Adventures without sleep

Adventures without Sleep: how to survive a nightwaking child 
-2000 word article -published in JUNO, Winter 2010
WHOEVER COINED THE phrase “sleeping like a baby” was not, I would bet, a parent. Of course, there are some who are blessed with wonder-babies who sleep through the night from the beginning. But for the rest of us sleep is, at some stage in the first few years of a child’s life, a major issue.
Well-meaning loved ones and medical professional shower you with suggestions, most commonly: stop breastfeeding, put them in their own bed and the worst, just let them cry it out.

Our story…
My son Timmy certainly prepared me for the time ahead before he was even born. I remember lying awake whilst he tumbled about inside me like a circus acrobat until his self appointed bedtime of 1.30am and not a moment sooner! Then whilst he had a lie in, I was up at 6am for work! And so this timetable continued after his gentle birth at home.
I have some friends who didn’t know what to do with themselves in the first few weeks of their newborns lives as they slept all the time. No such joy for me. My son fed all the time, and could sleep for long times at a stretch – as long as he was in my arms. However, the second I put him down to go to the toilet, or get feeling back into my dead arm; my peaceful child would scream as though possessed.
Whilst daytime sleep was almost non-existent – just half an hour here or there, he knew night from day, and by two weeks old had slept through the night. I was delighted. I was a good parent. I was in control. And so this continued until he was four months old, sleeping through more nights than he didn’t. Then, what started as an innocent sniffle turned into a severe cold; my life turned upside down.
My once sleeping baby, who had happily graduated to a crib beside our bed, was not only back in bed with us, but on the breast all night. Any time his mouth became detached from the nipple he would wake with a scream. He was snuffling and feverish: I felt desperately sorry for him. But days later when the cold had subsided his sleeping was just the same. After two weeks of this my nerves were raw, eyes so tired I couldn’t keep them open.
Christmas came; I was on my knees after a month of wakings every forty minutes from midnight till six, sometimes every twenty minutes. When asked what I wanted for Christmas my heartfelt request was a decent night’s sleep. And yet that was the one thing no one could give me. He was a joy to me most of the time, but at night I was at my wits end.
Boxing Day came, no sleep for Christmas and another cold. My previous lack of sleep seemed luxurious. Now I was awake for three hours straight from 2-5am as well as multiple other wakings. After that I banned any clocks from the bed room, each night became a blur of waking and dozing.
I begged friends, family, child care professionals for tips- I tried them all. Older locals rolled their eyes as I recounted how, not only was he not sleeping through the night, but also he was waking fifteen plus times. ‘The rod for your own back speech’ was rolled out. What sort of a mother was I for not letting him cry it out rather than martyr myself? And so after two months I gave in and tried. He cried for 45 minutes, despite my going in at intervals to reassure him, then vomited all over himself, his whole body shaking – I felt sick to my stomach – my exhaustion had led me to do something I swore I never would, and my husband and I swore to the bottom of our hearts that we never would do again. To this day I still feel sick thinking about it, it is my absolute parenting low point.
Over the next couple of months we tried putting him back in his own crib, having him in the bed with us, moving our whole family onto futons in front of the fire in the sitting room. We tried earlier and later bedtimes, not breastfeeding to sleep, musical box, bath time before bed, dummies and bottles, teddies and lovies – all to no avail.
Friends and family were supportive, incredulous that I was still surviving on so little sleep. But few had experienced night-waking to this degree and so did not truly understand the level of exhaustion I felt. My mother used to say sleep deprivation was a form of torture and whilst she was right, turning myself into the victim and my son the perpetrator did not help in any way. Instead I had to develop my compassion for him and myself and my resilience and acceptance of the situation. There were days when I was too tired to be safe to drive, many we curled up on the sofa in front of daytime TV. We went to friends’ houses where I would be eat, cry and be comforted.
My waking moments were spent searching for answers.The Science of Parenting confirmed my worries about leaving children to cry it out. I read some reassuring books – Night-time Parenting by William and Martha Sears was compassionate and supportive. “Nightwaking” they explained “has survival benefits. In the first few months, babies’ needs are the highest, but their ability to communicate their needs is the lowest.” It explained that our societies’ expectation that babies sleep through the night was unrealistic and that just because it was night time didn’t mean you stopped being a parent. I agreed, I carried on another couple of weeks, thanking god for my special snuggly times with my baby at the breast, in the still of the night. But another month came and went, my acceptance evaporated as we returned to twenty minute wakings.Sleep had become the be all and end all of my life, dominating my thoughts day and night, I spent hour upon hour trying to get him to go to sleep for his day time naps, finally falling asleep with him.

