How Do I Get My Baby to Sleep?

Dear Cat,

I’m a dad with a toddler who won’t sleep by himself because we made the decision to co-sleep. I’m nearly positive that his mother and I might actually have more passion in our lives if we could get him to sleep through the night on his own. What are your own experience with babies and sleep? How do I get my baby to sleep? Will my wife and I ever have sex again?

Sincerely,

Jake

how to get baby to sleep

Dear Jake,

Hindsight is a wicked bitch. She always arches her cunning brow at me, just before she drops the bomb that makes cringe and facepalm a la Homer Simpson.

Here at the homestead, we’re reading Pamela Drukerman’s delightfully written book Bringing Up Bebe. Do you know it? It’s a comparative analysis of French (from France) children versus North American kids, based on the author’s experience of French kids being much better behaved. It’s a great read, but there are so many ideas in this book that I wish I had known about when my fifteen-month-old son was in utero.

The biggest facepalm induced by this book thus far has been Drukerman’s revelation about sleep habits. French babies evidently sleep through the night at an early age, some as early as two months. Noah, who has co-slept with me in my bed since his first day home, and who also still breastfeeds,  wakes multiple times through the night and he won’t go back to sleep without the boob. The boob is also how we get him to fall asleep in the first place when he goes down for the night. Nearly every moment of sleeping with his sweaty little head under my nose has been bliss, but honestly, as a full-time homeschooling mom, I need to start sleeping for longer stretches. I startled myself with my own haggard, dark-circled reflection the other day. Noah could probably benefit from a full night of sleep too, he’s taken to shrieking like a hell cat whenever anyone says “no” to him.  Also,  my (formerly) sexy grown up life could benefit from someone besides me putting the little monkey to sleep for the night.

The French take a little (approximately 2-5 minute) pause before attending to a crying infant, right from birth. They also get baby used to a mealtime schedule that matches the rest of the family once the little one is about two months old. The benefits here are multi-fold, but where sleep is concerned baby learns how to sooth himself to sleep when he naturally awakens from one sleep cycle to the next, and baby also learns to anticipate feedings within a natural daily rhythm. This isn’t jarring, or sudden, it’s just the way things go right from the outset. We’re all entitled to our own ideas about what makes sense for us and our babes, and these ideas really rang true with me. Trouble is, I’m about fifteen months too late to the chic French parenting party.

The advice that French pediatrician and sleep guru Michel Cohen gives to parents well past the baby’s early months in his otherwise practical manual The New Basics made my blood run cold; tuck the baby in with a soothing bedtime routine, free of nursing, turn out the lights, close the door and return at 7am the next morning. Hells. To. The. No.

I did not wait 36 years and nearly ten months to make a person with my flesh and blood only to have him finally learn to sleep on his own by letting him wail himself to sleep in the dark all alone until the morning. Is this a super overly-emotional and perhaps a little impractical stance? Yes. Could my baby be developing potentially long-lasting sleep problems with our current routine? Science says yes. Do I think you’re a bad person or an evil parent because you may make the choice to leave your baby to CIO (cry it out)? No, I truly don’t. I really, passionately believe that you have to find your own parenting groove.

So what happens in a house with three parents when our newest child co-sleeps and breastfeeds well past the first year? Our other two children, who were birthed by my partner, and who I met when they were three and five, slept in their own beds and were weaned before they were a year old. Interestingly, both were great sleepers, which in my books means they usually slept through the night. As you can imagine, the three of us came from different camps. Both my partners are science brains who put a lot of faith in medical studies, rather than in anecdotal evidence. I am from a more touchy-feely camp where I feel a little paranoid and mistrustful of science sometimes. Building a life with these pragmatic, brilliant minds has been a very positive education for me, and I like to think I’ve made them both a little more ‘granola’ along the way.

Collectively, we all understand that the time has come to help Noah develop some more independent sleep strategies. Nekky and Sarah believed that a firm approach would work the most efficiently. I think at least one of them was prepared to try the Cohen method suggested above. I wanted to wean Noah a bit more gradually and slowly try to transition him to the adorable toddler bed we just found for him. Reading ‘Bringing Up Bebe’ inspired me to consider speeding up this process a bit. I actually don’t remember what it feels like to get a full night’s rest, and I’m fairly sure that I’ll be a better mom once I can reclaim that. There will be less crying with my head on the desk at the back of our classroom, for example. I am not willing to try the firm line CIO method where Noah is alone to scream until morning. The ‘extinction’ method, as it’s called.

