In my short time being a mother, I’ve noticed that with every new stage that the baby enters, the mother is inevitably flooded with decisions. When they are born, we decide on a name. When they are a month or so, we decide if we will introduce a soother. When they enter the fourth month regression, well, quite frankly, we just enter survival mode. But when they pass through that, it’s all about sleep training. Suddenly Google has figured out you’re in this stage of motherhood and your facebook page is covered with sleep solution ads featuring sleep consultants and various purchasable sleep programs guaranteed to have your entire family sleeping in 10 days or less!
When I realized that not everyone’s baby wakes up every 90 minutes to 2 hours a night, I made the new mom mistake of wondering if I’m doing something wrong. If I’m somehow perpetuating these “bad” sleep habits. So I turned to Google for answers. “How many hours should a 4.5 month old sleep?” was furiously typed into the search bar. Within seconds I learned from several sites that at this age, my baby should be sleeping 12 hours a night, straight through with no feeding. He should be put to bed awake so as not to create a habit of depending on me to put him down after nursing. And his naps should be at least 90 minutes in length and roughly 2 hours apart.
Needless to say, my jaw dropped. I was lucky if Sawyer slept 10 broken hours with at least 3 feeds. His naps were seldom longer than 40 minutes (with the occasional unicorn nap that lasted an hour and 15). Panicked, and figuring that anything short of these specifications was somehow unhealthy for my son, I naively started researching the most effective ways of sleep training.
So I found a method to try that seemed like it would have been easy enough. The Ferber Method – which basically is a “gentle” (HA!) form of crying it out. The instructions said to get rid of all sleeping “props” (so, anything that makes the baby feel secure – a soother, nursing to sleep, gentle music). Done. Sawyer had been rejecting his soother, so no issues there, and how hard can it be to keep him awake while he feeds? Next instruction: Put the baby down to bed awake. As my son slowly drifted off to dreamland on my boob, I tickled his cheek, patted his bum, and gently kept him awake. After his feeding, I put him down wide eyed, and a bit confused. After all, he’s used to passing out mid-meal and enjoying his 2-3 hour slumber before having seconds!
Panic hit him. He started breathing heavily, making whimpering sounds, and kicking his legs. Within seconds he was crying. This was the part that I knew would be the worst. I gently reminded him I love him, and that it was time to sleep. I left his room, turned the monitor on, and poured myself a glass of wine. I set my timer for 5 minutes. I knew that in 5 minutes my husband would go into his room, reassure him again, and if all went well, Sawyer would be asleep soon after. 5 Minutes passed. We did as instructed. At this point my anxiety started rising. Our next check in interval was at 10 minutes. We went through the motions. Now my body was starting to shake a little from the stress and guilt I was feeling. But I kept reminding myself, this is for his own good. He needs to learn how to sleep. We kept our check ins to 15 minutes apart until he fell asleep.
After the second 15 minute interval, (so 45 minutes of crying total) I had tears running down my face. Actually, I was sobbing. None of this felt right. I was in absolute agony. I felt as though someone had a vice around my heart. Every ounce of my body was telling me to go in, give him a cuddle, let him nurse, calm him down, let him fall asleep in my arms. But my husband and I agreed that we would give this “sleep training” a fair shot. Half an hour later, my exhausted little boy finally fell asleep. I was a mess. I won’t go into the details of how I had to go through this once again when he woke 2 hours later for a feeding that we decided (for lack of our own better judgement) that we would deny him until an arbitrary 4 hour mark. Let’s just say I felt like the fucking worst mother in the world.
So this went on for about 3 nights. As soon as 7:00pm hit, our strict military bedtime routine began. My anxiety started around 6:30pm in anticipation of the stress ahead. My breath got shallow, my patience ran thin, and I had to suppress the voice screaming in my head to not go on and do this again. I’m going to spare you the details of how I felt when, after finally passing out, my baby would wake up just an hour or two later and I’d have to endure his blood curdling cries again while he learned to “self sooth” during mid-sleep wake ups. With shaking hands, I drank my glass of wine, watched Friends and kept reassuring myself that he’s just “making sense of his day,” or “figuring things out,” or “just angry because we are breaking a routine” or whatever other reason for the crying that I read online.
By night 4 I gave up. I couldn’t handle it anymore. None of this felt right to me. Evening time was the most stressful part of my day. I did some research and guess what? Turns out that nursing to sleep in fact isn’t the worst habit in the world. Actually, it’s quite normal and natural! Not only that, but answering to your baby’s cries with the comfort of your breast is actually okay as well. And no, it doesn’t mean that you’re baby will forever be dependant on you, nor does it harbour some kind of poor sleep associations. I mean, as far as I know, most (dare I say all?) grown ups, and even children, don’t cry out for their mother’s breast after a certain point. Babies start sleeping through the night, and are able to go to sleep without any help when they are developmentally ready for it. So that’s enough confirmation for this mama!
You may be wondering what I do now. That’s if you’ve made it this fart. I’m certain that there will be a whole lot of you that have something on the contrary to say about my methods. And that’s ok, leave a comment, but be kind.
Our bedtime routine consists of a fun bath with toys, and cups, and lots of splashing, followed by getting into a sleeper and sleep sack, and then a long and slow feed. As I feed, I sing Sawyer a Polish lullaby (at least 4 times), and eventually his excitable movements slow down, and he falls asleep in my arms. I gently transfer him to his crib. That moment before I place him belly down (because like his mom, he is now a tummy sleeper) is my absolute favourite. His limp little body feeling heavy against mine. His face nuzzled into my neck. I take a few extra moments to just hold him and sway with him before placing him down. He’s still so tiny. And if the rest of his babyhood is anything like these past 5 1/2 months, then I know it’ll fly by before I know it. Mindfully, I hold him, and I wish him a peaceful sleep.
Some nights he’s up once. Some nights he’s up 4 times. Every time he’s up, I go in and nurse him for comfort. Some nights are easy, and some are a challenge. But isn’t that what motherhood is like? As soon as I surrendered to this thought, I have been able to enjoy those nightly feedings a whole lot more.
It’s not everyone’s approach to baby sleep, but it’s what works for our family. What works for yours? What have been your biggest struggles? How have you overcome them?