Not a sleep whisperer

I spend a good chunk of my day convincing little humans that sleep is a good idea. The other day, as I was prematurely patting myself on the back for getting all 3 kids to nap at the same time, my two oldest decided they were simply going to skip their naps. Of course, they were little (cute) monsters by the end of the day.

Right now, I’m struggling most with my middle child. He has recently started to extensively delay bedtime. He wants ten stories, ten songs, a million cuddles. Every time we acquiesce, he asks for more. After all of the above, he started asking for more lights on (we already have a nightlight). So we started with one, then two (after all, if he was truly afraid we didn’t want to be the mean parents who ignored this). This was enough for a bit but then the demands escalated. He wanted all the lights on but then also wanted us to hold him to sleep. The thing is, we’ve been down this path before. With both of our older children, we’ve always given in, and then regretted it some time later. Who doesn’t love the feel of their young child against them, all chubby cheeks and fat fingers, warm breath on your shoulder, kissing your cheek and saying “I love you, mommy”. I mean, what could be more precious? But it is hard to tack on an additional two hours for bedtime after a day packed with activities and attention doled singularly on the children. That extra times leaves us extra wiped, so we bring even less to our relationship, our home, and our work. And I am a firm believer in children needing to get a good night’s (or nap’s) sleep! When our kids put themselves to sleep, they fall asleep more quickly and wake up better rested.

This is on my hand because my middle child just cried himself to sleep for nap time. He only cried for five minutes or so, but it of course broke my mama heart. In truth, if I didn’t have a third child currently strapped to my chest for his own nap (we are visiting family and my oldest is sleeping in my room, where the crib is), I would probably just hold the kid to sleep. Again-who doesn’t love that feeling? So there’s the added guilt of attention being taken away from him by the baby. But we did try the “cuddle to sleep” method the last two days and he just ended up giggling, playing, and essentially doing everything BUT sleeping.

I reached out to our sleep consultant this week (honestly, at this point I should just have her on retainer) and she advised that if the gentle approaches weren’t working, to firmly return to business as usual. She advised either letting him cry or spending less and less time in the room with less and less physical or verbal interaction. The latter sounds like it would be torture to do, so we have settled to let him cry. Bedtime has improved dramatically (still delays, but not as many demands and we haven’t had tears for a few days). Naptime has proven to be more difficult, perhaps because there is less sleep inertia and it involves taking a break from playtime. I joked with our sleep consultant that I should print out a frame with “When in doubt, cry it out” for the nursery, because this seems to be what we resort to after a few days of failing at every other approach. Her philosophy, at least with our family/children, has always been: if baby/toddler/child is dry, fed, healthy, has gone to the bathroom and if you’ve addressed all of their fears, questions, and concerns, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to sleep by themselves.

I recognize this is a very Western philosophy. It is very foreign to my mom, who always had children in bed with her. In truth, our youngest (almost 4 months now) has spent more time in bed with me than I’d like to admit. This is mostly because I’m so exhausted when he wakes to feed that I accidentally fall asleep with him. I sleep alone (poor hubby has been banished to the guest room for this reason), with no extra pillows, blankets, or throws. I wear warm clothing so as not to cover myself and make sure the baby’s unswaddled and in the very center of the bed. It always fills me with great trepidation, despite all of these measures. For us, the main reason we haven’t intentionally shared a bed is fear. The second reason is that it’s been really important for my husband and I to have adult time after the kids go to sleep. We are not perfect in this regard, as I often allow housework or work work to bleed into our time, but it is theoretically more possible if there is no child in our room.

I’ll end on a positive note: my 4 year old has become a much better sleeper with time. He was our crazy colicky baby who refused to sleep on his back and had us up every twenty minutes as a newborn. We held him to sleep for naps until he was almost 3! But now this very same child will tell us he’s tired (before nap or at bedtime) and then go to sleep by himself. He sometimes needs a bit of encouragement when it comes to changing into PJs, but then he’ll happily settle in under the covers with his stuffed animal and put himself to sleep with no extra support. If you had told me this four years ago, I would have never believed it. It’s amazing how children change over time.

One of the greatest challenges of parenthood has, for me, been sleep. There are a good days and bad days, but definitely lots of sleepless nights, sleep regressions, and changes – potty training, separation anxiety, nightmares, travel, teething, etc., etc., etc., which seem to knock the schedule right off its track. But one day, these little humans will become (really) big boys, and then I will probably be nagging them for sleeping TOO much. Funny how things work. For now, I’ll try my hardest to revel in the baby snuggles and to try to focus less on the naptime/bedtime snuggles. However, I will never sleep when the baby’s sleeping, because when else would I get anything done!?

