A Sleep Story

A Sleep Story
This is the story of how my first baby learned to sleep. You can find my second baby’s story here. and learn how to teach your baby to sleep here. Re-reading this story and the things I learned that I wrote when my first baby started sleeping through the night is helping me readjust my expectations yet again which is something I find to be a constant necessity in mothering! 
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A Sleep Story

My journey of motherhood started out in what felt like the twilight zone. Our first baby was born at 1:40 in the morning, so we made it to the recovery room around 4 or 5 in the morning. After essentially no sleep I woke up to a note on the whiteboard in the room that read: Goals: feed baby every three hours. Okay, I thought, I can do that. It also had a section in which we were supposed to record the wet and dirty diaper count for our new little one. Those tasks didn’t seem too difficult, so we groggily completed them to the best of our ability. The first day was pretty easy. Apparently, newborns tend to sleep for almost the entire first 24 hours they are alive. But then they wake up and realize they are hungry. Although the colostrum (the first milk they receive from the breast before the mature milk comes in) is all the nutrition they need at first, it does not quite fill them up. They are hungry until the mature milk comes in (which for me wasn’t until day 3 when we were home from the hospital). So you end up nursing a baby with an insatiable appetite for about three days. It is not the easiest thing I have ever done. I began to understand why some people supplement with or completely switch to formula feeding.

I was pretty laid back about nursing in the beginning. Every three hours or so, I would “feed” the baby, although he really wasn’t getting much. Once he seemed satisfied I would stop and let him sleep. At some point, he hadn’t had a wet diaper in 24 hours and the nurses began freaking out. So, I tried to feed him a little more frequently and he ended up having a wet diaper not too long after that. The lactation consultant at the hospital was so helpful. We ended up having to use sugar water to get him to nurse more which really worked wonders. Without her help and that trick, we would have been stuck with a crying hungry baby and have not known what to do to fix it.

Once we were home, he would sleep a few hours and then want to eat for a few hours. This was before the milk came in. The poor boy was just feeding and feeding but getting almost nothing. I still remember the look in his eyes when the milk finally came in. I imagine he felt like I feel when eating chips and queso or something like that… it’s like wow, this is delicious! I couldn’t help but think of how exciting it will be to introduce new foods to him when he gets older.

I thought that it was great that the milk was in, and hoped that the hardest part was over. However, over the next few weeks, I experienced tons of cluster feedings. This is when the baby wants to nurse practically nonstop for hours. Thankfully, he mostly did it during the day, and slept well at night. Sleeping well at night was defined as sleeping 2 to 4 hours and then waking up to feed. In the early, early days, he did not always want to go back to sleep in the middle of the night, but after a couple of weeks he almost always went right  back to sleep after night feeds.

He was a good eater and gained weight quickly and well. The doctor was impressed with his weight at our first visit when he was 6 days old. She gave me the OK to no longer wake him to eat. I was relieved about that because I was super conflicted about waking him up in the middle of the night to eat. I decided to wake him if it had been less than 3 hours since he ate during the daytime, but that I would let him go as long as he wanted to at night.

In preparation for his arrival, I read Babywise after hearing someone at a baby shower I attended sing its praises. I thought, well if this can work for her, I’m sure it can work for me. Trying to follow that book increased my stress level at a time when more stress was definitely not what I needed. I would furiously re-read Babywise while I was nursing him trying to make sure I was doing everything right to get him on a schedule and sleeping through the night. I also began reading blogs and websites devoted to baby sleep as well as spending lots of time reading Baby Center posts. I learned that sleeping through the night for an exclusively breastfed baby means sleeping a 5-8 hour stretch followed by 2-4 hour stretches if you are lucky. This was a reality check, as I realized I would not be getting a nice 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep for a long time.

I tried to follow the Babywise schedules and experienced much failure. I became so stressed out over it that I decided putting him on a schedule wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t willing to let him cry and my biggest problem was that he wouldn’t go to sleep easily. So, I could feed him on schedule but he would never take the naps like the book said he would. I felt like a complete failure that my baby wasn’t sleeping and eating the way the book said he should be. I needed some kind of schedule to keep my own sanity and be able to figure out when I would be able to eat breakfast, shower, etc.

After reading extensively online, I realized that another method called EASY from the Baby Whisperer was similar to Babywise yet not as strict of a schedule. More of a routine for the baby to Eat, do an Activity, Sleep, and then You get to do whatever you want. It sounded easy and great, but the problem was that baby K wouldn’t sleep. I read that newborns need over 16 hours of sleep a day, and baby K wasn’t really getting that much. He would take a couple good naps when he was really tired, but he would also often stay awake for long periods of time. We could get him to go to sleep if we bounced him on the yoga ball, but it would sometimes take 30 minutes to an hour of bouncing to get him to go to sleep.

