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Can You Teach Your Baby To Sleep?




Francesca Tortorello’s son, Alexander, was born in November. That’s when she and her husband Michael DeBruyn became engaged in the epic battle all new parents must face: the battle for sleep.

“There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used for torture,” Tortorello said.

She described finally getting Alexander to sleep after hours of nursing, rocking and shushing.

“You close your eyes, and an hour can pass but it feels like two minutes,” she said. “You’re just so tired.”

Tortorello and DeBruyn are both professional musicians. He plays cello; she plays piano. They have a grand piano in the foyer of their spacious Strip District loft. She said one of Alexander’s new favorite pastimes is to sit on her lap, banging on the keys.

“Which makes my heart melt a little bit.”

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
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Francesca Tortorello and her son Alexander.

But like any new parent, night after night of sleep deprivation started to take a toll on her work.

“It’s hard to go to work and play your instrument well when you’re exhausted,” she said.

What’s more, she and DeBruyn were sniping at one another, and she wasn’t motivated to take Alexander out in the world and do things with him.

So when Alexander was 5 months old, she decided it was time for everyone to get some sleep: it was time to sleep train.  

Teaching Your Baby to Sleep

Tortorello knew when her baby woke at night crying, it wasn’t because he was hungry, it was because he didn’t know how to fall back asleep on his own. He, like many babies, had come to rely on the comfort of his mother, of nursing and being rocked in order to fall asleep. When he woke up in the middle of the night – as we all do several times each night – he was confused and disoriented. He had fallen asleep cradled in his mother’s arms and woken alone, flat on his back in a dark room.

But pediatrician and infant sleep expert Todd Wolynn said falling asleep comfortably in such an environment is something babies can learn.

“I feel very comfortable in saying that sleep is a trainable, teachable thing,” he said.

Wolynn sleep trained his own three children, including a set of twins. He said the key is letting babies figure out how to do it on their own, to self-soothe, get comfortable and drift off.

“Once kids nail that, that’s gold, because then they’ve set up a skill they can use for the rest of their life,” he said.

Some do that by a method commonly known as “cry-it-out” or “extinction.” It’s simply putting the baby down in his or her crib awake, shutting the door and walking away. (Wolynn said the term “cry-it-out” is primarily used by its critics and that babies cry for lots of reasons.) Wolynn teaches a slightly gentler method that is similar to the one Tortorello and DeBruyn used, where parents regularly check on their baby to reassure him he is safe.

According to DeBruyn, by the fourth night of sleep training, Alexander only cried for five or 10 minutes before falling asleep on his own. But Tortorello said the crying was hard to listen to, especially the first night when her husband was gone, playing a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Alexander cried for 35 minutes.

“I’d never let him cry more than two minutes without running in there to pick him up,” she said. “It’s really rough. I felt like I was depriving him of my love.”

The Controversy over Cry-It-Out

According to Elizabeth Pantley, author of "The No-Cry Sleep Solution," there is no need for a baby to cry in order to learn to fall asleep on his or her own.

“I’m a mom of four, and I have one grandson and I’ve helped them all sleep better without ever having any of them cry it out.”

Pantley disagrees with Wolynn’s point that babies should be taught how to sleep.

“They already know how to sleep,” she said. “We do not have to teach them how to sleep, what we need to do is create an environment that supports their natural need to sleep.”

That means putting them in a dark room with white noise. Noticing when the child is yawning and zoning out and put them to bed. Developing bed and naptime routines that help the baby know when it’s time to sleep. Gently and gradually handing over the responsibility of soothing to the child, rather than suddenly yanking all their parental sleep aids like nursing and rocking.

Pantley disputes the idea that sleep – or the lack of it – is a problem to be solved.

“I wouldn’t call it a problem, I would call it normal. Babies need us,” she said. “That’s why the human beings are created the way they are. A baby cannot walk, cannot talk, cannot put himself to sleep, cannot change his diaper, can’t go get his own milk, so it’s our job to take care of our baby, and that time doesn’t last very long.”

There iscontroversy in the infant sleep world over whether cry-it-out methods are safe for children. The few studies that have been performed haven’t conclusively proved that there is any long-term damage from the few days of crying involved with sleep training, but some who oppose say it causes babies distress and is neglectful.

Advocates of sleep training say it works and reaps long-term rewards, both for parents and for children. Parents, like Tortorello and DeBruyn, get their evenings – and their overnights – back. Tortorello said she’s a better mom now that she’s sleeping again, and that Alexander is a happier kid.

“He’s just sunnier in the mornings when he wakes up,” she said.

Certainly not every parent sleep trains their baby. In most of the world the concept is alien, and expert advice about whether a baby should be left to cry has varied widely over the centuries.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Rebecca Purcell reads to her daughters, Spencer and Pierce, at bedtime.

  Rebecca Purcell never successfully sleep trained her two daughters, 4-year-old Pierce and 2-year-old Spencer. She said she tried with both, but that it just didn’t work out for them. The girls often slept in her bed as infants, nursing on demand. Even now, Spencer begins most nights in her older sister’s bed before making her way to her mom’s bed. Purcell doesn’t mind.

“I like having my own space but it is nice when their little arms just wrap around your neck and make you feel warm and cuddly,” she said.

Plus, she said, sometimes it was just easier to sleep next to her baby than to listen to her cry. She said if she could do it all over again, she’d want to do things differently, but she knows she probably wouldn’t.

“I’m still the same person.”


Good Sleep is Good Health

Although their methods and philosophies differ greatly, Wolynn, Pantley and other experts agree sleep is incredibly important for child development.

“Good restorative sleep has great benefits, whether it’s in growth, embedding memories, or in chronic disease,” Wolynn said. “Good sleep is good health.”

Pantley said even a small shortage of sleep can interfere with a child’s mood and their ability to be engaged with the world while they are awake.

“So we want to make sure our child is getting adequate sleep in order to be healthy and vibrant and grow and be strong and happy,” she said.

As parents, Pantley and Wolynn also agree on another point: that the long nights eventually turn into short years, and before you know it, you have a teenager who you can’t get out of bed.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.