Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sleep Deprivation, Bed Swapping, Night Weaning, and the Pain of Separation

Last week, an acquaintance I was talking to on the phone commented on how tired I sounded. I was surprised. Yes, I was tired, as I often seem to be, but I hadn’t realized that my voice had betrayed this. After all, there have been plenty of days recently where I’ve been even more tired. I had thought I was doing a pretty good job of keeping up my end of the conversation despite my occasional pauses where I’d grasp for the right word.

After hanging up, I felt a little sad as I thought about how for the majority of these last two years since my son was born, I’ve been functioning at a sub-par level. How although I’ve been able to congratulate myself for still managing to write, volunteer, and finally get back into teaching, all while taking care of Cedar, I’m still only achieving a fraction of what I might be capable of if I woke up every day refreshed-- if I, for just one night, actually had an unbroken night’s sleep, and didn’t still consider a night where Cedar “only” wakes two times a “good” night. Big sigh. Yes, sleep has been a saga.

A lack of sleep has been the main reason why I have posted so little on this blog over the last couple months. It’s not that I haven’t tried to write new entries, but I’ve been so tired every time I actually have a chunk of time to write (and not pay bills, do dishes, shop, cook, etc.), that I’ve just ended up spewing out a convoluted tangle of words. I’ve logged three attempts at blog posts in the last couple months, and not surprisingly the topics have revolved around sleep—or topics related to sleep, like breastfeeding and weaning (for if I night-weaned perhaps I’d get a better night’s sleep?) or co-sleeping vs. giving Cedar his own bed (because maybe he’ll sleep better if he’s alone, or maybe he’ll sleep worse?).

It’s sad when you’re so used to sleep deprivation that you don’t even realize you are functioning in a compromised state anymore, when it’s just become your reality. If I pause to think about it, I can specifically recall the few mornings at Cedar’s preschool co-op where I’d gotten more rest the night before (and/or indulged in coffee), and thus actually had the energy to start up conversations with the other moms around the snack table. I can’t help but wonder if non-sleep deprived moms still do things like leave the keys in the front door. And I get so tired of answering the question, “How are you?” with “Tired” because that’s the only word that really sums up my condition.

Anyway, needless to say, I’ve been sorely needing some change on the sleep front. Initially I considered night weaning as the first line of attack, banking on what others have said about how night weaning leads to fewer night wakings. But the idea of night weaning while co-sleeping, of having to lie right next to my son and then deny him my breast which he has used to fall back to sleep from day one, and then having to listen to him howl and rage (and quite possibly hit or grab?), does not sound ideal. I would probably end up getting out of bed to “sleep” on the couch (or rather to listen on the couch, since you can hear everything in this house), while letting my husband deal with the brunt of my son’s fury. There’s no knowing how long this might have to go on before my son would accept the new status quo, and no saying if once I moved back into the bed if he wouldn’t just fuss for “milk” all over again.

So, I talked myself out of that approach. Instead, we decided that an easier strategy might be to first make the transition of getting Cedar used to sleeping in his own bed—no small task in itself since we’ve co-slept since Day One. Then over the last month we have slowly began to clear room in the corner of our living room where our king-sized bed would now live, and in the bedroom in its place we installed a full-sized futon for Cedar.

Week by week, friends kept asking if we’d moved the bed yet, and I would explain how busy my husband and I were, and how we had to pick a date a whole month out in advance where we would both be home and have childcare for Cedar while we made the final furniture switcharoo. (We didn’t want him to be home while we did it because, based on past experiences, we figured it would be more upsetting for him to be involved in the chaotic rearranging process—especially while Matthew and I were both busy-- than to simply come home to it all nice and arranged anew.)

Finally, after a month of anticipation, we moved the beds.

From one perspective, the move has gone quite smoothly. Cedar liked his new bed, sheets, and rug, and with the exception of seeming a little weirded out by the changes the first few nights (as in, being hyper-aware any time he woke up and calling out, “New bed!”), he hasn’t seemed upset at all that his “old bed” is now in the living room. But I know that this “success” is only the first small step toward our larger intentions of one day having him sleep alone, and one day, finally, please Lord, sleeping through the night.

So far when Cedar wakes up around midnight, I’ve ended up crawling into his new futon and staying for the rest of the night. Prior to that, I lie with my husband in “the big bed” in the living room, feeling strange to not have his little body and sweet breath at my side. So strange in fact that I could not go to sleep hardly at all for a few nights, hyper-alert of any sounds coming out of his room, knowing he was going to eventually wake up and that I would then rush to his side, ready to assure him that Mama was still here, even if he couldn’t find me immediately upon waking.

I want to do this whole thing gradually and gently. After all, it isn’t as simple as what most parents go through when they make the switch for their children from a crib to a toddler bed; it isn’t just about changing the bed. It’s about changing his—and my-- entire way of sleeping at night. I don’t want it to feel like we are “banishing him” from his old place of belonging next to Mama, and forcing him to “grow up” overnight, tears be damned.

Maybe if I could actually fall asleep again before midnight then I wouldn’t be so hyper-aware when wakes, and maybe he’d surprise me some night by actually going back to sleep on his own. But so far, it doesn’t seem this way. So far, neither Mama nor Cedar are used to being in separate beds.


When you’re chronically sleep deprived, it’s hard to embark on any big changes that threaten that sleep is going to first get worse before it could potentially get better. After several nights last week with insomnia, (and prior to that about 3-4 months of a downward spiral of Cedar waking more at night-- was it from teething? Teething’s always an easy target.) I still just want to get a decent night’s sleep. Not great, just decent. So after lying awake for a couple hours away from my son, I practically run to his room now when I feel I’ve “given the separation thing a fair shot” and can call it good, settling back in snuggled next to him where it feels like I belong.

