In my last post, I addressed Sarah’s issues with her high-needs daughter’s sleep. Although Sarah is happy to meet her night-time (and nap-time) needs via nursing and co-sleeping, she is understandably worried about how her daughter will fare when she goes to nursery in four months time.
Before we get started, I’d just like to reiterate that all children learn to sleep independently eventually. With some, it happens earlier and with others it happens later, but one thing’s for sure – it will happen. Beware of the sleep trainers that tell you your baby will never sleep alone without being trained to do so. This is completely untrue. Baby sleep problems are only problems if they are problems for you – in other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Do whatever works for you, not what you feel you should do to keep others happy – or for fear of future issues which may not even materialise.
It is normal and natural for babies to want to be close to their mums, and for them to need help to sleep. The problem only arises when society’s version of normal differs – which it most certainly does in the western world. As a society, we have very unrealistic expectations of babies. They are needy, primal little creatures who simply have no idea how to exist away from their mothers, and it takes a long time for their independence to grow. It makes perfect logical sense to give our babies all of the affection and security they need, whilst allowing opportunities for independence so that they may go at a pace that is comfortable.
Having said that, if you do wish to make a change then that’s okay too. You deserve to be well-rested as much as your baby does. Listen to your instincts, and to your heart. If, deep down, you are happy with the way things are and just want to see how things unfold, by all means do so. If not, here are some gentle ways to help nudge things in the right direction. If your daughter is ready to foray into more independent sleep, these simple changes should help.
A Bedtime Routine
Sarah, you mentioned that your daughter doesn’t yet have a proper bedtime routine. The implementation of a consistent bedtime routine will almost certainly help her settle a little. Now, this doesn’t have to be anything strict or rigid – just a gentle period of winding-down before sleep, within which the same things happen in the same order – warm baths, stories, singing, rocking, massage and nursing are all lovely things to do with your baby at bedtime. We used to do a bubbly bath and massage by candlelight – jump in with your babe and enjoy the bath too!
The routine doesn’t have to be at the exact same time every day, and it can be as flexible as you like. However, successful routine implementation requires consistency, so it’s usually a good idea to aim to do bedtime at around the same time every day. We started doing a regular bedtime routine with Squishy when he was around 6 months old. We tried at an earlier stage but it became clear pretty quickly that none of us were ready for it, so we waited. When the time was right, it was easy to slip into our routine and it really improved his sleep.
In order to find a time to start your bedtime routine, watch your daughter carefully for a few days to see when she tends to wind down for the night. You said that at present she goes to bed with you at 10pm, so you might try starting the routine at around 9.30pm. You will probably find this time becomes earlier as the months wear on.
Naptime routines are usually similar to the bedtime routine, just a little shorter. Again, watch her cues to figure out when she will be ready to drop off. Catch her before she becomes fussy and you will have a chance of catching The Magic Sleep Window – something I have only caught once or twice in three years!
Different Ways of Falling Asleep
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to train your baby to sleep alone in order for her to sleep adequately, or for her to thrive in childcare. Many parents find that the best way to help their babies fall asleep in different ways is as simple as that – allow them to find different ways to fall asleep. Many nurseries/childcare providers will be happy to do their best to accommodate your daughter’s needs. You might try:
- Nursing to sleep
- Rocking to sleep
- Wearing in a sling and then transferring to the bed or cot
- Gentle patting/shh’ing whilst laying in the sleeping place
- Taking a walk with your daughter in a pushchair
…or any combination of the above. What we do most nights is nurse to sleep, then burping which usually awakens him slightly. I then lay him in the sidecarred crib, and pat his bottom (he sleeps on his tummy or side) until he drifts off. He usually grumbles a little but if he becomes distressed I pick him up and gently sway until he conks out. He usually wakes once before I go to bed, and will settle with either a pat on the bum or a quick cuddle.
