We have run the whole gamut of choices when it comes to handling sleep with a baby.
When I was pregnant, I read dozens of books and I felt a very strong pull toward co-sleeping. NewDotDad saw only doom and disaster in that prospect, though, and I am a firm believer that with whatever choice you make as a parent, it has to be a choice that works for the whole family. I resigned myself to the idea that co-sleeping wouldn’t work for us, and proposed getting a bassinet with a flip-down side. Since I was completely dedicated to breastfeeding, I knew that I wanted to keep NewDotBaby close for those middle of the night nursing session. That was a good compromise for NDD – it gave NDB his own space, it was “approved” for baby sleep by whoever decides those things, and it would be in our room and just an arm’s reach away from me and the nursies.
Our first night in the hospital (NDB was born at 9:15 a.m., but because I had Group B strep, we had a 48-hour minimum stay in our state) we discovered that a little clear plastic bassinet does not make for a cozy bed for a tiny newborn. For one thing, it smelled like barf. Not baby spitup – it smelled like disgusting, grown-person puke. Blecgh. For another thing, it was cold and plastic. I’m sure that after a full 40 weeks of the warm, liquid comfort of the womb, it was a harsh environmental change. We just couldn’t get NDB to rest for more than 20 minutes or so. After a while, I just brought him to my hospital bed.
(Note: I am not advocating for this practice; I have heard at least one tragic story where a young couple lost their newborn when they tucked the baby between them in a hospital bed. Use your smarts – if you are on any postpartum pain meds, if you are wobbly and unsteady, if if if if if, then putting your baby in your hospital bed is a BAD idea. I’m just telling y’all what worked for me.)
It was instantaneous. He calmed down, he focused, he rested. When he was awake, he was quietly taking it all in. When he was nursing, he was doing all the right things. When he was asleep, he was deeply and happily asleep. NDD agreed that the plastic bassinet was stinky and probably disturbing to tiny, brand-new senses, so sleeping beside Mama was a good idea.
The second night in the hospital, we didn’t even try to put NDB down in the nasty hospital receptacle. He snuggled in with me (on top of the covers, and swaddled in his own receiving blanket) and we had a great night. My in-laws both remarked how great I looked so soon after delivery. I was happy, I was energized, and I felt great. I think a lot of that can be attributed to rooming-in and co-sleeping. I had already started the process of learning my little son, and he had stayed so peaceful that it was not a stressful start to our life together.
When we got home, I fully expected that we would swaddle NDB and put him down in his co-sleeper style bassinet for the night. We had four of our five parents (NDD’s dad is remarried – his mother didn’t come down after NDB’s birth) there, and we were all eating our dinner while NDB slept in his bassinet. He woke up right after the family left to go back to their hotel, and imagine my surprise when my husband said, “You know, you should probably lay down with him in our bed. That helped him so much at the hospital.”
That’s how we started co-sleeping. After all the reading and research and experts I’d cited, nothing could convince my medical-student-hubby like seeing his flesh and blood, comforted and happy at his mommy’s side. Cosleeping was a real blessing when NDD had to leave town for two months on traveling rotations, right when I had to go back to work in my 3rd grade classroom. My mother came to stay with me, to help out and to care for NDB during the day, but having that intense time of contact all night long is what gave me the fill-up I needed to get through the days without my baby and without my husband. It could have been a very lonely, isolated time, but it actually was a very bonding experience.
We moved in June, when NDB was about 4 months old. NewDotDad would be starting his residency program in about a month, and we had several conversations about how our family’s schedules would have to change and adapt. One of NDD’s concerns was that he would need quality, consolidated sleep on the nights he was home – to make up for the poor, interrupted sleep he’d be getting while on-call at the hospital. We decided that it was time to transition NDB to his crib, in his own room.
I planned to take about six weeks to complete the transition. I wanted to do it slowly and gently, and to respect NDB’s cues if it wasn’t going well. To begin with, I started putting NDB down for his naps in the crib. I’d started putting him down for naps when he was about six weeks old (prior to that he usually slept in my lap, in my arms, or in a sling), drowsy, and let him ‘settle’ himself to sleep in his bassinet. He didn’t even seem to notice the change! Actually, I noticed that he would rub his cheek against the crib mattress and sigh when I put him down, as though he were telling me how content he was with this new, bigger space to spread out!
