The sleep train has taken off, and it’s a long one (and fair warning, so is this post).
Right about four months, Milo flipped a switch in his sleep. That is, he turned it off for the worse. He started to wake up every few hours, then every hour. He broke out of his swaddle repeatedly, our bed or co-sleeper didn’t seem to make a difference, even nursing depressingly didn’t work its usual magic. He’d wake up moaning about how tired he was. By early morning, we were all wiped out and brought in the carseat, granting us an hour or two of precious sleep.
It was pretty clear that Milo needed to learn how to fall asleep. But how? There are so many methods and opinions. We read THE sleep book (actual title: Healthy Sleep habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth) and internet success stories, all in which I looked for similarities to Milo’s sleep “pattern”.
First thing everyone has said: sleep begets sleep. Personally, that reminds me of the chicken and the egg dilemma. Weissbluth recommends at four months, babies should start to be on a regular nap schedule: one at 9am and 1pm, and maybe a third. He also says good, effective sleep is motionless and ideally for at least an hour.
I started with the naps. Most babies only last for 1-2 hours of alertness before getting tired. I’ve always noticed this pattern with Milo and would try to get him to take naps, but by rocking, nursing, or going for a walk in the stroller. In retrospect, I waited too long, to the point where he rubbed his eyes and got cranky. Supposedly if you time it right, you can put them down before that state and they’ll just…fall asleep. It’s THAT easy.
Obviously, I was skeptical. But after a week of focusing on any signs of fatigue (which took all the fun out of play time), I believe it. I might even dare call myself successful at times. First it was in the carseat, facing Milo’s favorite piece of artwork in our house, a tapestry we got from Sapa, Vietnam. I’d give him the pacifier, move out of sight and pat the carseat, and after 5-10 minutes of tossing and turning his head, he fell asleep ON HIS OWN. Now I’ve moved him into his crib so he can get used to his room, and currently, he’s napping lying down (I better type fast!).
The morning nap seems to be easier since he’s still tired from the interrupted nights. The afternoon one is a little more challenging and less consistent, but again, if I time it right, wait a bit, and cross my fingers, he’ll close his eyes for a good 90 minutes. The third nap is tricky because it’s so close to “bedtime”, but I’ve found we shouldn’t skip it. First sleep, then schedule.
Now, on to the evening. I don’t know why Milo can’t fall asleep on his own at night since he clearly can during the day. Rocking or nursing wasn’t working so we reluctantly decided to try the “cry it out” (CIO) method. Milo actually rarely cries and it felt simply mean to bring out the crying in him. But after a Family Friday when Ben carried Milo, eyes red and tired, around for two hours, we gave it a shot. We started with the method of letting him cry for 3 minutes, soothing, then increasing to 5, 7, 10, etc. Can you guess how far we got? 3-3-5…Milo wins. The screaming was unbearable and we couldn’t calm him enough to put him down again. Eventually, he fell asleep after nursing.
Fast forward a few more days of utter exhaustion and I begin our sleep training logs.
Some friends were over to help with Ben’s latest puzzle project. Milo was cranky and hadn’t taken his third nap, but it was already 6:30pm. We decided to try to put him down earlier than usual. This time we did a one-arm swaddle, hoping he’d use access to his free thumb and maybe one arm out would suppress the startle reflex. He seemed so tired we skipped the reading part of the bedtime routine and I only had to nurse one side before he dozed off. It was 7:30pm. Ten minutes later he woke. I fed the other side. Asleep again. Sure enough, 20 minutes later he started to cry. Then he broke out of his swaddle. For two hours, I continued to ssh him, sing lullabies, and NOT pick him up. By 10pm, I was crouching down below the crib, patting it while he whimpered and moaned. We decided this kind of cry we could handle.
I felt bad having our sweatshop party suffer through the crying, but coincidentally, it included a good friend who has a toddler and remembers their sleep training all too well. He shared his horror stories and coached us through our first session. The minutes felt forever as Milo’s cries escalated. But once in awhile, there were these moments of silence. Those were signs of hope, he said. And sure enough, after 11 minutes, Milo fell asleep.
That night was so hard. He continued to wake, but after 10 minutes, he’d fall back asleep. So he was learning. It wasn’t until after midnight that he slept a good three hour stretch, but that’s been his usual pattern as of late. At 3:30am, it was hard to take, especially since the cries only escalated. Ben went in, the sshing worked for a shortwhile, but eventually we caved and picked him up. Even after nursing, he slept poorly, waking and crying back to sleep. By 6:30am, we put him in our bed and he slept soundly for two hours.
