I didn’t understand the contract I was making when I became pregnant for the first time. Eight years of broken sleep later I am finding it much easier to get through nights with frequent wake-ups, and I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Here is my experience, and please remember this is MY experience. I am not offering advice, just sharing what has worked for me. This is what I have learned:
1) I can’t MAKE anyone sleep. This one has been a tough lesson for me!
2) My own needs are MUCH more important than my baby’s. Just because I don’t cry as loud or as often as my baby does doesn’t mean I should ignore my own needs. An unrested parent is no good to anybody in the family. The amount of crazy decisions I’ve made (and regretted) when I am tired, words I’ve said and can’t take back … the times I’ve been too tired to feed myself or my family properly, or even speak nicely. When I am tired my coping skills are diminished and I can’t handle noise or the regular squabbles between siblings. I have no energy. I get sick easier. I shout a lot and make threats when children don’t listen to me the first time. I have the skills I need to parent effectively but am too tired to remember to use them when I need to. If I am not getting sleep than I have to find a way. Often this means a bit more help from the family. See point nine.
3) Don’t turn the light on. Night time is for sleeping. Sleeping happens when it is dark. If light is required for reassurance or to find something then use a candle or a very dim LED light. Apparently any light at nighttime resets our brain from sleepy mode to wakeful mode, so keeping it dark keeps the intention that sleep is required now.
4) Don’t talk. When I greet and chat to my baby at night then I am inviting them to join in a conversation. Keeping the intention that night time is for sleeping means keeping verbal communication at a minimum. A whispered reminder to rest, a soft lullaby sung to soothe is all that is necessary.
5) Have my night time equipment ready. I don’t go to bed without a pair of slippers, a dressing-gown and a drink of water within reach. I just never know how long I am going to be up for when my baby wakes and it is hard to sooth a baby when I am cold and thirsty. It is also handy to have other things within reach so that I don’t have to turn on the light – things like essential oils, baby’s drink bottle, thermometer, wash cloths, spare pyjamas … it isn’t very nice to cuddle up to your baby only to be vomited on in the next moment. And you never can be sure when this is going to happen!
6) Go to the toilet before I go to my baby. I have had to learn this one over and over again. Nothing like leaning over a cot – just so – knowing that you can’t take your hand off your baby or she’ll wake, no matter how full your bladder is.
7) I can sing ANY song really slowly and it becomes a lullaby. Lullabies, like everything, work when they are not over used. In the early days with our first child we’d rock and pat and swing and step rhythmically – ANYTHING to get him to sleep. I swore that if I held him like THIS then he would sleep, my husband declared that it only worked for him like THIS – in the end I think everything we were doing was overstimulating him when he just wanted to be held close and sung to softly.
8) Each one of my babies has had different sleeping needs . It took some time to find out and respect how my baby sleeps best. Our first child fussed in our bed until we put him in his cot (in our room, then in his own room for a while, then back in our room!) Our second child snuggled with us for a long time until she moved into her own bed, in our room. For a while there we had three beds in our tiny bedroom and the whole family slept there. Then before my last pregnancy they both moved into their own room together, and they are still happy with this arrangement. Our last baby sleeps best on her own in her cot (in our room) with a few short and reassuring bedtime snuggles when she wakes. She always seems relieved to go back to bed afterwards. She’ll move in with her siblings as soon as she sleeps all night long. I am all for co-sleeping but only for as long as it suits everyone. Every now and then our older two come in for a snuggle at night, but they usually go back to bed after a while.
9) Don’t be the ONLY one who gets up to the baby at night. I have fallen for this every time and every time I have found it is not a good pattern to set because before I know it I’m the only one who can soothe the baby. It may be ‘easier’ to get baby to go to sleep if I do it, but not when I end up getting up several times a night. When this starts to happen my husband and I take turns – EVERY time our baby wakes, EVERY night. With each of our three children as babies I found myself deep in a hole of continual sleep deprivation because I was the one who responded each time. Soon I was getting up every two hours, or sometimes more. It was a nightmare. I found myself unable to sleep because there would be no point. It really is a horrible experience to fall asleep exhausted only to be wrenched out of it moments later. Once I realised what was going on (and this took an unbelieveable amount of time to come to this realisation) my husband and I changed our patterns and we shared the waking and soothing. I can’t say it was pleasant for anyone at first. There was a lot of crying involved, and not just from the baby, but also a lot of hugs and it was not long before the gaps between the wake-ups grew longer, and the need for turn-taking diminished. What worked best for us was to make a plan about who gets up when, and agree on the way the soothing will be done. If both of us approached her with the same strategies it became clear that the only option available was to allow herself to sleep with the help of two people who love her. Having said that because I still breastfeed her at night, I am still up EVERY night. See next point.
10) I encourage my babies to self-soothe. I do breastfeed my baby at night still. She is nearly two years old. I have guidelines though. I hold the opinion that MY babies do not need to eat when they are sleeping, and that they do not need to suck to be comforted. It took a little while to switch from breastfeeding to hugs for night comforting but we did it gently, respectfully and to a plan. Now my baby generally wakes once for a cuddle and a lullaby, and once for a feed. She can sleep all night, and has done, but illness and busy days often disrupt sleeping patterns. If she wakes before 3am she gets cuddles. After 3am she can have some milkies. When she is ill I relax this a bit and I breastfeed her when it is clear that comforting isn’t going to help her feel relaxed enough to sleep.