Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sleep: Part I

This is not a post with advice on getting your kid to sleep better or more. This is not a post telling you that you're doing something right or something wrong. This is not a post by someone claiming to be some kind of sleep expert.

Indeed, I'm here to tell you that after two kids and 4-1/2 years, I have come to believe that kids sleep how they sleep, and what works well for one kid will make your life hell if you try it with another. I do think you can influence to an extent your child's sleeping habits. You can provide a healthy sleep environment and encourage healthy sleep habits. You can even "sleep train," to a point. But, in the end, it's the child and his developmental stage that's in charge.

See, I have two boys. They were "sleep-raised" very differently. By "sleep-raised" (a phrase I've just coined here), I mean the attitude and environment we provided for sleep. They have quite different "sleep backgrounds," if you will, our two sons do, and yet, now, with one 4-1/2 years old and one 2-1/2 years old, their sleep habits and sleep patterns are almost identical.

Let's start with my older son.

Boy #1 was (as you know by now) exclusively formula-fed from about 3 weeks of age. He never shared our bed as an infant. He started out sleeping in a Pack'n'Play bassinet in our bedroom, then was moved to a crib in his own room at one month old. He awoke a few times a night for a bottle until about 4 or 5 months of age, then miraculously stopped eating at night of his own accord. That's not to say he slept through the night from that point on, just that we could get him back to sleep just by popping his pacifier back in his mouth, rather than having to make him a bottle.

Until he was about 10 months old, we didn't really have a bedtime routine. When he seemed ready to go to bed (any time between, say, 9:00 and 11:00 P.M.) we'd get him in his PJs, give him a bottle, and lay on the couch or someplace with him until he fell asleep, then transfer him to his crib. Bedtime was difficult, and I was alone with a cranky child from the time I picked him up from daycare around 5:30 or 6:00 (oh yeah, he was in full-time daycare from 4 months of age, too) until my husband got home, any time between 8:30 and 11:30 at night. And he still wasn't sleeping through the night, and we had to get up often to do the "pacifier dance," which was going into the baby's room in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed, contact/glasses-less, to feel around for the pacifier, pop it back in baby's mouth, and hope he'd go back to sleep. There was also a period of about three months, from 8 to 11 months of age, in which we moved his crib into our bedroom because he seemed to be waking up scared and we felt bad. The pacifier dance was a bit easier under those circumstances, but I don't recall that he slept any better.

I was going a little bit nuts.

I then read an excellent book called The No-Cry Sleep Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley (highly recommended!), in the hopes of improving his (and therefore our) nighttime sleep. Pantley gave one piece of advice that I immediately took to heart. Put him to bed earlier. As counterintuitive as it seemed, setting a 7:30 bedtime instead of letting him decide when to go to sleep definitely improved his mood (and mine!), and it gave me a quiet evening instead of one in which I was dealing with a cranky baby for hours on end. My sanity improved almost overnight (haha!). The other piece of advice that hit home was have a set bedtime routine and stick with it. It doesn't so much matter what the routine is, as long as it's calming and consistent. Ours was eat dinner, take a bath, get in PJs, sing a few songs, have a bottle, then fall asleep lying on Mommy or Daddy. Once asleep, he'd be transferred to his crib, where he usually slept for quite a few hours before the nightly pacifier dance began.

When he was about 15 or 16 months old, he started having what we called "parties" several nights a week for two hours. Exactly two hours. Whatever time he woke up, and whatever we did during that time, he'd be awake for two solid hours, then go back to sleep. This might be from midnight to 2:00am, from 3:00 to 5:00am, or any other unpredictable time. Sure something was wrong, I took him to the doctor, who pronounced him perfectly healthy and this behavior quite normal. "You might have to let him cry it out," the doctor advised.

Now, crying it out is one of those controversial topics in Mommy-land. Some parents swear by it, claiming that three nights of screaming led to a lifetime of blissful through-the-night sleeping. Others say that it causes irreparable emotional damage by causing the baby undue stress and making him feel that Mommy isn't really there for him. Then there's the middle-of-the-road types, who say that you do have to teach your kid to sleep at night, and he's only manipulating you if you respond to his cries, so you need to follow Ferber's method (found in the book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, by Richard Ferber, M.D.) of "controlled crying" to help your baby fall asleep on his own, so that when he wakes during the night (as we all do), he can go back to sleep without disturbing you.

I decided, after 16 months of rarely sleeping through the night, to try my own version of "controlled crying." I followed our usual bedtime routine, but instead of letting him fall asleep lying on me after his bottle, I gave him a bottle in his room, then immediately put him in his bed and told him it was time to go to sleep, then left the room. He cried and cried. After 5 minutes, I went back in, laid him down, told him to go to sleep, and left again. Five more minutes of agonized screaming. Went back in. Lather, rinse repeat, for about 30 minutes. Then he fell asleep. He woke about an hour and a half later, I followed the process again, and he went back to sleep. I recall that after about 3 or 4 nights of this (with gradual improvement), he would no longer cry when I left the room, he would go to sleep quickly, and he pretty much slept through the night. The two-hour "parties" stopped, too. So it worked, yes.

