Posted in Amelia, Amelia on sleep, Baby sleep, Blog, Featured, Mother

More unsolicited sleep advice

Living in Seattle, I have had the bounty of attending Ann Kepler’s drop-in moms’ groups–part support group, part class on baby care and development. As anyone with young children might expect, the most popular topic is sleep. Where to sleep, when to sleep, how to sleep, how to stay asleep, Dear God I Need Some Sleep, and so on.

Personally, I have a baby (OK, fine, not really a baby anymore–a toddler!) who is sometimes a solid sleeper and sometimes quite the opposite. (Note that I did not use the term “good” in conjunction with “sleeper.” Ann likes to point out that people place a lot of morality around sleep–that if your baby doesn’t sleep well it is Probably Your Fault–and so prefers not to put it in that light. Sleep is often a factor of temperament, which is not something you as a parent have any control over. This also comes in to play if you choose to sleep train [see below].)

At first, E slept well, sometimes up to 7 or 8 hours at a time (not that I did–I would get up in the middle of the night to pump; see also: Crazy Pumping Lady). I will say, though, that at that time, while she was a solid sleeper, she was also a very loud one. I remember the first night we were home from the hospital and we were all sleeping in this mega-bed that I had insisted we try. It was basically our regular queen-sized bed with a futon pushed right next to it. E and I slept in the bed, her in an in-bed co-sleeper, and my husband on the futon. All night long she grunted and squeaked and wiggled, so much so that it sounded like she was not sleeping, even though she was. (I know this because I was really paranoid and made us sleep with the lights on for the first month or so, and I could see her eyes were closed.) After a few nights of this (plus me not sleeping well because of the aforementioned noise), I decided to take her out of the co-sleeper and nestle her in beside me to see if I could cut down at least on the wiggling, if not the grunting. It worked and we all slept well (more or less) for a few months.

Then we hit the 4-month sleep regression and she started waking up roughly 8 billion times per night, which began my quest for information on sleep.

I think that as a new parent, you are confused and unsure and sleep deprived to boot, and while you are basically willing to get your child to sleep by any means necessary, you also worry that if you do one particular tactic, you will be stuck doing that thing until your baby is in high school. For example, for the first 4 months of E’s life, I would nurse her to sleep–despite the plethora of warnings out in the ether that This Is Bad And You Will Have To Do It Forever If You Start Now And That Is Bad–because I was given the advice to use it while I can as one day it will no longer work. And sure enough, at 4 months, it was out of the toolbox (whereas I have friends who are still using it on their 2-year olds). I’ll never forget the day that I thought I was nursing her to sleep for a nap; instead of drifting off like normal, she pulled off and indicated she was ready for the next thing. So I had to figure out how to get her to sleep a different way. I tried several things, including swaddling her and snuggling in bed, while introducing our now family catch-phrase, “It’s time to have a little rest!” It worked, sort of–well, it took a really long time for her to fall asleep and basically I didn’t have the patience to do it on a regular basis. Then came the era of wearing her in the sling or the Moby Wrap and bouncing on the yoga ball, which became our go-to tactic for both naps and nighttime for the next 6 or 7 months. And it was sweet, snuggly, and eventually exhausting, especially as she got bigger and chunkier and it took longer and longer for her to fall asleep. (Nothin’ like bouncing on the yoga ball for a half hour to only yield a 45 minute nap…)

Conversely, you might get stuck in a superstitious rut that This Is The Way Your Child Sleeps and wind up using a tactic whose effectiveness has expired, say, for example, swaddling your child until they are really old. Or basically any tactic that takes an hour and a half to yield asleep, especially one that requires you to do something physical, such as hold/rock/bounce/dance/etc. (Not that *I* have done this or anything.)

