I recently received an email from a very tired mama who is struggling with her 5 month old daughter’s sleep habits. She kindly consented to allowing me to address her issues and suggest gentle sleep solutions to help the situation via a public post, so that the information may be of use to others, too.
In her first email to me, Sarah wrote:
“Hi, My daughter is 5 months old and only goes to sleep with
me either in bed or in my arms. I sometimes nurse her to sleep. If I
try to put her down asleep she immediately wakes up and cries. I don’t
mind co-sleeping Im just worried that her attachment to me is too
strong. What age do you think she will learn to sleep by herself?”
She then went on to say:
“I don’t agree with CIO at all but would like some tips as she has nursery in four months and I think she will need some help before then otherwise its going to be such a shock to her system.”
Firsly, Sarah, I feel your pain! Motherhood is hard, especially the first 6 months, and if you have a high-needs baby (which it sounds like may be the case) it’s a whole new level of difficult. You sound as though you are a wonderful, caring, nurturing mama in desperate need of a break! I urge you to try to look after yourself as best you can at this time. Perhaps your daughter would be willing to settle in a sling with your partner so that you could grab a bubbly bath or a solo walk somewhere – or some sleep!
I must also urge you not to worry about your daughter’s attachment. This behaviour is completely normal and totally age-appropriate (and is actually a good sign of healthy attachment). Of course, all babies are different, and there will always be babies that sleep independently from a young age – but we must always remember that these babies are in the minority, and their existence does not mean that your baby should be the same way. When babies don’t sleep well, it’s so easy to blame ourselves – remember that this is not your fault, and that your baby is an incomparable individual.
It is very hard to listen to your instincts in today’s modern world as a new parent. You will likely have had advice left right and centre from family and friends, books, websites magazines and various experts. Some of these tidbits will be useful but at the end of the day, you are the one who knows your baby best. Try to switch off some of the noise from outside and listen to the voice within (easier said than done, I know).
You also mentioned in your email that your partner is concerned that your daughter is too reliant on you – it may be an idea to talk to him about what is an age-appropriate level of neediness, and how some separation anxiety at various points is normal and healthy. A fantastic book that I can highly recommend is What every Parent Needs to Know – it contains lots of factual, proven information and is a perfect resource for anybody who wants to learn more about the effects of nurture on a baby’s development. It really is a must-read for any parent.
Of course, in a perfect world, you would be more than happy to continue to meet your daughter’s needs in the manner that you have been doing so, but unfortunately in life things aren’t always so clear-cut. You said that she will be attending nursery in a few months, and so understandably you are concerned about how she will fare when she has to sleep in a strange environment, and not in a sling or in bed with you.
It is important to remember that four months is a very long time in a baby’s world. By the time she enters childcare, she could be an almost completely different child when it comes to sleeping. If you aren’t comfortable making any changes right now, there’s nothing wrong with waiting for a couple of months to see where you are. Their habits change so frequently at this stage of their lives. Having said that, if you do wish to start giving your little girl a gentle nudge in the right direction, having four months ahead of you gives you plenty of time to move at a pace that both you and she are comfortable with.
In addition to this, you may find that your daughter is very resistant to any kind of change. She obviously finds it incredibly difficult to settle in any place other than your arms, and she may not be ready to make these changes just yet. My Squishy in particular was not ready to start going to sleep anywhere other than in my arms until he was almost 7 months old (but when he was ready, it happened easily). Again, listen to your inner voice and to what your little girl is telling you – they will guide you and let you know what is the best path to take at this time.
I personally believe that when a baby is struggling with separation, the very best way to address it is by bringing them even closer to you. Think of it this way: if you have a full glass of water, you will be secure in the knowledge that you have enough to drink. If that cup is almost empty, you will feel anxious, and worry about when your next drink will come. I am inclined to say that the same goes for closeness. If the baby has all the closeness she needs, she will eventually learn that she needn’t worry – she will feel secure in her world . Having said that, at 5 months old, this is not separation anxiety per se. This is normal, natural baby development and, although exhausting, it’s not something that she ought to be trained out of.
Further into our email conversation, you said that your eventual goal is to have her sleeping independently during the day and at night-time. As you know, I cannot advocate cry-it-out sleep training, but I hope that I will be able to make some helpful suggestions that could help your daughter become a little more independent at sleep times. Keep your eyes peeled for my next post for some practical solutions. In the meantime, you may find these links helpful.
12 Features of a High Needs Baby – Dr Sears explains the characteristics of a high-needs baby and offers helpful tips on how to deal.
8 Infant Sleep Facts Every Parent Should Know – Another informative article from Dr Sears with information about why babies sleep in the way they do, and what you can realistically expect.
The Science of Sharing Sleep – A great article from Peaceful Parenting explaining the science of co-sleeping.
This is part one of a two part post, read the second part here.