Sleep - To My Expectant Girlfriend – Part I
A friend told me yesterday that he and his wife are expecting. A flood of thoughts and advice came flooding through my brain and I had to very consciously hold back from vomiting all the things I wanted to say all over his unsuspecting, and unprepared, ears. I remember being pregnant. Everyone had their advice. Everyone had an opinion on how or where to give birth. Everyone wanted to know the gender, the chosen name and to tell you their traumatic birth story. They wanted to share their breastfeeding issues and “cry it out” methods for sleep sanity. Everyone had their blanket statements of, “Oh, your life will never be the same.” Or, “Enjoy your sleep and freedom now!” And I didn’t want to hear it. I read a lot and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted my family to look like. Having people tell me what I should or shouldn’t do was annoying. But now that I have been through several pregnancies, births and first years I look back and have a mountain of advice I would have given myself had I known (and listened to myself!) before I started.
This is what makes it really, really hard for me not to unload a dump truck full of advice in one shot. So I have come here, to give you my free, unsolicited girlfriend’s guide to entering motherhood. This is Part I in a series, because becoming a mother cannot be covered in one simple blog post...
Sleep: An Introduction
Of course this has to be the very first topic, and for good reason. It is one of the main concerns expectant parents have. I would just like to point out that sleep deprivation is a method of torture used by military personnel, so the reality of sleep deprivation should not be taken lightly. Also, Postpartum Depression is a very common reality for new moms and I am convinced that sleep deprivation is a huge source of the cause. A severely sleep deprived and potentially depressed new mother serves no one, which is why I have sworn I will never co-sleep again amongst other things, and why I have spent lots of time reading the various methods of “sleep training” and ended up hiring a licensed therapist specializing in childhood challenges to help me overcome my sleep battles with my son. I have accumulated a wealth of information and have come to some very simple conclusions that I hope will be helpful.
Sleep: How To Get More, Better, Sooner
1. Wait. When the baby stirs and sputters, just wait. Babies make a lot of noise when they sleep. Babies get gas and have to put in a lot of effort to move their bowels now that they are outside the womb, and they tend to squirm and fuss a lot because of this. It doesn’t mean they need to be swooped up and fed the instant they make a peep. I say when the baby starts to whimper and squeak just wait a few minutes and watch to see what happens. Baby may not need you. It is altogether possible for a baby to fuss a bit and then settle back to sleep. The sooner you start giving that baby an opportunity to “self-soothe” the earlier on the path of healthy sleep habits that little one will be.
2. Put babe to bed awake. Clearly this is not always possible. Newborns especially are notorious for conking out the second they are done feeding, and sometimes a baby is just too fussy or sick or uncomfortable or colicky to leave in a crib to cry for any length of time. But I say, as often as possible, try to make it a goal to accumulate a track record from the start of your baby’s life of him entering dreamland on his own by being put down very sleepy but awake. As. Often. As. Possible. I cannot stress this point enough. As a general goal, shoot for the little one to make that transition without help.
3. Avoid helping. Certainly you take steps to set the stage for sleep, a dimming of the lights in the room (seriously, install blackout curtains before baby arrives), a little rocking, maybe some nursing, but attempt to stop short of the baby actually falling asleep with that help. It will take effort, but a little effort in the beginning will serve you in the long run. My biggest mistake was nursing to sleep for every nap and bedtime. It is a very easy habit to fall into, but if your goal is for everyone to be getting quality sleep as soon as possible, you need to work at avoiding this very common trap. Many, many mothers do it and never have problems. Just know that you run the risk of that baby becoming extremely dependent on that aid to sleep and it is a habit that is very, very hard to break.
4. Check for discomfort. It is possible that a baby is waking at night, or having a hard time sleeping in general, for reasons other than hunger or the need for help in the transition. Is it too hot or cold in the room? Is the baby wrapped up too warmly or not have enough layers on? Is the diaper wet or soiled? Is there a draft? Is there a lot of outside noise, like the TV, a radio or screaming kids? Newborns typically sleep through almost anything, at least in the first few weeks if not couple of months. But certainly, by three months old if not sooner, they become very awake, aware and tuned into their surroundings. That baby that slept through everything may disappear once she rouses herself from her birth experience and the shock of living outside the womb. Be respectful and aware. How do you prefer your sleep environment? Dark, a little cool in the room with warm blankets, no noise or possibly white noise to block out what is happening outside the room? I know a lot of parents want their babies to be able to sleep anywhere and through anything, but let’s be honest. How many of us adults can do that? And we have years of experience getting ourselves to sleep and back to sleep if disturbed. Be realistic and never underestimate the power of a properly prepared sleep environment.
5. Install black out curtains. I now consider myself the queen of blacking out a room. My sister even makes fun of me, telling me her kids’ blacked out rooms are like a sun porch compared to my son’s room. She’s not exaggerating. Honestly, most black out curtains on the market are child’s play. I have had to search high and low for something that actually blacked out the room, rather than just darkening it, while at the same time avoiding products made with vinyl or formaldehyde coatings. No easy task! I have finally found my favorite brand of black out curtains, however, and have done some very simple things to make my son’s room so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You protest? No need to make it THAT dark? If I told you your baby would sleep three hours for a nap, rather than an hour, if there were no light in the room, would it be worth blacking it out? Just a thought. Of course I can’t guarantee that, but I do know that my son always has awakenings during his nap and is very unlikely to fall back asleep if there is enough light in the room for him to look around and be distracted by what he sees.
6. Routine, routine, routine. One of the golden bits of wisdom my sleep trainer pointed out to me was that baby's brains are wired to detect patterns. This is partially why the philosophy of "follow the baby" usually leads to chaos, but that is for another post. When it comes to sleep, you're child will thrive on having a routine help him to predict what is coming next. Whatever you decide to do for bedtimes, do the same thing at each and every single bedtime. Say the same things, "It's time for sleep little angel," and do the same things, "I'm closing your curtains, turning the light down." Wrap him up or dress him up the same way. Sing or play the same lullaby. Have signals, indicators, small and soothing things that your baby can learn to associate with sleep and sleep alone so that the idea of what is coming next starts forming in the brain before he is laid down to rest and acceptance of that state will come more easily as they feel safe and secure in knowing what to expect.
I also want to end this topic with a disclaimer that it is not wise to try and force any young baby to try to sleep for really long periods. Newborns especially NEED to eat every two to three hours around the clock, usually for several months. Listen to your baby and don’t make sleep the priority over what the baby actually physically needs. My point in giving these tips is to help you learn to set the stage for your baby to develop good sleep habits so that she can have a high likelihood of being able to sleep for longer stretches when she is physiologically capable.
My absolute very favorite book on this subject comes from the therapist that solved all my sleep issues with my firstborn and I give this book to most of the expectant moms I know. The Happy Sleeper is a must have/must read resource that you will reference for years and use with every child.