Our journey from 18 wake-ups per night to sleeping through the night.
Before my baby was born, I was already concerned with sleep. I am not someone who does well on little sleep, so I read all popular literature on baby sleep. The key idea that these books seemed to convey is that if you do everything “right”, in terms of the baby’s routine, they baby will sleep well. Routine? Routine is my life. I thrive on routine. I am the queen of routine. So that sounded very good to me. I was confident that I will do everything “right” and my baby will sleep.
Fast-forward a few months. After the first few weeks post-birth when all babies do is sleep, Naomi wakes up many times per night. Routine to the rescue, right? I find the sleep routine rather easy to follow. Except that Naomi is not good at falling asleep peacefully. Every nap time is accompanies by loud and prolonged crying, and the only way we can calm her down is by bouncing on the exercise ball while holding her in our arms. After enough bouncing though, she falls asleep, so this way we can follow her sleep routine. Unfortunately, once asleep, she doesn’t stay asleep for too long. She is usually awake again half an hour later. And since it takes 20-30 minutes to bounce her back to sleep, it doesn’t even make sense to get off the ball at all. So for a few months we simply held her in our arms during her daytime naps. Thank you, our dear hard-working nanny Simone, for agreeing to do this hard job.
At nights Naomi slept for slightly longer periods. That is, until we hit the 4-month-old sleep regression. At the peak of it, Naomi woke up 18 times per night! You read it right. EIGHTEEN! My life was pretty miserable despite having a full-time nanny. If anyone asked me how my baby was sleeping, I’d start to cry. My day looked as follows: Simone comes at 7am. Exhausted, I go to sleep. I wake up around 11-12, ravenous. Go eat the entire fridge. Then go outside to get some fresh air and coffee, and to boost my morale by positive self-talk. And I also used that time to search the Internet for solutions.
There were two schools of thought: The first was the cry-it-out school. Just leave your baby to cry and she’ll sleep through the night. The second was the “survival” school: just do what it takes to survive; eventually all babies begin to sleep. I just couldn’t leave my baby to cry. I was afraid that her brain would pop, that we’ll inflict some serious mental damage. Just couldn’t do it. So I went with the second idea. I started putting Naomi to sleep in the bed with me and gave her breast every time she woke up. At first this didn’t work, but very quickly she learned to fall asleep with the breast. That went against every advice is every sleep book, but this enabled me to survive. For the first time I started getting rest at night, I didn’t need to sleep half a day when the nanny arrived. I could get back to work. I started “living” again.
Daytime sleep was still a disaster, and at the same time Naomi was getting heavier. Nanny started having shoulder pain as she held her in her arms during daytime sleep. I had to put an end to it. I told the nanny to put Naomi in her crib and let her wake up whenever she does. Gradually, daytime sleep became a lot better. Naomi fell asleep within minutes (still bouncing on the ball), and stayed asleep longer and longer. By the time she was 14 months old her daytime sleep extended to 1.5-3 hours. That happened naturally, with no sort of “sleep training” on our part. At the same time, Naomi got better at falling asleep on her own. She often fell asleep in the car, in the bike carrier, in the stroller.
Our night-time routine remained unchanged. I still slept in bed with Naomi and she still fell asleep with the breast every time she woke up. However, the number of wake-ups was gradually reducing. We went from 15-18 to ten, to seven, to five and then to three-four. I was hoping that by 18 months we’d be down to 1-2 wake-ups per night, but that didn’t happen. We hovered around 3-5 awakenings per night, and as Naomi grew more mature, falling asleep with breast became more difficult. While before breast-sucking calmed her down, now it seemed to wake her up. Occasionally she’d be hanging on my breast for as much as an hour trying to fall asleep! And towards the morning (5-7am, when my sleep is the sweetest), she’d be awake every 40 minutes, tossing and turning, and hanging on the breast. I started complaining to Anton.
You have to understand something about Anton. He is a great Engineer. He has this bright engineering mind, which I think he inherits from his mother. He’s good at building things (our house is full of them), fixing things and solving problems. So he decided to interfere and approached our sleep situation as the “problem that needs to be solved”. At the time I was getting pretty tired. I was back at work at teaching, doing research and consulting, and dancing ballet three times a week. So my sleep situation did not at all contribute to my well-being. I still couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving my baby to cry alone, but I was ok to allow some crying, especially when the parent was not far and the baby knew that she is safe and not abandoned.
First Anton started to put Naomi to sleep at night. Like me, he got her to fall asleep while lying on the bed next to her. But, due to a natural limitation, there was no breast. So the important pre-requisite was that Naomi already learned how to fall asleep on the flat surface without bouncing (by falling asleep with me and the breast). And Anton removed the breast dependency. That was crucial.
