Why We Didn’t Sleep Train Our Adopted Son

Newborn baby crying in father's hands

This should not be a women’s issue. It should be a parents’ issue. And it should recognize that different children will need different things, often impacted by the circumstances of their birth.

Our first night with our son was spent in a hotel in Seoul, South Korea. Sudden parents to an almost-4-month-old, despite months of “preparation” that left us anything but prepared, we took him from the arms of the woman who had cared for, loved, and slept with him for the bulk of his short life. Far from the smells he knew, the language he was accustomed to, and the arms he found comfort in, he cried.

We stared at him and he at us. We fed him. We changed his diapers. We walked him around the grounds of the beautiful Shilla Hotel. We tried to eat, recognizing that one small infant required the constant attention of two adults, and later, exhausted, we all fell asleep on the bed. From our first night together, our son was learning about us and we were learning what he needed us to be. And what he needed was not a family that would let him “cry it out.”

On the plane home, he slept. I listened to the sound of his heavy sleep breathing, watching his chest rise and fall for the hours and hours it took to bring him to his new home.

We had a crib waiting for him in his new room. But once we arrived there, rather than the cozy resting place I envisioned, where our son would nap blissfully while I attended to the business of our everyday life, it more often than not held the piles of clean clothes we never seemed to put away.

Now that our son was finally with us, that was where we wanted him—with us.

We are the family that did not sleep train.

Once we were over our jet lag and travel fatigue, we began to establish an evening routine. Dinner, play, bath, reading, and then bedtime.

Bedtime: where children and parents collide.

For my husband and I, however, the decision about how to handle the bedtime ritual and nighttime waking was clear. Forcing our son to comfort himself and then sleep alone seemed impossibly unfair. Instead, we did what was right for us as a family, and more specifically, right for our adopted child.

We worked together. We traded nights. One of us mixed a bottle while the other stayed up to feed him. We were a team, and the nighttime work of caring for our son did not all fall upon me. Were we tired? Yes. But that was part of the packa­ge.

Yesterday, a Role Reboot writer argued that sleep training, aka crying it out, can be vitally important, specifically for women who shoulder an unfair burden when it comes to nightly childhood duties. Women are chronically sleep deprived, and thereby unable to perform effectively in their daily lives, whether work or otherwise. Questioning a perceived backlash against women who sleep train, the writer argues that mother-shaming around this issue is unacceptable, and in this, I agree.

The backlash against crying-it-out shames the mothers who choose it in order to perform and succeed at work. It shames the mothers who choose it in order to maintain the sanity and psychological balance they need to be better, more patient and nurturing parents. It makes women feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting the sleep that is critical for their own well-being.

I get that. But I also maintain that advocacy of sleep training as a feminist issue places the nighttime parenting burden once again upon the mother, and not on both parents, where it belongs.

And while I understand the desire to free women from the dreaded sleep deprivation that occurs when a baby wakes many times a night, sleep training advocates, and the studies they cite, often ignore the diversity in family make-ups that lead to different decisions about how to handle a child’s sleep needs, and those of the parents who care for them. As with many general parenting discussions, the particular needs of adoptive families are often overlooked.

As new parents, we felt undeniable pressure from the Sleep Training cohort, those who told us it would be good for him, it would teach him to be independent, that it was a necessary evil and he’d get over it after a night or two, and that it would be better for us too.

A few nights, we succumbed. We tried to let him cry a few times. But it was awful for all of us. And it just felt wrong.

Our son reached out for us. A child who had suffered tremendous loss, he needed to hear our voices, to smell our new and unfamiliar scents, and he needed to feel at peace while he slept. If that meant we comforted him every single time, then that was the job we had signed on for.

Add to all of this the reality of a child who projectile vomited every time he cried too hard, and there was no question that we would be there for him at night.

Regardless of what current studies say about how sleep training does not have long-term detrimental impacts on a child, I question if those studies include adoptive families. Do they trace the impact of abandonment issues and trauma at birth or look at what sleep rituals mean for bonding in an adoptive family? (I also wonder whether or not same-sex parent families are factored into those studies, another group often excluded from mainstream analysis.)

Was it hard to be sleep deprived and to go to work? Yes. Were we tired? You bet. Neither my husband nor I function particularly well with limited sleep. But it was essential for our child that we put him first in this situation.

According to the Center for Adoption Medicine, new adoptive parents should understand that “your relationship itself is a bouncing brand new baby … one that will keep you up more than you might like in the first few months. Plan on being more emotionally and physically available at night, and try to think of these nighttime interactions as an opportunity for bonding, and a way to repeatedly show your new arrival that she is loved, safe, and well-cared for.”

The Center also states that “most adoption professionals do not recommend sleep training that involves prolonged crying in the first few months home. You may have brought home an 18-month-old, but he/she may be emotionally younger in many ways.” Even after those first few months, the Center questions the efficacy of the “cry it out” method of sleep training, recommending sleep methods that nurture rather than reinforce the type of self-comforting one’s child may have already spent much of their young life doing.

We had already missed months with our son and being able to comfort him when he woke was a gift I did not have for the first three months of his life. Those moments of falling asleep with him curled in my arms were a vital part of what made us mother and child, something paperwork and immigration cards could not do. It was the same for my husband, and our son slept in our room for years, until he felt ready to make the choice for independence.

I feel grateful that my husband and I were secure enough to free ourselves from yet another pressure placed upon parents. And I was fortunate to have a partner who wanted and needed to participate as fully as I wanted to. We were just that—partners—in this parenting journey.

Rather than forcing our children to adapt to our sleep needs, wouldn’t it be better for our children and ultimately more effective to ask our partners to participate more and to share these moments? Why does the burden seemingly fall upon straight women to advocate for sleep training as a feminist issue when the men in their lives are not participating as fully as possible in the care for their children? The culture shift needs to occur there, becoming child-centered rather than forcing women to make the choice between their child and their sleep.

This should not be a women’s issue. It should be a parents’ issue. And it should recognize that different children will need different things, often impacted by the circumstances of their birth.

Now that our son sleeps in his teenage den, both my husband and I miss the sound of his breathing and sometimes, I sneak into his room just to watch him at rest, a confident, secure teenager who knows that his parents, in his words, “have my back.” I could not ask for anything better.

Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is also a private swim instructor and coaches swimmers of all ability levels. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.

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