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Who Else Wants to Know the Best Time for CIO?

Nobody is driving down the baby sleep road, looking at their finely detailed baby sleep map, saying, “Well, it looks like we’ve missed the turn off into Putdownawake-port so in the next 4-6 weeks we’re going to have to exit into Cryitoutsville.” Instead you wake up one morning feeling nauseous with the realization that sleep has totally gone off the rails, things have gone from bad to horrendous, and the only way out of this dark pit of exhaustion is CIO. The decision THAT CIO is the answer is immediately followed by the question of WHEN it should happen. Because CIO is a scary prospect for most people, they want to find the optimal time for CIO.

I think the mental dialogue goes something like this, “If we can triangulate the best time for CIO we can minimize the crying, get things sorted out prior to starting daycare, and maybe get a night or two of sleep before the MIL shows up and starts critiquing the non-housecleaning.”

Is There a Best Time for CIO?

Based on the number of people asking me about when to do CIO it’s clear that there is a widely-held belief that:
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  • There is indeed an “optimal” time for CIO.
  • That I hold the secret to it.
  • And I can possibly be convinced to relinquish the secret CIO scheduling decoder ring if asked nicely enough and/or with enough capitalization/exclamation points. (Ex. HELP we’re DESPERATE!!!!)

Which is totally understandable. CIO is HARD and SCARY. If you’ve taken my advice then you know that commitment is key. So you don’t want to dive in and then realize, “Woops! We picked the wrong day.” Because once you start, you are committed regardless of which day (right or wrong) it is.

Additionally there are a number of books that talk about wonder weeks and sleep training that suggest there is indeed an optimal time for CIO. Which is where emails like this one come from:

[box type=”blank” class=”border-dashed2″]I always knew we needed to make some changes, but I just don’t know where the time went. Month 6, 7, and 8 went by and although not ideal for most, my catnapper, frequent waker still was rocked and nursed to sleep usually quickly and easily. I just began staying in the same room as our son while he napped, and if he woke up I was right there to shoosh or nurse him back to sleep instead of catching up on things, having time to myself, or with my husband. My son took two 1-2.5 hour naps instead of 40 min ones, we were in a rhythm that worked for us, and I was oblivious to the monster that I created.

All was fine and good until I emerged from my little bubble and realized what I had done. I have a child who cannot even begin to self soothe. He is to a T how you would describe a child with a sleep problem on your website. He frequently wakes and has never once in his life fallen asleep unassisted.

I found this book that discusses certain windows that are better to train your child to sleep. I explored this a bit more and discovered that months 9-12 are not only not optimum, but that they are really bad windows to try to train your child to sleep.

Seriously. Does that mean I have to deal with this until his first birthday? What happens if I forgo this advice? Is it really okay for my child to sleep train at almost ten months? What will happen during this cognitive leap if we barrel through? I know failure is not an option, so I don’t want to try and give up. Do I need this book? Or is this me finding one more reason to hold off on doing what my child really needs?[/box]

This is my response to her email:
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You are going down the rabbit hole of doubt. Don’t do this. It’s dark in there. Probably lots of spiders too.

The Myth of the Optimal Time for Sleep Training

People love the idea that you can triangulate the “optimum” time to sleep train your baby. But it’s a myth. THERE IS NO OPTIMUM TIME. There is always, ALWAYS a wonder week, growth spurt, separation anxiety, travel, developmental milestone, starting daycare, teething, ear infection, cold, shots, etc.

There IS a kernel of truth in these books in that yes – growth spurts, developmental milestones, separation anxiety, etc. will all happen and that trying to sleep train or night wean while your child is in the throws of a vicious growth spurt and thus eating constantly is not ideal. And yes many of these things happen on somewhat predictable schedules so that in an ideal scenario you would avoid them. But there are two key words here that are easy to overlook, but you shouldn’t because they’re really critical.

Somewhat and ideal.

Babies are somewhat predictable. For example I talk a lot about the 4 month sleep regression/wonder week/growth spurt. Because for most people, it’s a doozie. But truthfully, do you want to know when the 4 month growth spurt will occur? Sometime between 3 and 5 months. Or not at all. The idea of an optimal time for sleep training assumes that these developmental milestones are known quantities. But they aren’t.

And most of the time there is no ideal scenario. Much like the search for the perfect haircut or a winter coat that is both warm and slimming, the search for the ideal time is futile.

