Okay, so this is going to be incredibly boring for anyone who is not a parent: apologies in advance, BUT, as every new parent knows, there are times in life when the most fascinating, infuriating, and exciting subject is… sleep. And, more specifically, how to get more of it.
Since mentioning a few sleep tips for newborns in a post about the first 7 months of parenthood (along with answering questions like ‘What does it feel like to be pregnant?’, and ‘What is labour really like?’) as part of Natalie Lynn Borton’s Summer Motherhood Project, we’ve had a major breakthrough with our own baby’s sleep, and as someone who has been trawling the internet looking for advice to get us to this point, I wanted to share what I’ve discovered. That, and a little about the position I’ve reached on the whole breastfeeding issue. Ultimately though, this isn’t a parenting blog – so don’t worry, I will get back to other things soon.
First, a little context. In general, I fall somewhere between the spontaneous hippy and the order loving neat-freak. These two parts of me often conflict, and I have had to work not to let one dominate the other pretty much my whole life. Having a baby and working out how to be a parent has just been a natural continuation of that. I want to raise children who know that they are deeply loved, to give them the tools to enable them to grow up to be happy, confident, empathetic, kind, generous, loving, and open-hearted people – while at the same time somehow avoiding the easy pitfalls of creating spoilt children who always get their way and think that the world revolves around them. Don’t we all? (You’ll find more on my general attitude towards parenting philosophy here.) As Emma Thompson said: ‘Judicious, consistent parenting is a dream of mine. No judgements, learning space, and listening carefully are my goals.’
I don’t believe for one second that there is a moral imperative to have a natural birth or to breastfeed, but because I was young and healthy and I was lucky enough that there were no complications, I could do both (my preference, because of the relatively low impact this way of doing things had on my body). I demand fed for the first few weeks while we were getting the hang of it all and the baby was regaining her birth weight, but when it was clear she was happy and healthy, we tried to start spacing her feeds so that she would take a proper, long feed followed by a break before the next one – always, of course, taking into account the different needs she would have at different stages as her tiny belly grew and was able to hold more, and go for longer stretches. (This great book, Baby Secrets by Jo Tatum, was very good at helping us to work out what she would need through those first few months and beyond.) Advocates of demand feeding don’t seem to account for the fact that if you just totally let them lead the way, babies tend to snack for a few minutes without taking a proper big feed, which means that the mother has to be ‘on tap’ all the time. I found this totally claustrophobic and unpractical.
In the UK, the medical profession recommends sleeping in the same room as your baby for the first few months to decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is what we did. When it was safe to do so after a few months, we moved her through to a separate room nearby, and all of our sleep improved enormously (we had been waking each other up regularly before then). I understand some advocates of Attachment Parenting really love cosleeping, or sharing a bed with their babies, but I can’t think of anything worse. During the first few weeks of her life when I fed her in bed in the night, I would have terrifying nightmares that I had fallen asleep while nursing her and crushed her in my sleep – I woke up in hysterical tears several times, before realising the baby was safe in her cradle. Sleep deprivation does funny things to you.
We tried Elizabeth Pantley‘s gentle ‘no-cry’ sleep training techniques, including having a consistent nap time and bedtime routine to get the baby ‘in the mood’ for bed, and keeping a record of naps and night time sleep stretches to check that she was getting as much sleep as she needed. We tried gently stretching the time she would go without being fed in the night using Jo Tatum’s techniques, never leaving her to cry by herself but cuddling her and distracting her, half an hour at a time, to budge forward the times she was fed in the night – the theory being that if she usually woke at 2:30am for a feed, distracting her till 3am meant she would wake at more like 3am the next night, and so on. We found that that worked quite well, up to a point, until we had a relatively long stretch of uninterrupted sleep in the night, and only one or two night feeds left. It was a lot of work, though, and when sleep got thrown off by the chicken pox, various colds, moving, and teething, we struggled to motivate ourselves to start the whole process again.
