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sleep training | A revelation

Behind The Screen

So in my previous behind the screen post I touched on sleep training Maggie and how it had made a big difference to our life. It’s the kind of topic that would have bored me to death pre-baby so I was never planning to write a post about it but so many people asked how we’d gone about it and what method we’d followed that I thought it probably did deserve a post. If you’re like ‘pre-baby me’ then you have my full support in stopping right here and skipping on to some more interesting content but I remember all too well searching for posts on the topic when I was at the end of my tether, so who knows, it might be helpful for some.

Had I ever planned to sleep train my baby?…nope. Had I really thought much about it?…nope. Did I think it sounded kind of OTT and controlling…yes. I think I thought that a lot of a baby’s sleep patterns would simply come from their general temperament. Sure, to a certain extent that plays into it but it’s definitely not the only thing that will influence sleep. When Maggie came along (that sounds like she just magically appeared out of thin air…she did not) we were pleasantly surprised at how much she slept both night and day. She was definitely more of a sleepy baby! My main feeding issue was keeping her awake no matter what time of the day. We made the most of her being able to sleep anywhere at any time of the day, with that magical newborn flexibility that means they aren’t bothered by light, noise or position. I was very happy, almost proud to not have a routine. Sure I’d roughly feed her every 3 hours unless she had a monster 4-5 hour nap which she often seemed to in the afternoons, but really everything was pretty free form and that was fine until the 3 month mark when she became a real grump. I mean she was still a lovely baby and there were glimpses of her old happy self but she did get grumpy very quickly which was sad an often blamed on teething.

She started sleeping through ‘our’ night at about 6 weeks old, from 10pm to 6am at first and then as time went on she slept until somewhere between 8 and 9am. This often meant we were up and ready before she’d surfaced from her slumber but naps during the day however were as and when she fancied. We started to understand when she was overtired but allowed it to get to that crazy, ‘I’m a total mess’ stage before either using the pram or rocking her to sleep. Occasionally I’d still let her fall asleep whilst feeding during the day but she was becoming too alert for that sort of thing and as soon as we would transferred her to the moses basket or sofa, it wouldn’t take long for her to wake up. Night time was a different story. I would always feed her to sleep and I’d heard that wasn’t ideal after the newborn phase but I didn’t really care as it worked. I would literally sit there and wait in the dark until I knew she’d fallen into a deeper sleep post feed and then do the crazy lap to cot transfer, trying to be so gentle as not to startle her. If she woke as I tried to put her in the cot then it was back to the beginning and I’d have to feed her a little again and start the waiting cycle once more. It wasn’t ideal but I just got into a rhythm of it and thought nothing of it.

At around 3.5 months we decided to move her from the bed nest next to me into her own cot in her nursery. It was after being away for Christmas break with family where she was already sleeping in a separate cot on the other side of the room and with her pretty much sleeping through our night for two months already it seemed like the natural move. Natural yes, but I was very sad to see her go, despite all those little night time moans and groans and needing to tip toe in and out. It was a very emotional milestone and I missed knowing she was right next to me but we definitely all slept better as a result. Like most newborns she was never a good sleeper in the evening but eventually adjusted to having a brief nap after her 6pm feed which would keep her going until bedtime. As time went on she decided she wasn’t fussed about that nap and as a result was awake for the entire evening and super grumpy to boot. She was getting frantic and overwrought and wasn’t a joy to be around at that point in the day. We still thought it was nice that Nick got to see her after his day at work but realistically she was a little diva between the hours of 6 and 9pm, more like the ‘witching 3 hours’ than single hour. It made the days feel long and was awkward for having people over as it would be a case of ‘keeping Maggie from having a meltdown. That usually meant lots of rocking that didn’t result in sleep and changing up what she was doing or looking at every five minutes.

