One of the first questions you will be asked after the birth of your child is “How does he sleep at night?” and if the answer is not “He already sleeps through the night” you are likely to get advice like “Maybe you should introduce solids, your milk might be too weak” or “Try adding some rice cereal to his bottle”, or even “You should let him cry a few nights”.
Seriously… New mothers already don’t have it easy. They’re often on their own, left to care for a tiny human being without any training, and their whole life is turned upside down after being pregnant for 9 months and going through childbirth! Do they really need “well meaning” advice from people who really aren’t doing much more to help them? Probably not.
And, sleep in infants and children is not so simple, and many factors need to be understood. Here is some information I wished I had been given before the birth of my first son.
Franklin smiled within days after his birth, after he was done breastfeeding. He seemed, to me, to be a very happy child. I had heard stories of my sister crying for hours on end as a baby, and was happy Franklin was not colicky. When sleep issues started appearing, right after he no longer had jaundice, I started reading all I could about babies and sleep, but would skip the parts about colic. Yet, I could not understand why all the sleep issues attributed to colic fit Franklin so well. And when I finally read the sections I had skipped, I realized that colic does not necessarily equal crying.
So what is colic? Colic is a poorly understood phenomenon which affects children from birth and for the next 3 months or so. While it is generally portrayed as endless crying which cannot be soothed, the truth is that if your child is almost always fussy, needs constant attention, and will not be soothed easily, this too counts as colic (such babies can also be categorized as “high needs”, a label which will be discussed below).
It is not true that nothing can soothe colic. While some children will indeed cry no matter what, some will respond to what Marc Weissbluth calls “intensive parental intervention”. Franklin was always carried, hugged, slinged and was never left alone by himself, which seemed to have helped the situation from degenerating. Some might say it made the situation worse, but you know what? Only you know your own child.
While jaundice made Franklin quite sleepy the first couple of weeks after birth, once he was healed, it became clear he was a very poor sleeper. He never fell asleep on his own, while playing for instance. For many weeks, he also would not fall asleep at the breast. Instead, he would grow more and more tired, and only tight swaddling combined with vigorous rocking would finally get him to sleep. I would turn on a white noise machine set for 45 minutes, and sometimes would still be rocking him (side to side, up and down, simultaneously and on my feet) when the machine would shut off, and he would still be awake. I intuitively knew that he was tired, yet I did not know anything about the mechanics of sleep and naps, and had to essentially go through a crash course in the subject.
In essence, colic like behaviors in infants often lead to sleeping behaviors which do not count as “normal” and it can be necessary to start sleep routines and other habits in order for infants and parents to get the sleep they need.
Wondering if my parenting philosophy (essentially Attachment Parenting) was at fault? 4 years later, I gave birth to another baby boy. I’d lie next to him, and, fascinated, would watch him close his eyes with no rocking or nursing, and fall asleep with no help whatsoever. I never tired of watching him put himself to sleep! He is now 4 months at the time of this writing, and I either put him awake but tired in his swing, or gently rock/nurse him, or stroke his head downward toward his eyes, and he dozes off with no fuss. Same parents, completely different child!
High Need Infants
While colic casts a wide net and encompasses many behaviors, many kids with colic suddenly change around the 12th week and start sleeping soundly for naps, as well as at night. High need infants are different. You can recognize a high need infant from their very strong need to be carried, rocked, etc. Such an infant does not go to sleep easily, and does not stay asleep without intervention. He also will enjoy stimulation like being outside in a sling while the mother is walking, instead of being content indoors looking around while sitting in a baby chair, but is easily overstimulated. Even past the colic stage, high needs infant find it difficult to settle down. They are high energy babies who demand the same level of energy of their parents – who are often exhausted. High needs babies tend to become high need children, but the good news is that they are often very bright, passionate, inquisitive children who are a joy to have around if you let go of expectations of what normal children should be like.
If your child is high need, do not feel that your parenting style is at fault. Some children are like that, regardless of whether they are a boy or a girl, or if they are the 1st or 5th child. But, one thing to keep in mind is that just like other children, high needs ones require sleep and rest.
The importance of naps
One thing which struck me was how important naps are. I had no idea that infants and toddlers had ideal biological times for naps. I assumed that they would nap when tired, for however long they needed. This was a big mistake. Just like adults are (usually) awake during the day and sleeping at night thanks to our circadian cycle and hormone levels, babies also have set times for naps which promote optimal sleep.
