Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: colic

Week 4: Gentle Sleep Training

Now that I’ve used the words “sleep training,” let me disappoint you.

I’m not in favor of trying to “train” your newborn to sleep.

I don’t think newborns are “trainable.”

Newborns are gonna do what newborns are gonna do.

However, the words “sleep training” are the words that everyone uses when trying to figure out how to get their babies to sleep longer.

So what exactly am I in favor of?

Training yourself to recognize and follow your newborn’s sleep patterns.

***

When our first child was about one month old, I found an amazing book that forever shaped our decisions about how we structured our days with a baby.

baby-sleep

I don’t rave about many baby products.

But let me RAVE about this book.

This book removed the mystery about how babies decide when to fall asleep and how their sleep patterns change as they grow throughout the first year.

It’s not a book based on a parenting style or a fancy technique.

It’s based on science. It’s based on human biology.

The Overall Takeaway: If you soothe your newborn to sleep after he/she has been awake for 90 minutes, he’ll fall asleep and stay asleep for a nap.

Dr. Polly Moore, a sleep researcher and scientist, based her advice in this book on the “basic rest and activity cycle,” which states that human bodies function on 90-minute periods of rest or activity. For example, our attention, alertness, and sleep cycles follow these patterns.

At roughly three weeks old, newborn babies start to establish 90-minute periods of wakefullness. As long as the baby is getting enough to eat and isn’t suffering from other physical ailments, you should be able to see these patterns emerge as early as three weeks.

You can’t train your newborn to stay awake for 90-minutes or to nap for long periods of time. However, you can pay attention and learn how your newborn wants to structure his sleeping patterns. By learning your child’s tired signals and making sure he gets all the naps that he needs during the daytime, you are helping him to reach the Holy Grail of baby-dom: sleeping through the night.

You can do this by taking a few days to log your child’s sleep. Like this:

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Many of these periods of wakefullness last for 90 minutes. However, some don’t. The night feedings usually only last 30 minutes to one hour. Long enough to eat, burp, have a diaper change, and fall back asleep.

What’s important to see in this list of times is that this three-week-old’s naps are already beginning to follow the body’s rhythms. (Note: Forty-five minute naps = Half of a 90-minute increment and three-hour naps = Two 90-minute increments)

Of course, sometimes naps are cut short because the baby didn’t get enough to eat and wakes up to be fed. Or sometimes, he has a huge poop and wants to be changed. But the older the baby gets and the more established his sleeping habits become, the less likely the baby will cut his naps short in order to eat or be changed.

***

Last Saturday, we realized that our baby was starting to establish these 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I remember reading years ago when we were caring for our first child that the first few weeks of a baby’s sleeping habits are unpredictable. I learned that babies sleep a lot in the first few weeks and that they can pretty much fall asleep anywhere. And stay asleep no matter what is happening around them.

Until last Saturday, I didn’t realize that we had drifted into the zone of 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I didn’t realize that our baby had started to become unable to block out the noise and stimulation around him.

While our friends came over for breakfast, he remained awake. And awake. And awake. Until about 11:30.

Then, he lost his shit.

Screaming. Inconsolable.

We took him out in the stroller and he gave us the thousand-mile stare. At a fork in the road, my husband turned back to go home while I continued on for a longer walk.

Big mistake.

Henry started downright wailing. He screamed so hard his face turned crimson and went completely silent as he tried to scream without taking in oxygen. He coughed and choked to bring more air into his lungs.

They were the saddest screams I’ve ever heard.

I rushed home, but it was the longest quarter mile ever.

Because we deprived him of sleep that morning, he was completely out of whack for the rest of the day. He couldn’t stay asleep. He screamed and nothing helped. By 10:00 p.m., even my husband had written him off and pronounced that there’s nothing we could do to help him.

I took our son and sat in the glider. Then, I placed him on the ottoman in front of me. I let his hands clutch my fingers while he screamed and screamed.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.

