“Get plenty of rest now,” everyone told me. “You will need it,” they said. This message was reiterated to me time and time again when I was pregnant with my first child from everyone and anyone. I would always nod my head, and say, “yes, I’m trying.” Because, I was trying. Some nights were hard. A woman’s pregnant body is taxed during pregnancy. Sleep gets harder and harder near the end. Maybe this is nature’s way of preparing us for the inevitable – a baby that doesn’t know how to sleep.
I didn’t know exactly what they meant at the time. I had never endured it. Sure, I had experienced restless nights of fitful sleep pre-pregnancy. I had nights of going to bed too late and having my circadian rhythm thrown off. It happens. Our bodies work around the clock and get used to our daily rhythms and act accordingly. When you decide to stay up too late your body doesn’t necessarily allow you to sleep later or better, it’s usually quite the opposite. And as much as sleep is a bodily function – it is a learned trait. It truly is. Just like with walking and talking, sleep is something that you train for before you master it. This is where parental guidance comes into play. But, no matter how much sleep you get now. You always need sleep later. It isn’t a bank you can draw from. You can’t save sleep time now and withdraw from it later. It doesn’t work that way. You need it every single night of your life. Which sucks for new parents.
When you bring home your bundle of joy you are going to be thrown for a loop. Let me state this disclaimer first: I am in no way, shape, or form an expert in sleep cycles. I have no certification, degree, or training. My training came from one very spirited baby who has now developed into one spirited little girl. My beautiful baby I gave birth to with a full head of black hair (yes, I had horrible heartburn), born at 7:18 p.m. at night didn’t care that I had endured 12 plus hours of labor; had no sleep from the night before because I was induced; and was so ravenous – all I was given to eat was a molten turkey sandwich because the cafeteria was closed. After my turkey sandwich, I passed out. I slept for a few hours while my little one bonded with daddy. But, she was relentless for milk. And watching Seinfeld in daddy’s arms wasn’t comforting her.
I was ready, or so I thought. I planned on the first few months being a rollercoaster. I had no idea it was going to be that hard. Enter colic territory. If you have to ask if your baby has colic, he/she probably doesn’t. You will KNOW when your baby is colicky. NOTHING, I mean NOTHING pacifies them. They will have bewitching hours that seem never ending. You will bounce, dance, shush, sing, play music, put in swing, nurse, cry… you will do it all. I never found what worked. I just got through it. Four years later and that colicky baby does sleep through the night. She has since she turned three. Yes, three. Three years it took for her to learn how to sleep on her own. And it wasn’t her fault. It was mine.
Granted, a colicky baby is different from a non-colicky baby. Personalities come into play as well. Some babies are just easier than others. Some are grumpier than others. And some, will stop at nothing until mom gives in. And mom. You are tired. Your body hurts. You are adjusting to this new human being that is more important than anything. So, you do what you think is best. But, sometimes you get into bad habits. The baby wakes in the middle of the night, so you bring her into your bed. Not a bad idea you think. She just wants to be close to me. And, she does. She was nestled inside your tummy for 9 months. Of course she wants mama! But, if you start to bring her in your room for more than a few nights, the baby will expect this every night. If you stop, she will cry. Are you going to let her cry all night? Maybe you try it for one night. And you felt so awful, the next night you give in once she starts whimpering. And you have nothing left in you, so you give into the battle. But, then you don’t sleep well. And this cycle will continue until you are a walking zombie. And sleep is lost, mama. If you continue this routine it will become just that – a routine.
So, what’s a tired mama to do? Have a plan. And stick with it. This is by far the BEST thing you can do. With both of my girls I had a bassinet in my bedroom next to my bed. I felt this was the best thing for me and the baby. I was close to her and she was close to me. When she woke in the middle of the night for a feeding I could simply reach over, nurse her, and lie her back down. My youngest was an awesome sleeper during the newborn phase. She was asleep every night by 9:00 p.m. and would wake twice throughout the night to nurse. She would wake for the day by 7:00 a.m. Not bad. But, things changed once she turned 4 months (and mama went back to work).
Some babies are inclined to be better sleepers than others. Some are content with nursing to sleep and this is a great bonding experience. I nursed my oldest and am still nursing my 10-month-old to sleep. My oldest would always fall asleep twenty minutes into the nursing session. So, I would lay her down in her crib and walk out of the room. I used to leave a Sleep Sheep near her crib. The music would play for 45 minutes. Not long enough, I learned. She would wake continuously throughout the night. I would nurse her up to 5 times per night. I just assumed that was normal. It wasn’t. I am grateful to her for what she taught me.
