Potty Training: 7 Lessons Learned

Cee has been wearing undies for six months, and I think I’ve drafted a potty post for each of those months. Each time, before I had a chance to edit and publish it, something would change, and the post would seem irrelevant. Potty training is truly one of the hardest things I’ve done as a parent, but not in any of the ways that I expected. I thought I’d finally share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far. In other words, this post is mainly about my missteps and mistakes.

I write this knowing that your process, and the challenges that you face along the way, might be very different. Every kid is different, as is every parent. Like any two-year-old, Cee really wants to do things herself, but she is also a really sensitive kid. And as she’s been learning to use the potty, I’ve been learning more and more about her and how she ticks.

1. Begin when your child is ready.

Okay, I actually think that we got this part right. Cee started showing some interest in using the potty around 18 months. When she started daycare last fall, she jumped into the potty rotation with the bigger kids. By January, she was coming home at lunchtime in the same diaper (dry!) as when I dropped her off in the morning. And in February, after admiring her friends’ underwear, Cee told me that she wanted some too.

Cee was around 27 months when we made the switch to undies. Some would say that’s late, and some would say that’s early. I don’t think there’s a magic age, but I can’t imagine starting this process if Cee wasn’t interested in it. It’s been challenging enough as it is.

Of course, I did dig into the scientific literature to see if I could find some guidance on optimal timing and “methods.” But I think this is an area where the science is just not that helpful. Melinda Wenner Moyer recently wrote a review of scientific support for different methods of potty training at Slate, and she concluded that there’s decent support for parent-led and child-led and quick and gradual methods. This is true, but I also think that the potty training research is limited by the bias of the authors. Potty training is a culturally diverse practice, and a study conducted in a given place at a given time is always going to be framed by the norms of that place and time. Lacking good science, and considering that Cee is not interested in doing things just because I want her to, I waited until it was her bright idea to try going diaper-free. I began with the simple strategy of following her lead, praising her successes, and responding to accidents in a neutral way. Easy, right?

2. Ultimatums don’t work.

Here’s where I made my first mistake. Continue reading

Preparing Your Child for a Big Move (Book Giveaway!)

So, we’re moving this summer. At least, we think we are. The deal isn’t done yet, and we’re not even sure of our exact closing date, which is maddening. But probably, by the end of the summer, our little family will move to our first-ever, very-own home, just about a mile away from our current rental.

Talking about a move with Cee has been interesting. She’s been coming to look at houses with us from the beginning, starting in February. We struggled to explain to her why we were spending so much time dragging her through empty houses. We talked about moving to a new house, and she just looked confused. “Why, Mama?” Why, indeed, would we want to leave the only home she likely remembers? (We moved from Arizona to Oregon when she was 7 months.) What could be better than this house, the place of warm memories and celebrated milestones?

Cee thrives on the familiar. Even though we’ll still be living in the same neighborhood and not much else about her life will change, I know this move will be stressful for her. Heck, moving is stressful for everyone. So what can we do to ease the transition? I’ve had this question at the back of my head all summer.

I received the following guest post a couple of weeks back from the folks at Twigtale, a small parent-owned company that makes custom photo books to help kids with transitions. The Twigtale books are really cool, and I encourage you to check them out. Putting together a custom photo book for a big event is the kind of thing I might intend to do for Cee but never get around to, but Twigtale makes it easy with with a template and text written by child development experts. (Cee loves looking at our photo albums, but you know how long those take to put together. I’m still working on our 2012 family photo book!) So, I’m posting this article for those of you who, like us, might be approaching a move and as a sort of shout-out to Twigtale. They’ve also kindly offered to give away any custom photo book (about moving or any other topic they cover) to one Science of Mom reader. See the end of the post for more details!

Moving Guide – Preparing Your Child for a Big Move

By Allison LaTona, MFT

Summer is here, and with the warm weather and sunshine comes a lot of change for families.  The structure of the year gives way to more down time and loose fun.

Kids may be anticipating a new school year, with new teachers and classrooms, or perhaps starting school for the very first time.  Some parents decide to work on potty learning in the summer, as they can take advantage of the warmth outside providing more “naked time” for their children to better listen to their bodies.  And perhaps most stressful of all, you may be moving this summer.

