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My Sleep Mantra and BabyM’s Sleep Story

BabyM is almost 14 months old already. It’s crazy how quickly the first year of his life flew by, and I know the subsequent years will be no different.

The upside of that passage of time is that we’re all sleeping pretty well now, and that is a wonderful thing. To be honest, though, I actually enjoyed watching my baby’s sleep develop this time around. I know that time softens my memories, but I already miss those quiet middle-of-the-night feedings with my baby.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I wrote a lot about sleep when Cee was a baby, in the early days of the blog. I also wrote about evidence-based sleep strategies for my book. I’ve read hundreds of papers on sleep since Cee was a baby, and that changed so much about my approach to M’s sleep. Lots of readers have asked me about how M’s sleep went, so I finally wanted to share his sleep story.

One thing that was different with M was that I was just super curious to observe him and watch how his sleep developed. After all of my reading on this topic, I’ve sort of become an infant sleep nerd. Would I see a strong day-night circadian rhythm emerge when the literature said it would? How would his nighttime sleep consolidate over those first few months? Most especially, would the information and recommendations in my book still feel true and relevant to me as I went through parenting an infant again? (Happily, yes!)

That sense of curiosity, paired with having gone through this before and knowing that it wouldn’t last forever, really helped me relax about M’s sleep. I also knew from the science that there was a wide range of normal for sleep development, and it isn’t always a linear, predictable process. Still, it was humbling to go through those early months again. No matter what we know or do, we all still have rough nights and tired babies who can’t nap and moments of uncertainty. That’s part of the landscape of newborn parenting.

One small thing that helped me with sleep this time around was the adoption of my new sleep mantra. I whispered it to M as I helped soothe him to sleep or when I put him down to rest on his own. I started making it part of my goodnight routine with Cee. I even say it to myself when it’s time to turn off my computer and phone and go to bed:

“It’s going to feel so good to rest.”

 

Right? It does feel good to rest. I want my children to appreciate the comfort of settling your body into that familiar nest of your bed and letting go of the day. I want them to recognize how much better we feel after having a good rest. In our family, I want to have a culture of valuing sleep for our health, well being, and just because it feels good. If my kids are protesting going to bed, it’s a reminder to them and to me why it’s important. Their bedtime isn’t just about staying on schedule or giving me my coveted quiet time in the evening (although I certainly appreciate this). It’s really about getting them the rest they need so that they can thrive in each coming day.

The other thing that made a big difference to M’s sleep development was giving him opportunities to fall asleep on his own from an early age. This was totally different from our strategy with Cee. With M, we gave him space to practice the process of falling to sleep in a supported way. I think that having this skill allowed his sleep to develop organically over the first year.

I have written more about how science shaped my infant sleep philosophy and how I put that into practice with M in two guest posts on Janet Lansbury’s site, Elevating Childcare, this week. The first post is about the science. The second post is about how we put it into practice to help M gradually learn some independent sleep skills. Please check them out if you want to read more, and feel free to leave your comments here or on Janet’s site.

25 Comments
  1. Anya #

    As usual, I feel I could have written this myself about T who is almost 14 m old. I loved watching her sleep patterns develop: the emergence of the circadian rhythm, her self-calming by finding her fingers, the 4 m ‘regression’ (progression? 🙂 ), the longer sleep stretches, the first time she slept thorough the night… I felt so much more relaxed, trusted her in the process and once again marvelled at how competent babies are. And I do miss those middle of the night feedings! Looking forward to reading part II of your series on Janet’s blog (really enjoyed part I today).

    Like

    February 17, 2016
    • Thank you, Anya! I’m so glad that you were able to enjoy this process with T. I just found myself so fascinated by it this time around. There were definitely still tough stretches with not enough sleep, but it was a totally different experience.

      Like

      February 17, 2016
  2. pendea6 #

    “With M, we gave him space to practice the process of falling to sleep in a supported way.”

    Can you expand on this? How/at what age did you put him down, and how much crying was involved? My second is driving us crazy because we can hardly put him down without him crying (definitely not during the day) but at 3 months, I’m not sure he’s ready to do full-on sleep training yet. Thank you!

    Like

    February 18, 2016
    • Yes, it’s in the second post! Here is the link: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2016/02/how-i-helped-my-baby-learn-to-sleep-guest-post-by-alice-callahan-phd/
      I hope you find this helpful!

      Like

      February 18, 2016
      • Alice, I think this work you are doing on how to prevent your child’s sleep problems is great, I cannot praise it enough. This is an extremely neglected topic. How neglected? So neglected that the phrase “how to prevent your child’s sleep problems” is nowhere to be found on the web according to a Google search. (But that will change when post this comment.).

        Ferber’s book is entitled “How to Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”. It’s about how to solve a problem that perhaps can be prevented or greatly mitigated in most or all cases. The whole big “CIO or not” debate is wrongheaded because it is about nothing but what to do after it’s too late to prevent the sleep problems.

        In Ferber’s book, he talks about conditioning being an important cause. You are exploring how to prevent or mitigate conditioning problems and how to gently ensure that a baby has early experience with going to sleep on their own.

        Like

        May 19, 2016
  3. I love your mantra! You make a great point about rest being a wonderful part of life.