Maggie’s super afternoon naps became less frequent and some days she was a hot mess on little more than 2 hours sleep over the 14 hours she’d be awake in the day. She got harder to rock to sleep and even taking her out in the buggy wasn’t a guarantee for shut eye at that stage. I remember attempting to rock her to sleep one afternoon when she was clearly so tired but she was just being so stubborn and would not fall asleep. My arms were so sore and like a big old boot in the face, it hit me…we couldn’t do this forever! It wasn’t sustainable and more importantly it wasn’t even working anymore. I’d fought the idea of routine so much with Maggie because ultimately I was being selfish. I’d hear countless people say that babies thrive on routine and I was like, ‘nah, not my baby.’ I’m naturally a very disciplined and routine driven person which at various points in my life had actually become really unhealthy and left me enslaved to those routines, as if my world would fall apart without them. My identity was all bound up in them rather than in Christ who frees me rather than traps me. My rejection of routine for Maggie had come from a self protective part of me that didn’t want to make myself vulnerable to being in that position again. I essentially didn’t trust myself and thought I’d quickly sink back into judging the success of my day by how well Maggie had stuck to her routine or resenting people for getting in the way of her routine. I probably needed to get to that low point when she was heavy and wide eyed in my arms, having been rocked for over 20 mins and at a total dead end as to what to do.

With Maggie being a sterling sleeper as a newborn we hadn’t really felt the need to look into sleep habits. I’d been recommended The Baby Sleep Guide by Stephanie Modell when I was in my third trimester. The lovely Naomi sent me the link saying how much it had helped her and I’d bought it straight away and then never opened it. I had a vague intention of reading it whilst breastfeeding when she was born but that never materialised. Suddenly I knew I had to read the book and see what it said. We needed to try something at least! Even just in the introduction of the book I realised we’d ticked nearly every bad habit box out there and ‘aggy Maggie’ as we’d now started calling her was that way because she was suffering with chronic over tiredness! Poor kid! We’d not put regular naps through the day in place and the more alert she became I could now see how she was running high on cortisol and functioning in a ‘stress’ state with not enough rest to even things out. I guess the super long afternoon naps had been because she was so lacking in enough sleep that she’d catch up for the whole day. I’d often wondered why she’d sleep better at night after those long naps. It hadn’t made sense to me before that barely any sleep in the day would mean more awake in the evening and harder to settle at night until I thought about all the cortisol pumping through her body. Half of my final feed at night was also in often in front of the TV with blue light blazing all over the shop. I hadn’t even considered how that would be playing into the night time confusion and preventing her from winding down.

I knew we had to stop the rocking and motion that we’d become so accustomed to and desperately needed to somehow disassociate feeding from sleep. This felt so overwhelming! I couldn’t imagine just putting Maggie down and her falling asleep. Say whaaaat?! The idea seemed positively dreamy but I’m not sure I actually believed we could get there. It was good to have a better idea of how much sleep baby’s needed for their age as a starting point. I had no idea beforehand and to hear that Maggie actually needed 3-4 hours in naps at that point on top of 11-12 hours at night was a total eye opener. I suppose there’s an assumption that when babies become more alert and start to be capable of being awake for longer periods of time (or any period of time for Maggie) in the day, that they are capable of more than their little bodies can handle. Sleep is so important for development and restoring them that a whole lot of it is still very much necessary.

We decided to go all in, straight away. As with most things in life I’m not one for the gentle, gradual approach which definitely was an option in the book. Nick and I chatted through a bedtime routine, making sure it was relaxing, with low lights and less of a splashy, splashy bath. It would begin at 6.30pm and end with her in her cot at 7pm. I still felt like she needed milk before bed but decided to make sure she wouldn’t fall asleep whilst feeding and follow it with her story time to separate it from bed. The first night was tough but I expected it to be. We did our little routine with a happy glow of sparkly, newness and then put her down in her cot, gave her a kiss and whispered ‘goodnight sweetheart.’ She screamed and screamed and screamed. It got worse and worse, despite going up there every once in a while to reassure her we hadn’t abandoned her. The book had talked a lot about learning to fall asleep by herself, without you there so that if she stirred in the night she could self soothe back to sleep and wouldn’t be alarmed that she’s no longer in your arms or attached to her food supply. We didn’t pick her up, just occasionally put a hand on her chest when we went up and just rode it out. We had to turn the monitor volume off as it was blood curdling but we knew we had to persevere. Habits don’t come instantly after all and at this point Maggie had no idea what was expected of her so who could blame her. One night she was falling asleep in my safe, warm arms, using me as a human dummy and the next she was on her own in a dark room, wondering what on earth was going on. 