At one point when he was about 6 weeks old, we realized that he NEEDED to be swaddled to sleep well. We had tried swaddling him before, and he always protested because he LIKED to have his hands in his face. When he was really little, we put him in onesie pajamas and he slept fine in his Rock ‘n Play. We tried the Woombie, but we thought he HATED it, so we didn’t keep using it. Once we realized his NEED for the swaddle, we consistently put him in it. This helped so much, even though he always protested it at first. The big lesson that we learned was that there are things that he needs that he may not like that we have to do for him because it will be better for him in the long run. Swaddling was one of these things.

He slept almost exclusively in the Rock ‘n Play (note that this device has since been recalled and is no longer recommended) until about 6 weeks when we transitioned him to his crib. At first, he hated his crib, but once he slept in it a few times, he was fine with it and seemed to sleep better. Baby K slept a 6 hour stretch in his crib when he was 6 weeks old! I was so excited and I felt like a new woman after getting 6 hours of sleep. I never would have thought that 6 hours of sleep would bring me such excitement – I am an 8 hours of sleep girl! It felt like such good sleep that I didn’t even feel funny calling it sleeping through the night for the first time 🙂

I was hopeful that the next night would be glorious again, but he didn’t sleep 6 hours again. It wasn’t until three weeks later that he slept 7 hours 2 nights in a row. I am lucky that he has always slept about 10 to 12 hours at night, waking up to eat anywhere from 2 to 5 times throughout.

Up until this point we had always bounced or rocked him to sleep in our arms. Then we would lay him down and cross our fingers that he wouldn’t wake up. We were becoming exhausted. Neither of us had a problem with letting him cry for 5 minutes, so we would begin to let him fuss a bit if he woke up after rocking him to sleep. We realized that after a little fussing he would often put himself right to sleep. So, when he was about 8 weeks old, we began bouncing or rocking him for a couple of minutes and then laying him down wide awake in his crib. Miraculously, 9 times out of 10 he would stop fussing within 5 minutes and put himself to sleep shortly after. If he fussed longer, we would go in to comfort him using the shush-pat or pick up put down methods of baby comforting.

Letting him fuss was the best thing I think that we did for him. Some people are very anti-fuss and judge parents  for doing this. However, if we did not let him fuss he would not have learned to sleep. I believe that doing everything for your child teaches them that they cannot do it themselves, and as he gets older, I will always be tempted to do things for him, but I will have to remind myself that letting him experience failure and messiness is part of life’s journey.

Obviously, if he is extremely upset, we comfort him. He has had a lot of issues with terrible gas, and we know his gas cry and will instantly comfort him if he is experiencing this. We started using gas drops with him which helped a lot.

From everything I read, I learned that very young babies should usually not stay awake for more than an hour or so. Babies become easily overtired and overstimulated. Once I realized all of this and became willing to let baby K fuss a little, organizing his day became much more manageable. I was able to feed him, let him play for a short while, and then put him down for a nap when he became tired or fussy. Then, he would sleep until he was ready to eat again. At 3 months, I aimed for feeding him every 2.5 to 3 hours. When he was younger, during some growth spurts he sometimes needed to eat every hour.

Another thing that books and websites made me feel like a failure about was napping. Many sites will tell you that there is something wrong with your baby if he doesn’t take 1.5 to 2 hour naps. Some babies just don’t take long naps. You can try to lengthen them, but don’t stress too much if you can’t. At 3 months old, very often baby K woke up after 45 minutes and seemed content and happy and ready to play. I would let him play a bit before feeding him, trying to stick to feeds every 2.5 to 3 hours (time is counted from the start of the feeding to the start of the next feeding). Sometimes he would contentedly play for so long that when it is feeding time again, he would feed right to sleep. And I was OK with this. Following this type of routine and including flexibility in it has led to a happy baby who gets many compliments on his attitude. He is most often happy when he is awake and I truly believe it is because he is getting enough sleep now.

At 12 weeks old, he slept 7 hour stretches each night. I am praying that this continues (spoiler alert: It was a rocky road, this did not consistently continue!). It think the Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit helped, but I can’t be 100% sure. When Baby K slept long stretches in his swaddle, he would get out of it and/or scoot around the crib. The Magic Sleep Suit kept him in one place and he slept 7+ hour stretches while we were using it (before he learned to roll over.)

Fast forward a few months and I realized that all of my expectations for baby sleep were completely wrong. I absolutely couldn’t believe that when baby K turned 9 months old that he still wasn’t sleeping through the night! If you had asked me when he was born, I would have told you that he would be sleeping through the night immediately, or at least within a couple of months. I thought that teaching a baby to sleep was going to be like following a recipe… Do what the instructions say and all will turn out well in the end. Well, it wasn’t and still isn’t quite that easy for me.