Sleep desperation

When my first was born, I pined for sleep on a 24/7 basis. X didn’t sleep, EVER, unless someone was holding him. Classic first-time parenting mistake, but also personality-driven, as I learned after having my second.

Here’s how the first few weeks went: During the day, X would nurse and fall asleep, and someone would hold him. Or he would snooze in a carrier (we used the Boba wrap the most during those first few weeks). When we lay him down, he slept less than thirty minutes. After officially giving up, he slept in this carrier until I went back to work when he was 4 months old.

At night, we would swaddle him tight and lay him on his back. He would sleep anywhere from 20 minutes to maybe 3 hours (max). We were up a lot at night. 8-9 weeks in, my husband held him for 5 hours one night just so I could sleep. It was my first time sleeping for longer than 3 hours since his birth. I was a zombie. I also felt terrible complaining – I had undergone infertility treatment to get pregnant. I felt so fortunate to have this baby in my arms – how could I complain about something as measly as sleep?

Did I mention that he had colic? This made the first few weeks even more difficult. Every night, from approximately 3-4p on, he could only be soothed by being held in the carrier. We tried every “S” that existed, but nothing helped.

We had a Pack n Play, a co-sleeper, a bassinet. He wouldn’t sleep in any of them. We tried every swaddle imaginable (except this one, which was actually my fave after our second was born). We had a consultant (a post-partum doula of sorts) visit our home to observe our interactions with him. She recommended double-swaddling, which was of no help, His startle response was intense! We spoke to two sleep consultants, including a well-known author of an infant sleep tome, who charged a steep price to give his two cents, which were unfortunately not helpful.

Somewhere around 8-10 weeks, we were desperate. Since I didn’t sleep at night, I spent the time reading every sleep book under the sun (this was my favorite).  So one day, I placed him on his stomach during nap time (NOT a recommendation from the book). He was un-swaddled and I sat next to him the entire time. He slept for 2 hours! I was in shock. At night, we started placing him on his stomach to sleep. His sleep improved marginally – regular 3 hour stretches. For the first few weeks, we watched him the entire night. At first, we had family visiting so could easily take shifts. Once they left, this became much more difficult and we were not much better off! We used a movement sensor, which put our minds at ease, but in actuality, it would not have been very helpful in the event of SIDS given the lag between breathing cessation and alarming. E spent a ton of playtime doing tummy time, and first rolled over at 8 weeks, although not reliably until 3.5-4 months. Let me be clear: I do NOT recommend that infants sleep on their stomachs. Infants should sleep on their backs. Please follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for safe infant sleep. I was terribly anxious the entire time that we did it, often waking up in the middle of the night (he slept in our room, in the co-sleeper or Pack n Play, until he was 4 months old) to frantically check on him. And with our second son, we never once placed him on his stomach to sleep. However, during those first few months of the newborn haze, it seemed like the best of bad options. We didn’t trust ourselves to stay awake while holding him (we were exhausted!), we were afraid to have him in our bed, we couldn’t justify the cost of a night nurse, and we had to sleep!

It was a tough time. When he began to roll over consistently, we moved him into his own room. He continued to wake up every 3-4 hours. However, we were (for no good reason) adamantly opposed to sleep training (Cry It Out). Our friend joked that everyone was vehemently opposed to CIO until they just couldn’t take it anymore. She was right (in our case, at least)! We reached our breaking point around month 7, when X started to wake up every HOUR and NOTHING would soothe him to sleep. Via a friend’s recommendation, we connected with an excellent remote sleep consultant. She was willing to work with a variety of parent attitudes regarding sleep training, and presented us with many options. We ultimately chose a gradual CIO (e.g. Ferber method) plan, and this worked for us. After less than a (very tough) week, our little one was sleeping through the night. Legitimately through the night! We had a few hiccups along the way – early wake-ups (we weren’t very strict on waiting until a certain time to get him), travel glitches, regressions, etc. – but we were able to reset by returning to our original plan.

X’s last regression was at 18 months. Since then (knock on wood), he has been sleeping like a champ. Some days he will sleep in until 7:30am! It’s glorious (or would be if we didn’t have a second who is an earlier riser). And he is generally in bed around 7:30-8:00pm with no tears.

So if you’re currently in the trenches, just remember that those first few weeks to months (to years) can be really tough! There’s no right answer, but eventually you’ll start sleeping again!