Like a Turtle: The Sleep Learning Process

And by “like a turtle”, I just mean SLOW and STEADY wins the gentle parenting race.

Long ago, I posted this article on our first “sleep training” process which was not the typical sleep training at all but more of a gentle night-weaning. This is my update, and some tips. I have since taken on clients in my Parent Coaching Practice who want gentle steps toward better sleep. I tell them its not easy and it doesn’t happen in three days.  I tell them there will be some crying but that they shouldn’t ever leave a crying baby alone. I tell them NO FALLING ASLEEP ON THE BOOB!  Well, not after 12 months anyway, if you are trying to change your child’s sleep habits. 

For 16 years as a nanny and infant nanny and then postpartum doula, I taught other people’s children how to sleep. I did what the parents asked. Sleep training either worked or didn’t work depending on if the method worked with the parent’s emotions and the child’s personality. I learned what I would never do. I learned I could never let my own child Cry It Out.

Things for us are not perfect since starting the process of gentle sleep learning months ago. My daughter still has a sleep disorder which makes her wake up every hour at the point in her sleep cycle where other people usually can fall into REM instead of waking fully. My family is full of sleep disorder and my own sleep has always been *expletive*.

Eventually, it was apparent that I needed to try and teach her how to fall back asleep with less and less help from me for the sake her heath and for mine. But it was very emotionally complicated to do any sort of sleep modification with a child I knew had a medical disorder and really couldn’t help it.

As happens to all families and with any method, there is some backward movement for us with respiratory illness because I do not want extra snot to accumulate with crying 😉

But on good nights, Iris nurses one time as opposed to back when it was hourly or more. I stopped letting her fall asleep on the boob ever, for good sleep associations and not just pulling off after she was almost asleep- I had to teach her how to fall asleep with me there but on her own and it wasn’t easy. It also wasn’t as hard to listen to as Cry It Out would have been (with me not in the room). There was a little crying and a little thrashing around but I was there with her comforting with voice and a pat on the back. No boob in bed, sleep got a little bit better.

Then, I had to stop feeding her every time she woke up.  That was really hard. I went with only feeding her after 3 hour increments even if she woke every hour and worked toward 4. There was crying, a bit of thrashing around. I was there, modeling sleep myself because it was sleepy time. Sleep got even a little better. (And it tends to really help with the night wakings for my clients even more than it has for us, likely because of the apnea. Sigh.)

Now on bad nights she nurses twice in a chair. On good nights she nurses once. She still wakes frequently to gasp for a breath or after a huge snore because of her sleep disorder but now she is capable of finding my head and touching it and falling right back asleep. My sleep is still not optimal but we do feel she is very slowly in a turtle-esque way growing out of her sleep disorder like the doctors suggested. I could have just let her nurse every hour until I went insane. Or I could have done Cry it Out until we all went insane. Instead, I made slow and gentle modifications and I admit to myself that the attachment parenting route I have taken means that I put myself and my sleep on a lesser priority until Iris grows into an older and easier human. Some nursing babies wake more frequently, it is part of our biology and anthropology to check in with one another at night and night nursing keeps us doing that.

Tips for Gentle Sleep Learning from Me, the non sleep-trainer: *for co-sleeping parents*

1) Perfect your schedule for optimal. Are you on the right amount of naps for the right amount of time? Yep, unlike some other natural parents, I’m very pro-schedule for the sake of sanity and good sleep. I don’t believe in migrating bedtimes or “child-led bedtimes” or carting your child everywhere and sometimes not allowing for any naps.

2) Is your child going to bed too late for optimal sleep? All of the sleep books say this. This is probably the only thing they are all right about. It is scientific and biological and about circadian rhythms and the planet and being an animal and we adults should go to be earlier too. Your baby/toddler is going to bed after 7pm? Bad idea.

3) Only falling asleep on the boob? Work on that. Are there periods of time (like the morning) where there is total attachment to the boob and it is hampering your own sleep. Work on that. Cover them up, even. (The only time I’d ever suggest you cover up your boobs 😉

4) Do you have a nighttime ritual with books and low lights and calmness? Have you tried turning a sound machine on at the beginning of bedtime for the sleep-association of the sound?

5) Did your child have a before-bedtime snack. Something like a whole grain carb and a protein but not sugary. Hummus and crackers.

6) Can your child fall asleep again in the middle of the night by just noticing that you are there or does he always need the breast/to be walked/to be rocked.?  Try working on that.

7) Are you nursing on demand all day like every 20-30 minutes or every hour? Nursing on demand is ideal for babies. But remember that your nursling might not know how to sleep for hours at a time without nursing if she cannot do it during the day.

