A friend told me yesterday that he and his wife are expecting. A flood of thoughts and advice came flooding through my brain and I had to very consciously hold back from vomiting all the things I wanted to say all over his unsuspecting, and unprepared, ears. I remember being pregnant. Everyone had their advice. Everyone had an opinion on how or where to give birth. Everyone wanted to know the gender, the chosen name and to tell you their traumatic birth story. They wanted to share their breastfeeding issues and “cry it out” methods for sleep sanity. Everyone had their blanket statements of, “Oh, your life will never be the same.” Or, “Enjoy your sleep and freedom now!” And I didn’t want to hear it. I read a lot and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted my family to look like. I gravitated towards the Attachment Parenting philosophy and made decisions to give birth at home without drugs, co-sleep, breastfeed and wear my baby frequently. There was a lot of noise out there when it came to parenting, and much of it was in opposition to what I wanted to do. Having people tell me what I should or shouldn’t do was annoying. But then I had my baby and now that I have lived through the first three, very grueling, years of parenthood I look back and have a mountain of advice I would have given myself had I known (and listened to myself!) before I started.
This is what makes it really, really hard for me not to unload a dump truck full of advice in one shot. I once asked my sister, a mother of two, what she wished someone had told her before she had kids to help prepare her for what was coming. Her response? “Nothing. There’s nothing anyone can tell you that can prepare you for having kids.” Yikes! A bit ominous, perhaps? I get it, though. There is truth in that. Having kids does change your life in a way that one can never prepare for. But this wish that I would have known this or that beforehand drives an almost uncontrollable train of advice in my mind that I have to muster a lot of strength to stop. The reality is every parent is different and every child is different, so for all the advice out there, nothing applies to everyone. And we humans typically don’t want advice unless it is specifically asked for. So I have come here, to give you my free, unsolicited girlfriend’s guide to entering motherhood. And I probably am going to be super annoying with my supposed “wisdom,” but at least I am not forcing you to read.
Sleep: An Introduction
Of course this has to be the very first topic, and for good reason. It is one of the main concerns expectant parents have. And if you know me personally, you know that sleep is all I talked (read complained) about for the first two and a half years of my son’s life. Without getting into all the details of my struggles, suffice it to say my son’s sleep habits were a nightmare. So much so that I waited an extra year and a half longer than I thought I would before even considering having another child. I even thought about not having any more kids because of it. If you read my birth story, you might have a good idea of how traumatic of an experience it was for me. The sleep deprivation I experienced thereafter was worse and is a huge source of anxiety for me now as I prepare to welcome baby #2 in early spring. I would just like to point out that sleep deprivation is a method of torture used by military personnel, so the reality of sleep deprivation should not be taken lightly. Also, Postpartum Depression is a very common reality for new moms and I am convinced that sleep deprivation is a huge source of the cause. A severely sleep deprived and potentially depressed new mother serves no one, which is why I have sworn I will never co-sleep again amongst other things, and why I have spent lots of time reading the various methods of “sleep training” and ended up hiring a licensed therapist specializing in childhood challenges to help me overcome my sleep battles with my son. I have accumulated a wealth of information and have come to some very simple conclusions that I hope will be helpful, even if a bit controversial for some. My two main goals with the following information are:
- To help you learn how to guide your baby into learning healthy sleep habits that will most likely result in restful nights of sleep sooner rather than later.
- To avoid the need to “sleep train” your baby using methods of extended crying, as most books on baby sleep will recommend to resolve sleep issues. If you don’t foster sleep issues in the first place, you won’t need to resolve them.
