Anyone encountering the editor is asked for ideas for topics to cover in a future issue. “SLEEP!” was the heartfelt reply one day in Dalmeny Road Park.
It must be a sign of the passing from one life stage to another: once all you could think about all day was going to bed and doing things that required being awake. Then the result arrives. And it does not sleep. You yearn to go to bed and be unconscious as soon and for as long as possible. There is nothing that makes you feel old like being so, so tired. Here are a few members’ experiences, the advice they found, what they felt about it and what worked—for them.
There is no right thing
By Sarah Van Gogh
The sleep deprivation that comes with a new baby can be awful. Broken sleep, worrying about the broken sleep, hearing of babies who sleep through the night at one month, hearing horror stories of babies who sleep even less than yours, meeting other mums who seem much more sanguine and sensible about the lack of sleep than you – all of this is grim.
When my first son was about 4 months old I developed insomnia and would lie awake during precious hours when Jacob was sweetly asleep, vainly playing mental counting games, while the luminous numbers crept forward inexorably on the radio alarm. I couldn’t believe it was possible to be so tired and yet unable to sleep. I now gather that post natal insomnia is quite common.
When Jacob was about 9 months I was no longer breast feeding so didn’t feed him to sleep any more. I got him to sleep at night in my own way, which was exhausting and not recommended by any of the child care books. It involved holding and rocking him whenever he woke and cried until he was sound asleep again, when I could put him back in his cot. It didn’t seem a very good way, really, as I hated walking him up and down in the dark bedroom for what seemed like hours on end. But the alternative of leaving him to cry felt undoable.
I also tortured myself for a while by the fear that by never leaving him to cry in his cot I was depriving him of the ability to learn how to put himself to sleep. Penelope Leach is firm on this, as she is on many things. Her view, as I understood it, is that if you always rock or nurse your baby to sleep from early on you are making a rod for your own back, as you are not letting them learn how to go to sleep; you are PUTTING THEM TO SLEEP and this is VERY BAD INDEED. I would hold or rock Jacob for long periods of time in the evenings until he was soundly asleep, then carefully slip him into his Moses basket or cot, feeling guilty and inadequate the whole time as I was doing the Wrong Thing.
It was just that the Right Thing never worked for me. Sometimes I would try putting him down when he was nicely drowsy, with an old t-shirt of mine to keep my smell and warmth with him, just like the books advised. But as soon as he felt himself being placed on the cot mattress, however gently and gradually I did it, he would begin to cry. And I would scoop him back up, cursing the moment I had decided to try doing the Right Thing again.
Later in the night when I was too tired to walk up and down with him any more in the small hours I would sometimes end up having him in the bed with me. He wouldn’t sleep but he babbled and kicked and wriggled up to be close to me and poked me and flapped the duvet about. Sometimes I fell asleep despite this, sometimes I didn’t.
One night I couldn’t stand it anymore and, fully expecting the worst, I got up abruptly and put him in his cot. He didn’t protest. I fell asleep waiting for him to cry. He didn’t, and we both slept soundly through the remainder of the night. This didn’t set up any definite pattern of better sleep immediately. But it did let me see a chink of hope: I started to believe things would not always be this way at night; that the time would come when Jacob would sleep through without any particular effort on my part. And this turned out to be true.
Early sleep difficulties are often compounded by the common habit of books, childcare ‘experts’, friends, relatives, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, to have a particular angle on how to get babies to sleep through the night as quickly as possible. It seems people pride themselves on thinking that it was their particular method that finally enabled the baby to be a ‘good’ sleeper. I know I did this – preening myself a bit for thinking it was because I had done such and such that Jacob was sleeping through the night. I think now that many babies’ sleep habits are down partly to chance and factors that we don’t have much control over, like their and our own temperaments.
Maybe we have to believe that there are right and wrong things to do about their sleep because simply to resign ourselves to the notion that they may not settle into a diurnal routine that suits us for some considerable time is too depressing. But then so is the thought that if only you could do, or not do, a certain thing, as a parent, then you would get more sleep. I know so many mothers, not just me, who added to their misery of exhaustion the misery of blaming themselves for the baby not sleeping.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would say the following debates about what is right or wrong, as far as sleep is concerned, do most mothers’ heads in:
Have them in your bed / keep them in the cot.