I tried all the usual soothing techniques as he sputtered and gasped for more air to continue his wailing.

Then I returned him to the ottoman and rocked him again. This time, his screaming slowed and his eyes rolled back in his head, the way that newborns do.

He had passed out.

***

That night, I reread Polly Moore’s book and realized that we had crossed into new sleeping territory now that Henry is a month old. Now, he’s having trouble blocking out sound and light and stimulation. Now, he needs quiet. He needs a lack of sensation to stay asleep.

We followed the 90-minute wakefullness cycles the next day.

Wow. What a difference it makes when your baby has those needed naps.

***

What I learned from this book is how to determine the best windows to put my baby to sleep. I learned how to recognize emerging sleeping patterns. I learned how to best accommodate my baby’s needs for sleep, including the importance of napping rituals throughout the day that will help a baby establish solid sleeping patterns later.

For us, this means that we don’t take our baby out during his nap times.

Which basically means, he stays at home 90% of the time until his awake periods extend to three hours (around 6-8 months). If we go out, we’ll keep him in the car seat and put on a white noise maker so his naps don’t suffer too much.

It’s a restrictive life, for sure. But he’s not going to be this young forever. I’m willing to make changes in my life for a few months.

For us, establishing good sleeping patterns early on–as we did with our daughter–rewarded us exponentially later on. Our daughter slept through the night regularly (with the exception of teething and sick days) at three and a half months. When she started daycare at five months, it only took her a week to adjust to the new environment and resume her champion napping abilities amidst other crying infants.

***

Every rule has an exception. Here are two cases when the 90-minute wakefullness rule doesn’t pan out as predictably into regular napping patterns.

Babies who are suffering from medical conditions: like acid reflux, food allergies/intolerances, etc.

Babies who are in the midst of a growth spurt: All babies go through growth spurts and they are notorious for throwing all routines into chaos. Naps suffer. Babies wake up from naps early and have trouble falling asleep. They eat too much or too little. They cry. Nay, they wail. They turn into monsters for several days. In fact, we’re going through one right now. From 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. last night, he was awake, asleep, awake, asleep, hungry, pissed off, asleep, awake, screaming. You get the point.

But when this growth spurt is over, he’ll be pleasant again. And he’ll show us his newly learned moves.

***

There’s a lot more that I can say about how babies change in their sleep needs from birth to the end of the first year, but I’ll let Polly Moore do that for you.

As I said before, there are not many baby products that I am willing to rave about to the point of spending my valuable time actually writing about them…

But this is one of the rare few.

If you’ve got a baby at home, check it out. Seriously.

Week 2: Crying

Before I had our first child, this was one of my greatest fears: that my baby’s cries would make me hate my child.

No joke, that was a real fear. I never, ever found the sound of babies crying to be worthy of an Awww, poor thing. I mostly thought, God, someone shut that kid up!

So imagine my surprise when we took our daughter home from the hospital and I wasn’t pissed off at her every time she cried.

Imagine my surprise when my first thought wasWhat’s wrong? What can I do to help you? How about this? How about this?

Now, here we are again. Dealing with a new child’s cries.

***

Not by any stretch of the imagination is Henry a colicky baby. I’ve heard those stories and that is not what we’re dealing with. (And parents of colicky babies, allow me to bow down and kiss your feet, you Parent of Steel.)

No, the cries that we dealt with in the past week have come in defined bursts that (at first) seemed to correspond with post-feeding digestion and then (later) seemed to correspond with how tightly we held him or covered him so that he wasn’t cold.

We’re talking about the kind of crying that is all-out, red-faced, exasperated wailing. The kind that is silent at first because the baby is winding up for a good scream. The kind that reverberates not only in your ears, but in your heart.

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In this crying fit, his whole body tenses, from his face to his toes.

And here’s what that sounds like:

 

But then, it passes. And for a moment, I wonder if our child has just been possessed by a demon for a period of time. Because here’s what he looks like when it’s over.