Thus, at about 10 months of working extremely hard to get her to sleep only to have her wake up A LOT (throw the 9-month sleep regression in there too), we couldn’t do it anymore. We were still co-sleeping and nobody was getting good sleep at that point. I think that’s also the thing about sleep that Ann taught me–that it’s OK to do what you need to do until it’s not working anymore for either the parents or the baby. When I told her I was at that point, she suggested looking into the Ferber method, which, lovingly, gradually helps older babies learn to fall asleep on their own. (Caveat: Ann does not subscribe to any particular sleep plan. She just tries to help parents figure out what might work best for their families.) So we sleep trained. And awhile later, re-sleep trained.

As I mentioned, how effective sleep training is (again, if you choose to go that route) will depend on 1) your child’s temperament, and 2) whether they are a) teething, b) trying to acquire a new skill (see also: sleep regressions again), c) sick, d) enduring a life change like a parent returning to work, and/or e) traveling (see also again: sleep training #1). Regarding and because of the former (i.e., temperament), there is nothing that will work for all babies, because every baby is different. So don’t worry if what worked for another baby you know won’t work for yours. If sleep training is something that you want to try but you couldn’t endure a long period of crying (and you’ve given it a good three-night effort–consistency shmnshmishtency and all that), you could wait a few weeks or months and try again–it could be that this is something your baby isn’t ready for, developmentally. Or it simply could not be appropriate for you or your baby.

If you are thinking of sleep training, be aware that anytime before 4 months is too early. Whereas in the first 3 months (AKA “Fourth Trimester“), sleep was likely all over the map (including possible day/night mix-up) because thems the developmental breaks, at about 4 months, they generally have fairly regular sleep patterns (i.e., approximate numbers of naps and bedtime). However, I feel like in the Parent Ether, 6 months considered The Time to Do It, but I couldn’t find a corroborating reference as to why this is. I’ve also heard it said that another reason to wait is that infants under 4 or 5 months left to cry unattended experience their crying as pain, as measured by elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), but again, I couldn’t find a reference.

With sleep training, you do have to be OK with a little bit of “complainy” crying. This is where you really have to be an expert on the noises your kid makes–knowing the difference between grumbling and suffering. Complaining is OK; suffering warrants comfort–a visit, soothing acknowledgment and empathy for the struggle, and reassurance of your love and presence.

In all, here are a few things I’ve learned about sleep, particularly the later part of the first year:

  • Do what you gotta do (co-sleep, nurse, bounce, go for a drive, swaddle, swing, wear your baby, etc.) to get your little one to sleep until it’s not working for either party, then try something else. Remember, nothing works forever–what works is by and large developmental.
  • If you are trying something else, don’t give up after one night/nap. Give it at least 3 days and be consistent with what you are doing.
  • However, if what you are doing is taking more than an hour to work (and you are not in the trial phase), it is possible that a) that tactic has expired, b) it won’t work, c) your child is not ready for sleeping, or d) maybe he or she has not gotten enough exercise during the day. Your choices at this point are to try again later, or keep driving yourself crazy until the kid is asleep. (I’ve done the latter one. Lots.)
  • Some babies, particularly those in the 6 to 9 month range, might take a very late-in-the-day nap. E used to have her last nap around 5 or so and then go to bed for the night around 8. So it might be helpful to sort out whether your baby in that age range is ready for bed or is just having their final nap for the day.

For the toddler set:

  • You can talk to them and tell them what is going to happen re: bed/nap time; also let them know that you think they are capable of going to sleep on their own, and, if it’s a struggle, articulate your compassion for their struggle.
  • If your child is in a crib and they are not interested in lying down, say very calmly and lovingly, “I’ll come back when you’re ready to lie down.” And then leave the room for a minute. Holy crap I cannot tell you how magical this one is.
  • Having a nighttime routine also helps–they can anticipate what is going to happen and over time, this can create a “sleep association.” For us that is dinner, then bath, then stories, then nursing and rocking, then bed.

And of course, as with the majority of All Things Parenting, it is important to be (in no particular order): 1) calm, 2) realistic, 3) mentally present, 4) extremely loving, and 5) consistent in what you’re trying out.


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