Do controlled crying / don’t leave them to cry.
Give them milk/juice/water in the night / after the early months don’t give drinks in the night.
Give them a dummy / don’t get them used to a dummy.
Pick them up if they cry / reassure them without picking them up.
Keep to a definite bedtime routine / be flexible about bedtimes.
It’s not that different little strategies can’t be of any help, it’s the forceful advocacy of one over another that is so harmful to mothers’ psyches, with an implication that if you don’t follow the One True Path, you’ve only yourself to blame for the lack of sleep. (And, of course, the damage you’re doing to your poor baby by being so indulgent / rigid – take your pick of which failing you need to own up to).
I think that Jacob settled better once he was ready to and what I did or didn’t do might have helped him or hindered him somewhat, but it is really impossible to know. Of course, if you want help or advice from others, including private or NHS sleep clinics etc, then you may find them helpful. My rule of thumb guide would be if someone like your health visitor, GP, or some sleep expert seems pleasant and supportive and you trust them, then they’ll probably do you good in some way or another, even if it’s helping you to not feel alone in your troubles. But if books, or healthcare people, or other mums leave you feeling that you have been doing the wrong thing and that’s why your baby isn’t sleeping through, or they suggest things that feel wrong or uncomfortable to you, then try to ignore them and have faith in muddling through in your own way. It’s an obvious truism, but every child and every family is different, and most eventually get to a night-time routine that suits them, most of the time.
It is perhaps a rather gloomy conclusion, but my advice is that there isn’t really much you can do for the first year of a baby’s life to get it to sleep through the night. Some do, some don’t. What most women need in this period is plenty of sympathy for how dreadful it is to be so sleep deprived and have the care of a baby, not bucketfuls of advice.
(Post script: thankfully, son No 2 (Michael) is a ‘good’ sleeper. He sleeps in the bed next to me. I didn’t write about him because I thought hearing of something delightfully easy wouldn’t be much comfort to those women who are going through the misery of sleep deprivation!)
The mother of all battles
By Kemi Idris
Prior to the birth of my daughter last summer I had given no real thought to the issue of sleep, just some absent-minded musing that my years of last minute Pro-Plus fuelled revision marathons would probably see me through any problems that a newborn might present. The only issue I had predetermined was that I would not have my daughter in bed with me.
Our daughter was born at home in our living room and afterwards my partner and I retired to the bedroom. The midwife placed her on the bed with us, thoughts of the Moses basket vanished and we spent a blissful first night together as a family. Six months later, she was still in bed with us and our nights were no longer blissful.
Although I cherish the memories of those first months, my own experience was that bed sharing resulted in ever more frequent waking and set up a pattern of almost constant snacking at the breast throughout the night. I did not always fully wake myself during the night feeds but interruptions to my sleep were such that I would often feel shattered in the morning.
I resolved to take action and marched down to the library for guidance, seeking help from Ford, Leach, Jackson, Ferber and Hogg amongst others. I think I ended up with about seven different books on sleep and read voraciously until my head felt sore with all the contradictory advice.
Why are there such conflicting theories?
Firstly, I began to wonder if that this is partly because the issue of sleep, like most major issues that confront parents, is itself rooted in conflict. There is of course conflict between the mother and her baby. In addition most mothers also experience an internal conflict. As well as excitement at each new achievement of her baby, or relief that her baby makes less demands of her, a new mother often experiences sadness at her baby’s increasing independence from her, or guilt at having felt burdened in the first place.
Secondly, all babies are different. There are those that sleep beautifully almost from birth without any encouragement – their mothers can’t understand why anyone could leave a baby to cry. Then there are those who are fed to sleep initially but are perfectly able to settle themselves when they wake in the night – their mothers can’t understand why anyone would insist their baby was awake and screaming when put down in the cot instead of feeding them to sleep.