Throughout this sleep journey, I read almost every “How to get your baby to sleep through the night” post out there. I read sleep books and sleep forums. I stressed over how many naps he would take and how long he would be awake. I tried following Babywise schedules, EASY routines, feeding on demand, waketime formulas, and more. No matter what I did, he still didn’t sleep through the night without waking to nurse. I finally decided that maybe that is what he needed at that point in time, and I accepted that I would be waking up in the middle of the night to feed him for just a while longer.

My original plan was for baby K to sleep through the night (STTN in mom lingo)  before 3 months… Once he was actually here and I realized what I had gotten myself into, I figured 6 months became a good goal, that turned into 9 months, which turned into 1 year, which essentially means I felt like I would never sleep a full night again in my life.

However, the day came when I have been able to sleep 8 hours straight again! In fact, my little angel has now STTN since he was about 10 months old.

Our doctor did not encourage me to stop night feedings, she actually told me at the 9 month appointment that she felt that 8 hours is a good amount of sleep without feeding for an 8-9 month old. It’s crazy to me that different doctors feel so differently about this number. She said for me to expect him to go 12 hours at that point was a lot. I was pretty bummed, as I was hoping she would tell me to stop feeding him at night!

As much as I wanted him to go 12 hours without feeding by 9 months, at that point, I decided to wait it out a little longer and I was happy I did.

Between 9 and 10 months, my little one’s waking for nursing started getting later and later and then he just all of a sudden stopped waking up. He has slept from 7 or 7:30 pm to 6:30 or 7 am without a peep (most nights, a couple nights he has cried once but went back to sleep very quickly). And when he was about 18 months we we’re able to shift his bedtime later and he started sleeping a bit later. Now at 2 he is on an 8-8 schedule. And top it off, now he wakes up HAPPY in the morning. He used to wake up screaming.

Now, I can’t say that this journey wasn’t rough… I did have to sleep train him a little at 6 months. He was waking 3 or 4 times a night which was ridiculous and too tiring for me – it was worse than when he was a newborn! I decided I would feed him once, after 2 am, and I rarely varied from that. He learned quickly and stopped crying for me to come in after a couple days. I had to use a complete cry it out with no checks because if one of us went in to check on him, it made him more upset and he would scream louder. We would check on him on the monitor to make sure he was okay.

All in all, this sleep journey I was on was way more of an adventure than I’d planned it to be. But now I’m back on it again and hoping for the same outcome (let’s be honest, I’m hoping for a more expedited outcome) with baby #2!

My takeaways from being a new mom, that other new moms may or may not find useful:

  • If you want to, try to accomplish a feed, wake, sleep PATTERN starting whenever you feel comfortable. The first 12 weeks are full of unpredictability and growth spurts, and sticking to a clock schedule might make you crazy. Try to make sure you feed your baby at least every 3 hours, but more often if necessary. Ask your doctor about weight gain and when it is ok to start letting your baby sleep longer at night
  • From the beginning, try to get baby to take full feeds and not snack all day. For me, this is usually 10-ish minutes per side. My babies always take both sides at every feeding.
  • Transition baby to sleep in crib when you are comfortable with it. In the beginning it was convenient to have him right next to my bed because of the frequency of night wakings. I think 6 weeks was a good time to transition for our family for baby 1. Baby 2 we don’t have a separate room so he is staying in our room until we can move him to share with his brother.
  • Swaddle for every nap and night sleep as well. The Woombie is great and allows for easy diaper changes with a bottom zipper. Also, my babies liked that they could move their arms around in it. The Summer Infant SwaddleMe also worked well and kept their arms tight at his sides.
  • Breastfeeding is hard work. Remind yourself that you alone are sustaining the life of a tiny human and that in itself is a full time job. Don’t try to accomplish too much else or feel bad for not getting things done. Really. Just don’t.
  • Some days will be good and some days will be bad, but I think what is most important is to trust your instincts and not stress over it too much. Many times, it is what it is and not much can be done to change that.
  • Let the baby sleep when he is tired.
  • Sometimes letting the baby cry a little is necessary. At 6 months and again at 8 months, I had to sleep train my first baby due to his excessive number of night wakings, but I still allowed 1 night feeding. It was/is/will be a tough decision, but it is important to realize that the needs of the whole family are important, and not just the baby. I also had to sleep train my second baby at 4 months in order for him to learn to fall asleep on his own (and I am still working on those night wakings but still nursing him at most wakings for now.)

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