A very recent Australian study revealed that there is absolutely no long-term negative psychological effects associated with certain variations of the Cry It Out (or CIO) method. These variations include camping out with your baby as they cry, or periodically coming in to give them a pat and some soothing words. Both are only recommended for babies six months old and beyond. You can read the study here, and then read the American Pediatric Society take on this study here if you like. If you prefer more layman terms, I liked this article from Reuters.

I’m sharing all of this because my extensive reading was eye-opening, and frankly game-changing. I learned that trusted resources, like the renowned Dr. Sears family, have skewed research to support their own claims that letting babies cry is detrimental to their health. (Read this one, for more details). It seems everyone in the “parenting expert” world has an agenda, and one really has to be their own advocate when it comes to everything parenting related. Makes sense when you consider how individual all of us humans are, even the tiny ones! It also seems like this particular subject is seriously fraught with emotion. I posted an article on my personal Facebook page to see how my friends and peers approached the matter of baby sleep, and people had a LOT to  say, including some pretty harsh things to one another!

Last night, daddy put Noah to bed in our room, in his play yard. They had a nice wind down with stories and gentle music, and then when it was clear that Noah was really tired, Daddy placed him in the play yard, explaining that tonight he would sleep there, and that Daddy would be right there in the room with him. Mama S and I fled the scene, mostly so I wouldn’t kick down the door to Noah’s room if I got overly-emo about things. We took refuge in a nearby cafe and tried to keep busy while we got frequent text updates. Daddy, who is the softest heart I have ever known, steeled himself for the fifty-minute onslaught that followed. Our baby talks, so in addition to the wailing, he was also calling “Daddy”,  and “Mamma” at the top of his lungs. Daddy would occasionally remind him that he was right there, and that everything would be okay, and it was time to lay down and go to sleep, and then finally Noah sat down, settled in, and knocked out. That’s when we Mamas returned, and I bunked up in Mama S’ room for the night. While we were out, I was surprisingly calm about all of this.

I slept soundly until about 3am, when Noah usually wakes up. Sometimes he also wakes up at about 1am. I awoke on my own, not because the baby was wailing, but because I was a bit panicked by the complete silence. I tried to relax, and settle myself back to sleep with a fairly extensive foray into the Women’s Fashion boards of Pinterest. This eventually worked, and Noah finally woke for the morning at 6am. Daddy informed me that he also woke up at 12:30am and cried for about fifteen minutes before falling back asleep. I WAS SO KNOCKED OUT, I DIDN’T HEAR A THING!!

This morning Noah was in great spirits. He was certainly happy to see me, and he fed voraciously in the morning, which we told him was “breakfast time”. The little monkey actually laughed and clapped when he saw my breasts. My boobs felt like they were going to explode, and I slept like hell because I was so anxious, but I think this exercise went so much better than any of us imagined. I feel confident that tonight will be better, and I’m feeling very confident that we’re doing the right thing for our baby, with all of the love and care we can muster. I say this not to defend myself, but to share my truth with any of you who are struggling with sleep deprivation, and may be afraid to try new techniques.

Noah is napping solidly as I type this. In fact, I’ve heard him wake up TWICE now and mutter a little to himself before falling back asleep! I expect he’ll eat an amazing lunch at noon with the rest of us. I think tonight he and daddy will have more success with bed time, and I don’t feel like I have to run away from home while they get settled either. I’m looking forward to next week when we’ve established a new rhythm and, well, all of us will sleep like babies. Parenting high fives all around.

These things take time, but I suggest you and your wife read as much as you can, and then decide together on one or two methods that make sense to you both. Allow time, and patience as all of you adjust to the new schedule and routine. Listen to your gut, and respect your partner’s needs and desires, and above all else, do what you both feel is best for your family. Then, sit back, and enjoy all of the sex you’ll start having again. It’s only a matter of time.

Kisses on your nose,

cat skinner

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