Sleep, Oh Dear Sweet Sleep

Perhaps the hardest thing about having a baby is sleep deprivation. It’s kind of alarming, the lack of sleep, especially with your first child. Most of us are used to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and that simply doesn’t happen when a baby enters our lives. We expect newborns, who have their days and nights mixed up anyway, to wreak havoc on our sleep, but the fact is that older babies and toddlers also sleep erratically.

Babies and toddlers are not designed to sleep through the night. They are supposed to wake frequently to nurse or to check in with their parents. They simply are not biologically designed to sleep long stretches without waking. Their little bodies do not go into deep sleep the way we do, and when they wake up, they don’t know how to put themselves back to sleep. You wouldn’t expect a three-month old baby to walk, right? You wouldn’t expect a two-year old to read Shakespeare. It’s the same with sleep. Sleep, like anything else, matures as children get older. Kathy Dettwyler, an anthropologist, has done a lot of good research about this, both from a biological and historical perspective. You can read some of her work here.

This portrait of baby sleep is not what new mothers want to hear. They expect that their babies will sleep through the night at three months, six months, etc. It does get better: little by little, with some regressions, your child will sleep solidly, most of the time. I can’t tell you when that will be because every child is different, but most children are done with regular night-waking by about four years old. Yes, four years old. That doesn’t mean they’re up all night until they’re four, but that it is normal for children to wake once or twice for comfort or nursing, until about then.

OK, yes. I know many parents train their children to sleep through the night. I don’t need argue about why “cry it out” and other methods are physically and psychologically harmful. Or the fact that nightweaning before a baby is ready will actually harm your overall milk supply. Or the fact that sleep training or nightweaning often does not work. If you’re of the mindset that such training is essential, then you can skip this essay and work it out yourself. I’m of the mindset that all children need to be attended to, both day and night, until they outgrow that need. Here’s a lovely little essay about what one mother calls the “wait it out” approach to baby sleep.

Now here’s the thing. As much as I am an advocate of accepting the facts about baby/toddler sleep, I am very much of the mindset that once we accept it, WE have to learn to adapt to the fact that our sleep will be broken for a few years when we have little ones, and that we need to take a proactive role in coping with it. Sleep and rest are as essential as good food, exercise, love, peace, etc. As mothers, as women, let’s make is a priority to find creative ways to sneak in our zzz’s and our rest. Let’s ask our families and friends to help us make that happen. Let’s not shortchange ourselves by thinking we can do it all without making good choices that fit our lives as moms of infants and young children.

Here are some of my ideas, things that have worked for me. The main point here is to wholeheartedly accept your child’s sleep patterns and at the same time make sleep (or rest) a priority for yourself.

1. Nap when the baby naps. Duh. Everyone tells you that, but napping doesn’t come easy to everyone. Probably the easiest way to do it is to lie down in bed with the baby. If you don’t know how to nurse lying down, get help from a friend, a breastfeeding counselor, or an IBCLC. Turn off the phone, dim the lights, put on a white noise machine if it helps, and clear your mind. If your to-do list keeps running through your head, list the items one by one in your mind, and then let them go. Kind of like counting sheep. If you only sleep for 20 minutes, enjoy every minute of it. If you sleep longer, great! If you don’t sleep at all, just lying down will do you good. I make it a point to be home for my baby’s morning nap. I did it the whole first year of my older son’s life. The morning nap is often the easiest one for you to sleep during because you’re not as wound up from the day yet.

2. Keep your babies and children close-by at night. There is nothing more annoying than waking up in the middle of the night, getting out of bed, tending to your child, and then trying to get back to sleep. It’s worse than annoying. It gets your blood moving, your heart beating, and your brain working. Keeping your baby or child in your bed with you, or in a bed in your room is essential. And the kids like it pretty well also! If you’re not comfortable with bed-sharing, sidecarring a crib or a bed is great because it keeps your babe in a separate space but it doesn’t require you to leave the bed when you nurse or soothe. Here’s a link about how one family sidecarred a crib to their bed.

3. Turn around the clock. If you wake up and look at the clock every time you wake up, you’ll only stress yourself out! And stress and sleep do not mix. Do yourself a favor and turn around the clock, or at least try to look it less. Keeping your eyes closed while you latch the baby and and drift back to sleep minimizes the wakefulness and makes you feel more refreshed in the morning. I know I’ve had a good night’s sleep when I don’t know how many times my baby woke up.

4. Live your life like a sleepy person would. Keep your life simple. Don’t overschedule yourself. Pace your day so you have downtime. You really don’t need to be out all day taking your baby to every Mommy and Me class in town. In the early years, you’re all your baby really needs. Of course, all of us want interesting activities in our lives, but try to do no more than one or two each day. It’s too tiring for both you and your baby.

5. Do your housework with the baby. I’m a big proponent of wearing my baby in a sling and doing my vacuuming, mopping, meal prep, etc. What does this have to do with sleep, you ask? First, it’s the best multi-tasking activity around. Not only do I have a clean floor, but a relaxed baby who is ready to lie down with me and good to sleep! Also, the more you can do with the baby when he or she is awake, the more “clear” you will feel during your downtime. How nice it is to have straightened up the house and then lie down with the baby for his or her nap!

6. Take a day off. There are some days that no matter how much I try to nap, I just can’t shut off my brain. Or the baby wakes up 20 minutes into the nap. Or I just simply don’t have time to nap that day. And there are nights that no matter what I do, I can’t fall back asleep after the baby wakes, or the baby doesn’t fall back asleep and we’re awake for an hour in the middle of the night, or at the crack of dawn (anytime before 6am is just too early in my book!). When I have days like that, I try to cut myself a big, giant break. The dishes, the phone calls, the emails, etc. CAN WAIT. Days like this, I might call for help. My mom’s good about that. She remembers what it’s like to have a baby!

I hope this helps those of you who are in the trenches of sleep deprivation. Remember that there is nothing you did wrong to make your baby or toddler wake up. Sometimes just removing the guilt or anxiety about it helps everyone sleep better! Once you accept that it’s normal for the little ones to wake up, once you accept that things will be a little wonky with your sleep for a few years, you can build a cozy little life around it all. Have empathy for yourself. Take care of yourself.

I’d love to hear any other thoughts on what you do to cope with it all

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