Both of us had bad dreams. Ben, especially. Here’s what he wrote to our friend the next morning:
It didn’t help that when I finally went to comfort him at 3:30, he was freezing cold. His hands and arms were like little icicles, and even his feet were a little cold inside the sleep sack. I didn’t realize how much warmer being in our bed was… we turned the space heater on but after that I had a nightmare where I was out in the snow with him and I forgot him inside a cave. I went back and there were all these other parents and kids playing there, and he was crying by himself and I had to ask some other dad to pass him to me. He was this tiny newborn, the size of my forearm, and he was shivering and his tears were frozen into little ice crystals on his cheeks. I got woken out of that dream by his crying again. I don’t know how many more of those nights I can take…
The second night was definitely better. I went out to ladies’ night and Ben did a great job of calming Milo down for the evening. He passed out pretty much instantly at the feed (and didn’t eat much). Two hours later, around midnight as usual, he woke. We tried to let him cry it out for 10 minutes, then went into reassure him. Again, it only worsened so we threw in the towel (and fed). At least I was able to put him down drowsy and he didn’t fight falling asleep. At 2:30am, he cried for 10 minutes, and after that, we heard a few peeps from him here and there, but he must have managed to fall back asleep because he didn’t wake up audibly crying until 6:30am! So that felt like a huge step forward. At that point, we decided to just feed him to reward him for this improved nighttime behavior. It was a little early, so he slept another 2 hours and woke up cheery in his crib.
Our friend warned that the third day is worse than the second, and he was right. I’ve already forgotten the details, but it was another difficult night of getting him to stay asleep. The 10-minute window wasn’t working. We doubted the CIO method, I ended up nursing several times, Ben sshed the other times, and eventually by morning he was in our bed. And we were all tired.
We were very focused on Milo’s naps this day. Unfortunately, the morning nap was interrupted by moving him outdoors (he used to be able to sleep through any surrounding). But he made up for it with an epic afternoon nap. We did have to eventually put him in the carseat (a reoccurring sign), but he was out within seconds. After three hours and reaching 5:30pm, we decided to wake him so that he’d be tired for bed. By 7:15, he started looking tired and also hungry from skipping a meal in the afternoon. He ate well and dozed off, but of course woke up a half hour later. Ben eventually was able to calm him by holding his arms down. At that point, we realized he wanted to be swaddled, and since he was so drowsy, he didn’t fight it. Then he slept SIX hours. Hallelujah. We didn’t have a plan for this, so I mistakenly fed him at 2:30am when he could probably been soothed with a pacifier. At 5:30am, he had broken out of his swaddle and was upset. I caved again, giving him the breast. But when he woke up instantly after, Ben fixed the swaddle and he slept until 8am. He did manage to break out of the swaddle but woke up happily.
So, things we’ve learned the past few days:
– Milo is much easier to put to sleep when he’s not overtired. Signs of fatigue: less eye contact, mellow, yawning is okay. Signs of overtired: hyper arms and legs, rubbing his eyes, cranky.
– Milo can cry himself to sleep, but we can only take 10 minutes of it.
– It’s better for both parties if we sleep in separate rooms. There’s less tending to, we don’t wake to his grunting, and he doesn’t wake to our creaky floors. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to get used to his room.
– He is soothed by sucking. You can hear him sucking on his fingers in the middle of the night. There’s a clear difference when he’s soothing versus nursing at the breast.
– Alas, Milo needs to be swaddled to sleep. The carseat is the perfect swaddle for him: snug but not claustrophobic. Though he hates it when he’s awake, if we time it right, we can do it when he’s calm.
– Now that he’s swaddled again, he needs to learn to self soothe without sucking. Back where we started!
We’ll see what tonight brings. At this point, I’m straying from the CIO method and focusing on sleeping soundly for a long stretch and not nursing in the middle of the night. If sometimes it means to wait out the few whimpers or give him the pacifier, sure. But here we are, exhausted, stuck behind a long train that’s testing our patience as we wait for the red caboose.
I end with some cute photos of Milo (more on FlickR) and a quote to go with:
There was never a
Child so lovely but his
Mother was glad to see him asleep.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson