If you have a new baby or young children, chances are you’re
thinking a lot about sleep. “Is she sleeping through the night yet?” your Aunt
Judy keeps asking you, oblivious to the purple crescents beneath your eyes.
My son was a terrible sleeper. As a newborn, his days and
nights were reversed. Even later, as we all settled into a loose routine, he woke
up every few hours at night. For over a year.
Desperate for sleep, we tried nearly everything. We tried
no-cry methods and plenty-o-crying methods. We tried an osteopath, a sleep
specialist and an elimination diet. We gave him colic drops and melatonin (at
the suggestion of a pediatric sleep specialist) and a stuffed lamb that pulsed
with a steady, battery-powered heartbeat. We even spent $200 on a baby hammock,
thinking the gentle motion and slightly elevated, womb-like contraption might net
us all some rest.
If desperation and exhaustion weren’t enough, I spent a lot
of effort worrying that I was contributing to my son’s sleep issues by nursing him
to sleep, allowing him to nap in the swing and enabling other “bad habits.” As
an anxious, brand new parent, I often felt I was one tiny step away from
ruining my baby. Perhaps I was setting him up for a lifetime of poor sleeping!
While there was no magic bullet that cured our son’s
frequent night waking (a combination of sleep training and time helped the most),
I really wish I hadn’t fretted so much about some of the ways we did get sleep:
1. Nursing to sleep
It’s true that babies might
become dependent on nursing to fall asleep. When you decide you’re ready to
nightwean or otherwise break the nurse/sleep cycle, you can expect some
protests from your baby or toddler. Eventually—I promise—he will sleep without your
milk. So for right now, if it’s 2 a.m. and your baby will peacefully nurse
herself into a milky coma, enabling you a few more hours of sweet, sweet sleep?
Go for it.
Kids are resilient, and not every single less-than-optimal choice we make has permanent repercussions.
Similar to nursing to sleep,
co-sleeping can be a handy tool for the exhausted parent. I hadn’t planned to
co-sleep but found it the only way to string a few consecutive hours of sleep
together. So make peace with it. Like breaking the nursing to sleep cycle, when
you’re ready to reclaim your bed—and you will know when you are ready—you might
endure a handful of difficult nights. But it will happen. I promise your child
will not still sleep with you when she’s 40.
3. The swing
When my son was a newborn, I often
put him in his magical, musical swing for naps. When he’d startle awake, the
soothing motion (and perhaps the adorable lamb ears) often rocked him right
back to slumberland.
One night when the sleep deprivation
threatened to crack any remaining sanity, I brought my son downstairs, nursed
him and slid him into his swing. He slept for five hours in a row and in the
morning, I felt as if fresh blood thrummed through my veins.
But I also felt as if I’d somehow
cheated. I envisioned him as a surly teenager, unable to sleep without a
soothing side-to-side movement. In hindsight, I wish I’d worried less and used the miracle swing more often. He
is 6 now and falls asleep in his non-rocking bed every night.
When I was pregnant
with my daughter, the only way for me to force my toddler son into sleep was to
drive. I cranked the heat up, put some quiet music on and occasionally (OK usually) carb-loaded him with french fries. Then I’d drive until I could spy
his slumped head in the rearview mirror, signaling that he’d succumbed to the
salt and warmth. From then, I had an eight to nine minute window to screech
home and attempt to transfer him to his bed.
About a third of the time, he’d
wake up and we’d both wail for several minutes. But the glittering lure of a possible
nap was worth it. Though it's poor sleep hygiene, not environmentally friendly and
expensive, I have no regrets about the dozens of car naps. They granted us both
some much needed peace in the toddler years.
My son now goes to bed easily at night and we don’t see him
again until morning. Despite my worst fears, he no longer requires suckling or co-sleeping
or constant motion to rest. Yes, there were some difficult nights of sleep
training and night-weaning between those early, blurry days and now. But kids
are resilient, and not every single less-than-optimal choice we make has
permanent repercussions. So take it easy, Mamas and Dadas. Sometimes, you do
what works now and deal with the rest—so to speak— later.