From My Sleep Deprived Heart to Yours: “Teaching” my Baby to Sleep vs. Staying Sane…and All the Emotions In Between

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Sleep and babies. Here is a topic that’s hardly ever talked about. (Can someone please invent a font for sarcasm? ) First of all, my usual disclaimer; I am not technically considered an expert on this, just a sleep deprived momma, looking out for the best for her baby and trying to also rely on her instincts. Sound like anyone you know? I am sure this is most of us.  I woke up this morning feeling tired (as usual), discouraged after another night of broken sleep and felt this overwhelming pressure (that has been mounting for the past few months) of needing to “figure out” how to get my baby to sleep through the night.  Second of all, I promise you thatthis is not another “how to get your baby to sleep 101″ article; just some reflection, inspiration and encouragement for all those moms that just aren’t nailing this whole sleeping baby thing.  Here’s something you don’t here very often on this subject–it’s OK.  Maybe you just need to keep doing what is going to keep you sane and enjoying this stage of the journey.   Maybe you just need to keep doing what is going to get you by for the next little while and stop worrying about sleeping for awhile.

Here is the thing about the concept of the dreaded (GULP) “Sleep Training”. To me that phrase implies that we have some sort of control over it. I have read all the different philosophies and training on this. Everything contradicts the next. You have to teach your baby to sleep; you have to make them feel secure; they need to cry it out; you should never leave them crying if they are in pain; remove anything that could comfort them or help soothe them; soothe them when they really need it; sleep with them close to you and nurse them as much as possible to ensure they feel safe, secure and have a positive attitude towards sleep; stop feeding them in the night so they can teach themselves to go back to sleep; sleep with your baby; don’t sleep with your baby. I think the trick, for me at least, is to find pieces of each philosophy that make sense. because it’s SO CONFUSING. I’ve never been a “buy the book” kind of gal. I like to figure things out as I go and ultimately, trust my instincts.

If you are one of those people who had a baby who just slept through the night early and easily, I am SO HAPPY FOR YOU. Do you realize how lucky you are?! I also commend people who have followed the sleep methods religiously and have had them work for them. I know how tough it is. I am sure this is just the first of many things you will do for your kids that requires you to be super strong and just put on a brave face, knowing that you are doing what is right for them even though it tugs at your heart strings. Isn’t this the epitome of motherhood? The experts may claim I’m just not tough enough at this point to handle the crying and protesting through the night, but I find it impossible to go against my instincts.

In my case, last night, leaving my son crying out “mama” and standing there alone after 15 mins of crying got to a point where something suddenly felt so unnatural about leaving him for another second without me nursing him back to sleep. I “gave in” and went and comforted him. I am all about doing what feels natural; he was formed out of doing what felt natural, was brought into the world by doing what felt natural and I will parent him to the best of my ability by doing what feels natural. At this point, neither he, nor I feel ready to let him just stand there and cry. I am sure many people are in this situation.

The stress for me doesn’t come from the sleep deprivation or getting up three times in the night. What has me so distraught is the guilt that I am doing something wrong. Some of the books I read make you obsess over “bad habits”. How could something as natural as nursing my son to sleep, being his comfort blanket, his ultimate security be that much of a bad habit? So, I sit there conflicted. Helping him in the only way that feels right deep down, but with sad thoughts of guilt and disappointment in myself for “giving in” and not “teaching him to sleep”. This is way worse than the broken sleep I’ve been dealing with for the past 9 months. As usual, I find myself kept up long past my baby falling back to sleep with worries (as usual), how am I screwing this up?

As I said, I’m no expert on babies and sleep. But I can tell you what I definitely am the expert in; knowing what my baby needs. Hearing him cry for extended periods of time while calling “Mama” just feels wrong for me to ignore. It goes against all of my natural instincts. My instincts are what I’ve relied on for the past 9 months and they’ve resulted in a happy (albeit tired) momma, with a thriving happy baby. In trying some of these methods, it’s not that I don’t agree with the philosophy behind them, I just think that (and hope!) that babies will sleep through the night like reaching a milestone. And, it’s different for every baby. Sure, there are things we can do to help them achieve this milestone; not unlike how I would put the toy I know my son so desperately wanted inches from his grip and despite how frustrated he got, I would let him get it for himself. Two weeks later, he was crawling. So yes, bedtime routine, setting the right environment, following as much of the theories about sleep and babies that make sense to me as possible, etc. will help him reach this milestone, but ultimately I can’t force it on him. I let him fuss some nights and he goes back to sleep. I am so in tune with his cries, that I *think* I know when I really need to go to him and sometimes I’ll have to admit, I just give him the benefit of the doubt. You see, for me, the line between the experts saying, “Never leave them if they truly need you and are in pain” vs. “leave them to fuss so they learn to fuss and don’t give in, no matter what” is so incredibly blurred for me.

I hope that if I follow as much as I have read about helping babies sleep, while acting on my instincts about what he needs….one day, when he’s ready (and hopefully before he’s 5 ha!) he will sleep through the night when he feels like it. Just like he will walk and talk when is right for him. Everything is a process and I will just have to try and be patient. At the same time, I really need to stop feeling like I am doing something wrong because my baby isn’t sleeping yet. Easier said than done.