So the burning question is, how to best prepare your young children for the move? Continue reading

My Favorite Parenting Strategy

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Cee’s long, drawn-out process of getting ready in the morning. She was maddeningly slow at changing from pajamas to her clothes for the day, but she also insisted on doing it herself. If I tried to help, the pace of progress slowed even more. If I tried to take over, it became a physical battle, and I was sure that wasn’t worth it. I tried a few strategies to keep our mornings moving, and readers offered more great ideas in comments on my post.

One of my more brilliant ideas, I thought, was a hand-drawn morning schedule for Cee. I drew a step-by-step diagram of what she needed to do each morning – get dressed, go potty, brush teeth – and then I showed that we could have a few minutes to read a book or play together before leaving the house, assuming she could move through her schedule at a reasonable pace. We drew out the schedule and discussed it the night before, and she was really into it. She showed it to Daddy and carried it around for her bedtime routine, then carefully placed it by her bed before she went to sleep. In the morning, she was excited to follow the schedule and get to book time, and she did it! I thought it was quite a success story. But, by the next morning, Cee was bored with the schedule idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure she saw right through it as one more pressure tactic from me. Cee doesn’t respond well to pressure, thinly disguised or not.

So. I settled on my favorite parenting strategy: patience. Honestly, I can’t think of a more important asset to the parent of a toddler.

I did a lot of little things to ease our morning crunch. I got as much ready the night before as I could; I went to bed and got up earlier to get some work done before Cee woke; and I asked Husband to take over on mornings when he could squeeze it in his schedule, just to ease my nerves. And then, I tried to summon more patience and relax. I trusted that this was a phase that wouldn’t last forever.

dressed and ready

Dressed and ready to go

I’m happy to report that I was right. For the last few mornings, I have woken to the sound of little feet running down the hall. Cee has been waking early, dressing herself, and then coming to wake me up with bed head and a big smile. That whole dressing fiasco? It’s gone. She’s getting dressed on her own, while I’m still snoozing.

Why the change? It isn’t anything I did. Me telling her that she needed to get dressed faster had zero impact, I can assure you. It’s more likely that it prolonged the process. Maybe she’s discovered that it’s more pleasant to get dressed without me breathing down her neck. Maybe she herself got bored with the snail-paced process and figured she’d rather get on with more interesting things in her day. But whatever it is, she is very proud of herself, and I am too. We’re both relishing her autonomy.

But now Cee has moved on to other time-consuming projects. Lately, she’s been wanting to buckle her own car seat. She can do this, but it takes long minutes of sitting in the car waiting for her. Sometimes we’re in a hurry, and I tell her that I have to do it this time, and sometimes that causes a meltdown. But if I can, I try to find my patience and let her do it herself. Just like the dressing process, the learning part takes time – much longer than if I did it myself. But I trust that at some point she’ll get really good at buckling her own seatbelt (always followed by my check). And then she’ll feel proud and independent, and ultimately that means that she does more things for herself. So again, patience.

Patience tells a toddler: You don’t have to be more than you are right now. And when I choose the patience strategy, I’m telling myself the same thing: You don’t have to fix this. You don’t have to have an answer. Staying calm is enough.

It’s tempting to try to fix the little challenges of every stage, but so much of childhood we really can’t control. We can try to prevent meltdowns with attention to sleep, food, daily rhythms, and choices, but when it comes right down to it, the meltdowns are bound to happen at some point. We can do everything right (whatever that means) in the transition from diapers to undies, but we’re probably still going to have some accidents and setbacks along the way.  We can cosleep or sleep train or something in between, and we’re still going to have days when we’re dead tired. So much of parenting is riding out the stages, focusing on the parts of each that we love and then coping with the tough parts as best we can. And then waiting, with patience, trusting that we’ll come out the other side with our kids, who will be moving on to new challenges before we know it.

What are your kids working on that is requiring your patience? And maybe more importantly, where do you find more patience when you’re running low?

I’m Still Here.

Last week, I received a sweet email from a reader, saying that she was missing my posts and that she hoped everything was okay. And this morning, my Facebook inbox was graced with a photo of an adorable toddler, son to one of my most loyal readers.

