A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a sleep consultant at a children’s centre in my home town. I don’t remember her name, and I only spoke to her for a few minutes. But I want to thank her for giving me a glimmer of hope. Her advice has helped me see a future that incudes evening meals, more than five words with my husband, my favourite TV shows, and … sleep.
We have only been implementing her advice for a few nights, so I am fully aware that I’m probably counting the proverbial chickens. But on the first night, my son fell asleep in his own cot without being fed to sleep for the first time in all his eight months. It took two hours to settle him, but it was a first nonetheless. Last night he fell asleep in his own cot without being fed to sleep and it only took five minutes. He slept for an amazing (no sarcasm) two hours. I baked cakes and watched Britain’s Got Talent. If your baby has always slept then you won’t understand the significance of that! Today I settled him for his naps in his cot in the daytime without feeding him to sleep for the first time ever. Whatever happens next, that’s progress…
This is all without implementing any controlled crying or ‘cry it out’ methods. Yes, crying is involved – it was anyway! – but we are not leaving him weeping on his own in the dark, wondering where we are and getting progressively more stressed. No, this is a gentler technique and although he cries from exhaustion and frustration, we are with him and he gradually calms and surrenders to sleep.
A SLEEP HISTORY
Our baby slept fairly well for the first three months or so. I was, as I still am, breastfeeding and didn’t think two or three feeds a night was unreasonable for a newborn. He would fall asleep while feeding then go straight back in his little rocker and I found it manageable and maintainable.
Then something happened. Call it the four month regression, call it whatever you please, but his sleep got worse…and worse…and worse. He started off sleeping well until about midnight, and then I would have an exhausting night getting up multiple times, and sometimes for extended periods, but at least we had the evening to eat, chat and relax in front of the TV. I even managed a meal out with a friend one night and a couple of hours at the local theatre another time! I thought I was getting my life back. But gradually, he stopped sleeping through the evening too. He’d never napped well during the day either, but I was increasingly resorting to drives, walks and letting him fall asleep on me or with me to ensure his poor exhausted body was getting some rest.
For I don’t know how long now, getting my son to sleep at night has involved repeated trips up and down the stairs (perhaps three or four sessions of feeding, rocking and soothing between first putting him down at 7 and then my husband and I going to bed at 10 or 11). During the few quiet moments during those three or four hours, we would be discussing why he wasn’t sleeping, what we could do, what we should have done, what we’d done wrong, what other people did differently. And waiting, always waiting, for the monitor to crackle on and the inevitable sleepy moan, escalating to a miserable cry. There was no break. I would care for him all day, spend all evening trying to settle him, then spend all night feeding and comforting him. Then get up and do it all again. He doesn’t take a bottle well, so even my husband’s valiant efforts had been fairly unsuccessful.
In recent weeks I have been cosleeping with my son so that we would at least all get some rest during the night. Although my sleep is broken by baby’s cries at regular intervals, I can simply roll over and feed him briefly then doze back off. It works, to some extent, but I don’t want to commit to cosleeping long-term. I fully support parents who do, I think it’s efficient and natural and perfectly safe. However, it’s a personal decision and just isn’t for us forever.
IT’S NOT FAIR
I just didn’t understand. Where did the phrase ‘sleeping like a baby’ come from?! It’s supposed to mean deep, carefree slumber – not fitful, fractious catnaps. Babies everywhere are always sleeping. Look at YouTube – they drop off in their cereal, they flop freely on their parents’ shoulders, they lie there in slack-jawed repose as the world carries on around them. Hah. Our son can be visibly shattered, crying from exhaustion and frustration. But he will. Not. Sleep. He can’t. Complicating matters is his scratching – whether from the eczema/allergy, overheating or just habit we don’t know. But he will drift off, then wake himself seconds later, scratching manically and then weeping in frustration.
When he eventually drops off, I must either keep driving (if we’re in the car of course) until he’s had a reasonable amount of time -and that takes effort on an island 25 miles long!- or quickly throw his Snoozeshade over the pram so no bright lights or raindrops wake him, or move away from laughing children, loud TVs and music, or stand guard so the cats don’t meow too loudly outside his bedroom… I am not joking! We must seem like crazy people, but if your child doesn’t sleep then when he finally drops off, you protect that sleep like a prison officer guards murderers. Hmm, not sure about that analogy but you get the idea…
The sleep lady was great. Reassured me that controlled crying is indeed stressful to baby and not necessary. Comforted me when I broke down. Told me I hadn’d done the wrong thing feeding him to sleep all those months, it was natural. Then explained a simple technique for teaching baby to settle himself. It was nothing earth-shattering. Nothing I hadn’t already read on the internet amongst all the other drivel. Nothing I hadn’t tried before even, at other times and to some extent. But hearing it from a real person, a qualified person, who could sit there and say, “This is a thing. This can work. Persevere.” made a huge difference. Right time, right place.
