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Monday, 23 May 2016

On baby sleep

Like, I suspect, most parents, I was blissfully unaware of the vexed issue of infant sleep patterns until I had my first baby.  But then, about two months into Anouk's life, oh my God, did it hit me like a freight train.  I became obsessed, OBSESSED, with her sleep.  Why wouldn't she sleep in her cot during the day?  Why would she only sleep for 45 minutes per day-time nap?  Why could she sleep longer at night?  Were naps in the pushchair of an inferior quality to naps in the cot?  Why was she waking up every hour at night?

But basically, the fundamental issue was: how can I get my child to sleep well so I can get a couple of hours of bloody peace.

Before Anouk was born, my husband was emailing with a friend of a friend who had two small children.  "Do you have any advice for us?" he asked.  "You need to know about Valerie" came her pithy reply.  It turned out that Valerie was a maternity nurse and all-round baby whisperer who had sleep trained her two babies to sleep through the night when they were about three months old.  My husband promptly called Valerie and booked for her to come to us once the baby hit twelve weeks.

About a week before Valerie was due to come to us to work her magic I got seriously cold feet.  A few of my girlfriends had had babies at around about the same time as me.  They seemed to be coping fine with the night-time disruptions, and claimed to be sleeping well with their babies in their beds and their husbands in the spare rooms.  I felt that I would be judged as a callous mother if I forced my baby to sleep for twelve hours without being by her side.  I thought I could cope with the two or three feeds per night that Anouk seemed to need.  So, I cancelled Valerie.

As soon as I did that, Anouk started to wake up every hour through the night.  In retrospect I think my cancelling must have coincided with a sleep regression, but at the time, it felt like she was lauding her victory over me.  I called Valerie back, but by that point she had given the days we had booked to other clients (she was, and is, in serious demand).  She said that she could help us over the phone to sleep train Anouk in two weeks.  We signed up.

I can't really remember exactly what Valerie taught us over the course of those two weeks (see my previous post which refers to baby-related amnesia).  I do recall that her method involved asking us when Anouk had eaten and slept during the day, and then dispensing advice about what we were to do in the night as and when Anouk woke up.  The essential goal was to wean the baby off night-time feeds, and this meant that my husband ended up comforting her so that she wouldn't smell me and my milk.  There was a bit of crying, but not too much.  At the end of those two weeks, Anouk slept for twelve unbroken hours.  She has pretty much done that ever since.  It was wonderful and it changed everything.  I finally felt as though I could enjoy my child.  I chalked it all up to Valerie and couldn't stop recommending her to everyone who was having a tough, sleep-deprived time.

This time around, things have been very different.  Now, I am fully aware that what I am about to write sounds like, if not a humble brag, then as though I am complaining about having a baby who sleeps well at night.  Please believe me when I say that I know how lucky I am.

From the first week of Sylvie's life I started to ease her into a routine because I knew that it would save me and that it was the only thing that would help to prevent my burning out and descending into a pit of misery.  Even if it went horribly wrong (and it did and does often go horribly wrong) I felt that if I had a structure and something to aim for, I would be okay.  We used Gina Ford's routines in the day, and after the first few weeks, I started to wake Sylvie at set times (not the GF appointed ones) in the night in order to feed her.  I just couldn't face being woken up by crying, so after a few nights of observing when she wanted a feed, I would wake her shortly before those times and would wap a breast in her mouth.  She was very good at settling back to sleep.

We also, in the spirit of Harvey Karp, used a Woombie and bought a seriously loud white noise machine.  These weapons have been deployed every night.

Throughout the nights, I noticed that Sylvie was feeding for shorter and shorter amounts of time.  I gradually pushed the feeds later and later; I then dropped the one in the small hours.  I continued to feed her at about 4.30am/5am, mainly because I was keen to ensure that she didn't wake up before 7am (I am of the belief that starting the day before 7am is ungodly, which is not to say that I don't often end up having to do it).  And then one night, I tried to feed her at about 5am, and she didn't properly wake up and just didn't seem very hungry.  The following night, my husband and I decided to just let her go for as long as she wanted her to.  We had to wake her at 7am after a twelve-hour sleep.  She was eleven weeks.

Since then, she has continued to sleep really well at night.  We endured a horrible regression at around 15 weeks, which manifested itself in dreadful fussing over the bottle of expressed milk she has before bed and also in a thankfully short-lived tendency to wake 45 minutes after having been put down for the night.  It still brought me to my knees though.  Recently, she has also started to look as though she is going to roll pretty soon, which means that the Woombie's days are numbered.  I am shit-scared of what that might mean for my nights but am trying (and failing) to be sanguine about it.

Sylvie's natural ability to sleep through the night has fundamentally changed my mind on the power of sleep training.  Before she was born, I clung to the belief that any child could be sleep trained and could sleep through the night from a relatively young age.  Now I am not so sure; now I tend toward the idea that sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone, akin to walking and talking.  Some kids will do it earlier than others; for some, it is a skill that will take them months or years to acquire. Don't get me wrong - I think that children can and should be encouraged to sleep well, which involves them eating properly in the day and having a structured bedtime routine.  I believe that our children's sleep does need to be managed and that they need to be helped to sleep well.  But I also think that there are some children who can do it, easily, and there are some children who will resist it.

Coming to this realisation has thrown me.   It's as if the spell has been broken.  Before Sylvie was born, I reassured myself that Valerie could step in at any moment to save the day if our routine went tits up and Sylvie started to wake up during the night.  I now think that if that started to happen there would probably be a biological reason, something that we may not be able to override simply by applying the principles of sleep training.  That's a really scary thought.

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