Sleep: How To Get More, Better, Sooner
- Wait. When the baby stirs and sputters, just wait. Babies make a lot of noise when they sleep. Babies get gas and have to put in a lot of effort to move their bowels now that they are outside the womb, and they tend to squirm and fuss a lot because of this. It doesn’t mean they need to be swooped up and fed the instant they make a peep. It seems like common sense but just you wait until you are a new parent and have paranoia about middle of the night scream fests, or perhaps you are an Attachment Parenting type that believes in not allowing any crying without direct contact and intervention by a caregiver at the first sign of a fuss. Or, you may simply be too impatient to wait and see what happens next, and instead immediately try to get that baby back to sleep as soon and as easily as possible (I am so guilty of those last two). I say when the baby starts to whimper and squeak just wait a few minutes and watch to see what happens. Baby may not need you. It is altogether possible for a baby to fuss a bit and then settle back to sleep. I never would have believed it, but it does happen, and the sooner you start giving that baby an opportunity to “self-soothe” the earlier on the path of healthy sleep habits that little one will be.
- Put babe to bed awake. Clearly this is not always possible. Newborns especially are notorious for conking out the second they are done feeding, and sometimes a baby is just too fussy or sick or uncomfortable or colicky to leave in a crib to cry for any length of time. But I say, as often as possible, try to make it a goal to accumulate a track record from the start of your baby’s life of him entering dreamland on his own by being put down very sleepy but awake. As. Often. As. Possible. I cannot stress this point enough. Some fussing may ensue. I believe this is natural to the transition from wakefulness to sleep, rather than a desperate cry for help (as I used to think it was). If the babe ends up in full blown wails and hysterics, rather than the tired fussiness of a baby struggling to fall asleep, then by all means step in and offer assistance. But as a general goal, shoot for the little one to make that transition without help.
- Avoid helping. Certainly you take steps to set the stage for sleep, a dimming of the lights in the room (seriously, install blackout curtains before baby arrives), a little rocking, maybe some nursing, but attempt to stop short of the baby actually falling asleep with that help. It will take effort, but a little effort in the beginning will serve you in the long run. Trust me, it could mean the difference between a baby that learns to sleep through the night by four months as opposed to two years. My biggest mistake was nursing to sleep. It is a very easy habit to fall into, but if your goal is for everyone to be getting quality sleep as soon as possible, you need to work at avoiding this very common trap. Many, many mothers do it and never have problems. Just know that you run the risk of that baby becoming extremely dependant on that aid to sleep and it is a habit that is very, very hard to break.
- Check for discomfort. It is possible that a baby is waking at night, or having a hard time sleeping in general, for reasons other than hunger or the need for help in the transition. Is it too hot or cold in the room? Is the baby wrapped up too warmly or not have enough layers on? Is the diaper wet or soiled? Is there a draft? Is there a lot of outside noise, like the TV, a radio or screaming kids? Newborns typically sleep through almost anything, at least in the first few weeks if not couple of months. But certainly, by three months old if not sooner, they become very awake, aware and tuned into their surroundings. That baby that slept through everything may disappear once she rouses herself from her birth experience and the shock of living outside the womb. Be respectful and aware. How do you prefer your sleep environment? Dark, a little cool in the room with warm blankets, no noise or possibly white noise to block out what is happening outside the room? I know a lot of parents want their babies to be able to sleep anywhere and through anything, but let’s be honest. How many of us adults can do that? And we have years of experience getting ourselves to sleep and back to sleep if disturbed. Be realistic and never underestimate the power of a properly prepared sleep environment.
- Install black out curtains. I now consider myself the queen of blacking out a room. My sister even makes fun of me, telling me her kids’ blacked out rooms are like a sun porch compared to my son’s room. She’s not exaggerating. Honestly, most black out curtains on the market are child’s play. I have had to search high and low for something that actually blacked out the room, rather than just darkening it, while at the same time avoiding products made with vinyl or formaldehyde coatings. No easy task! I have finally found my favorite brand of black out curtains, however, and have done some very simple things to make my son’s room so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You protest? No need to make it THAT dark? If I told you your baby would sleep three hours for a nap, rather than an hour, if there were no light in the room, would it be worth blacking it out? Just a thought. Of course I can’t guarantee that, but I do know that my son always has awakenings during his nap and is very unlikely to fall back asleep if there is enough light in the room for him to look around and be distracted by what he sees. A few tips to making that room black, rather than just dark. 1) Buy black out curtains that hang longer than the floor when hung. Yes, you will have fabric pool on the ground and it doesn’t exactly look neat and tidy, but this will prevent light from escaping below them. 2) Take a staple gun and staple the sides of the curtains to the wall, from rod to floor. This will prevent light from escaping from the sides. 3) Add something above the rod to prevent light escaping from the top. I have a single black out panel folded over three times and attached to the top of the rod and draping down just slightly over the curtain. 4) I stapled a black out curtain to hang over my son’s bedroom door to cover the light that shines through the cracks during the day. It looks ridiculous, but is worth the results. 5) I rolled a couple hand towels up like a scroll, wrapped some long rubber bands around them and slid them under the door to block the light from there. We have wood floors and the gap below the door is a good inch and is like a flood light in a dark room, even with the black out curtain hanging over the door. I was afraid my son would not be able to sleep anywhere else but his room once he got used to the darkness, but it turns out that now that he sleeps really well and is well rested most of the time, he doesn’t have much trouble sleeping in other places that are not as dark as his room.