After about a week of smooth, easy naps, I put him down in his crib at bedtime. He slept so well – one of his longest stretches of sleep ever! I still brought him into our bed after his first waking, and he nursed several times during the night while co-sleeping “part-time.” My six-week plan didn’t work, however, because shortly after he began starting the night in his crib, we had a fire in our apartment building. We spent the next month living in a hotel and then in a new apartment with very little furniture or belongings, so it was back to cosleeping for us. I am grateful that we had cosleeping as a tool, though – I think it helped me keep things consistent for NDB, and I think it helped keep my stress level low at a really crazy time.
When we finally got settled in our new apartment with our furniture back (or replaced), we talked again about our sleeping arrangements. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep communicating about things like this! We aren’t perfect, and we have things that we find hard to talk about, like anyone. But we think it’s really important to be of one mind in our parenting decisions – and that means, for us, checking in every so often with each other, asking if the other is still happy with the way things are going, and making changes if not. NewDotDad wanted to start phasing out our cosleeping, even though it was only part-time at that point. I could understand where he was coming from; and since I’d started out thinking I wouldn’t get to cosleep at all, I knew that the last five-and-a-half months had been a surprise blessing all along.
By the time NDB was six months old, he was in his crib full-time, for naps and overnight sleep. Now, that’s not to say that he was sleeping through the night. Puh-leeeze! He was waking and nursing between 3 and 6 times a night, on an average night. If he was teething, it was as much as 8 or 9 times a night! Mommy was starting to feel drained, crabby, and emotionally spent. (You don’t notice the wakings during cosleeping, because you don’t fully wake yourself – and at that point, NDB was like a homing missile. He could find those nursies, latch himself on, and have himself back asleep, in the dark, without any help from me, in a hurry! But now that I was waking up, walking down the hall, and nursing in the rocking chair, all those wakings were taking a toll.)
I’ve mentioned before that I’m very committed to breastfeeding. My plan was always to breastfeed our kids for at least a year, and in the course of all my reading to prepare for nursing a baby (I didn’t have much real-life wisdom on this one, since only two of the women in my extended family breastfed, and they always seemed vaguely embarrassed about it – but that’s a topic for another post.) I came across a lot of advice to allow a baby unrestricted access to the breast for the greatest chance of extended nursing. For the first time, I was feeling conflicted about, and resentful of, that advice. So I was back to my old maxim: whatever we’re doing has to work for us as a whole family. It wasn’t working for me, so I had to make a few changes.
I read The No-Cry Sleep Solution and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, and I refreshed my reading from the Sears Library about sleep. I couldn’t imagine myself letting NDB cry without responding to him (per the “extinction” method in HSHHC) so I thought we could try the “check and console” method. For about three nights, when NDB woke up I would go in, pat his back, hum or sing, talk to him, offer him his binkies, but not nurse him (other than the times I’d chosen, roughly three times that were four-hour-increments from bedtime). When he calmed down, I would leave his room. He usually would then start fussing or crying again. It didn’t work for us. Inevitably, I broke down after my third or fourth trip into his room (and I was only getting one foot out the door when I’d turn around and go back) and would nurse him. When I talked it through with NDD, I realized that I was sending weird messages to NDB – cry and Mommy will come – but not right away, and sometimes sooner and sometimes later, and sometimes you will get to nurse and sometimes you won’t. How confusing for a little guy!!!
I went back to on-demand nursing, and within a few weeks I was back to being a sleep-deprived, grumpy Mama who just wasn’t functioning at peak. I was slacking off on the housework, I wasn’t being engaging and entertaining with NDB, and I felt guilty for feeling so tired. It was back to the reading, and this time I decided to try Pantley’s gentle, no-cry methods.
I decided that for any wakings before midnight, I would do the minute-by-minute cutbacks on his nursing sessions. The first night, I simply nursed him as usual, but I paid attention to the clock. He was only nursing for about ten minutes. The next night, I put a small clock radio in NDB’s room, and nursed him for nine minutes. At that point, I unlatched him, put him up on my shoulder to burp, and then put him back down in his crib. He fussed for just a few moments, then put a binky in his mouth and closed his eyes peacefully. I couldn’t believe it had been that easy! I continued cutting back one minute each night for three night, and then I stayed on five-minute sessions for a few days. NDB was a little more resistant at that point, so I waited until laying him down only caused a moment of fussing (like he’d done the first night of cutbacks). We continued cutting back until we got to one-minutes sessions. It sounds crazy, but he really was latching on, nursing for 60 seconds, and then I was unlatching him and he was going right back to sleep. After about a week and a half of that, he just stopped waking up before midnight. I was blissful!