Why should a child sleep? Because proper rest is crucial to his rapidly developing brain, and a rested child really is a happy child. A rested child will watch you perform tasks (cleaning, washing lettuce etc.) and will be interested and focused. A tired child will whine when you are standing still, will ask to be carried every single second of the day, and paradoxically, a child who naps well during the day will sleep better at night. When Franklin was not getting enough daytime sleep, he would often wake up with a startle during the night and have disturbed sleep.
A newborn will need to sleep every hour to hour and a half, and will spend much of the day sleeping – between 15 and 18 hours, with 15 being the minimum (although getting a high need child to sleep that much will be a challenge!). After about 3 months, the quantity of sleep will decrease, and babies will sleep less, but often for longer period of time. You should absolutely play it by ear for a while – since Franklin was tired from not being able to easily fall asleep and was not able to fall back asleep between sleep cycles, he did need to sleep every hour to hour and a half for about 6 months. At around 7 months, a shift happened, almost suddenly, and he started following a non-colicky child’s sleep patterns.
As for Nicholas? He sleeps every 2-3 hours, between 1 and 4 (!) hours each time.
Basically, a baby will almost always wake up around 7 am regardless of when he went to sleep. This means that children should sleep before 8 pm to sleep enough during the night. A period of awakening of about 2 hours will follow, and a nap will occur (generally at around 9 am). Then, a new period of awakening of about 3 hours will start, followed by a nap at around 2 pm. A final awake period will be completed by 7 pm when it will be time to sleep for the night. When naps last less than an hour, additional naps may be needed – you just need to watch for a child’s tired signs such as fussiness, rubbing eyes, yawning, etc.
In general, naps do need to be at least one hour long, preferably 2-3 hours in the afternoon. Since I at first did not know anything about naps, and Franklin would wake up after 35 minutes on the dot, I just assumed he was a short napper or did not need to sleep. Marc Weissbluth also wrote in his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child that short nappers will never become long nappers, but Elizabeth Pantley in The No-Cry Sleep Solution recommends staying by your child when he is napping and promptly get him back to sleep as soon as he wakes up, before he is too awake to fall asleep again. Since Franklin would sometimes wake up before 35 minutes, I ended up staying with him to catch him immediately upon awakening. After a while, he ended up napping for 1 hour and a half every day, twice a day (albeit with some intervention from me), and was much, much happier and rested.
And Nicholas? He sleeps for 2 to 4 hours in the morning, and takes shorter naps (about 2) in the afternoons. Since I now have a preschooler, it is hard for us to stay home, and he does not nap well outside the house. I’m hoping to have Franklin in a 5 day preschool next year so that Nicholas can nap in the morning and in the afternoon at home, since I won’t feel the need to get Franklin out of the house, considering he was out in the morning.
Having “a life” with poor nappers
One can argue that I had no life with Franklin napping poorly. I slept with him at night in the same bed (rightly called the Family Bed) and once I understood how important naps were, I stayed with him for naps as well. At first, I would stay with him for his afternoon nap, getting him to fall asleep in my arms, where I would try to keep him asleep for as close to 2 hours as I could. But, seeing as he was still not as rested as he could be, and understanding that my duty as a mother was to do what was best for him during these shorts first months of his life, I stayed with him during his morning nap as well.
My reasoning was this: when we become parents, caring for our small, defenseless infant is our full time job. Cleaning the house, making a different meal every day three times a day, etc., is nothing compared to raising a healthy, happy child. Sure, the messy kitchen seemed like a big problem right now, but would I still see this as anything worth worrying about 5 years from now? Of course not. Yes, I did eat food that I did not always think was the peak of healthfulness, and there were some dust bunnies on the floor, and I almost never exercised the first year of Franklin’s life (although carrying a 20 lb baby boy everywhere would count as exercise!), but he was rested, happy, developing quickly, reaching milestones early, etc. And, he did get better with time.
Still, if you live alone, or are alone most of the time, things need to get done around the house. I found that for at least 20 minutes, Franklin would not stir, and so I washed dishes, folded laundry, pick up around the house during that time. Afterwards, I would sit by him to get him to fall back asleep when he needed it, and would get my computer work done then. This included reading and answering e-mails, working, placing produce orders for my buying group and calculating totals for each member, blogging, and making a meal plan. I would also unwind and read food blogs during that time, or would download books and read them.
