The Holy Grail…. sleep!

‘Is he a good sleeper, is he sleeping through the night?’ she asked me.

Oh no, here we go again. Why does everyone ask me this question?

‘No, he’s not sleeping through the night, he is a hungry little man and wakes frequently to eat’

‘Well how much sleep are you getting?’

‘We wake every 2-3 hours but he’s only waking to feed and go straight back to sleep’ I say. I tell her with a smile. I instantly regret this statement and wish I had gone with a simple, yes.

‘Oh my, I don’t know how you do it’ she says. ‘Hopefully he gets the hang of it soon. Stella was like that too initially, but I didn’t put up with that for long….’ I trail off at this point as she hits me with a barrage of opinions–  I’ve lost interest already and wish I had never said anything.

If you have a child that sleeps through the night, you’ve hit the jackpot.

If your child can self-settle, you’re winning!

If your child has 2-3 long sleeps during the day without a fuss, you’re the goddess of sleep.

If you don’t… it sucks to be you and you better get busy sorting that out!

For all the other mamas like me, who haven’t had a good night sleep in longer than you can remember, here is the truth. The truth that will keep you sane.

The issue is not that your baby is doing anything wrong in waking up throughout the night. It’s simply that your baby’s sleep patterns don’t match your own. In fact, your baby waking up through the night is what is supposed to happen! For some reason babies are still expected to fit in with our grown up sleep cycles rather than us fit in with them. It’s sad that sleep has become a war between parents and babies and we are expected to win at all costs.

For a baby, sleeping through is considered 5-6 hours at a time.

The way we handle sleep in our household is the same way we handle the rest of our parenting journey and that is ‘baby-led’. We apply compassionate, loving, gentle parenting and let our baby lead the way.  My parenting style has been known to alienate me from other mums who prefer a more structured approach. They like to have a schedule, they like to have a routine, they like to be in charge.

At the end of the day, every child is different and I certainly don’t want to be compared to every other mum out there and whatever her child is doing.

Whether its right or wrong, my child is in charge of his sleeping patterns. He sleeps in bed with us every night and wakes regularly to feed but goes back to sleep at the end of each feed. He wakes each morning smiling, and without any routine in play, has a fairly predictable sleep schedule of his own during the day. He sleeps again within 2-3 hours of waking and will sleep for anything from 30 minutes to two hours. He has one or two afternoon naps that play out the same as the last one. We don’t make a plan, but he has his own structure that feels good for him and he gives me some very clear signals that he is getting ready for a sleep.

I don’t fight him – if he isn’t tired, he can stay up. If he is tired, I work with him to get him to sleep.  He has 4 signs of tiredness –

  1. The first is red eyes accompanied by yawning or rubbing his eyes.
  2. The second is that his arms start to get a little jerky and his eye contact starts to wane.
  3. He gets restless and irritable and bored quickly.
  4. The fourth is his sleep song; his little groaning that puts him to sleep.

It’s not always a 5 second job to whisk him into bed and have him close his eyes and drift off to sleep – sometimes we have to work together and along with his 3 signals, I have 5 different methods for helping him to go to sleep.

Sleeping beauty!
Sleeping beauty!

If I get him at the right time, he will fall asleep first go. If not, I move through my pattern one at a time until one of them works.

  1. I feed him to sleep. My favourite and more often than not, a winner! [A hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) is released in both mother and baby at the end of a feeed. This makes both feel sleepy. In the baby, this hormone peaks at the end of a feed, drops and then peaks again 30-60 minutes later. This later peak is thought to be caused by the breastmilk, especially the fat, in the baby’s stomach. Once he’s asleep, it’s the transfer to bed that sometimes wakes him – if so, I have the dummy ready and waiting and pop it into his mouth as soon as he stirs or grizzles. He opens his eyes briefly while sucking furiously and goes straight back to sleep snuggling into his blanket and bunny
  2. I lay him down (awake) in bed and I lay next to him. I give him his little sleep bunny and cover him with his blanket. His eyes go red and he gives me the ‘thanks mum, how did you know I was so tired’ face. He may move around a little bit before he finds his comfortable spot and I lay with him until he falls asleep.
  3. If I cant feed him to sleep and laying with him in bed isn’t working, I have to go to option 3. No amount of persistence on number 2 will ever work. He gets more and more frustrated and grizzly and has a look in his eye that says ‘I’m totally exhausted mum and I just cant do this on my own’ – at which point I revert to my third option which is to pick him up, hold him tight against my body and sing him a song, hum quietly in his ear, squat up and down, jiggle, sway and make sssshhhhh noises….whatever works at the time.  After he works out what we are doing, he goes quiet and still and gently lays his head in the crook of my neck or on my shoulder and starts to sing his own sleep song while I sing mine until he falls asleep.
  4. Another options, and can only be used for the day sleeps if convenient is to put him in the ergo, put on my walking shoes and head outside. It’s never taken more than 15 minutes of him quietly taking in the scenery before he falls asleep, head against my chest. I continue my walk and thank him for the extra exercise.
  5. I do have a number 5, which is a last resort. I only use this one when I feel he is getting stressed about trying to sleep when he just can’t. We go back to playing together. I move away from all things sleep related and sing nursery rhymes, tell him a story or give him some tummy time on his mat with his favourite toys. After 10 minutes or so, we go back through the sleep steps which by this point are much more effective.

