Sleep has not been great lately. Cedar has been back to waking every hour or two, nursing for ten minutes or so, then going back to sleep before eventually, inevitably, the pitter-patter of his kicking feet, the squirming of his slowly-breaking-free-of-his-swaddle body, the twisting/turning of his head (we call it the Stevie Wonder—“doing the Stevie”), or else just his soft insistent eh-eh-eh cries alerts me that yes, indeed, he’s waking again, and I’d better roll over and feed him or else he’ll just get louder and keep me up longer.
Ah, sleep. Ask virtually any new parent and they will tell you how we are obsessed with it. How much sleep we and our babies are getting, whether they are sleeping through the night, how long they nap and when and how often, how to get them to nap and sleep longer and fall asleep on their own, and when we can expect things to change…and change again.
Cedar was a “good” sleeper the first two or three months, only waking once in the middle of the night. Then, everything changed, progressively getting worse until we arrived at the awful waking-every-hour stage, which catapulted me from doing fine, even great, into sleep-deprived and on the edge. A lot of his waking I attributed to gas. I went on an elimination diet, his gas got better and his sleep did too-- for a while. But now, I don’t know what to attribute these recent days of frequent waking to. Gas might still be a culprit, especially since I’m now reintroducing foods and finding out what he’s sensitive to. But night waking might also just be his habit or mode of operation now, too. I can’t say for sure.
When sleep initially improved from Cedar waking every hour or two, to every two to three hours—I was thrilled. I could live with this. I could get through my day without feeling so exhausted that I was leaving burners on or forgetting to buckle seatbelts. And more than this, I had enough energy again to actually do things like read and write. Waking every two to three hours still is not great, of course, and I was reminded of this when talking to friends whose babies were sleeping through the night. But at least I was imbued with a new sense of hope-- things were getting better. Once we were through with this diet, if things didn’t continue to improve then I could employ some kind of sleep training techniques. Everything comes and goes in phases. We had just survived a hard one, and were moving into an easier one. Hurray!
For the most part, I still feel this way, despite the last few days of bad sleep. I still feel hopeful that Cedar’s gas and allergies getting better, and conversely, his sleep is improving, as is my ability to take on more. For a while, I felt we were catapulted back into “survival mode”—that is, just focusing on trying to feed ourselves and nap during the day to make up for the bad nights. Everything else had to wait. “Survival mode” is what most of us were doing during the first month or so after childbirth. Ideally, we should be well beyond that by now, but sometimes, I guess, you regress.
I remember that first month like a dream. The long nights of waking and feeding for hours at a time. How toasty we kept our bedroom at night to keep Cedar warm enough without having to use a lot of blankets, and with the door shut to make sure our cat stayed out. In fact, for the first two months I slept in my bathrobe so that I would not have to pull any covers up around my upper body. That way, I felt safe sleeping close to Cedar in our bed. I wanted him to be able to hear his mama’s breathing while he slept, to feel safe in this new environment outside the womb, to trust that he was taken care of and all his needs would be met.
From the beginning, I couldn’t imagine putting him in a bassinet or anywhere else that was removed from me at night. My husband and I had anticipated sleeping with him, buying a king-sized bed before he was born so that we’d have plenty of room as he grew bigger. Partly, the decision was practical—we only have one tiny bedroom, so there was no logical place for a crib. But mostly, it was based on the reading I did, the people I talked to, and my own intuition that told me I wanted to sleep with my baby. I was relieved that when at the hospital the nurses, too, seemed to think that this was the logical place for a newborn to stay day and night—next to his mother—and that no one tried to warn me that I would suffocate him if I didn’t put him in the bassinet.
I cherish the memory of those first nights sleeping next to Cedar. How tiny his body was then, how fragile and new. How quickly he took to my breast, instinctively knowing how to root, and then feed. We practiced side-lying feeding then, because I’d had a cesarean and thus could not sit up to feed him, and ever since then this has been our preferred position. It’s so easy and relaxing to lie down and feed, although in the beginning he needed help getting in the right position for a proper latch. Now, it’s old hat of course, and that boy can find my nipple in the thick of his sleep from a mile away.