The first night she screamed for forty minutes and then slept until her usual night time feed (around 9.30pm). I decided I’d feed her briefly, in the dark with no interaction to see her through the rest of the night. It was essentially a dream feed. Then she slept through until 7am. The second night she took about twenty minutes to settle and then didn’t wake around 9.30pm this time, so we decided to leave her and she once again slept through until 7am! I was shocked she was able to go that long without food. On the third night there wasn’t the same terrifying screams and choked-up sobbing. She took about five minutes to fall asleep and once again slept right through! We were both amazed that it had actually worked. This training then helped day time naps with one in the morning, one at lunchtime and a briefer afternoon one. Two to three hours was an age appropriate gap between naps but I found Maggie leant more toward two hours. She’d start to get grumpy almost on the dot, but the great thing was I finally understood why. She got better and better at being put down in her cot and left to fall asleep. Sure sometimes she chats for a bit or grumbles or rolls around a little but the book encouraged parents not to see this as a bad thing. Babies sometimes need to work their way to sleep and might need to let off a bit of steam first. There were other times where I’d put the dummy in her mouth and her eyes would instantly close and that was that.

I made sure feeding was fairly soon after she woke up during the day. This meant she wasn’t sleepy and tempted to fall asleep. Being alert also made for much better, more efficient feeding which was happy days for me. Suddenly I had to think about life in terms of her naps which was a bit of an adjustment but the limitations mean that she’s so much happier and I actually have some idea of when I might be able to get some work done too. Trips out in the buggy were usually when she was awake and on the occasions if it hits nap time and we’re out then the buggy seat is changed to horizontal, the hood comes right over and the dummy goes in to distinguish between awake time and nap time. We no longer use a dummy at any other point aside from sleeping and I’d love to transition her out of that too at some stage but we’re not quite there yet. I no longer let her fall asleep on the sofa or our bed or on a seat while we’re out at a cafe for that matter. It’s either the cot or the buggy. After reading that any less than 45 minutes sleep (one sleep cycle) is in no way restorative, I make sure she has at least that for each nap and it seems to do the job. Obviously I can let her sleep for more, particularly at lunchtime but I know the bare minimum she needs which is helpful.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been so afraid of routine after all. Life feels a lot more straightforward with timings and an order. By God’s grace I haven’t become an uptight, crazy lady and when things come up that alter the general flow a little I just need to remember that God has each day in his hands, all the timings and hiccups, positives and Mum fails. I don’t need to worry because tomorrow is also a new day, with new mercies. There are limitations that routine brings but it also brings freedom too. We started sleep training when she was five months old and to be honest I wish I’d have been clued up by about the 6 week mark but better late than never eh?! Now she still naps three times a day with her main one at lunchtime. They vary in length and sometimes she wakes up on her own and other times I need to wake her up. She sleeps from 7pm until 6am but we’ve struggled a bit with her waking up in the hour of five. I feel like being consistent with not allowing her out of bed before 6am and keeping it as ‘night time’, is slowly paying off. Eleven hours sleep, with no food is a pretty big adjustment for a tiny human when I think about it! She falls asleep within no more than five minutes of putting her down at night which has given us our evenings back! It makes the world of difference to know we have that time to spend with each other or have people round or just to have free hands to do something other then occupy her! I’m expecting her sleep will change (obviously) as she continues to grow and soon she’ll drop her afternoon nap but at least I feel equipped for that now. So to all you other mamas out there that may be struggling with sleep I highly recommend this book before you look into paying a professional and even if it goes some way to helping then that’s a positive. I now know so many other Mum’s who have sleep trained whilst not really believing it would work and have been very happy to eat their own words.

 

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