Thirdly, parents are different too. It is natural for people to advocate whatever method worked for them, and for every mother extolling the virtues of controlled crying from four weeks, there is another insisting that a baby should never be left to cry.
What can you do?
The varying temperaments of both mothers and babies mean that any search for a single method that can be relied on to work at all times is doomed to failure. Perhaps a better approach is to acknowledge that the struggle over sleep is also an emotional struggle, and if you have some idea about why it is so difficult, you will have a better chance of finding your own solution to the problem rather than looking to others for solutions. Looking to others may simply turn your internal conflict into an external conflict of Gina Ford vs. Penelope Leach, co-sleeping vs. putting the baby in their own room etc. Of course, once you feel clearer about your own situation, if need be you can consult books for practical guidance on how to adopt whichever method best suits it.
Consequently, it is difficult to think of guidance that will be universally beneficial, but the following may be of help:
Define the situation in terms of yourself and your baby
If you don’t see a problem, then there probably isn’t one. Not all babies should go to bed at seven. Some parents relish the prospect of the whole evening to themselves but, particularly if you are working, it may suit your family better if your baby adopts a later bedtime. Similarly, not all babies sleep for 12 hours uninterrupted. I certainly envisaged that my daughter would wake once during that period until well into her second year and I personally feel that I could cope with one (but only one!) waking if need be.
If you don’t have a bedtime routine, try one
One thing that most of the prophets of sleep advocate and which does seem to be borne out by my own experience, and that of friends, is that a bedtime routine helps. It does not have to be elaborate, or necessitate a nightly bath, but it does seem to help both parent and baby if there are familiar signposts that the day is ending.
Expect the unexpected
The majority of babies seem to be wakeful in the early stages and then improve over time. Of those that are born “good sleepers”, some stay that way and others deteriorate after a few months. Whatever the current state of play, be prepared for it to continue or for it to change either for some good reason (illness, holiday) or for no apparent reason at all.
Recognise that the problem may not resolve itself over time
It follows from the preceding paragraph that a bad situation may not necessarily improve in a timescale that you consider reasonable. It may be comforting to do nothing on the basis that your baby will grow out of a poor sleep pattern, but not all of them do. You may have to tolerate the habit for years. When I learnt that a friend’s four year old was still tiptoeing into her bedroom on a nightly basis, I knew that despite Deborah Jackson’s persuasive advocacy, co-sleeping was not going to work for my family in the long term. Also, remember that as your child grows older their determination to resist change may intensify, and cause you greater distress. If you think you would find the present situation intolerable in the medium to long term, it may be better to take action now.
Recognise your limitations
It is obviously neither possible nor desirable for you to meet your baby’s needs at all times. Instead of being guilt-ridden at the occasional lapse, remember that what is important is the general pattern rather than isolated incidents. Be especially aware of your physical limitations. Adults vary in the amount of sleep they need to function effectively, just as babies do. I am used to eight hours a night, and managing on much less than this in the long term would be problematic for me.
My own experience
By the time my daughter was seven months old, I had changed and so, of course, had she. In the first few months I was completely preoccupied with her and dedicated to meeting her needs to the exclusion of almost all else. Seven months down the line, I had begun my “flight into sanity” and recognised that I had needs of my own that had to be met, the most basic of which was for some good quality, uninterrupted sleep. My daughter had also changed from a state of total dependency to one in which she was able, and sometimes determined, to separate from me, if only for brief periods.
It gradually dawned on my partner and I that for all the night-feeding her, rocking her, singing to her etc, that we were doing, she was now the one best equipped to get herself to sleep in the shortest possible time. Since birth she had cried when she was tired and would sometimes cry until she was asleep, almost regardless of what we did or did not do. Perhaps we were kidding ourselves, but we were convinced that after about six months we could discern a change in her night time noise from the cries of an infant who was in trouble and needed her parents, to the shouting of a frustrated individual struggling to achieve a task that she could, and needed to, accomplish on her own. Once we had discerned that change, we were comfortable with leaving her to it, and luckily for all concerned her sleep habits dramatically improved almost overnight.
