The Puzzle of Infant Sleep

In my practice of taking care of children and parents, there’s a common struggle in the first two years: sleep. “How can my family get enough?”

In my practice of taking care of children and parents, there’s a common struggle in the first two years: sleep. “How can the babe, my partner and I all get enough? What is enough? Should we sleep train… or not?”

There is all kinds of advice out there. We hear reports of data that sleep training works and we are asked whether or not we have “the guts to do it”. We read articles that counter with concerns for neglect in the practice of the same. We read of baby whisperers and wish it were that easy.

I’m not going to give any hard and fast answers here.

We get enough “you musts” from the peanut gallery on this one. I’ve seen enough to know that whatever method parents chose, if they do it out of true love, it all turns out generally ok.

If it doesn’t make you crazy… if you can make it work… it’s workable.

When presented with problems, I ask the parents I work with to feel out the needs of all the humans in the room. I then offer my thoughts from the scientific side of things.

The first months are necessarily wakeful. Little babes have little stomachs and need to wake to feed until their stomachs are simply bigger. Once we all understand that – and we let those necessary tender months pass – the question for the parents of the older sleepless baby is “What do you think your baby needs?”

We don’t talk of baby temperament much, but I was a night pediatric nurse for too long to not know that the littlest of us come into the world with their own unique needs.
Some babes are content to sleep on their own without a peep. Some babes sleep best separate from the scent and stimulus of their parents. Some babes need touch, breath, and reassurance.

Some just need us more.

If you throw the requirements of developmental stages into this, the algorithm becomes even more subtle. This is all ok.

They are just little unique humans after all, and to imagine there is one universal solution is folly.

I then ask the parents what they need. Thing is, it’s absurd to think we come to this parenting gig clear of our own needs and wants. Some parents desire to always be close. Some parents are content to find space when it comes. This is all ok. It is human too.

The problems come when the babe’s needs are still unknown, or the parent’s needs are still unknown, or sometimes, when the parent and babe need different things.
The first cases are just a puzzle. “From what you’re telling me, it seems baby needs an earlier bedtime… you to stay in the room a bit longer… to co-sleep next to your bed… to have a separate space to sleep that is quiet… to simply hear your voice when they are waking in the dark…etc.”

We identify the needs and address them and keep on trying as best we can.

“What I hear you say is that you want your babe to know you’re always there… you miss time at night with your partner… you want to just sleep more because you’ve gone back to work and it’s all making you crazy.”

The last case is a bit trickier. Sometime babies need more at night than parents are wont to give. So we work through it together- trying to find a pattern that gives reassurance to all. Sometimes babes need structure for sleep, and compassionate sleep training is required, but it’s hard for parents to follow through because they have their own needs as well.
When I was a young mom I was also a young farmer, working all day long in my fields in remote Montana.

I had my two babies like it was my calling, because it felt like it was. I remember when I met my son I finally felt like I knew a simple love. (After a fairly complicated childhood and in the presence of an even more complicated partnership… this love was the answer) I was an attachment parent. I wore my son on my hip in the greenhouse and on my back as I harvested shallots so he came in and out of sleep fluidly, and it worked well for us.

At some point as his sister was about to arrive, it became strikingly clear that he needed more structure, and needed to sleep separately. So we set to making order out of the organic tide of it.

And here is where I realized that it was hard for me to not go to him at the slightest peep because our closeness was so precious to me… and I realized that as I consoled him I really needed to take care of myself too.

Sometimes it’s enough to just know that the reason why leaving your child in the dark is hard is because your own fears of the dark, of being alone, are still right there. So, often in these cases, when it comes time for the parent of the older baby to try and make their own sense out of the organic tide of it we talk of going in to console the child and reassuring themselves as well… “It’s ok, sweet babe… I am here…. It’s ok, Sarah… it’s ok.”

I’m not saying this will be the answer for everyone. What I’m saying is more often than not when we (I) hit rough spots in parenting, it’s because we’re human. We bring our own needs to the table. It’s good to give yourself the compassion and intention you desire to give to your kids too.

In the meantime it is good to know, for all of us, that when the lights go out there is someone there if you need them.

So sleep… Whether close or far, easy found or hard won… it will get better and there will be other hurdles after this one is long forgotten.

In the meantime it is good to know, for all of us, that when the lights go out there is someone there if you need them.

How To Help Your Kids Fall Back This Weekend

In theory, we parents “gain” an extra hour to sleep in this weekend as Daylight Saving Time ends. Here’s the reality.

Most of us are forced to follow the Daylight Saving Time scheme, even though it’s “wasteful and unnecessary.” 

In theory, when we set our clocks back before going to bed on Halloween this Sunday, we’ll gain an extra hour to sleep in.  But here’s how this looks to parents:

PRO
We parents gain an hour to sleep in on Sunday morning. (Or realistically, lay in bed and stare at our iPhones).

CON
Clocks and time changes be damned, our kids are going to wake up when they wake up.  

PRO
Since Halloween and trick-r-treating happens just hours before the clocks fall back, kids may be tired out and want to sleep in.

CON
Who am I kidding? There’s tons of candy in the house. The kids are getting up.

PRO
One of the best ways to quickly adapt to a time change is to stick to your typical schedule. This means having a normal family Sunday.

CON
A normal family Sunday.

PRO
The end of DST is a good reminder to change batteries in smoke detectors and clear out old canned goods and other stale pantry items.

CON
Buying new batteries, climbing ladders, and throwing out canned goods from 2011.

PRO
The early hours of darkness help kids get to sleep earlier.

CON
The early hours of darkness turn grownups into pale homunculi.

Consider Changing Your Kid’s Sleep Schedule Now

Some parents gradually adjust their kids sleep schedule over the week leading up to the end of Daylight Saving Time.

These parents shift their kid’s sleep schedule later by 15 minutes every couple of days, so the kids end up with a later bedtime and a later wake-up time. By the time the clock changes, the kids are already on the new schedule.

Other parents find that the gradual approach is more disruptive than just dealing with the time change when it happens.

It’s inevitable that it takes a few days to adjust fully, so my family simply sticks with our normal sleep schedule and deals with the ensuing fuzziness. 

A Note About SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

According to the Mayo Clinic,

“Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”

To negate SAD, the Mayo Clinic recommends outdoor activity, exercise, light therapy, and medications therapy. (All things depressed people find nearly impossible.)

If you think you or any family members are among the 5% that struggle with SAD, click here to learn more and get help. Simple steps actually can make SAD somewhat manageable. (So can moving to Hawaii.)