Unfortunately, as babies are wont to do, he changed it up on us. At around 18 months, he entered the horrendous time known as the 18-Month Sleep Regression. This is an almost-universal phenomenon in which a child, who has been a perfectly cooperative toddler until now, suddenly starts sleeping terribly, or at least worse than before, for a few weeks (usually 4 to 6 weeks, to be honest) for no apparent reason. Yep.

Basically, at 19 months, we had to do another few nights of "controlled crying" to get him back into a better sleeping habit. After that, he pretty much started sleeping quite well. We'd do the bedtime routine, say goodnight, and leave, and he'd go to sleep and pretty much stay asleep. This was most excellent, as I was pregnant with our second child by then and really needed the sleep. That's not to say that we never saw those 1:00ams or 2:30ams or anything after that. He'd still wander in occasionally in the middle of the night (we had put him in a toddler bed by then, too) and wake us. Sometimes, we'd just pull him into our bed to finish out the night, and sometimes we'd escort him back to his. But it was mostly good sleep for everyone at night.

I should point out that the bedtime routine evolves as the kid grows. He no longer took a bottle by that age, and I believe I started reading a couple of books to him each night in addition to singing songs. As he grew, he started getting to choose what song to sing, what book(s) to read, and so forth. But the bedtime routine, even today, is largely unchanged. It's still dinner, bath, PJs, books, and bed. We now say the bedtime Shema (the night-time prayer) together before going to sleep, for example. But the structure is pretty much the same.

I also wanted to tell you about where this child liked to sleep, as it has bearing on what happened once his brother was born. At some point, I think around 18 or 19 months (once he could get out of bed on his own), after we'd say goodnight and go downstairs, he'd gather up his blankie, pacifier, and sometimes a sippy cup in his arms, slip out of his bed, and lie down next to the gate at the top of the stairs. There, he'd fall asleep and sleep peacefully until we'd come upstairs to go to bed several hours later and put him back in his own bed. We allowed this to go on for about a year, even when it meant me, at 9 months pregnant, having to step over the gate and him in order to get upstairs. Even when I had to start figuring out how to climb over the gate and him (see, we couldn't open the gate because he was usually lying up against it!) while holding a newborn. We let it go on because we felt that it wasn't important enough to change. And, frankly, it wasn't. He was sleeping. That's what mattered.

I think the number one piece of wisdom I came across during that time was "If the solution is worse than the problem, then you don't have a problem." I keep this close to my heart, because it's helped me through a lot of so-called "problems" with both kids, and other things in life, too. So, I'm passing it along.

It seemed like it was going to be too tortuous for us and him to try to force him to change his sleeping habits when they really weren't that big of a deal. I was told it was probably just a phase (a very long phase, apparently!), and that he'd eventually start staying in his own bed of his own accord. He didn't, and eventually it did become impossible to keep stepping over the gate and him as our younger son grew. One night, I decided it was time for him to stay in his bed and fall asleep there, and it really only took a night or two to convince him to do so. Life did get easier without that nightly gate-hurdling, I admit.

Nowadays, at the ripe old age of 4-1/2, most nights we get to sleep uninterrupted from whenever we go to bed until whenever we have to get up, or at least until 6:15 or so, which is pure bliss. There are nights when one or the other or both wake up. Son #1 is at the age of irrational fears and nightmares, so sometimes he'll come in randomly and either climb into our bed to finish out the night, or one of us (usually my husband) will escort him back to his bed and lie down with him for a bit. Now he's old enough to tell him he needs to stay in his bed and go back to sleep, and that he doesn't need to wake up Mommy or Daddy unless something is really wrong. It's really only once every few weeks that he has a bad night, which is totally tolerable!

So, the good news (so far) is that your child won't wake you up 3 times a night forever. More good news is that you will one day get to sleep all the way through the night, on your own terms. I actually do get mornings where I have the pleasure of waking him up!

As for Son #2, well, his sleep saga deserves a post of its own. I think the comparison is very interesting, because, as I said, they now both sleep through the night the vast majority of the time, and their sleeping histories are considerably different.

I think I'll also do a follow-up post with the conclusions I have managed to draw from all of this. There do seem to be a few universal truths, and I think these truths apply not just to babies but to everyone when it comes to sleep. Of course, this third baby will probably throw us for another loop, and everything I think I know will just fly right out the window again! Or maybe not. Maybe we'll find out that there really are some universals! I'll get back to you on that in a couple of years.

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