Sleep Training in (a supposed) 3 nights with a screaming baby alone in a room is torture. Studies have shown that it can cause brian damage and lifelong emotional problems. It isn’t easy and it does leave many parents with lifelong feelings of guilt. Gradual and Gentle sleep learning methods like what I have done and what I teach can also feel like torture for many nights. I won’t lie. But there is nothing wrong with an older baby/toddler crying because they are tired and not getting exactly what they want- with you there for re-assurance. In fact, studies have shown that a child who cries with a loving parent present does not experience the same negative effects a child left alone to cry does. More on cortisol levels, sleep  and crying here:

Giving in to constant night-nursing just works for some moms who can sleep through it! Bless them. Damn them! But if giving in to night nursing when a child cries for it doesn’t solve your sleep problems or doesn’t help you and the child sleep for live-able time chunks, it is time to change something. And I am the first to tell you any change sucks until it doesn’t.

And turtles…turtles can sleep under water, but not for long periods of time and not very soundly and there are predators. They must come up for air. Parental Presence is like air to babies.


About mooreamalatt

Find my whole bio here:!about/cktc
This entry was posted in Breastfeeding, Gentle Discipline, Parent Coaching, School/Teaching, Sleep. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Like a Turtle: The Sleep Learning Process

  1. Oh, Moorea! Thank you for writing this right now! This is exactly the sort of sanity I needed to be reminded of. Cry It Out feels so WRONG to me and I’ve been basically doing nothing and letting my own sleep and sanity go by the wayside, rather than do something that feels wrong as Zac’s mommy. I need to make it a priority to get time on the calendar for Mark and I to start working with you and with Z! Thank you!


  2. Leah says:

    Thanks for your post, Moorea. We’ve been dealing with this too for the last 7 or so months and it’s very hard. We’re getting ready for a sleep study, as we’re 100% sure she has obstructive sleep apnea. But not sure if she’ll get treatment. It surprises me that Iris hasn’t had treatment for her sleep disorder (but then again maybe she has, or what can they do, really?!) For us too, it’s a long, drawn-out gentle process. But we sure do miss sleep.


  3. Great post. My son is just not much of a sleeper, but we make progress slowly and gently. 😉


  4. Ashley says:

    This is so far from the terrain I’m navigating these days, but I love this line (and it’s totally universally applicable!): “And I am the first to tell you any change sucks until it doesn’t.” Often the deeper struggle lies in the resistance itself than in the actual circumstance (even when the circumstance isn’t necessarily ideal!). Thanks for the reminder.


    • nields says:

      I am one of those lucky moms who could sleep through the breast feeding, so you may feel free to hate me. I agree with Ashley about that line “And I am the first to tell you any change sucks until it doesn’t.” Beautiful. And change is coming, slow and steady. You are doing great work.


  5. Katryna Nields says:

    The thing about sleep that always amazed me was how different my children were from each other. One was the world’s greatest co-sleeper. If ever I couldn’t get her to sleep, all I had to do was lie down next to her for a few minutes and she would be out. Either by nursing or later, by company. My son, on the other hand, was great at co-sleeping for about 8 months and then would never fall asleep if there was someone in the room with him. Nursing made him sit bolt upright and want to play. But lie him down in his own room with a nice ritual and some soothing music and his sheepy and he was out like a light. Now they are big and all bets are off. It does seem that they take turns being hard to put to bed.
    The thing that amazes me is that you, with the nursing boobs, were successful at convincing Iris that she could have you and not the boob. That impresses me.


  6. Carry Muffett says:

    Sleep disorders can also cause some more serious health problems in the future. `

    My own blog


  7. Auping says:

    Good article. Also take a look at the blog of Carry!


  8. Gonzalo Weimer says:

    Hypopnea can occur during sleep. In this case it may turn into a serious sleeping disorder. Sleep hypopnea can be characterized by person’s repetitive stops of breathing or low breathing for short periods of time during sleep. Speaking in anatomical terms, there is intermittent collapse of the upper airway and reductions in blood oxygen levels during sleep. Thus, a sleeping person becomes incapable to breathe normally and awakens with each collapse. Quantity and quality of sleep is lowered, what results in sleep deprivation and excessive daytime sleepiness. The most usual physiological consequences of hypopnea are cognitive disfunction, coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, hypertension, memory loss, heart attack, stroke, impotence, psychiatric problems. People suffering from sleep hypopnea increase considerably the overall number of traffic accidents. Their productivity is diminished and they have constant emotional problems and strains. –

    Most up-to-date content on our web site


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