In this episode, I share my experience with sleep training my children and I rant about the inadequacy of healthcare for mothers of large families.
Lucas is not the best sleeper baby. He is a fun and engaging little dude who likes to party.
He also likes his mom. A lot. Almost from birth he would look around for mom whenever someone else was holding him and react to the sound of her voice. At night, he likes to know his mom is nearby.
Parenting experts say that babies wake-up at night because they lack the skill to fall asleep on their own. But Lucas says it’s all nonsense. He can fall asleep on his own just fine. In fact, his mommy always put him down in bed wide awake. He and Ève will chat a while then Ève will fall asleep and Lucas will keep chatting her up a bit longer until it gets boring. Then he falls asleep looking at Ève.
Lucas wakes-up several times a night to check on mom. Mom finds it a bit tiresome: if you include the last 6 weeks of the twin pregnancy, the longest stretch of sleep mommy’s had in the last 9 months was, oh, about 2 hours. And most nights, between Lucas, Ève and Sarah, mommy can be up as often as every 45 minutes between midnight an 4:00 am. Some nights mommy wonders why she bothers going to bed at all: talk about setting yourself up for failure!
So about once a month since Lucas turned 3 months, mommy decides that she will listen to the experts and let Lucas “learn” to fall asleep on his own. The experts say that after crying for a while, Lucas will learn to “self-soothe” by using his fingers. But Lucas says this is all nonsense : he knows perfectly well where his fingers are and how to put them in his mouth. But that’s of little use to him since they are not attached to mommy.
Other experts say that mommy should give Lucas some water at night so that Lucas will learn not to be hungry. But Lucas says this is all nonsense: when Daddy gives him water or a pacifier, he still needs to know that mommy is near.
So mommy decides once a month that Lucas should cry it out. And it lasts, oh, about 5 minutes. Because nature did a good job and when Lucas cries, this is what mommy is up against:
But clearly something is missing in this explanation from the experts. Why do infants and young children choose to challenge their parents’ will on this particular issue? They don’t protest against toys, or sunlight, or hugs (well, usually not). Why do they protest going to bed, when sleep is clearly good for them and they need it?
Thanks to my friend Sue for posting this on her Facebook page. Tonight, I will cuddle-up with my little hunter-gatherer baby and make sure the monsters don’t get at him.
I have written several posts about my sleep struggles. Well, not technically my sleep struggles — my sleep would be awesome if I could get any — but my struggles with getting my baby boy to sleep. Or more precisely, to fall asleep and stay asleep. You can find my
sleep deprived rants intelligent analysis here (in French), here and here (in French).
This is not a new issue for me. My interest — some would call it an obsession — with good sleep goes back to my oldest child. Or, more precisely, was caused by my oldest child but didn’t gel until I had my second child. See, my firstborn was sleeping 8 hours at night by 3 weeks and 12 hours by 6 weeks. Uninterrupted. And she also had long naps during the day. It’s hilarious when I think about it: this child would go down for the night at 8 pm and sleep until 8 am. Then she would go back down for her morning nap at 9 am and sleep until 11. Then she’d be down around 1 pm until 3 pm and would often have an evening nap around 5 pm for an hour or so. Then she’d be down for the night at 8 pm. This “sleep routine” was well established by her 2-month mark. What’s hilarious is that I — 22 year-old omniscient me — thought (a) this was normal, and (b) I was doing something right that other struggling parents were obviously not doing.
(As an aside I would like to add this word of warning to young parents with easy babies. I have eaten back every single critical word I ever said about other parents. Even those I said in my head. If you have easy, manageable children take this advice — especially if you are hoping to have more — offer a word of deepest gratitude to God and Shut Up. If you don’t, the aforementioned God will “bless” you with babies/children exhibiting every single trait you ever criticized in other people’s kids and you will be plagued by an ever-present urge to call them and grovel at their feet begging for forgiveness. Take it from me.)
