Are You Sleep Training a Tortoise or a Hare?

Are You Sleep Training a Tortoise or a Hare?

Sometimes it can feel like you’re in a race. Your friends have babies sleeping through the night and you want one, too. The pressure mounts as your baby gets older while well-meaning friends and family ask the same question every time they see you: “Is she sleeping through the night yet?” If you don’t answer “yes”, you know will hear it again: “Just let her cry. Worked for me.” Or, in my case, it was: “It’s because you’re breastfeeding.” It might be tempting to say “yes”, even if she isn’t sleeping through the night, just to spare yourself the torment. You feel like all your friends got a hare and you got a tortoise.

As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to have that confidence to know that there is nothing wrong with your baby AND there is nothing wrong with your parenting. All babies are different and just because your neighbor’s baby was sleeping all night at 3 months old doesn’t mean yours can too. And, just because my son can count to 20 (mostly) at two years old doesn’t mean all two year olds can. Just like my four year old can’t really draw a picture of a person, some of his friends can. Where my older son excels in reading and math, he needs to work on his fine motor skills. And, just like your 10 month old might still need a night feeding, some of your 4 month olds don’t.

What makes your baby a tortoise or a hare when it comes to sleep?

  • In my experience with my clients, there are four main family types:
  • Slow to Adapt baby (tortoise) with hares as parents
  • Highly adaptable babies (hares) with tortoises as parents
  • Slow to Adapt baby (tortoise) with tortoises as parents
  • Highly adaptable babies (hares) with hares as parents

What do I mean by this?

First, let me say, there is no judgment here. You are what you are and there is no right or wrong. Second, there is a lot in between a tortoise and a hare. There are fast tortoises and slow hares. Sometimes a baby’s temperament meshes with a parenting style and sometimes it doesn’t. This is to help you see if there is a mismatch or not.

The Baby

A slow-to-adapt baby is generally going to take longer to learn to self-soothe and sleep well. That is going to generally be true regardless of the chosen sleep training method. Why? Because they get used to a certain routine and they don’t give it up easily. If they are persistent, they will really fight hard to keep status quo.

A highly adaptable baby who can self-soothe, but just hasn’t had the opportunity will generally learn very quickly, regardless of method, too. They go to sleep one time without a bottle or breastfeeding or a pacifier and voila, they figure out how to do it between sleep cycles (that we ALL have) and start sleeping in longer stretches.

The Parent

A parent who is a hare is usually one who doesn’t have hours upon hours to spend with a baby to help him learn to self-soothe. They might be working parents trying to fit in the various chores that need to be done, get dinner on the table, etc. They might have older kids and just can’t ignore their other kids to spend three hours putting the baby to sleep at night. Or, they might be people who just recognize they just aren’t that patient to spend hours or that their baby missing three hours of sleep is not good for them. Whatever the reason, these are parents who decide that faster is better in the big picture.

A parent who is a tortoise is usually one who feels a slower approach is better for everyone’s sakes. This parent is okay with taking weeks (or sometimes months) rather than days. They figure it’s been this long, what’s a few more weeks? They have the time and patience to spend with their baby and feel it’s the best way to approach it.

The Family Together

I have been told I have the patience of Job, but one of my current clients has really shown me what patience is. She has a two year old who was nursing all night and we have come a loooong way, using a very slow approach. Her patience has been tremendous and I really admire her. Her son is slow-to-adapt and her patience is paying off with as few tears as possible. Their personalities are really meshing, but this is not always the case, unfortunately.

Tortoise -> Hare:

When you are a tortoise and your baby is a hare, you might spend weeks and months, unnecessarily, working on his sleep because you’re taking the slow approach when your baby might just need the nudge and be left alone. I don’t mean cry it out, necessarily. I have parents literally wait five minutes during night-wakings and their baby just goes back to sleep! They are shocked! They’ve been getting up at night for months, but their baby simply needed to be left alone for a few minutes. By going in, they were only perpetuating the very wake-ups they were trying to get rid of. Their baby is highly adaptable and actually a good self-soother, they just didn’t know it.

Hare -> Tortoise:

When you are a hare and your baby is a tortoise, you might be more apt to take a faster approach, like cry it out, and your baby will likely respond fairly quickly, but have backslides where you need to “redo” it over and over, especially after illness or vacation or just because you start slipping back into old habits (very easy to do with a tortoise). You and your baby will be getting more sleep than ever, but it might be frustrating to have those off nights where you feel like you’re starting all over. Consistency is very important for tortoises, especially.

Tortoise -> Tortoise:

When you are a tortoise and your baby is a tortoise, you, my friend, are going to work extremely hard, I’m afraid. Slow approaches will be even slower. Remember the mom I mentioned above? She’s been working on her two year old’s sleep for a couple of months, at least. Her patience is definitely paying off, but she’s working REALLY hard. She should get a medal!

The beautiful part about her is that she knows this is a slower approach and knows what her expectations should be. She is not expecting to take this slower approach and expecting changes in days. She’s expecting them in weeks and months and that’s okay for her. I nudge her when she needs a nudge to move on to the next step and she checks in to make sure she isn’t stalling out of fear of the next step, but that it’s a good idea.

How do I know if you have a tortoise or a hare?

I typically look for clues in e-mail. You might mention something that seems irrelevant, but it gives me a clue about your baby’s personality. Clues about your personality are in there, too. That’s when I develop a plan that suits both of your personalities. Sometimes this takes time to figure out, when your personalities aren’t meshing. (When it comes to sleep, not your relationship with your baby.)

I say it over and over… Make sure you make a sleep training plan that meshes with both your personality and your baby’s temperament. You might be able to speed your tortoise to the finish line. But if not, as long as you have appropriate expectations, we will all get there, eventually, just like my son will eventually learn to write his name.

Get Better Sleep for Your Tortoise or Hare!

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