I LOVE getting these little notes. I’m completely flattered and honored that there are parents around the world who have let me into their parenting lives and think of me even when my blog has grown quiet. But getting these notes also make me feel a tad bit guilty: “Crap! I should be blogging more! I need to be more of a resource! People are counting on me!”

At the moment, I have a few other projects that are taking precedence over blogging. I’m hard at work on my book, and that is pretty much consuming most of the energy I have for writing. It is harder work than I thought it would be. I’m falling deep into topics that I thought would be much simpler to sort through and translate into readable chapters. It’s really interesting and fun, and I can’t wait to share it with you. I had imagined that I would be able to whip off quick blog posts about my book research, but I haven’t been able to pull it off. But, I promise you, once I get this manuscript in (which admittedly, may be a while), I will get back to blogging regularly. I’m keeping a list of post ideas, which pop up a few times per day while I’m working on the book.

I’m also teaching a couple of nutrition classes at my local community college this summer, and we’re working on buying a house (and soon – moving!). And… it’s summer. The Oregon rain has nearly stopped. (Although, for some reason, we signed up for swim lessons starting last week, and we’ve been shivering at the outdoor pool in 60°F, drizzly weather these last few days.) We’re making time for camping, hiking, leisurely walks to the park, and picking strawberries.

Strawberries2 june13strawberries1 june13As a side note, let me just tell you that I’m having lots of fun parenting right now. Cee is two-and-a-half. She’s stubborn and independent, and most of the time, I love it. And oh! Continue reading

Do-Nothing Day

Last weekend, a friend asked if Cee and I would like to go for a hike with her on Sunday morning. I would have loved to go. It was perfect Oregon summer weather, and this friend is one of my favorite people in the world. But, I said no.

I said no because Cee needed a Do-Nothing Day – or at least Do-Nothing Morning. Five days per week, she goes to daycare for the morning. She has a great time there, and I get my work time in. It’s a nearly perfect arrangement. The only thing that’s hard about it is actually getting there.

Cee likes to do things herself, and she likes to do them at her own pace. She does not do well under pressure, and she does not like deadlines and ultimatums.

It is vitally important to her to choose the right underwear for her day. And sometimes she can’t decide on the right pair, so she settles on two pairs instead. (And once, six pairs at a time, which made potty time quite a production.) And then the right pants, sometimes two pairs of those, too (or one pants, one shorts, since we’re on the verge of shorts season). And then a shirt. Maybe it is one particular favorite shirt that she really needs, and if it’s in the dirty laundry, we have to talk about how we wear clean clothes to school. Sometimes we don’t make it to socks – I just carry her to the car barefoot with a pair of socks in my pocket.

Cee enjoys this process, and she sees right through my efforts to shorten it. If I put two pairs of pants in front of her and ask her to choose the blue ones or the grey ones, she thinks about it for what feels like a long time and then says, “Hmmm, where are my red pants?” and starts digging through her drawer. For now, I have accepted that getting dressed just takes some time. But usually, around the time that she has her undies on and one leg in her pants, one leg out, I glance at the clock and realize that we running late. I end up rushing her (with mixed success), and we’re often both a little frazzled by the time we get in the car.

This snail-paced getting-dressed routine is annoying to me, but lately I’ve also been noticing just how stressful it can be to Cee. She doesn’t like to be rushed, and I don’t think she likes seeing me get impatient either. She slows down, shuts down, and falls apart, and that’s a rough way to start the day. Continue reading

SIDS and Bedsharing: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

I’ve been thinking about bedsharing and sleep safety for the last few months. I have devoted an entire chapter of my book to this topic. Not only is it an important question for parents, but it’s an issue with so much complexity — wrinkles and folds of factors like breastfeeding, bonding, instinct, culture, and just plain reality.

I think it is vitally important to understand the relationship between bedsharing behavior and risk of SIDS and accidental deaths. But our ability to tease apart every factor that might impact sleep safety is imperfect; there will always be factors that aren’t quantified in these studies, not to mention the fact that case control studies have some inherent limitations. You’ve probably heard about the study published this week by Carpenter et al. in BMJ. It combines 5 historic case control data sets from Europe, the U.K., and Australasia to specifically look at the risk of bedsharing in breastfed babies in nonsmoking households. It concludes that bedsharing poses an increased risk of SIDS, even in these ideal situations. I think it’s an important study, but it also has some limitations and doesn’t answer all of our questions with certainty. In fact, no study will probably ever do that. (You can read some critiques of the Carpenter study here and here.)