I don’t think I realized how hard not sleeping--or trying not to sleep-- next to my son would be on me. I don’t think I realized just how much of me truly loves it, or is deeply attached to it, despite the agony of being consistently woken or squished or lay upon by a thirty-pound nursing toddler.

I love the intimacy of being able to snuggle in and settle down with relief at the end of the night next to my son. I love the way his head will stretch out to find my shoulder in his sleep, or his hand will rest on my arm, and how I can tell that this physical closeness—even as he sleeps—comforts him. All is right in the world; Mama is here.

But I also admit that perhaps I suffer from my own form of separation anxiety. From the beginning it did not feel right to sleep apart from my son, and my desire to stay close to him has not abated. It was heavily reinforced during the first year and a half of his life when he’d often wake up in pain from gas; I would rush to his side or else already be right there to bring him to my breast and offer physical relief to his tummy. And by now? I’m just conditioned to hurry to his side.
Perhaps I have a touch of PTSD from this period I joke, although I’m actually serious (even if a diagnosis PTSD may be too extreme). Because there is some part of me that still bolts up to attention when my son cries out for me at night, especially now that I’m lying in the big bed apart from him, trying to go to sleep on one hand while the other part of me is just lying there, aware of the silence, waiting for Cedar to wake up.

For now I console myself with the fact that even though we are a way’s off from proclaiming any true success in the sleep department, at least we’ve already reaped some benefits from the big move. For one, it feels great to have another comfy space to hang out in the evening hours, to luxuriously spread out and read in bed, or to lie, talk, and be intimate with my husband, just the two of us. I am also fond of sitting on the bed during the day and reading or writing, occasionally glancing up to look out the adjacent window. Miles, our cat, likes the added lounging space as well and has quickly tried to assume his old spot sleeping next to our sides. And the space that the bed occupies actually looks more streamlined and visually pleasing now than it did before when it was filled with a bunch of clutter. And finally, even if I’m still mostly sleeping with Cedar and he’s still waking, I think overall I’m sleeping a tad better because I’m not sandwiched between two people.

After sleeping next to my son for two years and counting, after never having felt like there was a right month, developmental milestone, or moment where he or I were “ready” to make a sudden change, it’s hard to try and change it now all at once. It starts to make me question if even a good night’s sleep is worth the sadness of taking away the bond we have through co-sleeping. Though a larger part of me feels like it’s time, I still worry about how this could lead to more separation anxiety for Cedar or more tantrums. It makes me wonder (not aloud until now) whether it’d be such a bad thing to go to bed with my husband and then keep sleeping with Cedar for part of the night. After all, it’s up to us to decide “what works.”

At the end of the day, I just want the solution that will guarantee the most and best sleep for everyone.

And yet… at the end of two years, I gotta ask myself if it isn’t time to bite the bullet and do something hard. Now, two weeks into this whole bed-change thing, I’m starting to suspect again that the more critical change that needs to happen is night weaning. So many people I have talked to who were in similar situations have confirmed that once they night-weaned (or weaned for good), their chronic poor sleepers started sleeping SO much better. The lure of this promise looms big. Not to mention the fear that taunts, The longer you wait, the harder it may get.  

Every child is different, of course. Some kids “wean themselves” at 12 months, 18, or 24. Others, like mine, I suspect would just keep going and going if I let him. I’m not okay with nursing Cedar until he’s five. At least I don’t think I am. Even until he’s three is sounds a bit long, even if I have always said that is my cut off point. I do want to keep going for a while, especially since nutritionally it still helps my peace of mind so much to know he's getting the extra protein from my milk since he can't tolerate much dairy or soy. But now, I’m thinking I’d like to wean by the end of the summer—by the time he’s two and a half or so. Mostly because of the fear that the stronger, more verbal, and more demanding my son gets, the harder it will be to wean.

Basically, until we’re willing to lose more sleep while I night wean (meaning telling Cedar that Mama and milk need to sleep and that he can no longer have milk at night-- or at least “until the sun comes up”), I’ve realized that sleep isn’t gonna get a whole lot better. And so Matthew has agreed to play the role of the enforcer, going in when Cedar wakes up to bear the bad news, because it feels like it will be easier this way than if I tried to deny Cedar my milk while it was right there in front of him (especially if, say, he’s been crying for an hour and we all just desperately want to go back to sleep).

I told Cedar last night about our plan. That in a few days, there wasn’t going to be any more milk at night, and Baba was going to come in to Cedar when he woke. I didn’t elaborate much further; I didn’t emphasize how Mama and Cedar would no longer be sleeping together at night. I just said, no milk.

Cedar listened closely, then clung to me. I’m not sure what he understood, for instance I don’t think he knows what “in a few days” means, but obviously he got the gist of it. I will continue to remind him in the coming two days, and then on that last night, I will tell him, “this is the last night,” just so the pain of change will come as less of a slap of surprise. Then our plan is for Matthew to start putting him down every night (right now we alternate), because we think it will be easier for Cedar to wake to Baba’s presence if that’s what he’s gone to sleep with as well.

I know that once we start this process, we’ll have to stick with it lest we want to backtrack and erase whatever work we’ve already invested. So we’ve picked our night to begin; we’ve steeled ourselves for a long, sleep-deprived weekend to follow. And then we hope, pray, that within a few days it will already start to get better, and that within a few weeks, the transition will be complete.

Sounds so easy, huh? Right. No one says it’s easy. But plenty of parents have done this before. I guess it’s finally our turn.


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