We saw an open door and pushed against it. I come from a West African background and I never imagined that my baby would be consigned to spend 12 hours each night in a darkened room on her own. To me it still does not feel absolutely right, but it certainly doesn’t feel as wrong as the previous situation felt. Most of my relatives are aghast, but they live in a culture in which even modest households have servants and many people live in extended family groups where they can call on a whole array of relatives to assist with housework and childcare, day and night. Life in Tufnell Park just isn’t like that.
Maintaining their Life Support System
It was my mother who told me that babies cry when they are tired. Six weeks after bringing home our first baby from hospital (where he had been for two months after being born 12 weeks early) from 5pm to mid evening it was feed-cry-feed-cry-feed-cry as I got more desperately hungry for my own supper. Not knowing otherwise, I had assumed that if a baby had a full stomach it would not cry any more and I could then put it to bed. I could not understand where this child was putting it all, he just kept going and getting worse in every respect.
Ma came to stay. Seeing what was going on, on the second evening she pushed us out to have supper and then go to the cinema, saying that she could get a bottle of expressed milk out of the freezer to feed the baby and put him to bed.
Later she reported that she had put him in the bath around half past six – a good half hour before I usually did it, though it has to be said that the time from 5pm would drag terribly as both the baby and I became increasingly bored with the tail end of the day. She fed him and put him in bed for seven, in time to listen to The Archers. He had howled, but by the second lot of dum-de-dum music he had shut up and gone to sleep. “He was tired, that’s why he was crying.” “Oh, I thought he wanted something.” “Yes, to go to sleep.”
The next night I fed him, bathed him, fed him again to ensure there was not a gap left at the top and put him in bed. He yelled for all of three minutes. The night after I did the same and he went to sleep without howling at all. After that we had our evenings back. Hurrah!
Three years later, boy2 arrived. Boy1 was at nursery school all day and needed to be in bed at 7pm. The logistics of one person having to get both boys in bed so I could start on cooking our supper meant that, after three weeks grace to grasp the difference between night and day, the baby was put to bed some time between half six and seven, i.e. before I did stories with the three year old just as their father got home to do last story and say good-night. The baby got the hang of it in a day or so and, like his older brother before him, slept through to around one in the morning before needing to be fed again.
Another two years and boy3 had to be factored into the bed-time equation. There was a big difference between the two year age gap and the three years there had been between the first two. The only-just-two year old would not entertain himself whilst I fed the baby before bedtime in the way the older one had done at three and a half. The toddler would not leave me and the baby alone, so baby feeding was an irritating and protracted business. The entire bedtime process now took a lot longer, which meant starting earlier in order to get all three fed, storied and in bed by the end of The Archers. Reading stories for the two year old whilst feeding the baby did not work (not enough hands) so the baby had to go to bed first. He got all of three days to figure out what night-time was, then he was being put to bed a good hour and a half earlier than the eldest had been as a small baby. He also did better on the regime, having feeds at midnight give/take an hour, then another couple at decreasing intervals, but he didn’t get up until around 7am. At 18 months his bed time is between 6:30-7pm and he sleeps without a break until over twelve hours later. If he is put to bed later for some reason he doesn’t sleep appreciably later in the morning, he just wakes up crabby at the usual time, as do they all if they go to bed late.
We have been through phases of them all as babies trying to turn night into day if given the chance, feeding at two hour intervals or less, then sleeping all day. A paediatrician who saw the first one about something or other (premature babies see a lot of paediatricians at first) said that babies will do this because their mothers have more milk at night, so feeding is easier – we learn to be both lazy and smart very early on. He was offered a nice bottle of water when he woke up demanding to be fed yet again. He screamed like the world was ending but it took only two nights for him (and his next two brothers) to work out that a bottle of water was not worth waking up for.