When my second child came along a year later he was immediately different. For one, he did not like being left alone in a bassinet. When at age 3 weeks he did not sleep through the night, I wondered “What is wrong with that child?” (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha *cough* *wheeze*). By 7 months of age, he was still waking-up to nurse every hour. I was fried and I read Ferber’s Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems. We ferberized our son and it worked, more or less, like the book said it would.
But the Ferber method was not only difficult for me as a parent, it just didn’t work with my next dreadful sleeper (in the person of my fourth child). She was nearly a year old when we started implementing the 5-10-15 method (also know as gradual extinction) and she cried, and cried, and cried, and cried…. for 10 hours a night, for a full month. Oh, she would occasionally stop for 30 minutes and rest a little. But otherwise, she cried. And we gave-up. Eventually I weaned her and she stopped waking-up to nurse. But that premature weaning weighted heavily on me. I wanted to understand why some of my children were such lousy sleepers and what I could do to help them before getting to a point of desperation where I had to let my babies cry their hearts out. I didn’t want to have to choose between nursing or sleep. I was thinking in terms of the ecosystem of the family. It didn’t make sense to me that the need for rest, comfort and sustenance in mother and baby should be mutually exclusive. Yet, in my case they were.
I read Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer but her antiquated approach to breastfeeding turned me off and made me wonder what else in her approach might not be, let’s say, based on sound science. If you want to learn more about her E.A.Z.Y. method start by reading the Amazon.ca comments section. You will notice that the reviews split between 5 stars and 1 star: very little middle ground reviews. My warning would be that if your child does not respond well to being put on a schedule (some do, some don’t), you can ruin several months of your baby’s babyhood trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. This doesn’t make for good memories.
When my sixth child was born, I quickly noticed that she was showing the tell tale signs of being a lousy sleeper: brown hair and brown eyes (yes, this is how it goes in my family: brown eyes = lousy sleeper, blue eyes = self-soothing baby. It splits evenly between the 8 and even alternates.) Someone recommended Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block and by far this book has been one of the most helpful I have read. It comes with some mild words of warning, most notably that the book is infuriatingly repetitive. It could have been published as a pamphlet. Also, I would like to see some scientific evidence related to that “calming reflex” and that “fourth trimester”: because something seems to work doesn’t mean that it has to be “trademarked” into some pseudo-medical concept. Finally, I would take the claim that his method solves colic with a boulder-sized grain of salt. That being said, his time-tested method of swaddling, white noise and rythmic motions will result in a calmer, more settled infant. This book — and a few Aiden & Anais swaddling blankets — is my go-to baby shower gift. It is better read before the baby comes along. Despite what the book claims, I would set the best-before date on this method at 6 weeks meaning that after 6 weeks, it may not help you as much as it would have before. My 3 year-old was swaddled well into her 5th month and my twins at 3 months will still moro-reflex-themselves silly if left unswaddled.
All this being said, Happiest Baby on the Block says little about sleep problems and what to do when they occur past the 4th month. Someone gave me Marc Weissbluth Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child and I bought Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Twins (essentially the same book with more emphasis on scheduled awakenings). If you want to learn more about the science of sleep and its importance, this is the book for you. In a nutshell, his approach to sleep is that “sleep begets sleep” and that a well-rested child will naturally sleep better at night and during the day. It can be a dry read if you are as severely sleep-deprived as I am but the summary at the end of each chapter is enough to get you going. While Weissbluth’s method is not a straight-up Cry-it-Out approach, it can get to that if you let it.
All these books have helped me better understand my babies’ sleep. Each book describes at length how its method will help your baby sleep better. Each book has testimonies from parents whose children used to wake-up every 10 minutes and went-on on sleep 12 hours!! In a row!! Without waking-up!! Ever again!! But none of the books has a decent troubleshooting section. For instance, Weissbluth claims that if you put your baby to bed drowsy but awake at the right time (ei, before he gets overtired and cranky) he will quietly settle into sleep. When I put my son in bed drowsy but awake after the first signs of drowsyness, he wakes right up and freaks out. Now what? That doesn’t seem to exist in Weissbluth’s method: I must have missed the signs of drowsyness and waited too long. So I try again with shorter intervals of wakefulness. Still no success. Now what? Troubleshooting may suggest that the method in question is not a slam-dunk, and this may not be on any parenting book author’s wish list. But it would be nice to understand why some kids just don’t get it.