Although many people I know choose to sleep with their babies (and some planned for this, whereas others fell into it to their own surprise), as a whole, it is still somewhat frowned upon in American culture where giving your baby his own crib and room—sometimes from the very first day—is the norm. People have all kinds of fears about parents smothering their baby with their bodies or with the covers, and although such tragedies have happened, they have usually been a result of an irresponsible parent’s negligence—such as going to bed drunk—versus the actions of a cautious, aware parent. The research I did showed me that bed sharing with your baby was safe, when done right. In fact, some studies showed it to be even safer than using a crib with regards to reducing instances of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), because mother and baby are so attuned to each other’s breathing. (Of course, you can find the opposing statements as well.) But in any case, it’s a personal choice that can be safe, and many more parents do it than you’d think, either because they like it, or because they find that they and their baby sleep better that way.
I love sleeping with Cedar. In the beginning when he was smaller, I admit I was a little paranoid about it, but then I was more paranoid about everything. Now, I still mostly sleep facing him so as to stay more attuned to where he is. But I never worry about rolling over onto him, because my body is so aware of his presence. My senses have been in hyper-alert mode ever since giving birth, attuned to his slightest motions and cries, and this alertness does not turn off at night.
But sometimes, I do wonder if I’d be sleeping better if he wasn’t in our bed. At night, I wake to his movements and noises even when he is not fully awake himself, and it is hard to just lie there and listen to his half-asleep rooting or crying when I know that a quick “nip” of the boob will bring him back to deep slumber. So I feed him, and we go back to sleep quickly, and now, I’m afraid this has become his expectation—again and again and again.
This has then led me to also wonder: if he were in a crib in his own room, would he really be “waking every hour or two,” or is he not actually even waking half the time, and would he learn to go back to sleep on his own easier if he did not smell, sense, and know that I am right there by his side? As much as I still love having Cedar in our bed now, will I one day regret not transferring him to a crib while he was still young enough to not more actively protest? When Cedar is, say, a year old, will my mama friends all have babies who have been soundly sleeping through the night in their cribs for months, whereas I’m still struggling with the same night waking patterns? I can’t help but wonder.
I’ve told myself that if it gets bad enough, that I would consider taking extreme measures and trying out a crib. But the problem is, I don’t want to. For one, it’s not practical; it would mean putting a crib in the living room and either having to tiptoe around in dim lighting once he goes down, or putting him down in our bed and transferring him to the crib when we are ready to go to bed, which sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. And secondly, I believe the literature that says that bed-sharing can help foster wonderfully secure children who are just as independent, if not more so, than their crib-sleeping peers. But mostly, I would miss having him in our bed. I would feel terrible casting him out of it prematurely. And I’m not sure I have the conviction or resolve to put us through a trying transitional period, for uncertain, and possibly worse, results. If it went badly at first, I’d be tempted to pronounce right away that it wasn’t going to work.
I know I would feel similarly about the Ferber approach to letting your baby “cry it out.” (Putting your baby down awake, then going in to soothe and calm him when he cries, but not picking him up or feeding him, and over time gradually increasing the amount of time that you wait before going in). I have a low threshold for hearing and letting my baby cry without responding right away, and I’ve heard that it can sometimes takes weeks of long bouts of crying for this approach to “work.” Some think that your baby can lose his trust in you. I cannot say if this is so, and I do not want to judge people who go the Ferber route because I know what sleep deprivation feels like. I think the “cry it out” approach can work for some babies and parents, but not for all. I seriously doubt it would work for us. I would give the methods in Elizabeth Pantley’s “The No Cry Sleep Solution” an in-depth try first. If those didn’t work, I ultimately wouldn’t rule out some modified version of Ferber. I am resistant to the idea of it, but I’m also trying to keep an open mind.
In Pantley’s book, she asks readers to, before embarking on her sleep training tactics, first honestly ask themselves whether they deep down, really feel the need to change their baby’s sleep habits, or whether their desire to implement change stems more from other people or society’s messages about how their baby “should” be sleeping. Are your baby’s habits truly something you need to change, or is it actually manageable and okay for you? I think this is a great question to consider. When Cedar reached the waking every hour or two cycle for weeks on end, this is when I felt it was really unmanageable for me; this is when I got so tired and spacey that I felt depressed and incapable of doing anything but just get by. But when he is “only” waking every two to three hours (which he is now, again, since I started writing this post a few days ago), this is manageable, especially since I know how much worse it can be. True, I would LOVE for him to sleep for even longer stretches, but for me it still would not yet be worth employing a method of sleep training that I have an inner resistance to.