But even if we accept that bedsharing increases a baby’s risk of dying unexpectedly during sleep, we still have to answer the bigger question of how we translate this information to families living in the real, difficult world of infant sleep. Many families value bedsharing as a cultural practice; others choose it because it feels right. Still others bedshare because it is the only way that anyone gets any sleep at night, and we all know that sleep deprivation carries some risk, too, as does falling asleep on a couch with your baby. This is the reality.

Pediatricians face this reality in their clinics every day, when they talk with parents of new babies about sleep. In my book, one of the questions I explore is how pediatricians handle this conversation, given that their professional organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends against bedsharing. Several months ago, I sent some questions to one of my favorite pediatrician bloggers, Dr. Melissa Arca of Confessions of a Dr. Mom. She had initially agreed to a Q&A, but then she didn’t respond with her answers. It was the height of the busy flu season, and I figured that she was just busy. Then, this week, she surprised me with her responses. She had been thinking about bedsharing given the news of this recent study, and she was inspired to restart this conversation. We’ve cross-posted our Q&A on both our blogs. Check out her post for more about her initial hesitancy to address these questions, and please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

Alice: How did sleep look for your two children?

Melissa: My first child was a challenge to say the least. He is the one who made me question the safety of bed-sharing in the first place. For the first 6 months of his life, sleep was virtually non-existent (or at least that’s the way it felt to me) because he needed my arms and constant soothing throughout the night. But I was terrified to bedshare. I was literally at the end of my sleep deprivation rope. I had tried everything. And instead of listening to my instincts, I was fighting them. Because I was scared.

I never envisioned myself as a bedsharing parent. As a pediatrician, I was adamantly against it. But it was exactly what my baby needed and we struggled and limped along until I finally realized that.

My second child was a breeze and that’s no lie. She was always (and still is) an “easy sleeper”. She needed her space and showed clear signs of being tired. When she was tired, that was it. I didn’t need to bedshare with her. She slept in her own bassinet next to our bed during her first few months of life before being transitioned to her own room.

They could not have been more different in the sleep department. Same parents. Same environment. Different children.

Alice: As a pediatrician, how did you feel about bedsharing before having children? Did becoming a mother change that?

Melissa: I didn’t think it was safe. At all. I had read the studies and the official recommendations. Back to sleep, crib and/or bassinet in the same room with no hazards such as loose bedding, pillows, etc.

I never thought in a million years I would have become a bedsharing parent. But kids don’t have our same agendas. Continue reading

Baby Meets World: A Conversation with the Author

Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Nicholas Day’s new book, Baby Meets World. If you missed it, check it out to learn how modern hunter-gatherer societies raise children, and how that task is supported by not just by hard-working mothers but the entire culture. It’s good stuff.

After reading his book, I had lots of questions for author Nicholas Day. Today, I bring you our conversation about his book and on the roles of science, culture, and instinct in parenting.

Alice: Becoming a parent changes all of us. What was it about your particular transition to fatherhood that made you want to research and write this book, to dive into the history and the science of parenting in a way that extended beyond your own reality of parenting?

IMG_4413Nicholas: In a way, I think it was the part of me that wasn’t changed that led to this book: I had stupid questions about babies in the same way I have stupid questions about everything else. (It’s a personality flaw.) I didn’t see why I had to think of babies as simply problems to be solved. Most baby books have what I think of as the leaky faucet approach: if your baby is dripping, we recommend this socket wrench. And there were many, many times when all I wanted was that socket wrench. But I also thought babies were interesting subjects all on their own. I wanted a book that acknowledged that. And I wanted a book that was wide-angled. The study of infancy is highly compartmentalized: the different disciplines don’t talk to each other. The few good books about babies tend to be highly focused: they look at babies through the lens of a cognitive scientist, say, or a developmental psychologist. But there are so many lenses out there! It seemed a shame to only see a baby as like this or like that. There’s so much left outside the frame. So this book tries to show readers the many different versions of a baby that people have seen—and still see today.