If this all sounds outrageously hard-hearted the motivations were both selfish and altruistic. I cannot function on no sleep and without regular meals. I get cross, distracted and incredibly bad-tempered. I am the children’s main life support system. If I don’t eat/sleep then neither do they. Their lives are more fun with a mother who is more or less nice to be around. I need the time to make my own meals as well as theirs. I have never had the strength to deal with children who are up most of the evening, so they have just had to go to bed. The earlier they go to bed and the less shilly-shallying about going to sleep there is, the better it seems to work for everyone.
Books on Getting Babies to Sleep
By Kate Calvert
We have had one good sleeper (started sleeping in solid blocks from as early as six weeks), and one bad sleeper (still waking at least once a night and telling us all about it at 1¾ years). This was proof, it seemed to me, that getting babies to sleep is less a question of parenting, and more a question of luck.
However, a book by Dr Harvey Karp made me reconsider my views – even though it turned up too late to be any use with the bad sleeper. The latest version is published as Baby Bliss, Penguin £8.99
Karp, now paediatrician to the American stars, has spent a great deal of his career trying to work out why some babies get colic and/or don’t sleep well and/or cry a great deal. He has observed that colic as we know it, does not exist in Third World communities, and has come up with some fairly convincing arguments about why it’s not the explanation for unhappy babies in the First World either.
There’s no space here to go through all his points, but broadly he argues that because of the size of a human head and the need to get it out of the mother before it grows too large, human babies are born too early – in particular before their nervous system is fully developed. As a result they often can’t settle themselves when they meet anything unexpected – whether it’s a flailing hand, or a silent, dark room. They may start to cry and in many cases, can’t stop unless they get something which approximates to familiarity – the conditions of life in the mother’s womb.
When it comes to night-time sleeping Karp points out that babies, like adults, receive a ‘constant flow of information from the world around them while they slumber,’ (so sleeping adults for example, will hear the phone ring). ‘That’s why your baby may experience their still bed and extreme quiet of your home as disturbing under stimulation…. Infants with good state control and mellow temperaments can often stay asleep during their lightest sleep, and even if they wake up, they usually fall right back to sleep. However, babies with poor self-calming abilities and challenging temperaments often have trouble staying asleep when they enter their light sleep periods. During the phase of sleep, they may be so close to wakefulness that the added stimulation of hunger, gas, noise, or startle may be enough to rouse them to alertness or even agitated crying.’
Karp’s solution is to reproduce the conditions of the womb using what he calls the five Ss.
Swaddling – keeping the baby tightly wrapped so they feel secure and can’t accidentally whack or disturb themselves.
Side Sleeping – ie avoiding the exposed feeling of lying on their back – but only be used if the baby is a terrible sleeper and even then making sure he/she is wedged into position by Guardian Angels or tightly rolled and taped baby blankets at waist and lower back to prevent rolling on to stomach.
Shushing – providing a harsh, continuous white noise, either in person or via a Hoover, untuned radio or similar
Swinging – reproducing the movement experienced pre-birth, either in a swinging cot, swinging seat, or by holding the baby and rocking them
Sucking – described as the icing on the cake, either in the form of breastfeeding, or a dummy – trying a variety to find a shape that suits the baby.
He reports that some babies can be calmed by just one ‘S’, but most need several to settle well. He does admit that to make the method work you have to be flexible, and adds some tips on weaning the baby off the five Ss.
I can vouch that we managed at least part of the scheme inadvertently. Conrad would absolutely not go to sleep on his back so he demanded an alternative position. The introduction of a sleeping bag – although not quite the swaddling described by Karp, also went some way to improving his sleep. And yes, if rocked by one of us, he would drop off. However, we didn’t try the shushing or the dummies – which may explain why complete success eluded us until he was close on two.
The other title which might prove useful for those who don’t fancy Karp is The Good Sleep Guide for You and Your Baby, by Angela Henderson, Hawthorn Press 2003 £5.99. It has been a word of mouth bestseller on getting babies of 0-18 months to sleep. It’s short and simple enough for exhausted parents to be able to follow, summarising the best known approaches and experts (minus the relatively new Karp), summarising it all in pointers. There’s also a sleep diary to help monitor progress, and extra tips for example on diet.