To Sleep or Not to Sleep: It’s Not Really a Question
Like childbirth, much of the early months (years?) with a baby seem to fade into a blur. If you’re anything like me, your brain tends to highlight the positive and gloss over the negative so that years from now you can smile fondly when you remember car seats covered in poop or washing puke out of your hair. No doubt this is an evolutionary method of insuring that we actually continue to propagate our species. All that said, I’m pretty sure I will never forget the desperate frustration of being chronically sleep-deprived.
It’s truly a miserable feeling; waking in the middle of the night for the eight hundredth time, blearily looking at the clock to see that it’s only been 45 minutes since the last feeding…endless pacing up and down the hall, rhythmically patting a crying baby back to sleep…waking in the morning feeling like you just laid down. I remember. I also remember the flood of unhelpful and often contradictory advice every time I mentioned being tired. Everyone has their own way of dealing with infant sleep- and everyone thinks they’re right.
The thing is…maybe they are. Okay, not everyone is right. But most people find what works for them, their baby, and their family and that is what is right for them. So I want to talk about what worked for me and for many other parents I know. Please understand that I am under no illusions that my way is the best way, it was just the best way for me. But it took time and the encouragement of other moms to believe that and have confidence in my choice.
I had to go back to work when my daughter, my first child, was five weeks old. That’s right, five weeks. I was not fully recovered from major abdominal surgery (ie, a c-section), but I’d used up all my paid leave and simply couldn’t afford to not be working (that could be a blog post on its own). I was still struggling to get into a good nursing routine, but I was desperate to be a success at it. Up until I went back to work I laid my newborn to sleep on her back in her bassinet at the foot of my bed every night and then got up as often as she woke to nurse her, struggling to stay awake myself, patted her until she burped, and then dutifully laid her back in her cradle and hoped I got more than 45 minutes of sleep before her next feeding. That is what the parenting books said to do, so that is how I thought it had to be. And it wasn’t so bad as long as I could nap with her during the day and watch reruns of Scrubs in the middle of the night (this was pre-Netflix…I’m suddenly jealous of new moms these days).
At any rate, once I was back on a work schedule it simply was not a sustainable system and my body knew that even if I refused to acknowledge it. I started to fall asleep while nursing. I’d wake in a panic, hours later, baby still attached and suckling sporadically, convinced I was a terrible mother for putting my baby in danger. I truly thought I was doing something awful, but the only solutions I could find involved intense ‘sleep training’ and/or closing the bedroom door on a crying baby, and I knew that wasn’t the right solution for me. So I went looking for help among the same women who’d helped me with nursing: the LaLeche League International Mother to Mother forum (1). Admitting my guilt felt like a huge step, but hearing that I was NOT the only person to experience this felt like such a relief. And not only that, they were able to help me understand that there were safe options for me if putting my baby in a separate place to sleep wasn’t working!
No, it is not safe to fall asleep in an armchair or on the couch holding your baby. No, it is not safe to let an infant sleep in an unsecured bed. But YES there are safe ways to cosleep (PLEASE follow links 2 and 3 below if you are interested in cosleeping- it is very important to do so in a safe way) and YES there are many benefits (4) to doing it this way, especially if you’re nursing.
Cosleeping often means night nursing, which is not only good for baby, because you aren’t tempted to skip feedings to get more sleep, but it’s also great for your milk supply because you’re not going long periods at night without emptying your breasts. Particularly in the early months of nursing, that is a key issue in establishing and maintaining a good milk supply. For me, as a working mom, it also meant that even though I was away from my baby for up to 10 hours a day, I still had all those hours to re-establish our nursing pattern every single night. I was not a great pumper, so I wholeheartedly believe that I would not have been able to sustain breastfeeding for as long as I did if I had not coslept.
Of course, even with cosleeping there were still plenty of difficult nights. It’s just a simple fact of infant sleep patterns (5) that they will usually not sleep for long periods (there are always exceptions- one close friend who I definitely did not hate at the time had a baby that slept 8-10 hours every night with no effort from her). As newborns, their tummies are the size of a grape so they legitimately have a physiological NEED to wake and eat frequently. As they get older, growth spurts, illness, teething, developmental advances, and sheer stubborn mindedness (at least that’s what it feels like) can all interrupt sleep patterns and make nights feel like hell.
What helped me there was honestly just letting go of the idea that I was going to get a full night’s sleep any time soon. I learned that ‘sleeping through the night’ meant a five hour stretch, and accepted that she was just not developmentally ready for that yet. I turned the clock in my bedroom around so I couldn’t see it. That way I didn’t groan in frustration every time I woke, I just latched baby on or changed a diaper and went back to sleep. I stopped complaining to people who felt obligated to offer me advice and saved my bitching for people who would just commiserate with me. Eventually, my daughter did sleep longer stretches more consistently and, once we knew she was going to be a big sister, she even moved her to her very own big girl bed.
Cosleeping worked for our family, and many nights it still does. I know a lot of people have concerns about how they will eventually get their kiddos in their own beds, but for me struggling through those early years of sleep deprivation, it was as much as I could do to find a solution for now without worrying about years from now. And it’s worked just fine for me. Both kids have their own beds and often stay in them all night long. There are also still nights that I end up with one or both in my bed by morning, but that’s okay with me too. I have no illusions that they will sleep with me for the rest of their lives and, for now, I sure do enjoy the snuggles.