Three steps for dealing with sleep (or the lack thereof)

Even in olden times, babies would laugh at us, “Ha! You thought I would sleep in here. Sucker!” (Image credit: Flickr user simpleinsomnia via Flickr Creative Commons)

I let you in on some secrets about how babies sleep in this post. Now it’s time to talk about solutions. I have three steps for you to follow to deal with sleep (or the lack thereof).

The first step is admitting that we have a problem: We have a problem with understanding normal baby behavior. Normal baby sleep is wildly variable and wildly not compatible with the sleep most of us had as adults before having a baby. If we adjust our expectations, we will not only have a better idea of what needs to be fixed, but our attitude about what we’re dealing with improves.  You may find that this is all you need to do to “fix” your baby’s sleep “problems”—realizing that you don’t have an actual problem at all.

The second step is to figure out what, exactly, needs to change in order for you to feel better about the situation. Figure out the pain points. Maybe you don’t mind that it takes an hour to rock your baby to sleep, but it’s unbearable that he wakes up four times per night. Or maybe it’s not the nightwakings that bother you—maybe you’re bedsharing and it’s just a matter of unhooking your bra and drifting back off to sleep—but spending an hour in a quiet room willing a baby to justgotosleepalreadydarnitwhatiswrongwithyou is not your cup of tea. Maybe you’d change five things about your sleeping arrangements, or maybe it’s just one. Figure out the biggest issue, and formulate a plan of attack. Ignore the parts that you don’t consider to be broken, even if you’re getting grief from others.

Then, it’s time to get creative with your solutions. One of the go-to solutions for baby sleep problems is sleep training. Sleep training can take many forms, some gentler than others, but the basic premise is that your baby shouldn’t need you to go to sleep or soothe himself to sleep when he wakes up at night, and that you need to teach him that he doesn’t need you. (I ended up writing so much about sleep training here that I had to make an entire second post.) Human babies, however, need caregivers. Human babies sleep better near someone else for a reason; they are helpless for much longer than many other mammals.

Here are some ideas to get you started that do not involve sleep training.

Change the who

  • My number one, go-to suggestion for anyone who is having trouble with the experience of getting a baby go to sleep is to make someone else do it, if possible. (This is easier to implement for individuals who are partnered, I know.) Nursing a baby to sleep is a beautiful thing; at least, in the early days, it works well for everyone involved. As they get older, you may find that you can let your baby nurse to fill his belly and his heart, and then pass him along to daddy or grandma or whoever is on hand, who can then rock them to sleep and get them into their sleeping space. Some babies seem to smell milk or are simply hyper-aware of the presence of the presence of their mother, and will be reluctant to let go, even if half-asleep.
  • Splitting up who takes care of which children and when can help, too. If you have a new baby and a toddler, whoever is nursing could be in charge of getting the baby to bed, and not have to worry about the older one. With a newborn, whoever is feeding the baby can just be in charge of that while the other person handles diaper changes, rocking, etc.

Change the when

  • “Sleep when the baby sleeps” is not useful advice for anyone who has more than one child, but, I’m sorry, I’m contractually obligated to include it here. Whenever the baby sleeps, and you are tired, sleep. Don’t do the dishes or laundry or exercise unless those things will be more satisfying to you than sleep.
  • If you have people who will watch your kids while you take a nap, let that happen. It’s very tempting, too, to use this time alone to be productive, but you won’t be as productive if you’re tired, so you might as well just get the sleeping out of the way first.
  • If you have a partner you can do this with, split the night into shifts: One of you is in charge for one block of time, the other is in charge for the other. This should help you get at least one solid chunk of sleep. With a small baby, baby can come into bed to nurse while you rest. With an older baby who may not need to eat at night, snuggles may be all the need to go back to sleep.
  • Sleep begets sleep, they say. If you have an overtired child, they may fight sleep rather than embracing it. Try to get more daytime sleep for your baby (which may mean giving up naptime as a time for you to do things, and using it as a time to snuggle).
  • It may be time to drop a nap, which might require shifting around your nap schedule. Babies who start fighting naps and sleep who were fine with it before may be ready to drop a nap. (Dropping from 3+ to 2 naps seems to happen around 6 to 8 months; dropping from 2 to 1 seems to happen around a year; dropping naps entirely seems to happen around 2 or 3 years.) The upside of naps being dropped is that what naps are taken tend to be longer, and an earlier bedtime is a possibility, too.
  • Make bedtime earlier. You may wish to bump bedtime up gradually by moving it up 15 minutes or a half an hour each night until you reach the sweet spot where baby goes down to bed but it doesn’t take two hours.

Change the where

  • Look at your sleeping arrangements. Maybe you’ve been bedsharing from birth but it’s not working anymore. An older baby could sleep next to daddy instead of mama, or be transitioned to another sleeping surface. Maybe the opposite is true: You’ve been trying the crib thing and it’s just not working. You can bring your baby into your bed anytime, even if you haven’t done it before. Some babies like sleeping apart from parents, and after three months of age, that’s a possibility to try. I’m also a fan of lying down to nurse a baby and slipping away after she falls asleep. If you’re concerned about rolling, how about trying a Montessori bed?
  • Sleeping arrangements don’t need to last all through the night, either. If your baby starts off nighttime in his own bed but comes to yours halfway through, this may be an improvement for you.
  • But follow safe bedsharing practices, please! Bedsharing, when certain guidelines are followed, is safe, and the same is true of cribs, bassinets, and pack-and-plays. Carseats, swings, bouncy chairs, and the like are not safe sleeping surfaces, unless you want to supervise them closely while they sleep (and even then, there’s higher risk than other sleeping surfaces).

Change the how

  • Establish routines, but make them simple. Repeating a routine sets the scene for whatever will happen next and children find predictability to be comforting. It is easier to add to the routine than take away from it, especially once you have toddlers, who are very vocal about deviations from their expected routine, and you will not live it down if you decide to do two books instead of three. In my household, our routine looks like this: Dinner, washing up, brushing teeth, diapers/jammies, fetching cups of water/nursing, snuggles.
  • This is a little more “woo” than I would normally suggest, but if your little one is fighting sleep, try to stay in the moment. Maybe it’s just my perception, or maybe it’s some fancy biochemical stuff, but when I’ve been anxious to get a baby to bed and move onto other things, that’s when bedtime is more of a struggle. But, hey, it’s worth a shot. Hint: Falling asleep yourself works, too.
  • And this is in direct opposition to what I just said, but… it is okay to use technology to make things easier, too. A lullaby (or Pink Floyd) on Spotify could make your baby sleepy. You could read a book or post on Facebook or pay your bills online to pass the time.

Do what works for your family. My guiding principle, which I hope you will adopt in your own household is: Do whatever you need to do to get the most people in your house the most sleep possible (safely). Often, what feels most important and immediate is what is happening in the present, so don’t worry so much about the future or creating bad habits. Just get yourselves some shut-eye.