was the middle of the night. Then my husband and I read Touchpoints, by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. His theory is that if you always respond immediately when your baby wakes up, she won't learn to get back to sleep on her own without help from Mom or Dad. It made sense to us, so we decided to try (wince) sleep training. It was difficult, I'll admit. It's not pleasant to listen to your baby wail. But I'd check on her every five to ten minutes -- which felt like an eternity -- and rub her back (but never pick her up). And you know what? Within half an hour, she was asleep. The next night, she was asleep in about 15 minutes. It didn't take long at all before she was a much better sleeper and could fall asleep quickly on her own. Aah.

What you need to know, no matter what you choose:

Don't attempt any sleep-training method before 4 months (it's important to respond quickly to newborns). And rule out other causes of tears (fever, a dirty diaper, pain) before letting your tot cry for any length of time. Some parents prefer to go cold turkey (letting your child cry on his own until he conks out). But most experts prefer a gradual approach: Soothing every five minutes at first, then increasing the interval time each night. Check out the methods developed by Richard Ferber, M.D., or Kim West (aka "The Sleep Lady").

Co-sleeping vs. Crib sleeping

STEPHANIE: I started co-sleeping with Sara the day she was born. She was in the little plastic bassinet on the opposite side of my hospital room, and she was crying nonstop. The nurse suggested that I put her in bed with me, that my body heat would calm her. It worked -- and it stuck. I adored sleeping with her, and it made nursing much easier because she could simply latch on and we both drifted back to sleep. I actually kept our co-sleeping a secret, though, because I thought I would be judged as a "bad mom" for starting a supposedly bad habit. But then I picked up William Sears, M.D.'s The Baby Book. He teaches that co-sleeping is the norm in many countries and can be beneficial for both mother and child if you do it safely (see guidelines below). That's why I tell new moms to read all you can, but keep in mind that you won't know what truly works for you until you try it.

SARA: I worked harder than I ever have those first few months after my daughter was born. At the end of the day, I needed a break. I think having my baby in the bed with me at night would have sent me right over the edge. Yet I totally realized why it worked for Stephanie, who was pining to be with her daughter while she was at work. And she understood how I needed time away from the rigors of being an at-home mom. This was one of our first "aha moments" as friends. What worked for me wouldn't have worked for her, and vice versa. And that was okay. We didn't realize at the time that motherhood would lead us down completely different paths, but we'd established a precedent of mutual respect, which I think has enabled us both to trust our own instincts as mothers through the years.

What you need to know, no matter what you choose:

Bed sharing has been linked with a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (sids). The American Academy of Pediatrics says the safest place for a baby to sleep, to reduce the SIDS risk, is in a separate sleep space (co-sleeper, crib, or bassinet) next to the parent's bed. But if you decide to bed share, follow these precautions:

  1. Don't sleep with your baby on a couch, inflatable mattress, or water bed.

  2. Push your bed tightly against a wall and remove or lock leg wheels if your bed has them. Place your baby to sleep between you and the wall, rather than between two people.

  3. Remove pillows, sheets, and blankets that could cover your baby's head.

  4. Do not sleep with your baby if you have been drinking alcohol; if you are under the influence of a drug that might make you overly tired; if you are obese; if you smoke.

  5. Never leave her alone in an adult bed.

Rigid nap schedule vs. Go with the flow

STEPHANIE: The fact of the matter is, your children are going to make this decision for you, and each child may turn out to be completely different in his or her need for napping. I tried to keep my kids on a schedule, but it's hard to plan your entire life around your child's naptime. I know moms who did, but I always thought they were insane to center their entire life around their 2-year-old's afternoon nap. Sure, if we were at home, we tried to keep naptime consistent. But when my second child (Timmy, now 8) came along and I began working from home, I was a mom on the move. We'd visit the petting zoo and the aquarium, and my kids would fall asleep in their stroller or car seat when they got tired. I was also fortunate enough to have babies who could be moved from car seat to bed without waking up.

My daughter was done with naps by the time she was 18 months old. Timmy (to my dismay) stopped napping at age 1. I realized my job as a mom was to be flexible and recognize that what works at 12 months may not work at 15 months.

SARA: During the first few months after my daughter was born, I tried to stick to a sleep-wake-feed-play schedule every few hours. It gave my day some order and provided me a little sanity knowing I could (hopefully) count on certain naptimes. But I wasn't particularly picky about where she slept-she could nod off in a car seat or a stroller -- if we were out and about. By the time my daughter was 1, she was taking a two-hour nap each day and sleeping for nearly 12 hours a night. I was sure I had this whole sleep thing mastered. But then I had Cade, now 6. He wouldn't sleep in his car seat like Anna did; he had to be in his crib. So I became one of those moms I used to secretly chuckle at -- "I've gotta go! It's almost Cade's naptime!" Soon he wouldn't go down until late afternoon, and then I couldn't get him to sleep at night. I'd force him to stay awake all day in order to get him to bed at night. It wasn't pretty, but eventually that phase passed. Stephanie always says, "Change is the only constant." It's so true. Whether you're in the stage of little sleep, feeling like you are being held hostage by an infant tyrant, or enjoying 12 straight hours of snooze a night, remember: This too shall pass.

What you need to know, no matter what you choose:

Not much! Though some experts say the snooze time a kid gets on the go is not as "quality"as the shut-eye he gets in his crib, only you can judge whether or not your tot is tired. Keep in mind, though, that infants thrive on routine. So if you're going to do on-the-fly naps, build in that routine elsewhere (meals and snacks at the same time every day, for example, or a strict bedtime protocol).

To learn more about Stephanie Triplett and Sara Ellington, visit Saraandstephanie.com.

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