It’s strange. You wouldn’t think that babies would be an obscure subject: they are everywhere. (In our highly fertile neighborhood, I sometimes feel like Hitchcock’s The Birds is being reenacted—but this time with babies.)  But they’ve been weirdly neglected. This is sort of hard to believe: any book about babies has to clear the high hurdle of being another damn book about babies. (Right? Like that’s what we need. Also, we totally need more diet books.) But I concluded that we really did need that. Babies are still strangers in our midst.

Alice: Your book focuses on four basic facts of infancy: “suck, smile, touch, toddle.” How did you choose these topics? Why not “eat, sleep, poop, cry,” for example?

Nicholas: I joke about this at the end of the book—that there’s so much going on in infancy I could easily have chosen spitting, shitting, screaming, sharing.

Part of why I went with these topics was that I actually wanted answers about them: I really wanted to know where a smile comes from and what a first smile might mean, for example. But I also thought these subjects had been overlooked. There’s been an enormous amount written on sleep, for very obvious reasons: any new parent is obsessed with sleep. But there’s very little written about smiling or walking. It’s the leaky faucet problem: because a smile can’t be fixed, no one writes about it. Continue reading

What Would the Kung Do? An Anthropological Perspective on Intensive Parenting

Baby Meets World- finalI recently had the pleasure of reading Baby Meets World, a new book by Nicholas Day. (Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.) Baby Meets World is a mix of history of parenting advice and modern, fascinating science about some of the most fundamental truths of infancy (as the subtitle states: “suck, smile, touch, toddle”). You may have seen the author’s recent blog on Slate, called How Babies Work. I liked the blog, but I like the book more. In a world of conflicting parenting advice, Day’s many examples of how wrong or just plain weird the expert advice has been through the ages is refreshing perspective. And even as this book describes the modern science of infancy – highlighting just how amazing babies are – it cautions us that we can’t understand babies, even in the most empirical way, without putting them in the context of the culture into which they are born.

Reading Baby Meets World led me to an email conversation with the author, which I’ll post on the blog tomorrow. He also offered to share an excerpt from the book with you. I chose an excerpt from the “Touch” section of the book – my favorite of the four sections. Since it comes near the end of this section, it requires a bit of an introduction to put it in context.

We know touch is important to babies, but Western parenting culture has had a complicated relationship with touch. Just a century ago, parents were barely allowed to visit their children in newborn nurseries or pediatric hospital wards. That history is now, thankfully, behind us, and skin-to-skin contact and baby wearing have become mainstream practices.

Part of the renewed interest in touch over the last fifty years has come from anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies. We figure that maybe we have lost touch with our roots, that maybe we could re-learn the right way to parent from modern hunter-gatherer societies, who presumably parent the way we were meant to.

Day describes some of these modern hunter-gatherers, including the Kung of the Kalahari Desert. Kung infants are carried and held almost constantly. They are breastfed frequently, as often as every fifteen minutes. If they’re not being held by their mothers, they’re being passed around between community members, showered with kisses and constantly entertained. They’re hardly ever set down on the ground to move of their own accord; the Kung believe this impairs motor development.

I’ve read about the Kung before. They’re sometimes held up as an ideal for modern parents in the same conversation that chastises us for relying too much on gadgets like strollers and baby swings. But in this chapter, Day tells us how the culture of the Kung supports this kind of intensive parenting:

“The entire structure of a Kung community supports the (many) demands of Kung parenting. A Kung mother is virtually always around other adults, who take turns holding the child. The situation is the polar opposite of that of many American mothers, who can feel marooned on an island with no one but this ferret-like creature around.”

And this:

“Almost half the time a Kung infant cries out, he is comforted by someone who isn’t his mother or by his mother plus someone else. When the mother responds alone, other people offer to take the child later on. The Kung mother isn’t abandoned with a wailing infant. But despite this shared caretaking, the Kung, as Konner notes, “have often been misrepresented as having almost exclusive maternal care.”