Maybe it’s today. Nope! Raging ear infection. How about next week? Uh oh – baby has figured out how to stand up at the crib but can’t sit down and is getting stuck. That’s going to put us back another week or two while we practice sitting. How about now? Ugh…now we’ve got that wedding in the Hamptons. Then your Mom is visiting. Then you’re going back to work and can barely muster the fortitude to face dropping off at daycare much less sleep training.

Sometimes you just need to work with what you’ve got. Waiting just prolongs the anxiety and chronic sleep deprivation. There is no guarantee that waiting till next week or next month is going make things any easier than they would be today.

And sometimes now really feels like it’s not the right time. And who knows, maybe it’s not. But if you give yourself a little mental breathing room, I think you’ll find that most of the reasons you’re using to convince yourself that it’s NOT the best time for sleep training all boil down to one simple fact: you’re not ready.

And that’s OK. But let’s acknowledge what’s really going on. If you’re not ready, don’t do it. Figure out why you’re not ready. Maybe there are other alternatives you want to pursue first? Maybe you need some time to get comfortable with the idea? Maybe you need a little emotional support?

But in general, unless your child is a) seriously ill or b) you’re about to launch on some massive international travel, the ideal time is now.

What About Bedtiming?

Bedtiming is a book that tries to help you figure out the ideal window to sleep train based on the rough time frames of various developmental milestones. If you disagree with my assertion that there is no ideal time then I’ve shared their suggestions here, followed by my own 2 cents on the subject.

 Age  Bedtiming says…  I say…
 0-2 1/2 Months  BAD time  Agreed, they’re NEWBORNS. Please don’t try to sleep train your newborn baby.
 2 1/2-4 Months  GOOD time Nope. For a number of reasons: they’re still really young, you still have lots of tools at your disposal, and the dreaded 4 month sleep regression is likely to fall sometime within this window which I would argue is possibly the LEAST ideal time imaginable.
 4-5 1/2 Months  BAD time I would argue that they’re still on the young side. Also babies younger than 6 months generally haven’t developed object permanence which is cause of almost all of your “baby up all night” problems that result in sleep training in the first place. Also, unlike “older babies” you still have some soothing options at your disposal.
 5 1/2-7 1/2 Months  IDEAL time They say ideal, I say it’s the first age at which I would seriously consider sleep training. Most babies don’t generally have a highly developed sense of separation anxiety at this age (note: separation anxiety is not your friend when sleep training). Alternately many babies have a big growth spurt/sleep regression at 6 months which is best to be avoided. But as noted, trying to plan around these things is a fools errand.
 8-11 Months  WORST time  Really? It’s true that separation anxiety peaks at this time. However often separation anxiety causes sleep issues so severe that sleep training is the only practical solution. Also separation anxiety/object permanence are the developmental milestones that lead to the most severe sleep issues. So they’re effectively telling parents that sleep training is not possible at the exact time when it’s generally most needed.
 12-16 Months GOOD time and the last chance for an efficient and satisfactory sleep training experience  That’s right folks, if you don’t manage to get your kid sleeping by 16 months you are doomed DOOMED I tell you.
 17-21 Months  BAD time  At this point I’m starting to feel badly for people. If neither you nor your child has had any real sleep in almost 2 years, I don’t think you need some book telling you that you need to wait another 6 months. I think you need a drink and a warm hug.
22-27 Months GOOD time Yay! It’s been 3 years but the book says we can finally do something about this hot mess!
28 Months-3 Years Last window of opportunity to initiate or repair sleeping habits with ease. Wow. Better get on that because this is the last chance we’ll ever have to establish healthy sleep habits before our child becomes a chronically overtired person forever and turns into Ted Bundy.
3 1/2-4 Years BAD time I guess this means you have to wait until they’re 5. But why stop there? After 5 it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump until they’re in college.

Listen, I don’t mean to be glib. I know this is hard stuff. But if you’ve come to a place where CIO feels like the right answer for your family, then go with that. Don’t wait for ideal. Ideal never comes. There is only today.

And if I haven’t convinced you, maybe the final words from the Mom who sent me the email above will.

“If someone were to ask me what my number one priority in life is at the moment I would say my child’s sleep, If they were to ask what most of my time is spent doing, I would say putting my child to sleep. The reason I bite my husband’s head off with a mere glance of the wrong kind is because I have poured any and all patience, understanding, and love into putting my child to sleep. Sleep…

I have this beautiful, smart, healthy boy and all I can do is think about sleep instead of enjoying this small window of babyhood I have with him.”

Does anybody have any experience with this? Maybe you jumped in and wished you waited? Or you sleep trained and found yourself wondering, “Why didn’t we do this ages ago?”