The issue of sleep “training” came up recently through an article I found on Facebook. It got me thinking. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to infant sleep: let the baby cry it out or respond to every little sound. I would like to present a different perspective based on our experience with our son.
Some background information. Alex is just over two months old. He is formula fed as he didn’t gain weight when exclusively breastfed. Alex had been showing some pretty bad reflux symptoms the last month or so. Alex goes to bed around 10 pm each night. He currently sleeps in his swing to keep him upright. (He spits up if he lays flat on his back.) Alex sleeps about 5-6 hours at a time pretty regularly which has him getting up at around 3-4 am for a change and a feeding, then back to sleep for about another 1-2 hours. He’s starting to get where he will sleep until I wake him around 6am, therefore getting about 8 hours of sleep.
We started trying to find a good bedtime routine for Alex almost immediately after birth. Babies learn from routine what they can expect. Our routine is still in flux, but Alex gets a bath every other night (every third night right now as we’re waiting on a rash to heal). After bathtime Alex gets his nighttime diaper on and gets dressed and swaddled. We then sit on the couch for his last bottle. We try to make this bottle a bit more on the warm side. After he finishes the bottle, he’s usually starting to look sleepy and so we put him in his swing (was crib). If he is particularly alert we will dim the lights and keep it quiet for a little while and rock him. This is usually enough for the sleepies to step in.
This helps Alex get to sleep, but what most parents struggle with is the baby staying asleep. Here comes the tricky part. While I was pregnant I read Bringing Up Bebe which tells various stories of French parenting techniques. Part of the book talks about sleep and about how French parents will pause when a sleeping baby cries to see if they will keep crying or if they will go back to sleep. They don’t wait long, maybe just a second or two to see if that little cry means that baby is waking or if baby will go back to slumber.
Here’s the science behind this wisdom: a baby’s brain is learning how to sleep. Just as babies learn to suck and swallow, breathe, and hold their heads, babies have to learn to sleep. When the baby reaches the end of their sleep cycle, they might wake up ever so slightly. At this time, they might let out a quick cry or two. If they are just cycling their sleep, the baby then goes back to peaceful slumber without a problem. If there is something the baby needs, they will continue to cry to let you know. You can tell the difference within 2-3 seconds.
Now, we’ve told parents, particularly nervous new moms, that they mustn’t delay in responding to their baby’s cries or their baby will turn into some emotionally stunted psycho. (That’s an exaggeration but the message is the same: let your baby cry at all and it will damage them emotionally.) This leads to parents who rush to the bassinet at the sound of the slightest whimper ready to change a diaper and offer the bottle or breast so they can soothe their baby.
If the baby really was waking and needed one of these things, that’s great that mom was there and eager to see to their needs. If the baby was just transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next, you’ve just interrupted the brain as it was learning an important skill. The brain learns to connect sleep cycles seemlessly (letting mom and baby sleep for longer times) through practice. The brain has to work at connecting those sleep cycles without interruption and it starts learning to do this from day one.
We have a video monitor and it is a lifesaver! When I hear Alex cry I can look at the monitor and see what’s happening, especially with Alex’s reflux issues I look at the monitor a lot. Alex has made all sorts of noises in his sleep since birth. I have been attentive and have learned which are his normal sleep noises and which are the sounds that tell me he’s about to wake up. From the beginning I made it a point to give Alex a brief moment to try to get to the next sleep cycle without me. I don’t let him cry for hours on end (or even seconds on end when I can help it). I just pay attention to the cues that his body gives me. In doing this, I’m helping him learn how to sleep.
By respecting what his body is telling me, I’m teaching him to do the same. In the same way that we pay attention to the cues he gives when he’s hungry or when his tummy is hurting him, we pay attention to signs that he might be sleepy. When he wakes up we pay attention to signs that he might be going right back to sleep or that he’s fully awake and ready for what’s happening next. In the process of respecting what his little body tells us we send the message to him that it’s important to listen to our bodies- sleep when tired, eat when hungry, stop eating when full, get up when you’ve had enough rest.
I hope that all made sense and maybe it’ll help some tired mommies out there. Alex is two months old, sleeping six hours at night and I think we could be sleeping through the night any day now.