The thing I’m learning about infant sleep is that as soon as you think you have it figured out, your baby will change. Teething, sickness, daylight savings time, travel, growth spurt – it all seems to affect their sleeping patterns. In our case, we went through daylight savings time without too much of a problem, but then NDB started teething just as we took a week-long trip to my parents’ house. It’s a 10-hour drive, and being in a new place was hard for him. There was so much to see and investigate, plus he was having so much fun with this Grandmama lady, plus he was sleeping in a Pack ‘n’ Play, and then there was the teething discomfort. Both of his top incisors, and one bottom incisor, cut through while we were there. Poor kid! Since we were in my parents’ house, and I was in the bed right next to the PnP, I chose to just nurse him at each waking. It was a great solution for the moment, because it kept him quiet and didn’t disturb everyone else in the house, and it got him back to sleep quickly. Long term, it was one of those choices that has a ripple effect.
When we got home, he kept waking multiple times each night. I took him for his 9-month checkup and avoided the topic of sleep, because I didn’t want to hear the pediatrician’s opinion that I should just let him cry. I know that’s the pretty classic line from the medical field, and I just didn’t think I could handle that. I started to do the NCSS cutbacks again, but it seemed like cutting him back at one feeding made him wake two or three more times. I was exhausted, and NDD was on a rotation that kept him at the hospital more nights than he was home. It was a new level of tiredness, and I was starting to worry that I would become actually depressed if I didn’t start getting some real rest. I re-read the HSHHC book and finally took a deep breath and really considered letting NDB “cry it out.” He is a very attached, secure baby who is happy and content. Would I really destroy our bond if I let him cry until he could self-soothe (or give up, depending on your perspective) and fall asleep on his own? Would he feel abandoned, or scared, or angry? Would I damage him and cause insecurity issues? On the other hand, if I didn’t go this route, what were my options? I could continue the NCSS cutbacks, but I estimated it would take me about a month to get him to drop all those extra nursings. I didn’t know if I could keep it up for a month.
Eventually, I decided to let him cry it out for his wakings between bedtime (6 pm) and midnight, between midnight and 4:00 am, and between 4:00 am and his normal “up-for-the-day” between 6:00 and 7:00 am. I chose a night that NDD was on call, even though I knew it would be hard to cope with this new process alone, because it would be harder for NDD on a night that he needed to catch up on his sleep after a 30+ hour shift. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be…
The fussing started at 6:20, and he stopped at 7:03. Forty-three minutes. Then He woke up at 9:03 crying. He stopped at 9:17. Fourteen minutes. He cried 10:22-10:53. Thirty-one minutes. His next two wakings were at 11:15 and at 2:45, so I nursed him then. He woke up crying from 4:33-4:55. Twenty-two minutes. And he was finally up for the day at 6:05. All told, it was an hour and a half of crying, spread out over the whole night.
The next four nights got better and better, with fewer wakings and less time awake crying. The fifth night, he slept from 5:55 until 1:45. I breastfed him, burped him, and he was asleep before his head touched the mattress. He slept until 7:00 the next morning. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Currently? Sleep at our house isn’t perfect. NDB is teething on his eighth tooth (a bottom incisor) so he’s waking up three times a night. I’m giving him Motrin when he wakes, because NDD is skeptical of the ingredients in some of the homeopathic teething tablets available, but he obviously needs something for the pain he’s in. I’m not desperate, though. I have found that I need to go lay down around 9:00 – I can’t always fall asleep then, but I can start winding down, quieting my mind, and it does help me feel rested later. Once we get through this patch, I’m hopeful that NDB will drop that extra waking on his own (and I can go back to a more “grownup” bedtime!) but if he doesn’t, I have another tool in my belt.
Crying it out didn’t destroy him, or threaten our bond or create a clingy, upset baby. For us, it was an appropriate choice at this stage of his growth and development. I could never have done it with a younger baby (and I think it would be equally as difficult with an older baby, because if NDB were verbal and calling out “Mama!” it probably would have broken my heart and weakened my resolve).
As it is, I’m very happy with our journey to the Land of Nod. We’ve lived a little in all the camps: total cosleeping, partial cosleeping, independent crib sleeping, nursing on demand, gentle partial nightweaning, and CIO. There are advantages to every choice, and each one has suited us for a stage and a time.
I think the one thing I am learning every day is that parenthood is about flexibility and openness. Not just with your thoughts about where and when and how a baby sleeps, either. The easy thing to do, would be choosing one methodology, one idea, one truism, and sticking to it whether it is working or not. Remembering that I don’t know everything, and asking questions and looking for new options when things aren’t working, is humbling, but it is vital.