Before having our baby and throughout my pregnancy, my husband and I had thought we would share the childcare pretty evenly, and that despite breastfeeding, I would be able to continue to work, mostly from home but going into the office a few times a week as well. I shared this intention blithely with doctors and midwives alike, and none of them thought to mention that in fact I might encounter any problems with this plan. Encouraged by advice like this from BabyCentre, I thought that I would express milk every day, and with a little forward planning it would all work out fine:
‘Returning to work doesn’t mean that breastfeeding has to end. Lots of women successfully express breastmilk and combine breast and bottle-feeding, though it does take a little planning.’
HAH! Haha, ‘a little planning’… It turns out expressing milk takes a lot of effort and forward planning, that mastitis is this super horrible thing that happens to women when they go for longer than usual stretches of not feeding their babies, and that often your breastfed baby will just refuse to drink milk from a bottle. You will most likely not want and/or be able to do it on a regular basis until you actually start properly weaning many months down the line.
Which leads me to the fact that maternity leave is great, and we are very lucky to have so much of it in the UK, but it does involves a severe reduction in income and isn’t a magical solution. My husband was very willing to help any way that he could, but we ended up settling into a situation where I went back to work part time because we needed the money, but mostly from home because I was breastfeeding and couldn’t make it work any other way when she needed me to feed her every few hours. Then, somehow I got into a habit of nursing her to sleep; she tended to get very sleepy while eating, and it was the quickest and easiest way to get her down for a nap so that I could work. Oh, how I regret this! It ended up trapping me just as much as the demand feeding of the first few weeks of her life had trapped me – it was difficult to go away for more than maybe a two hour stretch, because no one else could get her to sleep.
Anyway, after a few months we temporarily moved in with my parents; money for rent was tight, and my dad was terminally ill and we wanted to see as much of him as possible. The nursing-to-sleep habit continued and grew, because we were worried that the baby’s crying whenever we did try to put her to sleep without feeding her to sleep would upset dad.
Fast forward eight months into my baby’s life, and I was feeling utterly overwhelmed. My father had just passed away, and the grief and exhaustion started to feel like a constant hand at my throat, and I really started to resent the relentlessness of the feeding schedule, how tied down I was by it, and how difficult it was for anyone else to look after her even for short periods of time. After experiencing a panic attack and then wallowing in the fact that I was having an awful time and wasn’t up to the job of being a parent anymore, I decided it was time to at least attempt to do something about the situation. I did a lot of research into how to break the nursing to sleep habit (we were too far along to use Pantley’s ‘Gentle Removal Plan’ – it just didn’t work for us), and came up against two conflicting schools of thought.
One, promoted by Attachment Parenting type people, was that letting your child cry at all, ever, for any length of time was a horrible and unnatural thing to do and would permanently psychologically damage them. These people seem to think that it is very natural for older babies to wake up through the night, even multiple times, right up to the age of two or three years old, that there’s nothing wrong with sleep habits like nursing to sleep, and in fact that you should just go with it, and even enjoy it (yes, you heard that right. Enjoy being ripped out of a deep REM cycle and dragging yourself out of your lovely, warm bed multiple times a night for months on end).
The other school of thought was that it’s okay – and in fact sometimes necessary – to let your baby cry for controlled periods of time, reassuring them regularly that you’re around and checking on them, but ultimately guiding them to learn to put themselves to sleep. These people seemed to all agree that after six or so months babies really are capable of sleeping through the night without needing to eat, and sleep training can help them learn how to do that.
The controversy surrounding this issue and all the conflicting advice made me think of this hilarious article: I Read All The Baby Sleep Books. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like I had much choice – nursing my baby to sleep was not working for me anymore, and something had to change for my health’s sake if not for anything else. Yes, I hate hearing my baby cry, but… we guide her in her efforts to walk and talk, to learn other things, so why not guide her in this area, too? She doesn’t know what’s in her own best interests, sometimes, and being a parent isn’t always about doing what feels good. In the longterm, helping her to sleep well and independently is what’s best for me, my husband, our marriage, and for her.
