Medical Conditions: When Sleep Training Isn't OK

For most of us we delay sleep training because we hate to hear our babies cry! We know it will be hard and that we will have to make it a priority. And instead of doing something hard, that will pay off in the long run, we just avoid it. Besides life is just plain old too busy! But for a small few of us, delaying sleep training may be exactly what your baby needs. For this week's blog post my good friend Sarah is sharing her story with us about her son Blake and his year long journey to sleep. Sarah's story is definitely the exception. Heart surgery kind of warrants delaying sleep training, don't you think? However, I often wonder how many parents are suffering without a cause. There are so many parents who are doing what Sarah did for Blake when their child is completely capable of sleep training. And what keeps them stuck in the never-ending cycle of soothing to sleep? Fear. Fear that their child will cry for far too long. Fear that they will harm their child. Fear that it won't work. If you know this kind of fear please contact me! Let's talk. When sleep training is done right you might be surprised at how quickly your child catches on. I have so many clients tell me that they thought it would be so much worse than it actually was. It is amazing how knowing exactly what you need to do and having the support of an expert can make sleep training feel so much more manageable. And don't forget, I am therapist, so working your fear is part of the package. I am here to help yo process your emotional journey as well!

Now back to Sarah! Sarah graduated from the University of Utah in Early Child Development. She has taught 3rd grade and kindergarten and has experience mentoring other kindergarten teachers. She is the mother to two extremely darling little boys. And she is a delight to be around. She is one of those people that can make anyone feel special and loved and I know she would and did do everything for her little guy. Enjoy her experience!

When I was pregnant with my first child, I couldn’t wait to hold my baby and start my journey of motherhood. Being prepared was important to me and, with my background in child development, I dove in even further to learn about sleep and important milestones for the first year. I had read a variety of parenting books and sleep training books before my son was even born. When my son Blake was born, he was perfect! I couldn’t have been more in love with my baby boy!

When Blake was 2 days old, my husband and I were told that our baby boy had a heart murmur. We were so worried, but we were comforted to learn that it would most likely go away in a few days. Once we were home, we started an eat, play, sleep routine throughout the day. He responded well. Three weeks later we were meeting with a pediatric cardiologist and were told that Blake had a VSD, which meant he had a hole in his heart. The doctor told us that there was a chance that the hole would not close on its own and Blake would need open heart surgery. We left the doctors with a list of warning signs and headed home. Since this was my first baby, I hardly even knew what normal looked like. I did not feel prepared at all to handle this situation.

At 4 weeks old, the eat, play, sleep routine was no longer working well. And something seemed off. One day I put him in his crib awake to fall asleep, like I had been doing, and he cried hard for 8 minutes. I went into his room and picked him up. He was a sweaty mess. I immediately called the cardiologist because sweating was one of the warning signs I was supposed to watch for. I was told that I had to keep Blake from crying and getting worked up. You see, we were trying to avoid these warning signs and let Blake grow as much as possible before he had surgery. The older and bigger he was, the better he would do in surgery. From that point on, I tried everything to put Blake to sleep without crying and the only thing he wanted was to nurse. Or more frankly, just to suck on me. The one habit I didn’t want Blake to form was a nurse to sleep association, but I had no choice. I had to do what was in his best interest. During the day, Blake would fall asleep while nursing. I could have tried to put him down in his crib, but honestly, I just wanted to hold him and cherish every moment I had with my little guy.

When Blake was four months old, his pediatrician noticed that the back of his head was flat. We were referred to a plastic surgeon, where Blake received a helmet to wear for 3-4 months. Blake wore the helmet for 2 days and again something just wasn’t right. His coloring and energy level was not normal. The doctor suggested we lessen the amount of hours Blake wore the helmet, but again something was not right. We also noticed that Blake wasn’t growing like he should be and his head wasn’t growing and shaping to the helmet like it should. I talked to the cardiologist and plastic surgeon, and we decided to have Blake stop wearing the helmet.

At 5 months old, Blake was no longer wearing his helmet. Unfortunately, we had another problem. I noticed for the first time that Blake was sweating while nursing. This was a bad sign. I called the cardiologist, and we scheduled his open-heart surgery date. I continued to keep my baby healthy and happy as best I could. Any time he cried, I nursed him. As we got closer to the surgery date, I watched Blake decline. He was no longer thriving. I noticed that when Blake nursed, he would nurse for 2-4 minutes and then just fall asleep because it was exhausting for his sick little heart. Of course, this meant he would wake up hungry, and I’d feed him and start the whole process over again. This pattern of eat, sleep, eat, sleep would go on for about 3-4 hours until he got his full feeding in and enough sleep.

When Blake was 6 months old, he had open-heart surgery. It went well and the surgeon was able to patch up the hole in his heart. At his 2 week follow up, we were told he would now have a normal life, including a full life expectancy. Six weeks after surgery, Blake was perfectly healthy. I noticed an immediate difference in my sweet little baby. He had regular breathing, growth spurts, his energy returned in spurts, and he was eating like a horse! For three straight weeks after surgery, he would wake up every 1.5 hours at night to nurse for 10-15 minutes. I think he was making up for lost time.

Up until this point, I had only gotten 6 full hours of uninterrupted sleep one time, when Blake was staying overnight in the hospital during his heart surgery. Blake was 7.5 months old, and I was ready to get him sleep trained so we could both get the sleep we desperately needed. But we had to resume with Blake’s helmet first. Now that he was older and more aware of his surroundings, he would wake up every hour because of his helmet. Every time he rolled over he would wake up angry because of his helmet. He continued with the same bad habits of sucking on me for at least an hour before bed to fall asleep. Each time he woke I would let him nurse or suck back to sleep. He would scream bloody murder until he got what he wanted, and it was on repeat every 1.5 hours. It was exhausting. Blake and I got more sleep if he slept in my bed for the entire night. My husband ended up sleeping most nights in a different room so that he could get some uninterrupted sleep. I don’t blame him. It was awful. Awful doesn’t even do it justice. We could not graduate from the helmet soon enough! Every day was torture as we waited for the green light.