“Addison is such a bad sleeper.”
“I’ve never had any trouble with Hannah. She’s a good sleeper.”
“What kind of sleeper is your baby?”
The idea that a baby is a “good” sleeper or a “bad” sleeper inevitably comes up as they enter your life because half of it seems like just trying to get your baby to sleep! (or stay sleeping!). And while our bodies are different enough so that some people need more and others need less sleep, this is usually relevant to adults and variances in age, gender, diet, metabolism, and stress level. It is not really relevant to babies.
To be sure, some babies accept sleep and others fiercely resist it. But all babies need sleep. And they need a lot of it. Sleep organizes the brain, provides needed emotional rest for the infant, establishes the proper circadian rhythm, and helps the immune and digestive systems stabilize. Probably more. For this reason, a newborn might sleep 16-20 hours in their early days. And most babies maintain about a 16-hour need until they are around a year old (and then drop to 12-14). Some people swear that their active babies just don’t need that much sleep, but often times those are precisely the babies who need it most. (And yes, I have been one of those moms, and yes, five years later I realize that my non-sleeper really did need it.) A child’s personality often changes as the inclination to fight sleep is re-shaped. A baby who is grumpy, colicky, oversensitive, hyperactive, or just plain awake is often overstimulated and needs help relaxing.
This is where you enter the picture. Whether it takes eight days or eight months, it behooves you to figure out a sleeptime plan which accomodates you, your baby, and your family. If you don’t figure it out, you will be one of those unlucky mothers whose two-year old still won’t sleep through the night, or whose five year old only sleeps at the bottom of your bed. That is going to ruin your sleep life, sex life, and emotional life. Moreover, it will keep your child from gaining needed independence and self-soothing techniques which they will need by kindergarten or preschool.
I was lucky enough to have two sleepy babies who loved going to bed. One baby loved it from birth. The other picked it up on his own after about six weeks. These babies grew into toddlers who actually asked for their own naps in the morning by tugging on my pant leg and saying sweetly, “Beddy? beddy?” And I’d put them in their cribs where they were as happy as larks. They easily slept for an hour and a half to two hours every morning. No training necessary except for me actually putting them down around that time when they were little, making sure they were fed beforehand, and patting them on the back every ten minutes until they drifted off.
But I also had two non-sleepers. And they took much effort! My first baby was a non-sleeper, and lots of people consoled me that theirs were too. But after a couple months, he still wasn’t taking naps and I felt frazzled. He had reflux and was a big crier but didn’t like playing with his toys or anything. And when he outgrew his baby swing around five months, I didn’t know what to do. He was too big to sling, but whenever I’d put him down in his crib, he just cried. Not screaming, but certainly not getting any closer to falling asleep. I assumed he just didn’t need the sleep but dreaded each day until around 6pm when he’d finally take a catnap until about 7pm. Then at five or six months old, at the advice of my friend who had seven children, I started putting him down in the morning anyway and instituting the patting routine. I’d put him down, put on some lullabies, and pat his back saying, “Shh. Shh. It’s time for your nappy. It’s time for your nappy now.” And then I’d leave. Every ten minutes, I’d go back in there and repeat if he was still moaning. And one morning, he fell asleep! Victory! From then on, he’d take a nap from 10-12noon each day while I cleaned up the house. And I was soooo relieved. A couple months later, I started instituting a bedtime in the same way, around 8 or 9pm (for an eight month old), and eventually he adopted a pattern of crying less and less for about ten to fifteen minutes before he dropped off by himself. Sometimes he would wake up again an hour or so later, and I’d hear him fishing around in his crib, but he didn’t cry. He just made noises and went back to sleep, I think around 11pm. He continued that pattern through his toddler years, at which point he was able to say, “Bye mom!” from his crib when he heard me going downstairs to my own bed around 10 or 11. But I didn’t mind. He wasn’t sleeping but he was in his bed, calm and relaxed. That was his thing, and good enough for his health and for me.
One other thing I learned is that working on sleep is best when you work on the naps first. The bedtime wakings are tougher because infants have to learn to sleep more than a couple hours at a time. In the beginning, they are hungry and you must feed them. But later, it can still be difficult for them to go more than five or six hours simply because they are used to waking up. If you work on the naps first during the day, you are also awake and can do the patting and situating easily. When they learn to nap, going to bed suddenly becomes a lot easier. Trust me. I have seen it in all four of my babies, sleepers and non-sleepers alike.
When you work on the naps, put them down while they’re still awake. Don’t expect to nurse them or rock them to sleep because they’ll probably wake up when you lay them in the crib anyway. If you put them down while they’re still awake, they’ll learn to fall asleep on their own. If they are sleepy from nursing or rocking, that’s fine, but don’t rely on it. Also use a relatively stable schedule (eat/wake/sleep) so they get used to the routine. They won’t protest as much, even by three or four months, if you’ve been doing this from the very beginning. Babies sleep for 45-min cycles, so you may only get 45 at first, but that’s fine. Work for 90 minutes as they grow, either by waiting to see if they’ll fall back to sleep after the first 45 or giving them some soothing pats. Eventually, as they get closer to the toddler age, they’ll take fewer (one or two) but longer naps, probably closer to 135mins.
One other thing is to feed babies in the middle of the night but don’t get up with them. Never, ever turn on lights or play with them. Go into their rooms–have a nightlight if necessary–lift them out of the bed to feed gently, carefully, and quietly, and then put them straight back when you’re done. If you bottle-feed, try feeding them still in the bed. Don’t talk to them, don’t do anything disruptive, and don’t take longer than necessary. If you do this consistently from the time they are born, you will make so much headway. I didn’t even change my babies, after the first month or two. In the first bit, they needed a change because they’d “power poop” either before I came or just after the feeding, which would wake them up and then I’d rock them to get them to feel sleepy. But after that, I waited until the morning. Nothing like those cold wipes to startle you awake!
And one last thing: don’t punish a baby by putting them in their crib. Even when they are older. It’s one thing to lay a child down that doesn’t want to be there because you need to attend to something important. But it’s another to put them in there punitively because you can’t handle them or because they did something wrong. Even a young baby can sense the difference, sooner than you may think. Obviously in that case you are setting yourself up for confusion or negative emotions in the mind of your baby, that will impede your goal of getting them to feel peaceful in their crib. I didn’t use any piece of baby equipment for this purpose—high chair, playpen, saucer—and they were much happier for it. If you must isolate your baby for nerve or behavior reasons (occasionally), do it in a neutral area where the association won’t be made. Now that my fourth little one is nine months, for example, if I need a break from her because she is crying to be held too much, I give her a short roomtime in her brother’s room, where she can play with their toys and be safe. This way, I get a break but she doesn’t feel punished or scared of her bed, chair, whatever.
My fourth baby, by the way, is also a non-sleeper and I am trying to do the same thing with her that I did with my first. After being spoiled by two sleepers prior to her, I am surprised at the effort it takes. But it is not harsh or dictatorial. I don’t feel anxious about it either. I just have to do the same thing I’ve always done, scheduling and patting (and being sure she’s fed), and she is getting the idea. No screaming it out. No fussing in the middle of the night. She’s not going to sleep all the time, but she’s happy in her crib with her blanket. And as we have made headway on naps, she has no problems at all during bedtime. Although I put her to bed late still, she is getting much more rest than she was in the beginning. Her sleeptimes fit her needs and the rest of the family’s schedule. (Almost!).
So my parting advice is, don’t give up on helping your resistant baby nap and go to bed just because they fight you. And remember that the younger you choose to fight the fight, the easier the winning will be; the older the baby is, the harder it is.