I am a bit more tough love on my youngest. I cannot imagine going another three years with inadequate sleep. It will depress you and make you crazy. So, when the little one decided at 4 months to wake more often, I knew I had to tread cautiously. My new pediatrician confirmed with my old pediatrician that the only proven method is CIO (cry it out), AKA the “Ferber Method”. It sounds harsh but you will be amazed that after two or three nights baby does adapt and the tears disappear. Now, most doctors do not recommend this until 6 months+. I wasn’t ready to do that at 6 months. By 9 months at my daughter’s 9-month checkup, our pediatrician told us it was time, “for it will only get worse as she grows,” she said.
I was anxious the first night. I didn’t know how long she would cry for and the fear of letting her cry all night, which was very possible, scared me. With resilience and past memories of zombie land – I got through that first night. She cried on and off every few hours but she did sleep. I did not. The next night she was asleep by 7:00 p.m., woke up around 9:30 p.m. and protested a bit. But after 15 minutes she was asleep till the morning. I thought it was a fluke. I didn’t think it would’ve taken her only two nights to realize that mama wasn’t going to come to her when she cried. But it worked.
It has now been over a month. She has been teething and even had a fever but she has been sleeping through the night in spite of these common mishaps. Because her behavior is now learned. She has learned to associate her crib with sleep. I still nurse her to sleep but I try to always wake her a bit before lying her down. This is a crucial step! Baby needs to see you are leaving the room. I still put her in a sleep sack so every night after she nurses I lay her down, put on her sack, and then kiss and tell her good night. Sometimes she doesn’t wake but that is fine because she has learned what to expect. She knows the routine.
Some parents may shake their heads at the cry-it-out method. I used to. I felt horrible letting my baby cry. In fact, with my first born child I did it on and off. Consistency was non-existent. I felt like there was a reason she needed me near her during the night, and I’m sure that is an innate desire. But for their own safety, your sanity, and for he/she to develop self-soothing skills – it is imperative for a baby to learn how to sleep.
I HIGHLY recommend the book by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. titled Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Baby. His book illustrates the information parents need to understand sleep rhythms. After two pediatricians, various other baby books (that I don’t necessarily agree with), this book was my savior. Whenever I was in doubt, I’d read some testimonials or referenced back to a section to give myself the confidence I needed. Consistency is key with babies. Parents have to remain consistent otherwise baby will get confused. And a confident parent is a consistent one.
Key points to remember:
Keep baby in a bassinet next to mama for newborn phase or until baby is too big for bassinet. I moved both of mine to the crib when they started to roll over.
Swaddling is a must even if baby doesn’t seem to like it. There are many different brands of swaddlers. I used Summer Infant brand with my first-born and Comfort & Harmony Woombie for my youngest. I recommend Comfort & Harmony because there is no velcro – just zippers up and down.
Baby develops sleep association between 4 and 7 months old
Try to put baby down to sleep in a drowsy state
Keep naps in the same crib as night-time sleep (unless at daycare, obviously)
Keep a schedule so baby knows what to expect and when
White noise ALL NIGHT LONG is critical
Don’t let baby cry it out if younger than 6 months. I recommend doing it when mom feels ready because it requires mental effort
You may read this and think the cry-it-out method is cruel. In all honestly, I thought the same. But after three years of broken sleep (notice how many times I’ve said this? <painful>) and never knowing how much sleep I would get… I put my foot down when I got pregnant with baby number two. My body and the baby growing inside of me needed rest. At 3-years-old my child was aware of my growing belly and I think she also sensed that mama was not giving in.
For the ones that think CIO is the worst thing, ask yourself this: Does your baby cry when she is in her car seat? Does she eventually stop crying? If the answer is yes, then you just let your baby CIO. Obviously you had no choice, you are in the car and she needs to be in her car seat. The mentality is the same for sleep. The baby needs sleep and she will cry for a bit until she learns the new routine.
If you provide your baby with lots of affection during waking hours and all her needs are met, then you can reassure yourself that the reason she cries during the night it because she has associated mama with sleep. She has learned that if she cries… mama comes with warm milk. But if you break the habit (and you want to before baby can maneuver out of the crib), everyone will be happy. A rested baby is a happy baby. A rested mama is a patient mama.