For me, sleeping with Cedar right now is worth the doubts and questions I have about whether we could be sleeping better if he were in a crib. Why? First of all, simply because it feels right to have him in there with us. It felt right in the beginning, and it continues to. I love waking up in the morning and seeing his eyes staring at me, then seeing him break into a smile as I smile. I love then unswaddling him, and cuddling or playing with him quietly in bed as our family of three slowly transitions into wakefulness. I love the ease of lying down next to him to nurse him to sleep, without then having to risk waking him up with any transitions of putting him down. And I love the sense of belonging we are creating as a family. He belongs with us, we are one-- day and night, no separation.
We sleep together like a “wolf pack”-- and here, I borrow a friend’s analogy. She was one of several I talked to about co-sleeping before we decided to go this route, and I remember her saying that what really cemented the decision for her was when she read how humans are the only animals that don’t sleep with their babies. I found this fascinating. Yes. Why don’t we? Well, in some cultures they do. But I think in our culture we have become so focused on what is convenient and how to encourage babies to be more “independent” so that they needn’t intrude as much on our busy lives. I don’t mean to say this in a judging or incriminating way towards those who don’t co-sleep, because I know that: a.) this is the accepted way we do things in the U.S., so most people don’t think twice about it, and b.) we all need our sleep, especially if you need to get up and go to work to support your family, and some people simply can’t or don’t believe they could sleep well with their babies. And c.) Sleeping with your baby can intrude on your sex life and private time with your partner, and for some, it is essential to keep the bed to them and their partner alone, or else they need some breathing space away from their baby at the end of the day.
I admit, there are times when having Cedar in the middle of the bed interferes with my ability to be intimate with my husband, although we can play footsie and maybe cuddle in the morning if I’ve moved Cedar in the middle of the night to the side (I usually move him a few times so as to rotate which side I feed from). And, yes, this arrangement could get old. I’m not sure when exactly we will transfer him to his own bed, and when the time comes, I don’t expect it to be easy. I’m also a bit concerned that Matthew will be ready to move him before I am, especially since he is not the one benefiting from the convenience of easy night feedings, and also since, in some ways, he misses the access to my body more than I miss his. At the end of a long day carrying, nursing and being attached to Cedar, my body is often spent when it comes to being touched and able to give. It needs time to itself. I hear this is common amongst new moms, but often hard for husbands to understand. Plus, as long as we are breastfeeding we’ve got maternal hormones surging through us still, which, frankly speaking, decrease the sex drive. And this is all I will say for now on this topic!
In any case, ask any new parent, and I think it’s safe to say we are a bit obsessed with sleep. There’s a theory going around that our generation of parents are so focused on sleep, in part because babies are sleeping worse these days because they are sleeping on their backs-- research has found this to be safest, though some believe babies actually sleep better and longer on their tummies. Maybe there’s some truth to this, but what about the theory that perhaps we just expect more these days, expect more productivity out of our lives and selves, and thus less interference from our babies? We want life to, as much as possible, go on as usual, after the few months (if that) of maternity leave we are allotted. And because we aren’t given enough paid maternity (in Sweden they get 480 days!), then we have to make certain sacrifices that lead to more distance from our babies, like putting our children in daycare or through, arguably, traumatic sleep training. Again, I am not judging parents who make those decisions, whether they do so happily or because they have no other choice. I’m just saying, sleep is a sensitive and hot topic these days, more loaded then you might imagine.
How many of us parents haven’t felt at some point that if our baby isn’t sleeping well—or as well as the Jones’-- that this is somehow partially “our fault”? And how many of us haven’t secretly swelled with pride at some point when our baby was sleeping well, feeling that she must be so well-adjusted and taken care of that she naturally sleeps well, too? Of course, we don’t speak these judgments out loud, but we feel them on some level. I know I did when Cedar was a “good” sleeper; I secretly patted myself on the back for choosing to co-sleep, and felt bad for those who were getting in and out of bed to go to the nursery each night to feed. And now, of course, I quietly wonder if I am not at least partially to blame for Cedar’s current poor sleep habits.
In any case, I remind myself that, as so many have said before me, these days will pass quickly and everything will continue to change. I can put forth my best effort-- going on elimination diets, charting my food intake and his sleep patterns, and reading books on “healthy sleep habits”-- but ultimately, maybe my baby is just gonna do what he’s gonna do. And one of these days, when he’s older—whether “older” means two or twenty-two—I’m going to look back and long for these sweet days when he was still small enough to nestle into the crook of my arm, and when I would slide under the sheets at the end of each long day, stretch out, and just watch for a few moments my son’s sleeping face, breathing quietly and peacefully, ushering in the stillness of the night.