So far on this blog, I have been pretty quiet on the topic of sleep, which may seem like a glaring omission for a brand new parent, given that sleep is probably the number one topic that people discuss when it comes to babies. The main reason for this omission is that Gus has been a very good sleeper, which I attribute partly to his innate nature (i.e. he’s programmed to be a good sleeper), and partly to our efforts from the beginning not to get in his way and mess up his ability to sleep well. However, baby sleep is a tricky thing, subject to regressions and changing habits, and even despite our best efforts, we recently found ourselves with a sleep problem on our hands.
Before Gus was born, my husband and I heard all the horror stories about how our sleep was going to be disrupted once the baby came. This was annoying enough early on in pregnancy, but got increasingly annoying as pregnancy progressed and my sleep got worse and worse. By the third trimester, I was getting up almost constantly to pee, and when I wasn’t, I was waking up uncomfortable due to aches and pains of late pregnancy and the inability to find a comfortable position to sleep in. So hearing that I should “enjoy my sleep while I can” was the last thing I wanted to hear!
While everyone was quick to tell us how tough sleep was going to be, I don’t think anyone had any helpful tips for how to avoid/minimize the pain. However, despite this, we were lucky to go into parenthood armed with what I consider to be two very helpful rules:
Rule #1 – Don’t set your baby down already asleep, but rather put them in their crib/bassinet sleepy but awake.
This is one of those things that while not intuitive (i.e. left to my own devices, I would have done the complete opposite), actually makes a lot of sense, and is probably the most helpful thing we learned in our very informative babycare class. The basic premise is that babies will wake up several times a night as they move from one sleep cycle to the next, and if they wake up somewhere that they don’t remember falling asleep, they will become disoriented and distressed and will have difficulty putting themselves back to sleep. However, if the baby wakes up in a familiar place, it will be much easier for them to put themselves back to sleep, often without the parents even knowing that their baby had woken up.
While this sounded so logical, I was worried that it would be impossible to implement in practice. On our first night home with Gus (technically his third real night) when it came time for him to go to bed, we swaddled him tightly like we were taught at the hospital, and placed him in his crib on his back. He smiled a tired smile at us, we turned off the lights and left the room. And…that was it. He was asleep within minutes. I couldn’t believe how easy it was! We did the same thing the next night, and the next night, and the night after that, and each time it was just as easy as the first night. Gus is now 8 months old, and I think I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve put him in his bed already asleep. The nice thing about having this rule in place, is that the few times where Gus was overtired and in full meltdown mode, we had the option of choosing to break it and using the standard parent bag of tricks to get him to fall asleep before being put in his crib (contrast this with with parents who already use all the tricks on a nightly basis, and then when they really need them, there is nothing left).
This brings me to our other rule.
Rule #2 – Don’t (breast)feed your baby right before they sleep.
Like rule #1, left to my own devices, I would have done the exact opposite (in fact, I remember when Gus was very young how many people would say “time for a nap” as soon as I finished feeding him). However, since Gus was born 13 days late, I had some extra time in late pregnancy to read a few parenting books. One book I read stressed the importance of separating the eating and sleeping portion of your baby’s routine with some activity (e.g. a walk, a bath, some play time), so that your baby does not associate feeding with sleep (and therefore need to be fed in order to fall asleep). This is particularly important with breastfeeding, which in addition to providing food, is such a relaxing and comforting activity, but I also applied it to bottle feeding.
Where necessary, we broke rule #2 from time to time (more often than we broke rule #1), however we were always mindful that we were doing something we shouldn’t and very careful not to do it too often/too many times in a row so that it would not develop into a bad habit.
Once Gus was born, we stumbled on another practice, which I think further helped him sleep well at night. I’ll call this rule #2a:
Rule #2a – Only bottle feed for middle of the night wake ups.
Due to initial challenges with breastfeeding, we introduced the bottle very early on, and decided that any middle of the night feedings would be bottle feedings. Our main rationale for bottles at night was so that my husband and I could share in the night feedings (however as it turned out, my husband only ended up doing a handful of them since I was always the one who woke up, while he managed to stay asleep!). A secondary rationale was that since breastfeeding was proving to be difficult to figure out (and taking a very long time), we would save it for the day time when everyone was functioning at their best and had the patience/time to figure it out.
While our reasons for bottle feeding at night did not have anything to do with ensuring that Gus slept well, I suspect that this practice did exactly that. Our feedings at night were purely a business transaction: Gus would get his bottle; I’d change his diaper; and then put him back to bed. This is very different than the soothing, cuddly practice of breastfeeding. At my baby and me fitness classes, sleep is a popular topic of discussion, and I hear of many women who get into a pattern of breastfeeding their baby every time they wake up, only to find that their baby is waking up more and more, and eating less and less each time, but needing the comfort of the breast to fall back asleep.
I should mention that when I refer to bottle feeding, I’m not necessarily speaking about formula (I only point this out, since many people suggest that formula fed babies sleep better – I personally have not found a noticeable difference between formula and breastmilk). We do supplement with formula, but Gus primarily receives breastmilk (whether via boob or bottle), and our night time bottles have been almost exclusively breastmilk.
Overall, these rules have served us well. However, even with the attention that we have paid to ensuring Gus sleeps well, and being blessed with a baby predisposed to sleeping well, we still found ourselves with a problem on our hands, which I will elaborate on in my next post.