Every once in a while, or maybe more, who knows, I’m going to throw a post up here about my experience with motherhood. I’m still thinking of adding a post or two from things that I wrote in the early days of motherhood when I was really struggling, but I’m not sure. For now, here’s one about how we approached sleep with/ (for) Gabriel. He’s a pretty good little sleeper these days and my life is mostly normal in terms of sleep, and I feel pretty good about that. The purpose of this blog, for me, is to document things – for me, and for anyone else who’s interested. Some things are already starting to slip my memory in terms of how we’ve gone about raising Gabriel. If we ever do this whole kid thing again, or even if we don’t, I want to remember how we went about things. And maybe someone else can identify with some of these experiences or get an idea, so I’m sharing. So here.
When Gabriel was about 7 weeks old, I went to a lunchtime peer to peer breastfeeding group at The Womb Room. It was the second or third time I’d been. While on maternity leave, most weeks I would go to a breastfeeding group on Mondays at Mercy Hospital, facilitated by a nurse and a lactation consultant, and also this one on Thursdays, facilitated by other breastfeeding mothers. I’d noticed something that felt particularly acute that week: I appreciated the breastfeeding support but I CRAVED information about newborn sleep (particularly overnight sleep) and any indication that I might get more of it soon. On that Thursday, I felt exasperation and desperation as mothers went around the room describing their breastfeeding experiences and challenges, and I just wanted to scream, yes but what about SLEEP?! When it was my turn, I did express my frustration that it didn’t seem to be getting any better and that I needed to know when it would. Everyone around the room was like, oh, 7 weeks? You should start getting longer stretches soon. Four hours, five hours, six hours. At least for the first stretch of the night.
Nope. Until Gabriel was 11 or 12 weeks, we got a four or five hour stretch once, and it was the night after he got his two-month shots. I made sure to breastfeed every two hours during the day, trying to increase day calories so he wouldn’t need them at night. I heard other mothers’ stories of their babies sleeping until 2 or 3 or 6 in the morning, while I was up every night at 11, 2, 4, 5, 6. I tried to come to terms with the fact that Gabriel was maybe just destined to be a bad sleeper. I am, so maybe it’s in the genes.
Sleep: The Early Days
In the first few weeks, I of course had no expectations that Gabriel would understand night and day. But my parents were staying with us, so I could feed Gabriel at 6 am and then pass him off to my mother downstairs and sleep uninterrupted for two more hours until 8 or so. It didn’t really occur to me after she left that I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore, so I kept trying to sleep til 8 or 8:30, but Gabriel was not sleeping at those hours. It felt like I fed at 5:30, 6, 6:45, 7:15. I thought of these as overnight feeds, but they weren’t, really. Around 6 weeks, which also happened to be during a very hot period in Baltimore, I said screw it, I’m just going to start getting up at 6 and going for a walk. It was too hot to go out later in the day anyway. So we’d walk for an hour or more before 8am.
But I was still feeling desperate. I hit a wall around 9 weeks when we went to Whistler for a family vacation. I was up with Gabriel 4-5 times a night, more frequently as daytime approached. I just fed him every time he woke up fussing. I knew about strategies of not responding right away and all that to see if he went back to sleep (as described, for example, in Bringing up Bebe, an actual source for parenting advice we’ve relied on), but 1) at that particular time, we were in a very close space in an Airbnb, and other people (Dan’s parents) were staying there also. I didn’t want Gabriel to cry for too long. And 2) I was so desperate for sleep that I preferred to just feed him and get it over with than risk him fussing and not stopping and THEN having to feed him, thereby missing out on five or ten minutes of desperately needed sleep.
So I bought Babywise and read it on the flight home (while wearing a Solly-wrapped sleeping baby on my chest). I didn’t know much about it in advance except that it seemed polarizing and some people thought it was cruel and other people swore by it. Whatever, I just needed some ideas.
We tried to implement babywise (ie, a schedule of feeding and naps and a cycle of eating upon waking, followed by wake time, followed by nap time, and then eating upon waking again). We tried to force the schedule (which required unrealistic 1.5 hour naps) for a week or two, and then gave that part up, but kept the cycle of eat, wake, sleep – which actually was a sort of routine we’d fallen into even before I read babywise. Sometimes this led to more cycles in a day than babywise would have predicted, sometimes not. Gabriel rarely ever had a nap longer than 45 minutes (which is still true).
The other thing we adopted around that time was trying to soothe Gabriel back to sleep at night without feeding him for the first part of the night. With a pacifier, it worked – for a bit. Throughout weeks 9-10, we had goals of getting to 1, then 1:30, then 2 am without feeding him and instead giving him his pacifier.
