Parenthood, Part II: Babies (eventually) sleep.

Obviously we’re heading into new baby territory again.  Combine that with the sweet siblings at our house in the afternoons, one of whom is a 6 month old with persnickety sleep patterns that are all too familiar, and suddenly my mind is filled with all the things I never knew about baby sleep and learned the hard way.  But let’s be honest and say any lessons that involve sleep deprived parents fall into the “hard way” category.  I’m still holding out for a great sleeper with this little girl I’m growing, but we’ll see.

After loads of research on baby brains, sleep/wake windows and cues, tons of trial and error, and a painstaking commitment to routine, we have a great sleeper.  Eventually your baby will sleep, even if it feels like he won’t.  We’ve so been there.  Here are some myths/facts about baby sleep that we’ve debunked (but again, babies are different–these may not hold true for yours, or they might be your saving grace).

1.  “Your baby has a hard time going down for naps/wakes up a lot at night/doesn’t sleep well when you travel?  Keep him up longer.”  

No, don’t.  Really.  At least not for our baby and most babies I have kept over the years.  This is an old school approach and you’ll know after trying it twice (by choice or by force of circumstance) whether or not this works for your bambino.  The inability to read sleep cues and get your baby to sleep in their happy go-to-sleep window will cause you nap and bed time grief and frustration for about four years.

Long story terribly short:  when kids are overtired, they get a second wind (cortisol rush) just like grown ups which makes it harder for their bodies to wind down until they crash, which is way past healthy tiredness and is bad for brain development.  This is my main issue with cosleeping since I never encountered a single nanny family  (out of seven families) where the parents were able to get their kids to sleep before the point of exhaustion.  I know two families who seem like they did it well and managed sleep cues and healthy tiredness, so it isn’t impossible if you go the coslept route.  Again, remember that you are choosing the work of sleep training (and it is definitely work) or the work of 3-4 years of naptime struggles.  Neither is easy.  Parenthood isn’t for sissies, but if you’re reading this, it’s too late now, bub.

Inevitably we run into the overtired baby problem when we travel.  When this happens we keep Si up an entire extra 2 hours.  It seems like he should go down anytime after his 2 hour window instead of keeping him up 4 whole hours, but it doesn’t work for him and it turns out that’s common for baby sleep cycles.  Trying to get him down before another entire wake/sleep cycle is finished results in crying, screaming, frustrating time for the entire family and never results in a good nap.

2.  He doesn’t seem tired to me.”

The one single best thing you can do to foster better sleep patterns is pay attention to sleep cues and make them the highest priority.  Some parents don’t like to do this because it admittedly means the errands/outings/plans take a back seat, which can be hard on the grown ups.  It’s not right or wrong–decide what your priorities are and go from there.  Depending on your parenting situation, sometimes the priorities are necessarily being in the car or on the run and that’s ok.  Sleep cues saved our sanity, and learning them is a great place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed and nothing is working.

Si’s sleepy cues are subtle–he doesn’t get cranky, he doesn’t run into things or suddenly start getting hurt, he’s a happy kid with a few small tells like rubbing his nose or hair or chewing on his thumb.  A lot of kids rub their eyes.  The cue comes before the crankiness and meltdowns, which is where many parents miss the boat (I say from vast experiences of observation).  From lots of trial and error, we know that Silas’s first nap is (not quite) 2 hours after he wakes.  His second nap is 2 hours after his first nap.  Bedtime is 3 hours or so after his second nap.

When he has trouble going down to sleep when we travel, I get a lot of “oh, maybe he just needs one nap.”  No, he doesn’t need one nap.  When he has one nap, he has several night wakes instead of none and then is cranky the next day.  He’s not used to sleeping anywhere but his crib because I stay at home, and having a little stress being out of routine is normal, in my book.  I try to be flexible and make the best of it while still meeting his sleep needs, but Tim and I both find it pretty miserable to be on the road when it’s so easy at home these days.

Bottom line for Si’s sleep schedule:  there are 15 minute windows during which he goes to sleep happily and sleeps so well that he wakes up singing songs and chattering away nearly 2 hours later.  Life is good.  Once we miss “the window”, we have a baby who struggles to go down (for up to an hour, no joke), doesn’t sleep long enough (hello, 45 minute naps from our past), wakes up grumpy and stays that way until bedtime, and then has night waking, resulting in a vicious cycle that carries into the next day.  DON’T MISS YOUR WINDOW.  And don’t let people convince you that you don’t know what your kid needs.

3.  Your (insert number) month old should be sleeping through the night.  Give him/her cereal/a bath/(insert great idea here).”

Recent research tells us that sleep has much more to do with brain development than belly fullness in most cases.  Carb loading a 3 month old is not the best choice, even if it works sometimes and your grandmother did it, especially given that studies show how hard grains are for bellies to digest before at LEAST 6 months if not closer to a year.

Baths make many babies sleepy, but we finally figured out that baths wake Si up to the point that he can’t go to bed.  Turns out he needs about 2 hours after a bath to go to be ready to go to sleep happily, and now we use that to our advantage when his naps were a little early but we’re still trying to make it to 7pm for bedtime.  Knowledge is power, baby.

 4.  It’s not your fault. (or “If at first you don’t succeed, try something new.  And then learn to let it go.”)  

I spent the first six months (ok, nine) convinced that I was doing something wrong because I couldn’t get Silas on a loose up-for-2, down-for-2 schedule like I always imagined I would because that’s the natural pattern most babies adopt, in my experience.  My pediatrician at the time was a father of six and a wise, mellow man.  He said short napping is more a nature issue than a nurture issue, especially in the first year, and that one of his kids was wired that way while the other five were not.  I’ll be the first to admit that I thought I could expect 2 hour naps and no night wakes by six months into parenthood at the latest.  I was so wrong.  But it still wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying every tactic in the book.