    Gotta love the ergo... soon to be snoring like a little bear.
    Gotta love the ergo… soon to be snoring like a little bear.

It takes time and it takes patience. It was a bit of a project for us to learn what works for us. The most important thing I have picked up is that the more relaxed, calm and quiet I am, the more effective all of these strategies are.  It can be really hard to maintain my zen-like state when I’m still trying to get him to sleep 45 minutes later, fortunately this doesn’t happen often. I am mentally willing him to sleep by this point and when we do finally achieve it, I slink back to the couch with a heavy sigh and make myself a big cup of tea. It can be completely consuming.

When they are struggling to sleep, you have to love them MORE than usual.  [image taken from http://www.smh.com
My thoughts in general about children and babies is that when they are visibly struggling, they need MORE love than usual. 
[image taken from http://www.smh.com%5D
There is quite a bit of stress for mum’s around the issue of sleep and rightly so, it can be exhausting being a mum and there is a lot of comparison and information exchange that goes on that can lead you to second guess yourself. This is what works for us. It’s not for everyone and may not suit every parent or child so it is not my intention to guide other mothers on what to do, I’m just sharing a piece of my own journey.

I believe that if your baby is happy and you have a healthy and trust filled bond, sleep will be easier for both of you.

Some facts about Sleep and Babies:

[Reference: “Breastfeeding Naturally” by the Australian Breastfeeding Association]

  • It’s healthy and normal for babies and young children to wake during the night and to need attention and comfort from their parents.
  • Frequent waking is essential to babies’ growth. It’s a survival mechanism to make sure they get enough food to grow.
  • Most babies take quite a while to form their own sleep routine and to sleep for lengthy periods. Sleeping and waking varies widely from baby to baby just as it does in older children and adults. Many adults don’t sleep through the night either.
  • ‘Sleeping through’ for a baby is defined as 5 hours, not the 8 hours that we think of as a good night’s sleep for adults.
  • Babies who’s parents respond to their crying promptly settle better in the long term because they know their needs are understood and will be met.
  • Crying is a sign of distress or discomfort, not that your baby is ‘spoilt’ or ‘naughty’.
  • Every baby is aware of the presense (or absence) of their chief source of comfort and security – the parents. If you are out of sight, he or she has no way of knowing when you might return.
  • Babies have no control over their sleeping.
  • A baby’s sleep patterns are different from an adult’s. There are two basic types of sleep – quiet sleep, when the breathing is slow and regular and the body hardly moves, and active sleep, when breathing is faster and uneven and there are lots of body and facial movements. Very young babies usually sleep a lot as they need to conserve energy to grow. About 60% of this is Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the more active sleep. As your baby grows, and his or her brain matures, the amount of REM sleep decreases to 20%. Large amounts of REM may be important to help the brain development.
  • Frequent arousals, where the baby nearly wakes up, play a part in protecting a baby against SIDS.
  • Some parents try to get their babies to sleep longer at night by cutting down their day sleeps or keeping the baby up later so he or she is more tired. However, this usually results in an over-tired baby, an even more disturbed night and an unhappy baby the following day. Babies usually sleep better at night if they have had a good sleep during the day.
  • Despite what people may tell you, research shows that mothers of formula-fed babies don’t get any more sleep than breastfeeding mothers. In fact, breastfeeding mothers get more.
  • Wakeful babies usually reach their developmental milestones sooner because they tend to interact more with their parents.

Whatever your situation at home, the key is to remain calm and if you are feeling so frustrated with your baby to the point where you fear that you may harm her, leave her safely in a cot or basinet for a few minutes and go out of the room. A few minutes of crying alone is less harmful to her than you not being able to control your emotions.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Keely says:

    Max, your post is exactly what I needed to hear. I feel that other mothers put so much pressure on me to do everything their way – and who says that’s the right way?. What happened to just supporting one another however you choose to parent? Thank you for sharing your tips they have been really helpful in getting our little angel to sleep.

    1. maxiemama says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Keely. I know what you mean, sleep is certainly a hot and heated topic in the parenting world and with so many different opinions and approaches it can be really hard to sift through them to find one that suits you. We try to help each other with the best intentions but it can feel like pressure sometimes. I found that putting everything to one side and listening to my intuition really guided me in my decision making. I am so happy that it is working for you too.

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