In other words, the Kung practice what we might call intensive parenting, but the mother does not do this alone. She has lots of help. And this is where our excerpt picks up…

Excerpt from Chapter 13: “In Which Touch Gets Perhaps a Little Too Much Power” (from Baby Meets World by Nicholas Day)

It’s worth dwelling on the distinction between exclusive maternal care and alloparenting— the term for when someone who isn’t a parent acts as a parent, as the Kung do when they respond to any crying baby. If the most important messages to get across to a baby— love, security, commitment— are communicated through touch, then the obvious follow- up question is: does it matter who’s doing the touching? The parent or the alloparent?

From the perspective of attachment theory, all child rearing is aimed at the same end: the tight bond between mother and child. There aren’t multiple different strategies toward a successful outcome— there’s only that one. (Bowlby waffled on this a little bit but not much: his hypothetical caregiver was clearly a mother.) The mother is supposed to be doing the touching. This argument wades into the evolutionary past for evidence— the low fat content of human milk, for example, which required infants to nurse frequently, for which they needed a mother right there, all the time. In devising his theory, Bowlby cited the behavior of primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, for whom child care is exclusively maternal— no one else need apply.

But studies of hunter-gatherers like the Kung, the very people you’d expect to be closest to our deep past, have shown that caregiving by someone in addition to the mother is common, even if other people rarely supplant the mother as the primary attachment figure. Continue reading

Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of Parenting

Sleep deprivation is an inevitable part of having a baby, and surely that’s been true throughout the history of our species. But we also live in a culture that seems to take some amount of pride in getting by on little sleep. We think of sleep as time wasted, as lost productivity. We forget – or ignore – the biological necessity of sleep.

Becoming a parent only further stretches our already-too-thin sleep allotments. Newborn babies wake frequently to feed or for comfort during the night. We try to “sleep when the baby sleeps” and piece it together to come up with a reasonable amount, but it often doesn’t feel sufficient. And now more than ever, new parents are really isolated as they make this transition; they don’t have much in the way of backup resources to help with the 24/7 job of caring for a baby.

This month, the theme of our Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting is Transition to Parenthood. (See the bottom of this post for links to other Carnival posts and here for summaries of them all.) Sleep deprivation is a universal part of that transition. What does the sleep deprivation of early parenthood really look like? How does it affect us? And what can we do to mitigate it?

Just How Bad Is It?

For many moms, sleep debt actually begins in pregnancy, when sleep needs may increase but discomfort and frequent trips to the bathroom interfere with a full night’s sleep. But by far, the biggest change happens in the immediate postpartum period. One study found that in the first week of the baby’s life (compared with late pregnancy), moms got 1.5 hours less sleep, fragmented into three times more sleep episodes per day. The early postpartum period is also characterized by lots of day-to-day variability in sleep. Sleeping with a new baby means unpredictability, with little to no control over whether tonight will be a good night or a bad one.

Mothers usually get the majority of our sympathy when it comes to postpartum sleep deprivation, but the research shows that fathers’ sleep takes a hit, too. A study of 72 San Francisco couples welcoming their first baby compared sleep in the last month of pregnancy to sleep in the first month postpartum (around 20 days of life).  Across this time span, mothers lost an average of 41 minutes of nighttime sleep, while dads lost just 18 minutes. Moms, however, gained 30 minutes per day in daytime napping; dads didn’t get a nap bump at all. In fact, in this study, dads actually slept less than moms – both in late pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Moms still had it harder; they were waking more during the night and had more sleep fragmentation than dads (and it’s quite possible that moms need more sleep, what with recovery from childbirth and the demands of breastfeeding). But regardless, in this and other studies, moms and dads both reported a similar level of fatigue during the day.

There’s some good news to come out of this research, however. It seems that experienced moms are better at handling sleep in the postpartum period. Despite juggling more responsibility at home, studies show that moms who had given birth at least once before tended to get more sleep at all stages of pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Their sleep was also more efficient, meaning that of the time they spend in bed, they spend most of it sleeping rather than tossing and turning – or laying awake listening to the grunts and sighs of new baby sleep. Somehow, experienced moms seem to prioritize sleep more, or they’re just so tired that they crash hard at every opportunity.

How does sleep deprivation affect new parents?

