Sleep Training at the 92nd St. Y

Orthomom linked to this parenting advice column in her “Mommy-Blog Roundup” on Jewess. I didn’t expect to like the answers, but it was the questions that floored me in the end. If this column is indicative, American parents are obsessed about how much their children sleep (admittedly the column grew out of the responses to an interview with a sleep expert). Here’s a sample of a relatively mild question:

Laura: My daughter has never slept through the night. She is twenty-one months and wakes every 2-2½ hrs. I have tried earlier bed time, consistent naps, bedtime routine, cry-it-out method, etc. . . nothing is working. She was diagnosed with silent reflux at two weeks old and it has been a struggle since. She does however fall asleep without a problem for naps and bedtime. The night wakings are taking a terrible toll. I generally end up crying next to her crib at night wishing she would just go back to sleep. The only way we get peace is if I nurse her to sleep, but that lasts only for a couple of hours.

My husband and I are at the end of our rope. I cannot get through the day without a breakdown. I don’t know what else to do?

Readers, this is a no-brainer. All of the “scientific” methods haven’t helped. Only nursing her back to sleep works and “that only lasts for a couple of hours.” I want to tell you a secret. If you nurse your baby when s/he wakes up at night until he is three or even four years old, he will still grow up to be a happy, healthy adult who sleeps through the night. Laura is describing completely normal behavior for a 21-month-old. Let the mother nurse her at night,  as mothers have done throughout the centuries. If the mother is willing to have the toddler sleep in bed with her, everyone will get even more rest. Either way the toddler will outgrow this eventually.

If a mother can’t cope with nighttime wakings, I suggest Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution. It’s a breastfeeding-friendly method of gently changing the baby’s sleep routines. Older babies and toddlers can be taught new sleep routines gently.

Here is the “expert’s” reply (emphasis mine):

My guess is that that you’ve tried too many different strategies. You need to stick with one and be consistent. I know how hard that is. We are all softies, and no one likes to hear their baby scream. But I promise you that it would only take a few days before your baby gets the message that you mean business. So, when you’re really ready, you and your husband should first agree on a plan (who is going to get up when she cries, what you’re going to say). Probably the hardest thing will be to stop nursing her during the night, especially when you know it puts her to sleep. But she is going to keep waking up if she knows she’ll have that bonding time with you. Who wouldn’t?! When you go into her room, you need to be as unemotional as you can. Speak in a monotone. Go into her room and say something like, “Everyone is sleeping. The birds are sleeping, daddy is sleeping,” etc. Pat her on the back and walk out. If she continues, give her a few minutes before you go in, and then do the same thing. Remain unemotional and detached. It will be exhausting, but not worse than it is now, and if you are consistent, she will start to get the message.

Are our babies robots? Or dogs that we need to train? No, they are very small people who can’t understand why everyone ignores them once the sun goes down, even when they cry hard enough to throw up (mentioned in a later question). A baby’s cry is intended to be disturbing. If we train ourselves to ignore it, we lose our instinctive rachmanut (compassion). And a baby whose cries are ignored learns that his feelings don’t count for much. Eventually he will give up and go to sleep, but pay a steep price.

I don’t agree that night nursing reinforces night waking. If a baby knows he will bond in the evening and in the morning, he won’t continue to rouse himself up in the middle of the night for the rest of his life to get it. Many working mothers relish the nighttime bonding that makes up for the hours apart. Even active babies and toddlers whose mothers care for them full-time don’t always manage to get enough cuddling during the day. Babies wake for many reasons, including teething, bad dreams, loneliness, fear, hunger, thirst, and other physical discomforts. Some babies wake up when they need to urinate. In extreme cases, a doctor should see the baby to rule out health issues. One mother noticed that when her toddler woke in the night, he passed lots of gas. She suspected a food sensitivity, and he slept through the night after the first day he avoided the offending food.

Who are we to say that our need for a solid eight hours (which we usually don’t get anyway for all kinds of trivial reasons) trumps the baby’s needs? Adults can learn to cope with less sleep and babies need concern and sympathy no matter when they are in distress. Trust your baby; she will tell you when s/he is developmentally ready to fall asleep without your help.