The No-Cry Sleep Solution
And then, when I was nearly hallucinating from exhaustion, a friend suggested a book: The No-Cry Sleep Solution. It was written with true understanding by a mother who parented in the same way I did. She seemed to understand my predicament and included the words of countless other mothers in my situation. She had experienced endless sleepless nights herself with the first and last of her four children. She wrote with kindness and great compassion.
She recalls to me how her journey to writing the book started when her baby was waking multiple times a night: “I read piles of books and visited many websites to find solutions. No matter where I turned I found two basic answers: either let them cry-it-out or learn to live with less sleep! I wanted neither. I knew there had to be a kinder way, a road somewhere between night time neglect and daytime exhaustion that would be nurturing for my baby and for me.”
She explained the theory behind sleep cycles, and then, rather than prescribe a rigid plan, offered page after page of ideas to try and advice on how to apply these ideas. She suggests that you log your day and night time routines to be able to have an objective record of what is happening and why. I found these logs very useful, especially in proving to myself that I was not over-exaggerating the amount of wakings.
She sums up her common-sense approach: “I think that parents know in their heart what to do with their child – but the voices of unwanted advice from everyone around them are so loud and determined that it is hard for them to hear themselves think! For example, when your baby is crying what is your instinct? To pick him up! But when so many people around you are trying to tell you that it’s the wrong solution you begin to question your instincts.
Sleep issues are complicated, and they’re hard to deal with because when children aren’t sleeping, parents aren’t sleeping, and that lack of sleep affects every minute of every day for every person in the family. When parents don’t know what to do they search for easy solutions – and sleep techniques that call to put a baby in bed and shut the door seem like that easy solution. Sadly, most times it isn’t easy at all – often it means hours of crying for child, and parents, too.”
So why not just leave your baby to cry?
For a long time our culture has advocated leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep for a variety of reasons. In The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, Director of Education at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, shares research which shows that persistent, uncomforted crying leads cell death and premature ageing of the brain. Scans have shown that the brain becomes permanently wired for over-arousal and over-sensitivity, with children less able to calm themselves. “When your child cries in an intense, desperate way, her bodily arousal system is way out of balance…she is experiencing the fight-or-flight reaction, with large quantities of stress hormones being pumped into her body.” This can only be ‘turned off’ by comforting the baby, stimulating the vagus nerve: they are too immature to do this themselves. Babies cannot comfort themselves, and their eventual quieting down in the absence of a parental response, does not mean all is well.
According to Dr William Sears, paediatrician, sleep expert and father of eight:
Babies need to be parented to sleep, not just put to sleep. Some babies can be put down while drowsy yet still awake and drift, others need parental help by being rocked or nursed to sleep…While adults can usually go directly into the state of deep sleep, infants in the early months enter sleep through an initial period of light sleep.” So as a culture we are being unrealistic if we expect a baby to sleep like an adult. The are a variety of developmental reasons why babies do sleep differently, it is not for us to try to tamper with what we don’t understand.
There is now much information available to show that sleep issues are a normal part of parenting during the early years. James McKenna, Ph.D., who runs the Mother Baby Behavioural Sleep Centre at the University of Notre Dame: “When it comes to sleeping, whatever your baby does is normal. If one thing has damaged parents’ enjoyment of their babies, it’s rigid expectations about how and when the baby should sleep.”
The chances are that if you are struggling with night waking, then you are probably dealing with a child who is highly sensitive. 20% of children fall into this category and they require a parenting style that respects those needs. “An important fact for you to remember” counsels Sears “is that your baby’s sleep habits are more a reflection of your baby’s temperament rather than your style of nighttime parenting.”
The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. You have not failed. You can make little changes, which may make a big difference. And some stage soon your bleary-eyed existence will be a hazy memory. There are no miracle cures, and life without sleep is hard. May your dreams be sweet, whenever you finally have them.