We know a lot about the effects of sleep deprivation but actually very little about the specific type of crap sleep experienced by new parents. Most sleep deprivation studies have been conducted in residential labs, where participants (often young, probably resilient, undergrads) are generally paid to live for a few nights or maybe weeks so that their sleep habits can be controlled and monitored. In a review paper entitled “Sleep Disruption and Decline in Marital Satisfaction Across the Transition to Parenthood,” Gonzaga professor Anna Marie Medina and colleagues make an important point: Lab study participants know that they’ll be subjected to sleep deprivation for a finite amount of time, and they know they can even drop out if it becomes too much for them.

“Understanding that one can end a study, and being certain of the temporal parameters of potential sleep deprivation, imbues the experience of sleep loss with a level of controllability that new parents seldom have. That is, (most) new parents realize they cannot opt out of the sleep disruption experience, and they have no certainty about when they may have an opportunity for sufficient sleep. The stress literature has suggested that such uncontrollability could amplify the mood and physiological consequences of sleep deprivation.”

In other words, most of what we know about the effects of lost sleep may be even worse in new parents. On that happy note, there are a few major areas of concern… Continue reading

6 Tips for Sweet Newborn Sleep

Nothing can prepare you for the changes in your sleep when you welcome a newborn baby into your family. Experienced parents will issue dire warnings and tell you to sleep while you can during the last few weeks of pregnancy. (And you will think, yeah right, there’s a large boulder resting on my bladder, and sometimes it kicks for good measure.)

But then the baby arrives, and your world changes forever. Sleep disruption is one of the most immediate and dramatic changes associated with parenthood. It isn’t just that you’re getting less sleep; it’s that your sleep is suddenly dependent on this baby sleeping. And even though newborns sleep a lot – as much as 16-18 hours per day – it feels disorganized and unpredictable.

The thing is, babies, even brand new ones, actually do have organized sleep, it just isn’t organized like yours. But under the surface, baby is working towards being more like you in his sleep. During the first few months, you have no choice but to go with the flow and sleep when the baby sleeps (something I was never good at), but it can help to understand the inherent patterns in your baby’s sleep/wake cycles so that they become more predictable. Your goal is to work with your baby’s biology, find some time for your own sleep, and support your baby in his natural development towards more mature sleep patterns.

In the research for my book, I’ve buried myself in research papers on infant sleep, trying to glean some knowledge that can be helpful to parents in these first few months of baby’s life. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Understand newborn sleep cycles. Newborn sleep alternates between active and quiet sleep (akin to REM and non-REM sleep in adults). During the first few months of life, infants usually begin each sleep period in active sleep. Then, after about 25 minutes, they’ll transition to a cycle of quiet sleep, also about 25 minutes long. During active sleep, babies will twitch and flail their limbs, grunt and sigh, and maybe even cry a little. Their eyes move beneath translucent closed lids and may even open from time to time. In quiet sleep, babies breathe slowly and rhythmically, and their bodies are still 1,2.

Why care about the biology of sleep? Because it can help you in these practical ways:

  • Babies wake easily from active sleep, so if your baby falls asleep in your arms, wait until you see signs of that deeper, quiet sleep before you try to move him.
  • Around the 45-50 minutes mark, baby will be finishing up that first active/quiet sleep cycle of 45-50 minutes. Transitioning from one cycle to the next can be tricky for a new baby, so if he wakes during this time (particularly if it’s after just one cycle), see if he wants your help returning to sleep before assuming that he’s ready to eat or play.
  • Active sleep is noisy. Parents often mistake the normal vocalizations of active sleep as the baby waking, and in their efforts to soothe the baby, they’ll actually wake him up. If you think your baby is waking up, pause and watch him for a moment. He may just be dancing in his sleep, or he might be waking briefly only to return to sleep on his own.

IMG_42252. Help your baby find a rhythm. We are adapted to Earth’s 24-hour cycle of light and dark, and our physiological circadian rhythms help us to feel awake during the day and sleepy at night. Newborn babies, on the other hand, sleep just as much during the day as they do at night. It takes them some time to develop rhythms to match our day/night cycle. You can help by sending baby strong environmental and social cues about day and night. Continue reading