Monday, May 18, 2015

A History of Sleep Deprivation

I've been enjoying the TimeHop app on my phone. It's fun to see old Facebook posts about things my kids said, or pictures of them, or other random happenings, or information I came across and wanted to share.

What has struck me, though, is just how many of those posts are about sleep, and how I wish I could get more of it.

Since I've been on Facebook for about seven years, give or take, some of these posts go back pretty far, at least to S's infancy. And almost daily, one of the posts from one of the years going back to when S was a baby has said something along the lines of, "I hope [whichever baby] lets me sleep tonight," or "WHY is [baby] not asleep yet?" or "I need more coffee," or "[Baby] actually slept through the night last night!"

And I'm still feeling that way, with Y approaching 19 months. Sleep is such a feature when it comes to babies and toddlers, it's such a central theme. I've had a baby or a toddler in my life nonstop for 8-1/2 years now, and in all that time, I've had just a few months here and there in which everybody in the house was sleeping through the night. This is not an exaggeration. It's simple truth. My Facebook history is witness to that.

Sleep is such an issue that there is a whole growing industry of "sleep consultants" who will meet with you in person or virtually, assess your baby's sleep habits and environment, and give you a personalized plan to get your baby sleeping through the night. A consultation and plan, with follow up, can run in the hundreds of dollars, and I imagine many parents feel it is money well spent. I feel like I know enough about infant sleep that if I had the will and the strength, I could do all this myself and have my kids sleeping through the night. But since I don't have that willpower, I don't think I could bring myself to follow someone else's plan, either. I'm not saying you shouldn't use a sleep consultant if you think it will help. I'm just saying I don't think it's the answer for my family.

The problem is that there is such a wide range of advice and rhetoric around infant and toddler sleep. At one end of the spectrum are those who say that by three to four months of age, you should put your baby in a crib in a dark room at a set bedtime, shut the door, and walk away, and don't return until the time he is "allowed" to wake up. No amount of crying from him should sway you to comfort him or in any way appear to be giving in to him. Because, they say, babies need to learn to sleep on their own, and if they don't learn it young, it will be harder and harder to learn it as they get older!

At the other end of the spectrum are those who say that a baby needs what she needs, and you should respond every time she asks for you. Indeed, if she needs to sleep in bed with you and suckle at your breast all night, then that's what you should do so that she feels safe and protected and secure, and so she knows that you will always be there for her. Some kids will need to sleep with you until they're five or six, but most will ask for their own bed at some point. After all, they say, in other cultures, the whole family sleeps together in one big bed anyway, so why do we in the West think it's wrong?

With this kind of contradictory advice about what you "should" be doing for your baby, and what your baby "should" be doing, what is a new parent to believe? Who's right?

I think both are right. And neither. I think parents and baby have a right to a good night's sleep, have a right to their needs being met, and have a right to negotiate the best possible sleep for everybody. I adamantly disagree that if you don't "teach" a baby to sleep through the night when he's six months old, then he'll be waking at night for years. I also adamantly disagree that if parents are simply uncomfortable allowing a baby or toddler to sleep in their bed, they should do it anyway for the best interests of their child.

How you go about finding this middle ground will vary depending on your personality and parenting style. I'm a hands-off type, and after four kids, I've learned that eventually you hit a wall and have to make a change, and usually at that point it's easier than you expected it to be to make that change. I'm also lazy about enforcing a schedule or pattern, and I am pulled in too many directions at night to focus so strongly on just one of the kids. Usually I get a sense of what I need to do, then find a way to work up to it, and then suddenly implement the new rule, which takes a few nights or weeks to stick. I tend to take things in stages. First, put him in his own bed (as opposed to mine). Next, wean him from needing to nurse at night (in the hope that if he doesn't have that to wake up for, he won't bother waking up). Finally, if he is still waking for comfort even if he's not nursing, help him learn self-soothing techniques so he can put himself back to sleep instead of calling for me. This was the general process I did with G starting at about 15 months, and it took about eight months until he was totally falling asleep on his own, in his own bed, and sleeping through until morning without waking me.

I have the benefit of knowing that they do eventually sleep through the night. My 8 and 6-year-olds take their own bath or shower, get themselves in PJs, and read to themselves in bed, then put themselves to sleep and sleep through until morning (barring illness, bathroom, or nightmares, of course). Neither was always that way, and indeed both woke me many, many, many times at night until I finally decided to attempt a change. Change is slow but inexorable, and eventually you realize, hey, it's been a while since I needed to tend to him at night!

I'll be starting the next stage of this process with Y soon. He's already sleeping in his own bed, but, unfortunately, I usually end up sleeping there with him most nights. He also nurses several times a night and nurses to sleep for naps and bedtime as well. My next project will be to night-wean him, so that he no longer needs or asks to nurse at bedtime or throughout the night. I hope that he will simply start sleeping through the night at that point, but, judging from my experience with G, I will probably have to tend to night-wakings for a few more months, and possibly do some light sleep training, before everyone in the house goes to bed, goes to sleep, and sleeps through until morning.

What a luxurious time that will be!

Maybe a few years from now, when I look at my TimeHop or my Facebook history, I won't be inundated with complaints about my babies' sleep. Instead, I'll be relatively well-rested, alert, and able to focus more of my energies on living life, instead of craving sleep.

I wish you all good nights and good sleep.

If you have any questions about infant sleep, I've written on this subject many times. Check out the sleep tag for lots of stories and information.

3 comments:

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