Cool. Until, we started to realize around week 10-11 that we were having to reinsert his pacifier like every 5-10 minutes. This came to a head on another trip, mid-August, to Michigan. We were staying in a hotel room, and none of us were getting any sleep, having to reinsert his pacifier every time it fell out. We were achieving the goal of not feeding until 1 or 2 (some nights), but not actually getting more sleep. When we got home from that trip, I swore we were going cold turkey and giving the pacifier up. And anyway, Babywise emphasized the importance of getting to no sleep props. We tried for the first 24 hours, in which he did not nap or sleep much at all and cried constantly. I realized the following day he also had his first cold, which had been unclear the day before because I thought his hoarse voice and runny nose was due to all the crying. Sigh. And went back to using the pacifier.
Sleep: Finally Seeing Some Light
But not as much. I tried to limit its use to only when it seemed absolutely necessary, including during the day, and seeing if Gabriel would fall asleep without it. And I’m not sure if it has anything to do with our interventions to try to limit it or not, but Gabriel stopped using it on his own within a few days or maybe a week and found his fingers for sucking. Some people think that’s better, some people say it’s a harder habit to break, because you can’t take their fingers away from them. At 10 months, Gabriel still uses his fingers to self soothe, and maybe it will be a hard habit to break. But his ability to self soothe has made all the difference. And for better or worse, he hasn’t really taken a pacifier since. He’ll chew on one these days sometimes, but doesn’t even seem to recognize it as a thing to suck on.
But back to week 11 or 12 and my (new) desperation to break the pacifier habit… which was now no longer helping the sleep situation, but hurting it. In searching for pacifier strategies and what’s normal, I came across Precious Little Sleep, the website companion of the book by the same name, which I recalled that a good friend of mine had recommended. I bought the book and read it immediately (even sacrificing some sleep to do so).
Fast forward to now, it’s seven or more months later, and Gabriel consistently sleeps through the night from 7 or 7:30 til 6 or 6:30, and mostly has since his six month birthday. We go through periods of early wake ups (5-5:30), and are currently, but that’s the worst of it. He naps pretty well at home (they’re short sometimes, but he falls asleep easily), not so well at daycare, but better now than a few months ago. All in all, sleep is good. I’m no longer desperate and haven’t been in months.
Sleep: What Worked For Us
So I’ll tell you what we did, but the real implementation of strategies didn’t really begin until 3-4 months. Had I read these books earlier, could I have implemented things earlier? Would I with the next kid (if there is a next kid)? Maybe not really. Most of it can’t be done before then.
The most valuable things I got from those books were:
1. The eat, wake, sleep structure. This might not work for everyone, and some people worry that it sets babies up for short naps (if they’ve been awake for a while after eating, they might wake up from their nap out of hunger, whereas if you fed right before a nap, they wouldn’t wake up for that reason). But it helped us so much. It helped me because I thrive on routine. I think it mostly helped my husband because he had a solution for a fussy baby. If baby’s just woken up and was fussy, he was probably hungry. If he’s eaten and been awake for a while, he was probably tired. And that helped me because then husband wasn’t always begging me to feed baby to get him to stop crying. We still do it. We dropped to four feeds when we dropped to two naps around 7 months or so, so I feed Gabriel upon waking for the day, after the first and second naps, and before bed.
2. The importance of establishing independent sleep.
3. The importance of a consistent routine.
Here’s what we did (that I think helped):
• 3 weeks and beyond: Tried to lay him down awake in the normal sleep spot for at least one nap a day. Gabriel slept all over the place – being carried, in a bassinet down in the kitchen, on walks in the stroller, in the car seat. But he usually had at least one good morning nap and one good afternoon nap, and I tried to have at least one of those be in his bassinet in our room where he also slept at night, and to put him down awake or drowsy if possible (that didn’t always happen). Later, around 10 or 12 weeks, we started trying to have this be in his crib in his room instead of the bassinet in our room.
• 3-4 weeks: Have a consistent night time routine. We didn’t REALLY have this down until after I read Precious Little Sleep (and until we moved him out of our room at just after 3 months), but starting very early, I did try to read him a story every night before the sleep period that I hoped would be the longest.
• 3-4 weeks: Pause. Wait a minute or two, whatever felt comfortable, before responding to his fussing. I didn’t always do this, as I said before, but often I did.
• 9 weeks: Implemented consistent wake time of 6:30am. (Tried to implement a full Babywise schedule, but that didn’t work). We’ve had this wake time since then. Correct, I haven’t really slept past 6:30am in 8 months.
• 2.5 months: A little bit of crying when it was time to go to sleep (at night, or for a nap). I wasn’t comfortable letting him cry much yet (and PLS and AAP and various other sources recommend against ‘cry it out’ before four months), so this was a transition from not letting him cry at all to letting him cry a little to letting him cry longer – not an immediate thing. As the days and weeks passed, I got more comfortable with letting him cry 2, 5, sometimes 10 minutes. (Dan was comfortable much earlier.) Gabriel didn’t usually cry longer than that to fall asleep, and if he did, I would try to calm him, and if that didn’t work (total crying of about 20 mins, with some intermittent intervention), I would just get him up and start the cycle over (feeding, wake time, down for a nap after some wake time).