In the end, if my experience with 8 newborns has shown me anything it’s that some babies are able to fall asleep and stay asleep unassisted and others aren’t. Among those who are unable to fall or stay asleep unassisted you will find different degrees and variations of difficulty. For instance, my son can’t fall asleep on his own during the day but has no problem at night and overnight. It is possible to turn a good sleeper into a bad one through bad sleep hygiene (for instance if baby is constantly being woken-up or unable to nap adequately) and it is possible to turn a moderately bad sleeper into a moderately good one. Really lousy sleepers from hell and colicky babies are just that and your best bet is to aim at survival. That’s why Karp and Weissbluth are my favorite books: they propose to instill a good sleep hygiene through gentle repetition of time-tested routines. But if your child does not respond to the approach by sleeping like an angel, you can still keep those routines going without loosing your mind. Not so much with Ferber’s gradual extinction or Hogg’s Pick-up/Put down.
For my twins, I have adopted my own set of sleep principles. My approach has two pillars. The first one is survival: I need well-rested happy babies and this means that they must have naps during the day. At their age, we are still looking at 3 naps a day or more if they are very short. The second pillar is enjoyment: these are my twins. Having twins is a unique life experience and I’ll be damned if I waste it in a constant struggle with my flesh and blood. I have every intention to have wonderful — if blurry — memories of my twins’ infancy: raising twins is too tiring not to make the most out of every smile.
In order to give Lucas the rest he needs during the day, I have resorted to the swing, which I used to not-so-lovingly call the neglect-o-matic. I only put Lucas in the swing for his naps. I nurse him, swaddle him and put him in the swing with white noise. He can sleep 2-3 hours like this. You may wonder, as I do, how the heck I will wean him from the swing. The truth is I have no clue. I’m trying to address this issue in steps and right now I am getting him in the habit of sleeping a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon and an hour or so in the evening. When his body is used to sleeping, I figure that being drowsy and falling asleep will come naturally and we can transition to sleep out of the swing. I’ll write a post when we get there. At night, he can usually fall asleep on his own in bed so I cultivate this ability like a delicate flower. I figure that he has the ability to fall asleep on his own and will eventually apply it to his daytime naps as well.
As far as night sleep goes, once again, the two pillars. Survival means that if Lucas needs to finish the night in bed with us, so be it. That’s what David did and our early morning cuddles are some of my fondest memories. Survival also means that I will not spend a night awake listening to my baby cry. If I’m going to be awake, it will be drowsy with a nursing child. Ève is starting to sleep through the night (from 7:30 pm until 4-5ish) so the days when I’m up every hour with one or the other will be soon over. I know that to a parent of a singleton, waking-up to nurse every 3 hour sounds like a nightmare but to a parent of twins, it sounds like a trip to paradise: I haven’t slept 3 hours in a row since mid-August (I’m writing this in January).
In conclusion, Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child are the best resources in terms of understanding the science, physiology and importance of sleep to overall health. However, if you are not willing to let your child “cry it out”, just skip that part of the book. To establish gentle sleep routines and help your child sleep better — undertanding that “better” is only relative to your baseline and may mean going from no sleep to 2 hours — Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and Happiest Baby on the Block are your best bet. They are a nice complement to each other. If you have no problems letting your child cry it out, save your money and don’t buy any books: both Weissbluth and Ferber agree that no harm will come to your child from crying it out assuming they are not hungry, sick or in pain. Just close the door and walk away.
I may be getting too old for this but I’m done pretending that I don’t care about my babies.