As in every aspect of parenting, there are as many theories as there are experts, and as many opinions as there are parents. Which makes for a whole heap of theories and a universe of opinions.
When it comes to children and sleep, the Great Divide falls at the issue of crying. Do I let my baby cry, or not? The two main strands are the polar opposite approaches of No-Cry (or gentle methods) and Cry-It-Out (CIO). Modified CIO falls in between, arguably closer to the CIO end of the continuum than the no-cry end.
Gentle sleep methods are based on the principle of crying avoidance. Its proponents wish to avoid their baby’s tears for any of a variety of reasons - besides the obvious one that no one enjoys listening to their baby cry! In addition to parental comfort, gentle sleepers believe that crying harms the baby emotionally and/or psychologically, and that letting your baby cry adversely affects the parent-child relationship.
Most proponents of this method practice attachment parenting - at least at night! Co-sleeping is a common thread amongst those who wish to avoid nighttime tears, a sensible strategy for the parent using this method who wishes to get as much sleep as possible!
I’ve been in this business for a long time, and have seen the trends and fashions come and go. A parenting guru is crowned, reins a while, and then is deposed. The parenting guru for attachment parenting (a term he coined) is Dr. William Sears, author of (among some 29 other books) Nighttime Parenting, which came out in 1985. Over the years other experts have written other books from this same perspective, but too often, while useful in their specific ways, these books were primarily philosophical and/or medical, or aimed at a specific aspect of night-time parenting or specific sleep-destroying issue and lacked a clear “how-to” that parents sought.
"All right," a weary parent might well have asked. "I know I don't want my baby to cry, I'm cool with the philosophy, but I'm about ready to go into hysterics myself if I don't get some sleep!"
Enter Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution, and current queen of gentle night-time parenting.
When Pantley sought advice for her second child’s sleep problems, she discovered there were two schools of thought. “In a nutshell, [says Pantley, they could] be summed up as ‘cry it out’ or ‘live with it.’ I wanted neither. I knew there had to be a kinder way, a road somewhere between nighttime neglect and daytime exhaustion that would be nurturing for my baby and for me.” Being as there wasn’t one, she developed one. Now that’s a resourceful mother!
For babies under four months of age, her advice is reassuring: don’t sweat it. They’re too young to be sleeping through. What you do at this time is get all the rest you possibly can, and try to set the stage for good sleep later. She discusses how to tell when your baby is sleepy, and spends time talking about sleep associations and how to modify them, if the ones you have aren’t working for you.
For babies over four months, she addresses how to help your baby fall back asleep on his own. She offers several suggestions for co-sleepers, and a six-step phasing to sleep for crib babies.
For these older babies, she offers a wide variety of strategies to ease baby into sleep. From this long list the parents are to choose the ones that they wish to use, the ones that ‘feel right’, make sense to them, the ones that just sound like a good fit. This becomes your “Personal Sleep Plan”, which you follow diligently for ten days. At ten days, you evaluate. (Handy charts and questionnaires are provided to help you with both your sleep plan and your analysis.) Then ten more days and another evaluation, until you reach your goal.
Does it work? First, understand that “sleeping through the night” is defined by experts as five consecutive hours. Five. Not eight or more. Just five. I don't know which brilliant "expert" decided five hours was sleeping through. Somebody weird, I'll bet. It's certainly not the way most sleep-deprived adults would define it... Still, it's what's meant when a book mentions "sleeping through". Remember that - and be reassured. Or appalled. Depends on the context.
Of Pantley’s test group of 60 mothers with children ranging in age from 2 to 22 months, none had children who “slept through”. Using her method, by day ten 42% were sleeping through; by day 20, 53% , and by day 60, 92% . Not too shabby.
If you have the patience, this method can work for you and your baby.