No, I never thought that 9 months in I would still be nursing him back to sleep 2-3 times a night, but this is our journey. Feeling like I have failed in this regard would be as ridiculous as feeling like I had failed if my baby couldn’t breastfeed. You know how ridiculous it is when there are some nurses or people that claim there is “no baby that can’t latch”, “all babies like swaddles and soothers”, etc. This is nuts. I know people who have done everything right and their babies just wouldn’t breastfeed; or their bodies didn’t produce enough milk. Nothing they did wrong, just another example of how complex and different babies are. It is our job as mothers to overcome the challenges by trusting our instincts and modifying our approach in a way that makes them feel comfortable, safe and secure. The rest will figure itself out. As long as your baby is fed, cuddled and at the bare minimum loved to the best of your abilities, you’re doing everything right. The same goes for sleeping, as far as I’m concerned. I can try the methods that some mothers swear by and which have worked overnight for them, but ultimately I need to have no expectations, be innovative, strong and do what feels right.

We are obsessed with sleep when it comes to babies. It’s often the first question family and friends ask me. It’s all I talk about with other moms. It’s all consuming and it’s exhausting. I encourage you to do all the reading and then do what feels right. This is all you can do. If something feels uncomfortable and unnatural, act on that instinct. I am sure there are people who have had tremendous success with sleep consultants and different sleep methods and are chuckling thinking that they once thought like me. Regardless, as a mom, you can only do what feels right at the time and I need to stop feeling bad about that. Luckily, I have great friends and a mother that literally give me pep talks every day about how whatever I am doing is fine (even though technically it’s probably all wrong). My girlfriends, Tara and April, are going through the exact same thing. We happen to all be battling sleep issues together, which helps. We can motivate each other and comiserate. I tried for the first time last night to get him to go to sleep fully “awake” and was texting them the play-by-play. Every minute of him crying felt like an hour. A simple text back saying “You can do it.” bought me another few minutes. Maybe one day, those extra few minutes will be the minutes he just lays down and sleeps all night (I wish!). I think it’s important to have support. I am also going to get my husband to help. I realized that good support and motivation is definitely the key.

I definitely don’t have this all figured out and am willing to keep trying. I read a book called “Sleep Sense” yesterday, which made a lot of sense to me. I have read numerous books. The only part I don’t agree with is the fact that the books says that “I need to be in control.” Yes, I know what they mean, we need to help our babies learn, but really, when it comes to sleep and babies, I don’t think the word “control” should ever be used. You can aid them, but ultimately, this is an organic process. Trying to gain ultimate “control” over a 9 month old, or any baby or toddler for that matter, seems like trying to solve the wonders of the world; next to impossible. If I am dissapointed and frustrated with myself every day, trying to do the impossible, I won’t be fun for him to play with and be able to battle all the little daily struggles of having an infant.

All that said, on the flip side, I am also wrestling with the fact that this isn’t about me and my emotions. This is about helping my baby learn. I need to find the balance between this and all the instincts that are telling me to help him and comfort him. I am going to try to perservere. We have a solid bedtime routine established and I know he doesn’t mind his crib, so we are already off to a good start. The next step is to get him to learn to doze off on his own. I will try and keep him relatively awake during that last feeding. Awake enough to finally doze off in his crib, but asleep enough to not want to explore the crib and stand up. What seems like an impossible feat at this point, but I’m sure many other moms have struggled with the same issue and have happy kids who sleep through the night eventually; so that gives me hope. Then, when I feel he’s ready, I will try and cut down the night time feedings. At this point, I am still functioning (I think), showing my baby all the love I can possible find in my heart, treating my husband well, manage to laugh daily and have a happy baby, so nothing is really wrong; as much as the traditional sleep training books would try and make me believe.

Oh, and if I have to go in and nurse him to sleep for awhile, sue me. All I can say is that I am going to try my best and help him as much as I can to learn to sleep on his own, while still soothing him when necessary. I realize that this may just only get harder and I owe it to him to help him figure this out. I don’t care about the sleep deprivation, honestly. It’s more about making him feel secure. Secure in his sleeping habits and secure with me. It’s a process and may feel like a bit of a battle at times. The first of many I’m sure.

I plan to keep chronicling this journey and share my successes and failures. For myself, as an outlet. But also, for those of you who are also struggling with this crazy sleep quest and feel like you’re failing or have done something wrong. You’re doing everything right. The fact that you even read this to it’s rambling end, means you care enough to read yet another article about babies and sleep. One day, you will get a full night’s sleep again. It may be in a few days, a few months or (GULP) a few years….but one thing that is for sure about all this is that it is only a short amount of time in our children’s lifetime and you will one day miss all your nightly rendez-vous and cuddles with your little ones. At least, that’s what is getting me through after another night of very broken sleep. It’s time to start celebrating the small wins, like the fact that he just had a great hour and a half nap, rather than focusing on the stuff that isn’t going as smoothly as I had hoped.

As my girlfiend April says to me after a long day, “May the sleep gods be with you!”

Hang in there, momma. They will learn how to sleep and how to go to sleep when they’re tired.  Savour the cuddles for as long as you can.   I promise you that you won’t be rocking your kid to sleep when they leave for college, but you will be wishing you were.

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