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Parent Moments: Three Times, You Win

Sleep training

Since the day he was born, my third child had been a dream. He was a bright-eyed and cheerful 16-month-old, a great eater, and a good sleeper. When he was upset, he was easily comforted, and his crying rarely lingered. He even let his big siblings toss him about like a stuffed animal without complaint.

And so it was with high hopes that I decided a few weeks ago that it was time to do some sleep training -- getting my son on a schedule so that he would sleep through the night. He was in a routine of falling asleep while sitting beside me or his mom soon after we had put his older siblings to bed, but I knew we could do better.

So the next night, when I saw some telltale signs of sleepiness after the day's last bottle of milk, I gently put him down in his crib and carefully stepped out of the room. And then he exploded. His rage at being left alone got him so upset that inside of three minutes, he gagged and threw up. At which point, we removed the offending child, bathed him, laundered his bedding, and let him fall asleep, as usual, sitting with us back on the couch. Little Guy 1, Dad 0.

It's not that we hadn't seen the tantrum-vomit combination before. His older sister had done it two or three times as a toddler when she was particularly furious about being denied the TV or a snack -- or both. But those episodes soon passed. We assumed it would work the same for our youngest, so we tried the whole sleep training thing again a couple of nights later. Whereupon he hurled again. A few more nights later, another try, another honk. Little Guy was running up the score.

Now, I'm as committed to sleep training as the next dad, but you know the old expression: Throw up once, shame on you, throw up three times, you win. I put a halt to the sleep training and checked in with our pediatrician, who confirmed what we already knew: The behavior was neither terribly rare nor a sign of any illness, but, he laughed, it sure would make sleep training a challenge. Still, he said, there was nothing we could do about it -- just continue to put him down, let him throw up, then put him down again. OK, we said, but you know he's not even a year-and-a-half old, right? Yup, it's right here on his chart -- good luck.

Despite the advice, I just couldn't imagine continuing that pattern -- especially after my son puked again when a teenage 'sitter came over and dared to lay him down awake in his crib. I checked some online sources and message boards to find other parents' thoughts, and they were unanimous -- if your child's tantrums are making him throw up, don't back down. Don't be manipulated. Ignore the vomiting and put him back down in that crib until he learns he can't get what he wants by throwing up.

But really? This sounded cruel to me. Vomiting couldn't be fun for him, after all. And was it even possible he was doing it intentionally? Maybe. If so, it was a pretty good strategy -- because it worked.

Despite the critical commenters, I dialed down the sleep training, instead trying a variety of modified bedtimes : making a pretend bed with a cushion and blanket on the couch so he could nod off in dim light while we read the paper or paid bills nearby, or putting him down in his crib but lying down on the bed in the same room ourselves so he'd think we were going to sleep at the same time. It'll be a slower route to a sleep-trained child, sure, and maybe I'm a huge wimp for doing it, but I'll say this: The house sure doesn't smell as bad.

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