  1. I completely disagree.My baby stopped nursing on his own at nine months. He refused to take bottles of formula to make up for the missing nutrients. I had originally planned on nursing for a year, but he stopped on his own. HOWEVER, he had no problem waking up at night for that “nursing comfort”. I decided that if he could go all day without nursing, he didn’t need to wake me up at night just for the comfort. So I finally got him onto bottles and presto, he was sleeping through the night. I know you completely disagree on this, but hey, you’re entitled.
    Another point- it is pretty strange to see a woman nursing a 3 or 4 year old. The gemara recommends it until 2 years old. after that, the kid is just too old to see his mother exposed like that. Besides, his friends will totally make fun of him.

  2. jerusalem joe says

    With these kinds of experts, who needs enemies?
    I cannot fathom how they cast the baby as the enemy of the mother. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

  3. Anon–
    I’m sorry that your breastfeeding relationship ended earlier than you had planned. I hope it was still a positive experience, and I’m glad you were able to find a solution to the night-waking that worked for both of you.
    A nine-month-old is likely to get all of his nutrients from a well-balanced diet of solid food including meat, even without breastmilk or formula.
    From your comment I can’t quite tell what you are disagreeing with. Maybe my post wasn’t clear; I have nothing against babies sleeping through the night, and I don’t even have a problem with parents who are looking for ways to night-wean when a baby or toddler is ready. That’s why I suggested the book. My problem is with inhumane methods that completely ignore normal needs of babies. And I don’t feel that night-waking even for a period of years is in any way unhealthy or psychologically damaging, as long as the parents accept that it’s normal and have found a way to manage.
    The gemara presents 24 months of breastfeeding as a minimum, with a maximum of 4-5 years. The gemara doesn’t think it’s a tznius problem; why should you? My 3yo hasn’t been socially ostracized yet, either. I try to teach all my children that they shouldn’t make decisions based on what others think.
    JJ–Thanks for the enthusiastic comment.

  4. Amen!

  5. People tend to forget that babies that don’t breastfeed can also wake up at night. Those poor parents often get very little sleep, because they don’t have that magic going-back-to-sleep tool. Waking at night can also be something that runs in the family- one of the parents is often also a light sleeper.

  6. mominisrael says

    One author I read theorizes that mothers who were sleep-trained themselves have a harder time waking up to care for their babies.

  7. You are definitely correct about the obsession that Americans have with kids and sleep. While we haven’t engaged in co-sleeping or long term nursing (past a year), per se, we have went with the flow of each kid. At times we have slept with a kid in our bed. At times we have nursed to sleep. And bedtimes have changed with their natural sleep schedules. So, I’ve been up before 6AM and I’ve slept in past 9AM too. When it comes to child rearing in general, I rarely say take the easy way. But if nursing a baby back to sleep works, I say great. The important thing is to maintain sanity and I don’t think that kid at 5 years old will be waking up every 2 hours.

  8. Hey, thanks for linking to Jewess, and for your common sense and compassion. Interesting post!

  9. The first anonymous had a homepage attached (not that I would think it was you anyway!). I don’t believe she has posted before. Maybe you could call yourself “Regular Anonymous” or RA for short.
    Was her last line meant as a joke? I think I took it too seriously.
    Do I know you?
    Anyway, I cope much, much better with less sleep than I did when my kids were younger. Maybe it’s a function of age. It was hard, yes, but not having to get up at night (i.e. co-sleeping) is a different world from having to get up and take a baby out of a crib. As I hinted in the post, there are lots of things that I do when I should be sleeping, that I would give up before sleep-training my child. I think that the sleep obsession partially stems from being overscheduled. If you relax about housework and don’t take on too many other responsibilities, you have more time to rest and can cope better even when you are sleep-deprived. Being tired is completely normal when you have young children, particularly newborns.

  10. Just to let you know that the first anonymous is not me, your regular anonymous.
    Fortunately, my children slept through the night very early on as I found it very difficult to cope with even short periods of nightly interrupted sleep. How did you adjust?

  11. I’ve never thought about that before: the over schedualing part….very true especially in our household! and yes being tired is completely normal! I wonder if I will ever feel rested again!

  12. Regular Anonymous – sort of has a nice ring to it.
    No, you don’t know me. Not only do I not know you, I haven’t even been able to figure out from your blog what part of the country you live in. I think one of the reasons I don’t start a blog is that anything vaguely interesting I have to say would make me immediately recognizable to anybody who knows me.
    (I’m that odd).
    And the other anonymous’ home page was fake anyway.

  13. mominisrael says

    RA–I live in the center of the country, outside of Tel Aviv. I consider myself semi-anonymous, because someone who knows me and reads carefully could figure it out. I thought you might be one of the friends that I have told about my blog. When you start your own, let me know!