5.  “Maybe you just need to let him cry.” or “Babies just cry, it’s fine.”

Ok.  Don’t ever say this to parents.  Regardless of how parents feel about crying it out as a sleep training method (which is a very hot topic on both ends), crying it out doesn’t work for all babies, which the previous generation seems hesitant to admit.  Babies communicate by crying and yes, sometimes they are crying because they’re exhausted and overstimulated from family gatherings.

Trust your gut and try to figure out what the baby needs because you know best what that is and how you prefer to handle it.  From the start, Silas was never a candidate for crying it out because he knew how to go to sleep.  He never cried going down for naps but always had a harder time getting to sleep at night regardless of where he was (swing, held, our room, his room–didn’t matter).  This isn’t typical, but when we started reading about sleep personalities, we realized it is more typical than we thought.

6.  Sleep training works.

It takes work, but it works.  In general, there are lots of sleep training methods (including no-cry solutions) and lots of resources to help if you decide to do it.  We tried cosleeping the first few months with Si next to our bed, but for us it was miserable.  It turns out he wakes up more when he is in the room with us, but I wanted him in there until the major SIDS risk was over. As soon as we moved him to his own room, he slept so much more soundly and so did we (like we slept 3-4 hours instead of an hour and forty five minutes between wakes…yee haw).

Something to keep in mind:  sleep development is delayed for babies who have sleep-affecting issues like colic or reflux issues, among others.  Silas had both and we found that it really affected his sleep patterns, which normalized closer to seven months instead of three or four months.  It can be frustrating and exhausting (I didn’t sleep six straight hours for at least 6 months and I admit I was about to lose my mind) but there are resources to help you if you’re in the thick of it.  We didn’t find them until Si was nine months old but our lives were literally changed within a week.

7.  Sleep begets sleep.

The longer Silas is awake, the shorter he naps.  The less he naps, the worse his night sleep is.  The first solution we tried after reading Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child was moving bedtime earlier and, miracle of miracles, within two nights, he’d wake at night a few times and go right back to sleep without crying or nursing or any grown up interaction.  We had been keeping him up too long after his second nap and he was overtired, resulting in restless sleep, crying at night, a harder time going back to sleep, and a not that happy baby in the morning.  Within a few weeks, he stopped waking at all at night except on rare occasion and it’s been that way ever since.  Four months!

8. Babies’ brains change a LOT at about a year old.  

You know what this means?  Even if you had a really crappy sleeper, it seems like a lot of baby sleep patterns normalize at about 12 months.  (And if you had a super sleeper, that might change a little for the worse.)  It seems like the naturally wired “good” sleepers normalize between 3 and 5 months while the harder sleep personalities normalize at 10 to 13 months.  If you’re trying and trying and it’s not working, learn more quickly than we did that you can’t choose when a baby wakes up.  But you CAN choose when they go down, and sometimes that changes when they wake up.  Get to the library!

Silas went from 4-6 night wakes and crappy 45 minute naps to 12-13 hours with no wakes at night and two 2 hour naps a day.  It was literally like a switch flipped in his brain and he started sleeping.  It took a month of the new schedule before we weren’t terrified that talking about baby sleep would jinx it.  That’s how desperate you are when you’re a parent of a bad sleeper–you actually fear the jinx.  Your baby will sleep, even if it seems like you will never sleep again.  I promise.

9. Build a baby-sleep-research arsenal

The things that totally changed the way we view baby sleep and instantaneously changed our lives as parents are the following three resources.  The first two are best read/watched before baby comes or as soon as possible (we found them at 9 and 12 months–bummer!).

The Happiest Baby on the Block:  The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer (DVD)

This guy is instinctive and amazing.  He wrote a book by the same title, but watching the DVD is easier on dads and more helpful for learning techniques that seem odd but work instantly to stop a crying baby.  Even our crappy library had a copy, so yours probably does, too.

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

This book changed our lives literally overnight.  I want to buy it for every couple that gets pregnant.  It is an easily digestible run down of all the progress in baby sleep research in the last few decades followed by step by step plans that are applicable to nearly every parenting style, from attachment to cry-it-out and everything in between.  If you only read one baby sleep book, this should be it.   If we had read this before Si was born, we would have had a much better plan in place from the start and it would have made a huge difference in our quality of life that first year of parenthood.

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The Baby Sleep Site

This site was founded by a mama of a hideous sleeper and as soon as I started reading her free email newsletter, I realized we had similar stories.  She is a cry-free sleep training pro and she’s understanding and proactive about healthy baby sleep.  We have learned so much from her free advice and troubleshooting guides.  If we had found her earlier (we found her at 9 months or so) we would have paid the $30 for a personalized sleep plan with one on one support from her.  Sleep training (especially no-cry sleep training) requires a vast amount of attentiveness, awareness, subtle schedule tweaking, and consistency.  It’s not easy, but she makes it so, so much easier.  She’s worth it.

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People don’t understand or remember how broken sleep affects normal life.  They say things like “Wow, he’s a terrible sleeper.”  “He has more sleep issues than any kid I’ve ever met.”  “Maybe you should try ______.”  Yeah, thanks.  Obviously we are loving being tired and frustrated with a baby who is also tired and frustrated.  If you’re in that phase (and I promise it’s a phase) know that we were there, too.  It gets better.  It gets SO much better.

If you made it this far, you deserve a present.  Thanks for hanging in there.

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