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And then I think, How can I be mad at that face? I love that face.

Sometimes, nature is a sick, sick bastard.

***

When was he crying? Maybe it’s gas. He looks like he’s in pain. When was the last time we fed him? What was his last poop like? Was it watery or runny? What color was it? Was it a lot or just a little?

Maybe it’s the formula. Maybe we should try one that has the lactose broken down already? 

Doug googles and I do the feedings. We make adjustments and mental notes. I keep track.

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Then, the next day…

Did he look like he was in pain today? How long did he cry? After he ate? Did he poop? If he’s not better by tomorrow, maybe we should try soy formula. I hope he’s not constipated on soy, like Felicity was. Then, we’ll have to go to the super expensive formula.

Feedings and poop: this is what you talk about when you’re learning about your newborn. These are the only windows into why your baby is crying. If you can’t engineer a solution from those clues, it’s time to call the pediatrician.

***

We had a lot of help in the afternoons and evenings over the past week. But the nights and the mornings were entirely in my hands. Once my husband and daughter disappeared behind the door and the car rolled out of the garage, I was on my own.

I was okay until Thursday morning.

It was the second day that Henry was crying in pain.

He wailed. And wailed. And wailed.

I tried to feed him. His forehead wrinkled and he screamed.

I changed him. He calmed for a moment. Then cried more.

I bounced him. Rocked him. Tried to burp him. I laid him on the ground and rubbed his tense body. I bicycled his legs. I rubbed his back. I put him on my shoulder. I turned him over and patted his back. I patted his butt. I shushed him. I put him in the bouncer. I played music. I cradled him. I balanced him on one arm.

Then, I did all of these things again.

Through his screams, I syringe-fed him this stuff, which some people swear by:

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Wailing. Wailing. Screaming. Screaming.

I put him down on the ground, feeling the warm weariness of three hours of sleep blur my vision.

But no, it wasn’t the sleep deprivation. It was tears.

Turns out, burp cloths aren’t just for spit up. They’re also great for tears.

He cried and I cried. Looking at him, writhing in pain, I cried more.

How am I going to get through this morning? This week? This month? I didn’t hug Felicity before she went to daycare. Fail. How can I care for two people? My face is still bloated. I wish I could wear normal pants again. How long did it take to lose my belly last time? How many more hours until Cate is here to help? How many more days until Friday night when Doug does the night feedings?

But the question that overrides everything: What is wrong? What can I do? I will do anything. Just tell me what I need to do.

I wiped my tears on the burp cloth one last time and picked him up. I cradled him in my arms and told him that I was sorry. Sorry for not knowing how to help him. Sorry that he had to share me with another child. Sorry that I wasn’t at my best.

I clutched him to my chest, covered him with a flannel receiving blanket, and then held a pacifier in his mouth. His lips closed on it.

Then, he was silent.

He had fallen asleep.

I dropped my head back in relief.

Oh, thank you God. 

***

Over the past three days, we’ve arrived at some temporary hypotheses for the cause of the crying.

1.) Milk allergy.

Solution: We switched to soy formula. (Courtesy of Doug’s genes.)

Results: So far, so good. No diarrhea. No constipation. Regular diapers. No more crying fits where it seems like he is in pain.

2.) Extreme need for warmth and swaddling. (Courtesy of my genes.)

Solution: Double swaddle. One layer is a muslin blanket. One layer is a flannel receiving blanket. Put on mitts and a hat. Hold tightly against your chest. (Although, he is picky on this point. My chest seems to be the gold standard right now.)

We are trying these things right now. Every day is an experiment. Every time he finally goes down for a nap, we breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Maybe it’s over, we think.

But who are we kidding? We know better. Tomorrow, it might be something else. Next week, something else. And definitely next month, something else.

Sometimes, it’s this:

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Sometimes, it’s this:

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Flexibility.

Flexibility.

Flexibility.

That is life for now.

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