I am always happy to share advice with my new mom friends. I can commiserate with them on breastfeeding issues, advise them on the symptoms of milk protein intolerance in infants, and recommend my favorite baby books and toys. But there is one issue I am absolutely hopeless at offering any practical guidance on, and that is sleeping.
When my husband and I found out we were expecting a baby, we spent ages turning our guest room into an idyllic nursery for her. We pored over paint samples until we found the perfect shades of lavender and aquamarine that created an atmosphere that was both cheery and soothing. We spent days researching cribs to find one that would be comfortable and safe and long-lasting. My husband painstakingly applied a charming wall decal of birds nestled in a tree. I shopped for hours until I found a comfy, overstuffed chaise perfect for nursing on. My mom commissioned an artist to hand paint an armoire in whimsical pastels to store diapers and clothes. We chose an eclectic array of artwork to bedeck the walls – matching photographic prints of plants in a springy yellow green shade, a custom canvas with our daughter’s name, a framed scrap of a quilt handmade by my husband’s great-grandmother. We even picked out one-of-a-kind plates for the light switches and outlets.
My daughter is 18 months old. She has yet to sleep in her perfect room.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that my daughter is a terrible sleeper. I have struggled with insomnia for literally my entire life. I remember padding downstairs as early as the age of three to curl up on the couch with my dad, a fellow insomniac. We’d watch flickering black and white movies in the dark until we’d finally drift off to sleep in the early morning hours. Over the years, I’ve gotten very good at functioning on very little sleep. If I can get five consecutive hours, it’s a good night.
Because I’m so used to functioning on scraps of sleep, I made the executive decision to wrangle my daughter solo at nighttime for the first months of her life. I banished my husband to the guestroom, and set up a nest for me and Eisley in the master bedroom. My husband has lupus, so it was important for him to stay as well-rested as possible during this stressful new time so he wouldn’t wear down his immune system and get sick. Plus, I was exclusively breastfeeding, so unless he started spontaneously lactating, it’s not like he was going to be a big help during 3am feedings. Anyway, I had read that newborns on average sleep between 16 and 18 hours a day, and since I was planning on staying home with her for the first several months I would surely be able to catnap during the day.
Yeah. Not so much.
I’m generally pretty detail-oriented and orderly, so I documented everything my daughter did during the first weeks of her life. I downloaded an app that allowed me to track every moment of our day. I kept track of every pee diaper and poop diaper. I recorded how long she nursed on each breast, and closely monitored the times between feedings. And I carefully clicked the sleep timer off and on each time she slumbered. Much to my dismay, my sweet little angel averaged about 7 hours of sleep in any given 24 hour time period. She rarely dozed for more than 20 minutes at a time. I could wear her snuggled up to me in a Moby wrap and walk her around until she fell asleep and maybe get her to doze for an hour or so, but I had to keep moving or she’d wake up. Even at nighttime, I could only get her to fall asleep nursing, and then I had to stay perfectly still or she would wake up and we’d have to start all over again. The co-sleeping bassinette we had set up next to the bed remained unused and untouched, as I grew to realize my baby slept best cuddled up next to me. I kept up with this grueling pace for a while, but after three months of neither of us sleeping more than three hours at a stretch, I began to become a little unglued. It didn’t help that my sister’s son, who was just six weeks older than Eisley, slept around the clock. In his first weeks, my sister had to wake him up just to feed him. I longed for that to be my biggest problem.
Luckily, a few things happened that eased our sleepless nights somewhat. First, I began relaxing my natural urge to micromanage everything, and began letting my husband take pumped bottles of breast milk and handling overnight shifts by himself so I could sleep through the night in the guest room. Gradually, all three of us began sleeping in the same room so my husband could handle middle-of-the-night diaper changes while I handled feedings. Secondly, we diagnosed my daughter with a dairy sensitivity. Once I had cut all milk proteins from my diet, she began to settle down a lot more easily. Finally, we received the best Christmas present of all time from my aunt: The Happiest Baby on the Block DVD. The simple tenets espoused in the DVD helped us finally develop a strategy to get our daughter to sleep on her own. All we had to do was swaddle her tightly, blast a white noise machine, stick a pacifier in her mouth, swing her wildly around, and then stick her into a moving swing and buckle her in tightly once she dropped to sleep. Sure, it was crazy and involved, but for the first time since her birth, our daughter was sleeping for six hours at a time and my husband and I were simultaneously hands-free.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After several months of constant use, the motor on our swing burned out: then, my daughter realized she was strong like a tiny Hulk baby and began to break her swaddle. Suddenly, we were back to square one. All our tricks for getting our daughter to fall asleep were suddenly null and void, except one: letting her fall asleep in bed with us. And though we hadn’t really planned on becoming a family of co-sleepers, we learned that it worked for all of us. Even though she kicks us in the ribs and hogs the blankets, we like having her right next to us. She’s not the only one who sleeps better with her loved ones nearby.
I won’t lie. I get a little jealous of parents with kids who seem to know instinctively how to sleep. My sister’s son still sleeps like a champ: she can plop him down in a crib with a pacifier and a blanket, and he rolls over and zonks out in seconds. Bedtime can be an hour-long production over here, since Little Miss Party Animal fights sleep at every opportunity. But ultimately, I understand better than anyone else that everyone sleeps differently. I don’t see the need to fight against my daughter’s natural sleep patterns in order to make her fit into my schedule.
Kate Wight is a freelance writer and work-at-home mom to a daughter Eisley, who was born in October of 2011. Kate writes for a variety of clients on topics ranging from eco-friendly living to social justice issues to fashion when she’s not busy chasing after her very active toddler.You can read more of her work at the Bob Brown Art blog or in Edible Sarasota magazine.