Keeping some perspective
The problem with Cry It Out approaches (letting your child cry so he gives up on adults picking him up, and therefore sleeping longer as a result) is that they assume sleep problems will last for ever. Really? Do you know anyone who rocks their 10 year old child to sleep? Do you know of any teenager who needs his mommy’s nipple to finally fall asleep? Of course not. In time, all children sleep through the night. This hit me when I was in despair about Franklin’s naps, not knowing what I should do. I wondered if I should wait for his next pediatrician’s appointment at 9 months, or if I should get an appointment before just for this. And then it hit me. By the time Franklin would be 9 months old, one nap will have already dropped (and it did). Before I knew it, he would be needing only one nap a day, and then no nap before he even knows how to read (some do nap throughout their childhood, but it’s not common).
During difficult times, and there will be many, it is important to remember that “this too shall pass”. Children are small for a short amount of time, and while we think we will “get a break” when they go to college or leave the home, the truth is that they will be independent much, much sooner than that.
Soon enough, we will have teenagers who want to spend all their time with their friends and very little with us, and we will remember how they were poor nappers and needed to sleep with their little head cradled on our chest. We will remember how during these naps, they would sometimes start laughing in their sleep, their little chest moving rapidly with laughter. We will remember how occasionally they would have a nightmare, and we were right there to calm them down rather than washing dishes.
When Franklin was born, I felt he would be small for ever and I would never sleep. I worried about him being too dependent on the swaddle. I was afraid he would need bouncing and rocking for ever. At 8 months of age though, he was finally napping for almost an hour and a half with little intervention on my part, and soon after, grabbed a chair and stood up, and sat on the potty to pee. Not even a year had gone by. This too shall pass.
Approaching sleep issues with compassion
But why won’t children sleep easily? Who knows. They could be overtired. They could be too interested in what’s going around to want to sleep. But what we should understand, and repeat it to ourselves when needed, is that they do not refuse to sleep just to aggravate us. We can reason with ourselves, say “It is 10 pm, I should go sleep now to be rested tomorrow”, and yet, do we always, without fail, fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow? Of course not. Sometimes, we will need to read a little, or take a bath to unwind, or watch TV. Yet, we expect children, who have no idea why we want them to sleep so badly when they are so many new people to see and exciting places to go to, to fall asleep right then and there without making a fuss. This is an unrealistic expectation, and one we would not even ask of ourselves.
Some children start sleeping through the night when they are only a few weeks old. Some will take years to reach this milestone. There is no right or wrong time to start sleeping though the night, but all children will get there eventually.
If your child wakes up often at night, be conforted by the fact that more nighttime awakenings correlate with lower SIDS rates, and since prolactin, a growth hormone, are higher during the night, children who wake often to feed during the night often end up taller and bigger than children who sleep through the night early on.
Well meaning people might tell you that feeding solids or cereal will lead to uninterrupted night sleep, but this is not true. Regardless of food intake, children who go to bed might wake up through the night, or might sleep through. Some also recommend getting your child as tired as possible, but this strategy might backfire and your child is likely to turn nighttime into a battle because of overtiredness, and he might wake up more often as exhaustion makes it more difficult to settle down. One advice which proves too often be true however is to get your child to sleep as soon as he starts showing signs of sleepiness, and to put him to bed early rather than late for a later wake up time. If your child goes to bed at 8 pm and wakes up at 5, try putting him in bed at 7 or 6 pm instead, and you might find he will wake up at a more acceptable time in the morning.
Ferber wrote that a child is more likely to stay asleep if he does not find that the environment he fell asleep in is different from the one he wakes up in. He points to the fact that if we were to fall asleep in our bed only to wake up on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night, we would be startled and would not be able to fall asleep easily. This reasoning made sense to me, and while it led him to recommend setting the child in his crib and letting him cry with intermittent reassurance, I used the advice differently. Since I would rock Franklin to sleep in one room only to transfer him to the bed where we would sleep together, I instead took him directly in bed with me and nursed him there, where we stayed until morning. I found that when he did wake up, nursing got him to fall asleep right away, while before we would need more rocking. This is not to say that I never rocked him to sleep – sometimes, like when he was passing milestones, rocking was necessary to get him to relax, but as he grew, rocking became more and more a thing of the past.
Mamas, all children end up sleeping through the night. They do not all do it at the same time, but they all do it eventually. But what if your little one isn’t sleeping well yet? First, relax about it. Second, try to get out of the house, or talk to your family or friends on the phone, and let go of housework as much as you can. Listen to music, watch movies on TV. Relax, relax, relax.
And, try to see if scheduling sleep might help. Around 9 am for the first nap, 2 pm for the second, and maybe a late afternoon nap. Use a swing if you must. They won’t sleep in it for ever. During the day, put the baby in the sling and go for a walk. Take advantage of tummy time to fold laundry and sweep the floors. Get your partner to help. Remember, this too shall pass.