I read a lot of wildly unrealistic, and unhelpful things while conducting my research. I came across starry-eyed mothers writing things on message boards along the lines of ‘When your baby is grown up and the night feeds are gone you’ll miss those special, tender moments of blissful intimacy when it was just the two of you and your love in the dark,’ and, ‘When I was breastfeeding I used to look forward to those precious times we shared in the night.’ I felt like screaming. It was all so alien to my own experience.
So we took a deep breath, and committed to trying a week of controlled timed crying. The first night, I put her down awake in her crib after she got sleepy at the breast but hadn’t quite fallen asleep yet. She cried; I kissed her, said ‘shhh’ with my hand on her chest, and then left. My husband then went in and repeated that routine after 2 minutes, then 4 minutes, then 8 minutes, then 16 minutes, and so on. The first night it took around 30-40 minutes of crying for her to go to sleep. By around the third night, it was more like 15 minutes, and by the fourth night 7 minutes. Now, over a week on, it generally takes 1-2 minutes of fussing for her to start chatting happily to herself and drop off, and sometimes she just puts herself straight to sleep.
And the real magic? After around three nights of doing this, she started sleeping through the night. 8pm to 8am, for real. Bingo! (She has now done it for an entire week with no exceptions, so I feel like I can finally say this without jinxing it.) I do pick her up to give her a sleepy ‘dream feed’ around 11pm before I go to bed, just to make sure she’s tanked up for the night, but I think we can try dropping this relatively soon. GUYS, IT WORKS!
Now that I know that she can go to sleep without me, I will be able to leave her with my husband or babysitters more frequently. I can have a break now and again. I feel liberated.
You know what, it’s hard to be a woman. We feel judged for our choices and so in turn make other people feel judged for their choices when we defend our own. (I’ve probably fallen into that trap in this very blog post, in my reaction against the Attachment Parenting/demand feeding/nursing to sleep advocates, so I apologise if that’s the case.) We don’t want to have children and we feel pressured and judged for that, so we imply things about women who do want to have children, and vice versa. Similarly, we have a pretty low rate of continuing breastfeeding mothers in the UK, and so there’s a massive lobby for it in the healthcare system, but still women feel judged for breastfeeding in public, and some people think breastfeeding is unfeminist and a sign that you’re submitting to the patriarchy. This magical combination of opinions means that we have the worst of all worlds: bottle-feeding mothers feel frowned upon, and breastfeeding mothers feel like they can’t easily leave the house in case they have to feed the baby and someone gets offended by the sight.
Where on earth is the middle ground? If we really want to help mothers, and encourage breastfeeding wherever possible, we need to be more honest about it. I get that we don’t want to put people off, but do we really think that idealising it will be helpful? Surely that will just give people false expectations and more women will stop breastfeeding earlier on because the reality is so far from what they had been taught to expect.
I’m thinking specifically of a free NHS prenatal class I went to with my husband; there was this moment in which we talked about breast vs. bottle, and they asked us to write down the pros and cons of both, and then discuss it as a group, and it kind of went like this: ‘So, breastfeeding is free, easy (no bottle sterilising etc.), healthy for the mother and the baby, great for bonding… Bottle feeding is expensive, time consuming (bottle prep and sterilising etc.), no extra benefits – except maybe that the dad can have a go…’ At the time, that all seemed to make sense. Everyone nodded and that was that.
But what about the fact that it makes sharing the childcare evenly very difficult? What about the fact that it makes it very hard for the mother to have a break, or to go back to work any time soon, especially full time work? As Hanna Rosin says in her controversial piece ‘The Case Against Breast-Feeding’ for the Atlantic, it’s only ‘free’ if the woman’s time isn’t worth anything (i.e., it’s not free).
I’m not saying this to put people off breastfeeding, I just think we need to be realistic. In fact, the better understanding we have of the challenges of breastfeeding, the more we can value mothers in general, breastfeeding or otherwise. Breast or bottle, being a mother takes a whole lot of time, time that – amongst other things – could be spent earning money at work. Women’s time is valuable, and the fact that they are choosing to invest it in a little person is incredible, and deserves the respect of a job (although it goes far above and beyond any job or career). And in terms of breast vs. bottle, the thing to remember is that breastfeeding presupposes that the woman will be the primary carer. That sounds obvious, but somehow… it didn’t seem obvious when we were discussing the theory behind it in that NHS class.