  14. I got “should-ed” into doing something I knew deep down wasn’t right. An “expert” told me I should use the cry-it-out method with my then 15-month-old. We did a safe version of the family bed, I nursed him on demand, but I was going insane from lack of sleep. So I tried it. After the second night, I couldn’t do it anymore. It might work for some, but it wasn’t right for MY family.
    Through trial and error and working WITH my baby to figure out what he needed by noting when he woke, if he really needed to nurse or not, and other details, I finally figured out that my frequent waking was waking HIM up. So we moved him to his own room and the night waking ceased.
    With my second, it was a different story, different needs, different solution. But I trusted my instincts and my bond with my baby to find that solution, and it was far less painful than crying it out.
    My biggest pet peeve is with experts who say there’s only one right way to solve a problem (such as night waking), and every mom SHOULD do it. Advice, multiple solutions, things to consider are all fine, but no mom needs to be “should-ed” into a solution that’s not right for her family.

  15. hi there, I am so happy I found your blog. I have a 6 month old and an older child. It’s great to hear of/or hopefully this type of parenting coming more into the religious lives. My impression from the observant in NY is that unfortunately most wouldn’t share these views. Anyhow saw your aliyah posts too. I really needed something like that to look into. We are planning, yes!! for summer 2007!! I look forward to more reading here, this made my day!!

  16. Sheyna,
    For most of us parenting doesn’t come naturally, and it’s hard not to be influcenced by the sleep-training advice that is so prevalent. With my first, the ped told me that he didn’t need to nurse at night at four months old. When he had lost weight at six months, he didn’t see any connection. Anyway, we grow as mothers by getting to know our children and trusting them more than we trust the so-called experts.
    Ahuva–I love fan mail! Let me know if you have specific questions about aliyah.

  17. mama o' matrices says

    aaargh! When did ‘just do what works’ become lazy and softhearted, rather than the fine-tuned balancing of the needs of everyone involved?
    Why do I read these things, when they just irritate me? On the other hand, thank you, m.i.i, for the post. It saves me a rant.
    Off to go check on the baby, a.k.a 17 month old child who is sleeping in *our* bed thankyouverymuch.

  18. mominisrael says

    mom–my pleasure.

  19. Baruch Hashem, someone who gives sensible advice. I don’t understand why so many AMerican parents (can’t vouch for others) don’t see the connection between their not getting enough sleep and their insistence on the baby sleeping in another bed (I suppose it doesn’t help that there are all kinds of ridiculous myths about co-sleeping) let alone another room.
    If you need more sleep, keep the kid in the bed with you, cuddle them, feed them when they’re hungry. If it interferes with marital intimacy get a babysitter and go off and have some fun during the day.

  20. mominisrael says

    Thanks KRG–I also have a post quoting an interview with James McKenna about his new book on co-sleeping. He talks about the myths.
    Screaming babies and wandering toddlers aren’t good for intimacy either.

  21. Proud Mother says

    I have had a wonderful success story sleep training my young one.

    I used Blimi Schloss (, an expert in the field and extremely popular in Ramat Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem areas – she really worked wonders within a short space of time!


  22. I know this is an old article, but I just came across it now. I wonder if you’ll still respond to me, MiI. I’m not a fan of babies or toddlers sleeping next to me in bed on a regular basis, although I will bring them to my bed if they’re having a restless night and I need the sleep! But I was just curious as to how it works practically – how do you put your toddlers down to sleep. I assume they go to sleep earlier than you, so you just lay them down in your bed, or do they start out in their own bed? And secondly, how and when do you (or they) decide to wean them off nursing and start sleeping in their own bed eventually?
    And by the way, I would agree with you that our babies are not robots, and of course a parent should ‘tune in’ to their baby’s needs, but baby’s do need to be ‘trained’ to do some things. Sometimes they need to be taught new habits so as to ‘tune’ their wants into their parent’s needs. If you took your toddler to the park, and after 2 hours you wanted to bring him home, and he stood there screaming that he wants to slide more, would you say “I need to understand my child’s needs” and hang around there for the next hour until he’s done playing? I assume not – you would take him by the hand and say “We need to go home now, we’ll come back another day”. Why is ‘teaching’ your child to sleep different – sometimes a toddler really does wake up just out of habit, and if it disturbs the parent’s good-night sleep, and the toddler can be ‘trained’ to sleep better, then why not? A baby who is left to cry for short intervals (if he is NOT hungry or thirsty) will also grow up to be a happy healthy child!


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