Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Science of Sleep

When I was pregnant the most common comment I got from parents was SLEEP WHILE YOU STILL CAN which was slightly annoying because with the round ligament pain, the pelvic girdle pain, and the intense excitement at impending motherhood a good night’s sleep was rather elusive during most of pregnancy.

The second most common comment from parents was MAKE SURE YOU GET YOUR BABY ON A SLEEP ROUTINE ASAP. Every baby book I read said that creating a bedtime routine is crucial.

The Frenchman and I figured it made sense. Let the baby know there’s a difference between night and day (apparently living in a dark sack of goo for 9 months can mess with your internal clock or something). Give the baby sleep cues so it knows bedtime is a-coming. Teach the baby how to fall asleep on their own so they don’t need you to do it for them whenever they wake up (and BOY do they wake up!)

It’s that last piece of advice that we really struggled with. Most of the books all agree that the best way to teach your baby how to fall asleep on their own is to put them in their bed awake.

I just found this to go against all instincts. I would nurse Eloise before bed (and some would say that’s my problem right there – but I felt the fuller the tank the longer the sleep) and as most babies do, she would fall asleep while nursing. So there I was in the dim light of my bedroom, cradling a warm little creature, heavy with sleep, a small smile on her face drunk with milk – and I’m supposed to wake her up before putting her to bed?!? But the baby snoring and the milk smile and the visions of sugarplums – what monster would destroy that?

And it worked. Sure I was nursing her to sleep – but she was STAYING asleep – 6 hours, 8 hours. Sometimes the whole night. At 7 weeks. My other new mommy friends were waking every 3 or 4 hours and I knew we had it good and saw no reason to change things. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

And so I continued to nurse Eloise to sleep and place her in her bassinet. And she would sleep for 6 hours or more, wake up to feed once and go back to bed. Life was good.

Then Eloise reached 4 months. And it would take me ages to get her to sleep. I would nurse her. She would be asleep in my arms I’d lie her down ever so gently in her bassinet and she would wake up. Feed sleep put down wake-up repeat. And she started waking a lot more often. Like every hour more often.. And I would feed her or her Father would rock her and I would sit in front of the Internet reading websites on baby sleep sites while crying from exhaustion.

And what we found out from our desperate Internet research is that babies fall into a deep sleep right away when they’re fresh on the scene. They have a lot of catching up to do and that sleep helps them develop. Then at around 3 or 4 months their sleep patterns mature and become like ours – when they first fall asleep it is a light sleep – easily disturbable (not a word but it should be) hence the new difficulty at getting her to stay asleep. They also have sleep cycles like we do – around 45 minutes. So when Eloise would finish a sleep cycle, instead of putting herself back to sleep she would cry, wondering where the giant milk bag that put her to sleep went.

We knew we had to fix this. We couldn’t live with a child who wakes every hour crying. We were also aware that it would probably be painful. I decided to buy two different books on baby sleep from both spectrums – one a tough love, no nonsense approach, the other a fluffy, anti-crying, cotton-wool type. I wanted to get both opinions so I could then make my own. We held off on a course of action and just dealt with the sleepless nights until the books arrived in the post.

When they arrived I made the worse mistake of my young parenting career. I gave the fluffy book to the Frenchman to read and I read the tough-love book. We spent the next week arguing about whose book was right until we finished them and switched. My book actually mentioned his by name saying that the methods were rubbish. After the Frenchman read the first chapter of his book he said he now feels terrible that Eloise has spent a small portion of her life in tears. I believe my response was - well my book says your book is crap. Healthy stuff here people.

By the time I read both books I felt horrible. Eloise’s poor sleep habits were all my fault. I had one book telling me how important a good nights sleep is for the development of my child, statistics about how babies that don’t get enough sleep end up being angry, unintelligent and prone to getting themselves knocked-up, in jail or both by the age of 12. The book said it was my duty as parent to get my child to sleep through the night no matter what amount of crying was involved – a couple of bad night’s for the greater good. The other book told me that I’d be a horrible mother if I let my child shed one single tear that I could have some way prevented.

In the end we went for the middle of the road. Whine-it out we call it. We spent more time on our sleep routine with Eloise and instead of nursing being the last thing I did before she slept, I would pass Eloise to her Father and he would rock her a bit and put in her crib awake, but sleepy. We would let her complain for up to ten minutes before intervening and if her complaints turned into a proper cry we would step in.

So far it’s working. She doesn’t sleep through the entire night, but only wakes up twice for a feed. Which is such an improvement from the 7 or 8 times she was doing before that we are ecstatic.

And more importantly we learned that educating ourselves in different parenting styles is helpful – knowledge is power. But that ultimately we need to come to our own decision on what is best for us as a family. That lesson has been worth all the sleepless nights combined. Ok. Almost worth it.


  1. As soon as I think I've got it all figured out, everything changes. So if you find the answer, let me know. In the meantime, I hope you get at least a little rest!

  2. Do you ever think that we are just inundated with too much information? I find myself needing TO KNOW EVERYTHING before I make a decision and then become paralyzed about making a decision. Isn't life about making decisions free from immediate judgment?

    I think you are doing an amazing job. Ever since I've known you, you have possessed the most impressive traits- strong, intelligent, loving, beautiful, funny, thoughtful, accepting, etc. These traits that made you so attractive as a friend are making you the most amazing mother. Eloise is lucky, and despite the bumps along the way, it is clear how deeply loved she is by you. And really, as corny as this sounds, that's what matters. You are making decisions out of love and you can't go wrong with those decisions.

  3. Kristina - your comment could not have come at a better time. I had just dropped off a crying Eloise at her nursery and was really struggling to remind myself that it was for the best. I'm going to have to repeat that to myself - this decision is made out of love. THANKS!

  4. I think that as mom's (parents) we have an instict, and no matter what other people tell you ... the only right thing for you and your baby is what you determine that to be. Of course there is going to be good and bad advice, but never feel badly about what you choose to do as long as you have your childs interests at heart it is all good.

    I had a hard time with my second one (my baby) He is three and just now is better at falling asleep on his own. For a while I had to be in there holding his hand until he fell asleep!

    no regrest though... time flies-- I won't always be able to hold his hand like that!

  5. Lauren- I adore you and admire your parenting. I'm glad I helped a little bit. Lots of love!

  6. Just found you through Becoming Sarah, was nice to read about a fellow european blogger on her blog. Yours seems to be an interesting blog, you have a cute darling daughter, and a GREAT post, this one here!!! Just what I was looking for, because I'm trying to convince my husband that there IS a middle of the road and that actual real people have successfully tried it out. Greetings from Finland!!