I strongly believe, also, that many cases of post-natal depression could be prevented with better preparation. Perhaps in these prenatal classes they could teach us about how to express milk and encourage your breastfed baby to be happy taking a bottle from time to time, how important it is to take a little time out sometimes, to have a date-night or to just go and watch a film with friends or something. ‘Being stuck at home breast-feeding as he walked out the door for work just made me unreasonably furious, at him and everyone else,’ Rosin wrote, and I have to say that I can totally relate. I still get crazy jealous of bottle feeding mothers who go for weekend breaks away without their four month old baby (even nine months in I couldn’t do this because she needs around four-five feeds every day).
I have found it so hard to adjust my expectations about breastfeeding. When you’re preparing to be a breastfeeding mother, or in fact the primary care giver of any child, bottle or breastfed, you need to know in advance that this phase of your life will not be very productive in the way you’re used to thinking of that word. You won’t be able to get all the housework done. You won’t always be able to make it out of the door in time for events, or to meet a friend. You might not be able to read or to write as much as you’d like. Things might feel like they are falling by the wayside for a while. But that’s okay. Expect that. This time won’t last forever, it is a peculiar season of your life. Buy a Kindle so that you can read with one hand while you feed your baby (I didn’t do this, and wish I had!). Don’t go into a crazy frenzy trying to get everything done in the times your hands aren’t full of baby. Taking a good long bath with a bowl of ice cream and a good book are perfectly adequate things to do in those rare free moments you have, instead of the dishes. Someone else can do the dishes. Ask for help. Try to relax and look after yourself. Take breaks from the childcare as regularly as you can; take your need for time away seriously, even if that’s just for an hour or so here and there. This is a hard job, even when it feels infuriatingly like you’re ‘doing nothing’. You are doing something, even when a lot of it involves sitting still and staring into space. You’re doing something awesome.
The struggle of the past few months has also taught me this: I don’t believe in just suffering in silence and letting the baby entirely dictate what goes on. By all means do whatever works for you, but if you are struggling, don’t feel bad for needing to make a change. It is possible, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. In fact, it might just help make you the best parent you can be; we all need a bit of a break once in a while, and we all need enough sleep to be able to be healthy, happy, and loving. And for those times when there truly isn’t anything much that can be done and things just are a little crappy? This quote from OneGoodDad’s blog is one that I’ll be holding onto tightly to get me through life’s rougher moments:
‘In the big picture timeline of our lives, the difficult moments are short.’
* * *
If you are starting from the beginning and reading this before having a baby, these two posts from Lucie’s List are must-reads:
1. Everything you need to know about ‘sleep aids’ and getting kitted out ahead of time (swaddling, types of crib, white noise machines, etc.). You won’t need all of these things, but there’s a good down-to-earth explanation of all the different gadgets here so that you can bear them in mind and decide what you’ll need, or discover a need for once the baby is born. We used sleep sacks instead of swaddling because our baby wriggled out of swaddling, and she also had talipes which meant that we couldn’t swaddle her traditionally very easily anyway. We still use a fan as white noise, and her tranquil turtle has come to be a very useful ‘sleep cue’ to put on just before bed time, and night light by which to feed her.
2. A practical and realistic plan to help everyone get more sleep starting from day one. ‘Many moms fall into the trap of letting the baby completely dictate their own sleeping schedule because it SEEMS very natural and wonderful. It’s the right thing to do, right? Let baby do what baby wants to do. Eh…. not so much…’ Music to my ears – thank you, lady!
If you’re troubleshooting a little later in the process and decide to go down the controlled timed crying route, I found it helpful for my peace of mind to check her day time feeds to make absolutely sure she was getting enough to eat. I could therefore then be more confident about not needing to feed her at night time. I used this resource to help me do that. Do also get in touch with your local health visitor to talk through the nitty gritty of the weaning process.
Good luck, and happy sleeping!