The science of sleep
The science of sleep has been well-studied and experts are in agreement about this. Where they differ is in how to respond to the waking. Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults. Whilst an adults sleep cycle (going from light to deep sleep, and then back to light sleep) lasts an average of ninety minutes, infants’ sleep cycles are shorter, lasting fifty to sixty minutes, so they experience a vulnerable period for night-waking around every hour or even less. Dr Sears recommends “as your baby enters this light sleep, if you lay a comforting hand on your baby’s back, sing a soothing lullaby, or just be there next to baby if he is in your bed; you can help him get through this light sleep period without waking.”
Pantley’s sagely advises, “parents of new babies should know that their infants don’t need sleep lessons. They’ve been sleeping for twenty hours a day in the womb – they know how to sleep! However, their environment can cause disruption to the sleep that they crave. It is a parent’s job to protect their new baby’s need for sleep and provide a safe and comfortable place for it to occur at the right times.

“Babies will fail to sleep if the routine doesn’t match their needs. For a new baby, a five-hour stretch is a full night. This may be a far cry from what you thought ‘sleeping through the night’ meant! It’s often a full year or more until your baby will settle into an all-night, every night sleep pattern.”

Helping your baby to sleep.
  • Make a log of your day, and your night so you get a sense of the pattern of your days and anything which might be affecting sleep.
  • A better daytime nap usually equals better night-time sleep, though be sure that naps do not happen too late in the day.
  • Establish a bed time routine which both you and your child enjoy, and happens the same every night, and which helps you both to feel sleepy, something like brush teeth and wash face, nappy, pajamas, story and milk. Many find a bath with some lavender in helps to get babies sleepy.
  • No TV or loud games at least half an hour before bed.
  • It is natural for a baby to fall asleep while sucking. But when a baby always falls asleep this way, he learns to associate sucking with falling asleep.
  • Try to ensure they don’t get into the habit of sucking to sleep, be it on bottle, dummy or breast. Remove it before they are fully asleep so they can learn to do the last bit by themselves.
  • Try a different bed arrangement- older babies might hate a cot but may be happier in a low bed (with safety precautions).
  • Make sure that they feel safe in their room, that it is as peaceful as it can be. Have it dimly lit, in case they are afraid of the dark and let them know you are there if they need you.
  • Listen to their calls or cries carefully each time. Could they settle themselves? Racing in to get them back to sleep as quickly as possible can become a habit when they wake a lot.
  • Don’t talk and play during night feeds and nappy changes. Try to keep the lights off.
  • Be gentle with yourself: don’t take on too much. Sleep when you can, don’t try to catch up on cleaning or work when your baby is napping. Get all the support you can.
  • Be patient, you won’t change it all in one night and trying to do so will put you and your child under too much pressure. If they are particularly bad they could easily be getting ill or teething.
Night-time Parenting by William and Martha Sears
The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley; McGraw-Hill, £9.99
The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, Dorling Kindersley, £16.99
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  1. Monica

    ah, my girl woke every 20-45mins. Now, at age 2.5 yrs she wakes every 2-2.5hrs. Those first months and even up to 18mths was horrid. You just can’t explain it to parents with normal tiredness.
    It’s an exhaistion that leaves you with just enough mental and physical energy to look after your child and not much else.

    I’m still tired, but we’re now on a routine at least. I have no solution. At the moment she still is drinking a lot of milk so I know it’ll improve once she has more solid food (Another issue!), But I did all the good advice above and didn’t get very far.

    I also think birth trauma has a place, as well as allowing them to cry (Aware Baby style).

    Anyway, just letting you know that one mama out ehre totally empathises.

  2. Seán and Helen
    Seán and Helen11-09-2010

    Our second born never slept for more that
    45 mins-1 hour at a time and rarely for more than 2 hours a night!! It was torture and left us mentally and physically exhausted.

    He was our only child to have a traumatic birth and had no pleasant and serene welcome into this world of ours through either a water or a home birth.

    He then spent the next three years of his life in and out of a large London Hospital. Fighting ‘the system’ instead of going with our instincts as to what was wrong.

    Fifteen years later he still needs little sleep, but now we have the courage and strength to go with our gut reaction and accept that children are not text books. They are individuals and need not to be treated accordingly.

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