Independent sleep will happen on it’s own at some point without any prompting from you, but it is impossible to know when. Children reach readiness at very different ages. However, you won’t know whether she has reached that point unless you try. Periodically, you might try laying her in her cot after the bedtime or naptime routine and allowing her the chance to fall asleep by herself. It might happen, it might not, but you won’t know unless you offer her the opportunity. Neither of my children have ever been the type to briefly fuss before falling asleep – they would scream the place down, I’m sure – but I know a couple of babies who seem to really need to have a quiet fuss for a minute before falling asleep (and no, they’ve never been sleep trained!).
At present, you are co-sleeping with your daughter but you have expressed a desire to have her sleep alone eventually. It may be helpful to make this transition a gradual one, so it’s not a big shock to your daughter’s system.
A great way to gradually move your daughter out of your bed is by utilising a sidecar arrangement. This is when you take the side off of the cot and push it up against the bed, therefore creating a “bed extension” in which your daughter can sleep. This way, she can get used to sleeping in her own space whilst still retaining closeness with you. You might start by sleeping mostly in the sidecar with her in your arms, and then gradually retreating as the nights wear on. It may take a little getting used to but she will get there. We did this with Squishy, as he was an in-arms sleeper too. There were tears, yes, but I firmly believe that crying in the loving presence and with the comforting touch of a parent is vastly different than crying alone.
Similarly, once you’ve made the transition to solo sleep in the cot, you can continue the gradual transition technique by gradually lowering the level of help that you offer your daughter as she falls asleep. There is no set formula for this; each baby is different. We did this with our oldest son when he was about to turn three. We used to snuggle with him in his bed until he fell asleep which used to work fine, but eventually started causing more problems than it solved. He would wake and cry as soon as we tried to leave the bed.
We gradually moved from lying in the bed with him, to sitting up in bed next to him, and now we sit next to the bed – and it takes all of about 5 minutes for him to fall asleep at night. Eventually we will use the same technique to retreat all the way out of the room but, right now, there’s no need because his bedtime habits are not an issue for us. Again, your child’s sleep is only a problem if it’s a problem for you.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
Obviously I don’t know your daughter, Sarah, so I cannot speak for what she may or may not be ready for, but at 5 months of age most babies are still highly dependent on their caregivers to help them to sleep. Additionally, between the ages of 3-5 months usually comes a particularly nasty sleep regression, which can transform even the most peaceful baby into a horrifically sleepless little creature.
Right now, your baby is going through a prominent period of growth and development, and as a result sleep is likely to fall by the wayside. The biggest mistake that we all make as parents is falsely assuming that sleep progresses in a linear fashion – it doesn’t. It goes up and down throughout the child’s early years and is affected by a multitude of different factors – environmental, emotional and developmental.
Please try not to worry too much about the future. Four months is such a long time for a baby, and things will probably change for the better all by themselves by then. Babies are adaptable creatures, too, and you may find that she settles into childcare very well when the time comes. You may decide that it would be kinder to her (and easier for you) to continue to meet her needs in this way now, and help her adapt to the inevitable changes when the time comes. Of course, as her mother, you know her best and your instincts will tell you what the best course of action will be.
Don’t Forget About You!
Caring for any baby, let alone a high needs baby, is very hard work. You sound as though you need a break, Sarah, or you’re going to end up burning out. Perhaps the best thing to do at this early stage would be to place your focus on nurturing yourself, and finding ways to meet your own needs whilst still meeting the needs of your daughter. You’ve mentioned that she finds it hard to settle with anybody other than you; has your partner tried wearing her in a sling? A good wrap sling or mei tai will fare you well. Neither of my boys would spend any longer than ten minutes with their father without screaming the house down until they were about 6 months old. Big changes are coming, Sarah. Soon, your little girl will become so much more interactive with the world – and therefore more easily comforted by other people.
Would anybody else like to share any tips, advice, support or informative links/book recommendations for Sarah?