- Routine, routine, routine. One of the golden bits of wisdom my sleep trainer pointed out to me was that baby’s brains are wired to detect patterns. This is partially why the philosophy of “follow the baby” usually leads to chaos, but that is for another post. When it comes to sleep, you’re child will thrive on having a routine help him to predict what is coming next. Whatever you decide to do for bedtimes, do the same thing at each and every single bedtime. Say the same things, “It’s time for sleep little angel,” and do the same things, “I’m closing your curtains, turning the light down.” Wrap him up or dress him up the same way. Sing or play the same lullaby. Have signals, indicators, small and soothing things that your baby can learn to associate with sleep and sleep alone so that the idea of what is coming next starts forming in the brain before he is laid down to rest and acceptance of that state will come more easily as they feel safe and secure in knowing what to expect.
Honestly, I could ramble on for pages and pages, but I dare not bore you. From my observations of other parents, their struggles, my struggles, an accumulation of knowledge from reading eight different books on baby sleep (no lie) AND spending a few hundred dollars on a sleep expert, I have concluded these five things are the most basic ways we can take the lead and guide our babies into developing healthy sleep habits so that everyone is sleeping relatively peacefully and well within a reasonable amount of time. And at the same time you may also accomplish my other main goal, to avoid the whole “crying it out” trap that a lot of parents find themselves resorting to out of desperation. Allowing your child to learn how to sleep on his own is a gift, it truly is. Not only was I severely sleep deprived because of my son’s poor habits, but he was as well. Babies grow and their brains develop when they sleep. The better quality sleep they get, the happier they, and everyone else, will be.
I have found that The Baby Whisperer is the most compassionate, experienced and reasonable resource for parents when it comes to learning how to be with and care for your baby. I highly recommend her books and following her E.A.S.Y. routine to bring sanity, calm and confidence into your home. I have seen her accused of being “just another baby trainer” by Attachment Parenting folks. She is nothing like those that suggest withholding, manipulating or crying it out. She is very baby centered and compassionate. If you are not afraid of taking the lead in your baby’s life from the start, and want to have a mostly predictable routine and quality sleep in your home, then she is the woman for you. If you are very attached to the idea of co-sleeping and/or are a die hard Attachment Parenting type, I found Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution to have very helpful tips for all sleeping situations and parenting styles, including some good ideas for the co-sleeping family. Co-sleeping typically encourages a lot more night waking and tends to delay the ability of the baby to develop quality sleep habits. Having night waking continue from birth to two years or more is not at all uncommon with co-sleeping families. If I had known that to be the actual reality of co-sleeping, I would have thrown that idea out the window before I started it, no matter what the supposed benefits of it were.
I also want to end this topic with a disclaimer that it is not wise to try and force any young baby to try to sleep for really long periods. Newborns especially NEED to eat every two to three hours around the clock, usually for several months. Listen to your baby and don’t make sleep the priority over what the baby actually physically needs. My point in giving these tips is to help you learn to set the stage for your baby to develop good sleep habits so that she can have a high likelihood of being able to sleep for longer stretches when she is physiologically capable.
Up next: Child birth!