Then Nataly (Anton’s mom), who was putting Naomi to sleep three times per night when I was at ballet classes, somehow managed to get Naomi to fall asleep in her crib. She did the same things as Anton: patting her on her back (plus whispering songs), but Naomi was in the crib. She removed the co-sleeping dependency. That was another major break-through.
The next crucial step was for me to replicate Nataly’s success. This wasn’t trivial, because Naomi was still used to falling asleep next to me, with the breast. So I gradually taught her to fall asleep in her crib. We’d start on the big bed, then I’d put her into the crib, where she’d try to fall asleep on her own. If she asked to go back to the bed, I agreed, but after some time on the big bed, we had to go back to the crib. Back and forth, back and forth, many times, before she eventually fell asleep in her crib. Eventually I established the rule that cuddling on the big bed is done once in the evening, then she goes into the crib and stays there.
That was a huge improvement in the bedtime routine. Now, Naomi fell asleep in her crib. But at night the things were still pretty sour. Naomi woke up every two hours. She took a very long time to fall asleep with the breast, and started sleeping across the bed, so I had to curl in very uncomfortable poses. So at some point I said: “That’s it. Time to put an end to this.”
At the time Anton was often doing the night duty. His rule was as follows: when Naomi wakes up, if she is trying to fall asleep in the crib by herself, he stays with her patting her back or just being there. But if she screams, demanding that mom comes or to be taken out of the crib, he lets her know that this is not ok. First by talking to her, then (if she still screams) going away from her crib, but staying in her room. Then, if she still screams, by leaving the room and coming back after a while, to see if she’s ready to sleep. Eventually Naomi understood that crying doesn’t get her anywhere and that all she’s got to do is sleep. So she would calm down and Anton would be back with her, helping her to fall asleep. So even though Anton let Naomi cry for some time, he did so in a humane way. He was close by as she cried and offered comfort. So she never felt that she was abandoned. She just understood that this time her wish cannot be granted.
In summary, Anton’s rule was: Have lots of patience when the baby is trying hard to fall asleep on her own, stay with her and support as needed. But if she screams and demands to be taken out, have no patience. Just leave the room for a while, so she understands that this is not acceptable. His other rule was to practice the “French pause” (from Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing up Bebe). When the baby cries, don’t run into the room right away, let her try and fall asleep on her own. I did not believe this would ever work with Naomi, but it actually did! A few times at night she cries feebly, but then falls asleep on her own. If I’d run into the room at that point, I would only have only woken her up.
After a couple of weeks of this “training” Naomi went to two-three wake-ups per night. I also changed my routine. I was no longer taking Naomi to bed with me when she awoke. For the first time in 18 months I slept in my own bed! But I still gave her the breast when she awakened. She’d stand up in her crib for some sucking, and then would lie down to fall asleep. It’s a common wisdom in the sleep-training community that night-time weaning improves sleep. I heard about this many times. My friend in Portugal, who hired a sleep consultant to address her baby’s sleep problem, told me that the sleep consultant believed that her baby woke up whenever he wet the diaper, and giving the breast at night made that happen more often. I also noticed that whenever the nanny or Anton put Naomi to sleep, she’d sleep for a very long period, but when I did, the subsequent sleep period was shorter. It was time to put an end to the night-time breast-feeding. Even though the breast-feeding and sleep dependency was anecdotal, we had established that Naomi didn’t need to breast-feed at night, and I wasn’t enjoying it. So it was time to end it.
One evening, when I fell particularly well-rested and determined, I decided that this is the night to wean. So when Naomi woke up, I went in, but refused the breast when she asked for it. I gently explained to her that she’ll have the breast in the morning, but now it’s time to sleep. Of course, she cried. I stayed by her side, repeating what I had said. To my surprise, the crying was weak, and after a few minutes she calmed down, lay on her pillow, and started falling asleep. I still had to stay by her side about 30 minutes, but she did fall asleep without the breast. Success! I repeated that the next night.
In the meantime, Naomi was down to ONE awakening per night! That was about three weeks after Anton started doing his night-time parenting. Finally, today, two days after I took out the night-time breast-feeding, she slept through the ENTIRE night! 11 hours 27 minutes!
Looking back at how all this happened, I think Anton’s and Nataly’s involvement was crucial. Especially Anton’s. There were many factors that contributed to Naomi’s improved sleep, but the major contribution was his night-time parenting. I didn’t have the energy or resolve to do that. The first days of the training were physically difficult: Anton had to be awake for hours at night, next to a crying baby. I was so tired, and so well-equipped with my “magic wand” (the breast) that I would’ve given up, just so I could get more sleep. But Anton persevered. And that made the difference. Now I understand why they say “A child needs a father”. Moms are often too tried or too “wired” to immediately respond to baby cries to try something radical. All I can say now is that I would do this much sooner if we are ever to have a second baby.