• 2.5-3 months: After I read Babywise but especially Precious Little Sleep, we stopped doing things that could become sleep crutches. No rocking to sleep, no feeding to sleep (we switched up the bedtime routine to begin feeding him first, then doing pajamas, bath if doing that night, and story), no letting him fall asleep on us. (The feeding him first thing terrified me because it made me worry that I would lose that potential sleep time because he’d wake up earlier because he’d fed earlier by 20ish minutes. But it was fine.)
• 2.5-3 months: At about 11-12 weeks, I started trying to set a consistent bedtime as well as the consistent daily wake time. I started with 9pm or so, but Gabriel wasn’t making it that long, and it was shifted up to 7:30 within a week, with bedtime routine starting consistently at 7pm every night. We stuck with this until around 7 months when we dropped to two naps and were having early wake ups, so bedtime routine shifted as early as 6:30 and down by 6:45 or 7, depending on how naps went during the day (yes, earlier bedtime helped him sleep later 🤷♀️). More recently, we’re back to a 7/7:30 bed time. But a consistent bedtime was magical. Suddenly I had a baby-less hour to myself each night after he went to sleep and before I went to sleep. Until this point, I’d gone to bed when he did in order to maximize sleep, but somehow this consistency gave me the freedom and confidence (that I would still get some quality sleep) to prioritize a bit of me time over sleep.
• 3 months: The night before his 3-month birthday, Gabriel woke up around 10 or something and I fed him, and then he miraculously slept until daily wake time. It wasn’t repeated in the surrounding nights, but was encouraging all the same.
• 3 months, 1 week: We moved him to his crib in his room for overnight. AAP recommendations are to sleep in the parents’ room until 6 months, but it wasn’t destined to be for us. We didn’t suddenly all start sleeping better, but it was a slight improvement (even if just in terms of not having to tiptoe around the bedroom at night). We were still up frequently overnight and my superhuman mother ears (never mind the monitor) meant that I felt like I was awake at his every movement and noise still.
• Around 4 months: The night before his 4 month birthday, Gabriel had his first night actually sleeping through from bedtime to daily wake time. Again, this was a one-time occurrence. But, we started to be more comfortable with him crying a bit, and around this time, I stopped feeding him before midnight. Period. I would send Dan in to soothe him if he woke up crying (or I would go in if Dan wasn’t home). For full transparency, Gabriel was persistent. Throughout the next few months, there were at least a handful of nights where he cried for 1-2 hours. It was kind of rough, but I wasn’t worried that he needed to eat. And Dan would go in and soothe, so I felt better that he didn’t feel abandoned.
• Around 5 months: Gabriel was not waking until 3-4am most nights to feed (although sometimes would still wake up at like 11 and cry, then fall back to sleep until 3-4), so I stopped feeding him if he woke before 2 am. This basically meant I was feeding him once between 3 and 4, and sleeping the rest of the night. This felt pretty sustainable. And honestly, the one overnight feed felt like cozy quality time. But it also really started to feel more like a habit than a need.
• 6 months: So, on Gabriel’s 6 month birthday, I stopped feeding him overnight altogether. In the week leading up to this, I limited the 3am feed to 10 minutes, then 8, then 6, hoping he would drop it himself. Nope. We did 2 minutes the last night. And then… none. His 6 month birthday was on a Monday. He cried for a bit, I don’t remember. 30-60 minutes? Same thing Tuesday night. Wednesday night, I woke up with a stomach bug and feeling terrible. After throwing up, I decided to go check on Gabriel at 2:30am. He was fast asleep…. laying in his own vomit. So I got him up and changed his sheets and fed him, obviously. Thursday night and Friday night were miracles. No wake ups, no crying, no peeps. Then Saturday night. It was the worst. He cried for 2-3 hours, maybe more. I even went in and rocked him for 20 minutes at one point. It was awful. I realized the next morning that he had a piece of hair wrapped tightly around a finger, which may have been the issue. :(.
• And since then…. mostly sleeping through the night with no wakeups. Around the holidays (7 months), we had family staying with us and the whole household was up later than usual, which disrupted things. I did feed him 2 nights in a row after bedtime because I was awake, and he’d woken up from people bustling around, and I think I was also worried he hadn’t been eating enough. Anyway, that resulted in two more nights of crying after everyone left, and then things went back to normal.
• Now (almost 10 months): Gabriel is still on two naps that range typically from 45 minutes to 1:15 at home, and shorter at daycare. His overnight sleep is more like 10.5 or 11 hours, so that often means early wake ups if he goes to bed at 7, but we are trying to move bedtime later instead (which has sort of been helped by DST and two trips out west). He surprised me with 11.5 hours (7:15p to 6:45a) a few nights ago, but that’s not the norm lately. But in any case, we are all mostly well rested, confident that we will get a good nights sleep, and no longer desperate.