In one of the brief 45-minute periods of slumber I mustered during W’s newborn phase, I dreamed I was murdered and my lifeless body was dumped on the beach. It got to just lay there, uninterrupted, as long as it wanted. The experience looked peaceful and restorative. Sort of like a Corona commercial.
It wasn’t until I mentioned this fantasy out loud to my sister that I knew sleep deprivation had crossed the line into mental depravity.
Clearly my plan to just “let it ride” when it came to schedules-schmedules and to “let the baby” decide how much sleep he needed was an epic fail. In those first two months, I would nurse him to sleep for 3-5 hours (not playing) and then he’d wake up an hour later and want to nurse again. This would continue until day break.
I now understand why sleep denial is in the Geneva Conventions.
Honestly, I’ve never felt worse in my entire life. I’m pretty sure he had day/night reversal. His biggest period of wakefulness was definitely in the midnight to 3 a.m. time-frame. If I ever have another, I will do things much differently. If you’re experiencing similar issues, here is what I learned.
1. Sleep begets sleep
This is not intuitive. You’d think that keeping the baby up more during the day would help him sleep at night. You would be wrong. From what I’ve read in countless books and blogs on baby sleep, if they stay up too long (and by that, I mean, more than an hour in the newborn phase), their baby bodies surge with adrenaline and then they’re exhausted basket cases that can’t settle. This is **so** true of my son. The more rested he is, the better he sleeps.
2. Don’t wake a sleeping newborn
I did because, as I said, I was trying to keep him up during the day so he’d sleep at night. Then, once I tried putting him on a schedule, I’d wake him to feed. Why? Because that’s when he was “supposed” to eat. If I have another one, I’m going to let him nap as long as he can. My friends who let their kids sleep as much as they want during the day have “naturally” good sleepers at night.
3. Schedules help, but don’t be a slave
After that murder fantasy, I did a 180° and put W on a very strict eating/sleeping routine. It made me feel like I had a modicum of control over my life again. It also helped me know if he was crying because he was hungry or if it was something else. Looking back, the something else was because he was tired. I’d recommend a loose routine (feeding every two or three hours), but don’t be a slave. It’ll only make you uptight when your baby doesn’t operate with precision.
4. There’s something to be said for EASY (which stands for Eat, Activity, Sleep, You time)
The theory is that nursing or feeding baby to sleep will cause a sleep association with food. This means that when baby comes out of a sleep cycle, she’ll want to nurse to get back to sleep because that’s how she remembers going down. I found this to be true, and I think it accounted for why W woke up every 45 minutes. The hard part is to figure out how to lull the baby to sleep otherwise. I patted W, and that worked (but in the first month, I had to feed to sleep).
5. Babies have ≈45 minute sleep cycles
If your baby can pull it together for even two hours at a time, your baby self-soothed once! That counts! Maybe the baby will sleep even longer next time. Maybe?
6. Babies won’t sleep if they’re under tired
Duh. Although rest is important, obviously they have to be awake enough too. Here’s a key I have found: err on getting your baby more sleep, and if that doesn’t work, increase the awake time between naps, but not necessarily the overall awake time in the day. (W is now 16 months and sleeps nearly 14 hours a day on average [see, angels will eventually sing!]) Basically, make sure the kid is tired but not manic before naps. Being up long enough between sleep periods was key for my son. Consider cutting back on the frequency of naps and instead go for fewer longer ones.
7. Try to distinguish night from day
I began dressing him in “daytime” clothes and making sure he was exposed to sunlight. Then we began the all-important bedtime routine with the time tested bath, jammies, and story.
8. Establish the bedtime (and nap time) ritual now
Babies and children seem to find routine comforting because they know what’s expected of them. Reading to the baby was important to me, but I wasn’t sure if he’d pay attention that young. To my surprise, he really took to it. Now he loves stories, so I think you might get a twofer (sleep and reading established) by doing this.
9. Try music or white noise to eliminate wakings caused by loud noises
This won’t necessarily make your kid sleep, but it might prevent him/her from waking up prematurely. (The trains in our area are crazy loud, for instance.)
10. Keep stimulation to a minimum before sleep
Part of W’s problem is that he was very curious. If there was anything remotely interesting going on nearby, he would stay awake so as to not miss it. As a result, he got high on adrenaline and couldn’t sleep. Also, I had a hard time reading his sleepy cues, because he didn’t make obvious ones, like rubbing his eyes or getting cranky. He does now but not then.
I also didn’t know what a newborn “did” either. I had very little experience with babies, so intuiting what he wanted and needed was difficult. Eventually, I did my best to transition him by taking him outside and just letting him look at the leaves and feel the breeze before sleep. That seemed to help calm him down.
What about pacifiers, baby swings, etc? Hey, if it works: use it! W was a breast man all the way and refused the pacifier. He also liked his swing, but he’d only fall asleep in there for about ten minutes, max.
My friend’s baby would nod off immediately with a pacifier and a swing, but then again, her son was always a good sleeper, and she wouldn’t have needed a blog post like this one!
What I’m discovering is that while of course all babies are different, they aren’t *that* different. They all have the same basic needs; they need to eat often, and they need lots of rest. Sure, some babies can nurse to sleep with no ill effects and others can sleep in a mall food court when they’re tired. Mine so cannot. I learned that I had to take proactive steps to improve things.
For what it’s worth, I would start with the easy stuff first. Make night and day different and institute a bedtime routine. Next, once nursing is established, try to put the baby on a feeding schedule so at least you eliminate that as a need. If your baby will take a full feed (bottle or 15-20 minutes per breast at a time), you could try feeding her every three hours. She could just fall into a great schedule from there.
Next, try to put her down for a nap doing something other than feeding her. Maybe wake her up a little so she remembers where she is if she does fall asleep eating. Try using that method to put her down at night. Finally, get him more sleep by day. And if all of this doesn’t work: pray? Plead? Wish on a star? Make a deal with your partner to have a break night? Good luck!
Question: What did you do to help your newborn sleep?