Put simply, I feed my son until he is dropping off but hasn’t completely zonked out. This is an art form and deserves its own post. Then I put him in his cot. He complains straight away, but you just stroke him, comfort him, if necessary you pick him up and feed him again. And repeat, all without leaving the bedroom and always returning him to his bed. Then eventually…EVENTUALLY…he falls asleep. Over days and weeks, the idea is that he requires less and less comforting, and you gradually withdraw from the room. Not groundbreaking, but I needed the confidence this lady gave me to try it, stick with it, and believe it could work.
DISCLAIMER: I appreciate that being critical of advice about sleep may sound hypocritical since I am sitting here writing about sleep and some great advice I’ve been given… However, I am sharing my experiences in the spirit of sisterhood with other sleep-deprived mums and with the slim chance that something I mention will click. At the very least, readers can experience some insight into the world of sleep deprivation!
I had read and heard a lot of valid advice about sleep before this sleep expert came along. It is almost all correct in its own way and potentially helpful. However. Advice about sleep can be hugely painful for a sleep-deprived mum, because it a) raises your hopes that this latest tip will be the one that works and b) implies that there is something you have either done or not done that is preventing your baby from sleeping well. Both of these things hurt. One of the ways I have coped mentally with the lack of sleep (just for info, I have slept in bursts of around 1-1.5 hours for around 4-5 months, and before that it was stretches of 2-3 hours) is by just accepting it. Fighting it makes it so much harder! So advice is a risky business because it involves raising your fragile hopes…
Here are some not necessarily incorrect bits of advice that are still hard to hear:
-Sleep when he does
- Yes, I do, and we both get four hours’ sleep. Cheers.
- Sleeping while driving is generally frowned upon, I understand, so I’ve been on many a 4am drive with my son throughout which he has blissfully slumbered and I have not. Because of the driving, you see.
-Watch for sleep cues
- It’s too late. If he’s yawning and rubbing his eyes, then it’s too late. By the time you’ve waded through the bedtime routine (see below) then he’ll be screaming and overtired.
- The problem isn’t knowing when he’s tired. We all know he’s tired. He needs to fall asleep.
-Put him down drowsy but awake
This is, in fact, part of what we are doing now. But it is certainly not as easy as those few words suggest! If someone lulled me almost to the point of dropping off, in a nice warm comfy environment with lots of vodka & orange on tap and then I was rudely awakened by being plopped down on a hard, flat mattress with no duvet (and no vodka) then I would bloody well cry too! Babies are comforted by your warmth, your heartbeat and your milk. I maintain that feeding them into a milk coma is natural and completely normal. Nursing isn’t just for food, it’s for comfort too. So although this ‘putting down drowsy’ advice is technically correct, it is all about timing. Our son is only just ready for this strategy and he’s eight months old. Don’t feel guilty for feeding your baby to sleep – it’s the craft God and Nature gave us. Just watch out for the chance to try putting baby down without being fully comatose now and then to see how you get on.
-Have a bedtime routine
I am so glad there are people around to advise me that a bath and a book might help create a calming environment for a baby before sleep. I’d never have thought of that myself. *eyeroll* It doesn’t matter how peaceful the environment is, if the boy is determined to be awake then he will – despite blackout blind and bedtime story.
This sleep technique that’s just starting to work for our son is NOT a magical solution. Like all the other advice, it’s just an idea. For some people it wouldn’t work at all. For some it would work, but only at a particular time in the baby’s life. It just so happens that we have been desperate to help our son sleep and right now this is something that is starting to help. And I want to celebrate that fact!
It’s a looong road ahead to that mythical land of ‘self soothing’ and ‘sleeping through the night’, and there will be teething and colds and other setbacks along the way. But the last few nights have been a glimmer of hope in a very difficult aspect of our parenting journey.
Ultimately, I have learnt that there is a time to just go downstairs, give the baby some quiet toys and make yourself a hot chocolate until you’ve regained your sense of humour and can face that bedroom once more.
What are your experiences of struggling to get baby to sleep? What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given, or perhaps the worst timed?! Have you any experiences to share?