Of Whiskey and Sleep

Sleep – The gold standard of parenthood

I am not a sleep expert. I am not even a mom who had a good sleeper. I am a mom who was once discovered crying into her whiskey on the front porch, at two in the afternoon because her baby just would not sleep. True story.

Parents are under so much pressure to have babies that sleep. When new parents are asked about their bundle of joy, one of the first questions is, “How is he sleeping?” and sometimes it is even phrased as, “Is he a good baby?” implying that all good babies sleep.

I am not sure who came up with the phrase, “Slept like a baby,” but it should mean anything but a deep, restful sleep through the entire night. It should mean, “I had twenty-minute sleep cycles with no REM sleep and I woke each time to grunt, and roll around, and maybe cry a little. Or a lot. Oh, and I was starving to death after the first four hours.” Perhaps that phrase just means they spent the entire night not concerned if they or anyone else slept? We would probably all sleep a little better if we were not concerned with anything at all. But never mind that heinously inaccurate phrase, babies are not meant to sleep.

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Sleep is not learned. It is not taught. I do not even think it can be trained. It is developed. Sleep is a milestone like sitting up or walking or talking. Yes, those skills can be encouraged, but they cannot be forced upon an infant whose body and mind are not ready for them. As sleep is developing, bad habits can also develop and good sleep can become dependent on circumstance – lighting, pacifiers, mom being close – but the development of sleep cannot be rushed.

I had to learn that the hard way.

When we brought C home, we planned for him to sleep in his bassinet next to our bed until the three of us were accustomed to our new routine. After that, we planned for him to sleep in his own crib, in his own room, and we planned to not be ruled by this tiny tyrant. We planned to sleep train as soon as possible, never nurse to sleep, not give him pacifiers or anything else that would become a bad sleep association. But you know what they say about plans…

Parents making plans is why babies learn to laugh.

Cillian’s sleep was dreadful, thanks to his stomach issues and dairy intolerance which I’ve written about many times. Once that kicked in, all bets were off. We threw rules to wind and did any and everything we swore we never would. We tried co-sleeping, pacifiers, swaddling, unswaddling, nursing to sleep, and holding him all night. We tried to find whatever would work for the three of us.

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We were anything but consistent with our sleep routine and associations and if there is one thing I still say a child needs, it is consistency – in their schedules, in their environment, in their discipline. But we were sleep deprived, frustrated, and desperate to find something that worked so we tried it all. We even tried sleep training.

The thing about sleep training, or training of any kind, is that it has to work for all partied involved. It might have worked for C if we could have kept with it but it was not working for this mama. Mothers are predisposed to respond, physically and physiologically, to infant cries. Their cries sound the way to they do (high pitched and pathetic) so that mothers cannot easily ignore them. And I could not.

In my desperation to find something else, I turned to other moms asking how they taught their child to sleep without using the cry-it-out method and most of the answers were, “My child is two and has not slept through the night yet.” or “My 15 month old still nurses 7 times a night.” and my personal favorite, “Don’t sweat it, most adults don’t even sleep through the night.” I was doomed. These sleepless, tear-filled nights were going to be my life. Forever. But I could not function like this. Thankfully, sleep is a natural development that I did not need to teach my child, just like I did not need to teach him to crawl. I encouraged, certainly, but did not teach.

Around four months old, babies’ sleep cycles begin to develop to be more like adult sleep cycles. They start to sleep deeper and longer and often start to sleep through the night, although usually not consistently yet, and every baby develops these skills differently.

When Cillian started to roll, we removed the swaddle (as you are supposed to for safety reasons) and put him in The Baby Merlin Magic Sleep Suit. I felt like that thing was, in fact magic. It allowed C to feel like he was being cuddled without restricting his arm movement. He hated not being able to move his arms in the swaddle. He was able to sleep on his belly (as most babies prefer) and suck him thumb through the night. Magically, he started sleeping longer.

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We created a good night-time routine of bath with mom, jammies with dad, a book, and nursing in the dark. I would allow him to fall asleep nursing and I would continue to hold him until his tiny body began the twitching of relaxing muscles and his mouth hung slack. Only then would I lay him down.

As all the “experts” and doctors warned me, I thought Cillian would need to nurse to sleep forever. I thought he would never wean because he would need that crutch. But I also saw that as future Beka’s problem and did it anyway. Suprisingly, C stopped nursing to sleep long before I expected him to. He just naturally developed better sleep habits.

At 4 months old, he slept through the night for the first time. At 6 months old he slept through the night often. At one, he was sleeping through the night most nights. He still wakes occasionally and sometimes he will wake every night for a week (Thanks, Teeth), but I mind it much less now that sleep is not quite as hard to come by and I do not have a shrieking infant in my house.

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I do not think any of the things we did MADE Cillian a good sleeper. I did everything wrong. I nursed to sleep. I laid him down fully asleep rather than in the recommended “drowsy but awake” state. I gave him any and every sleep crutch I could think of and yet, he sleeps. Recently, we started reading Goodnight Moon to him as the last book each night and by the last page, he is yawning, snuggling into my or dad’s arms, and reaching for his bed as if to say, “Sorry mom, it’s sleepy time. You should leave.”

Some nights, just after we leave his room, he still cries, or, as we call it now, shouts for a few minutes as if he’s testing to see how much he can push us, but he always settles himself within a few minutes. I say he is just releasing a little left over energy.

I guess what I am trying to say to the new or expecting mama who may be reading is, just do what you feel you need to do to get to the next stage and the sleep will come. Holding your baby while he sleeps will not spoil him. Allowing him to sleep in your arms does not mean he will be there forever. I promise, you will not be nursing a seven-year old to sleep… unless you chose to. That is your decision as a mother.

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When I was in the sleepless trenches, hearing, “It gets better” made me want to throat punch a baby, probably my own. I did not want it to GET better, I needed it to BE better. I was at the end of my rope. But here I am, over a year later, insisting to new moms that it does, indeed, get better.

Cillian goes to his own room willingly when we say it’s bed time. He reaches to turn off the lamp after just one book and points to his bed after one lullaby. Sometimes I make him sit and hear a few more just because I love to sing them. Sure, some nights he still wakes up needing nothing but a snuggle or six, but at least I can be sure that on a regular night, he will go to bed with no fight.

According to all the sleep experts, I spoiled my child’s sleep. I made him codependent. I never allowed him time to learn to put himself to sleep. And I didn’t. I did everything wrong and yet, he sleeps.

I never thought I would be that mom telling other moms to enjoy the sleepless nights because they go so fast… and I’m NOT going to say that. Sleepless nights suck. I think they are just there to make us realize what sleepless truly means. Those nights when we get a total of three broken hours of sleep are to make us appreciate when our toddler calls out for us just once at 2am to hold him for a minute before we both go back to bed for the rest of the night.

Again, Sleep is not taught or learned, it is developed, and it WILL develop even without your help. So take care of yourself, mama. Do what you must to help yourself. Nurse that baby to sleep. Hold him as long as he needs or as long as you can stand. Forget the books, the schedules, the advice – except this advice. This is sound advice. Just survive. Get to know the new person who has moved into your house and do what works for you.

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