    Like

    February 19, 2016
  4. That was a great post!
    I just started a blog of my own, maybe you could drop by sometime?
    https://amysanswers.wordpress.com

    Like

    February 19, 2016
  5. Inmara #

    My baby is 6,5 months so we have not conquered this sleep thing yet, but I’m for sure more relaxed than during first months when every missed nap was perceived as impeding doom of “Baby will never sleep again!” I had been reading through various parenting blogs during pregnancy (and Science of Mom was one of the best sources for sure!) but a shortcoming they all have in common is lack of clear and structured guide through all baby’s developmental phases. So I ended up purchasing “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” and it helped immensely to understand what is going on and what I can expect from baby in particular age. I believe that other books on this topic cover it too, so my advice for expecting parents is to buy at least one book and read through BEFORE you get all anxious and sleep deprived.

    What I did right from the very beginning (thanks to stories about endless bouncing on yoga balls) was to avoid too exhausting soothing methods and accept that sometimes baby will cry no matter what (ours was colicky so crying was inevitable). Now or sleep arrangement is optimal for all involved parties (crib attached to our bed, occasional soothing during the night) and baby sleeps almost through the night (with one feeding). Part of it is his temperament, for sure, but another part – I would like to think so – is our efforts to facilitate his self-soothing skills.

    Like

    February 22, 2016
  6. Really like your sleep mantra, thank you! Sharing x

    Like

    February 24, 2016
  7. Your Landsbury post on the science made me think of an idea,

    I know babies that are always put down with a pacifier, but there is a problem with them losing track of the pacifier. Some parents put multiple pacifiers in the bed to increase the likelihood that the baby can find it.

    But what if a baby learns to use his own fingers and is not trained in to rely on a pacifier? He can always find his own fingers, Perhaps that leads to more sustained periods of sleep for the parents since they never need to help the kid find a pacifier.

    Like

    March 4, 2016
  8. Calipxo #

    Interesting posts, but I wish you had dwelled more on the differences between your two children and how it determined the course of action and results. If you have a baby who wakes up crying every hour and is not easily soothed, you are probably going to try some version of CIO at some point. If you’re baby has shown the ability to fall asleep by herself at an early age, you might find some gentler ways to encourage the development of the desired sleep patterns. Parents are very often made to feel that what they are doing is the number one factor in how babies sleep, but I cannot agree with that, especially when parents of siblings (or twins) have wildly different experiences doing exatly the same things in order to finally get the little ones to sleep through the night.

    Like

    March 10, 2016
    • You make a great point. However, in my case, we approached the newborn period in such a radically different way that I really can’t tell you how my two babies might have differed with regards to self-soothing at an early age. We really never gave Cee a chance to just lay down and drift off on her own, so I don’t know if she would have done that. And even though M did that early on, he went through a huge shift around one month where that was just not going to happen anymore. However, of the two kids, I actually believe that Cee was a naturally better sleeper. She slept for long stretches from a pretty young age – once she got to sleep, she was a very good sleeper. That tells me that she did know how to self-soothe because she must have been quietly waking during the night and returning to sleep on her own. Once we stopped bouncing and she learned to go to sleep on her own, she was a great sleeper. M has been – and still is – much more of a comfort nurser and more wakeful at night. I had to nudge him a bit to drop night feeds, whereas that wasn’t necessary with Cee (she dropped them on her own and started consistently sleeping through the night around 8 months). We’re currently recovering from a week of illness (hand foot and mouth) where I nursed M when he woke during the night, miserable, multiple times, and now he is telling me that he would be happy to continue nursing every 2 hours during the night if I was game. My husband and I were just talking about this. With Cee, she might wake and feed more when she wasn’t feeling well, but once she was feeling better, she would go right back to sleeping through the night. Anyway, I agree with you that temperament plays a big role in the development of sleep patterns, but parenting does, too. Of course, different babies benefit from different approaches as well. Definitely so many variables to consider. A big one for me this time around was keeping an eye on the long-term goal while staying flexible and relaxed along the way, knowing that there would be (and still are!) many bumps in the road. Thanks again for your insight!

      Like

      March 10, 2016
  9. Mari #

    I’ve read your previous sleep posts (for Cee) as well as this one.

    1) If the evidence does suggest that babies can “handle” all methods of sleep training (Unmodified Extinction, Graduated Extinction/Ferber/controlled crying, Extinction with Parental Presence), why did you decide to use a “gentler” method with your second child than with your first?

    2) Do you believe that sleep training should start at different ages depending on the method chosen (listed above)? What would those ages be?

    Like

    April 11, 2016
    • I don’t think anyone likes sleep training that involves leaving a baby to cry alone. It’s really hard for parents, and we can certainly imagine that it’s at least a little stressful to babies. I didn’t enjoy doing it with Cee. None of that means that it is dangerous or inappropriate, and I do believe it was worth it for all of the good sleep and sweet bedtimes it gave us. Still, I consider sleep training an imperfect solution. It can be necessary in many situations, but I thought a lot before M was born about how we might be able to avoid it. Watching him during those early weeks, I witnessed how he was able to calm himself and go to sleep on his own, at least some of the time. I wanted to let him keep practicing that and see where it took us. I think it helped him develop sleep skills that have served him well. We have still had to let him cry sometimes as he got older – but that wasn’t because he didn’t know how to go to sleep, as we knew he had that skill.

      As to your second question, I don’t have an easy answer. I think it depends a lot on the baby and parents. This gradual approach that we used with M probably wouldn’t work very well with an older baby, as that parental presence can just be too stimulating to fall asleep. How a baby responds to any of those methods can vary quite a bit, and I think that affects their appropriateness at different ages.

      Like

      April 13, 2016
  10. Keshet #

    Hello Alice,

    I just wanted to thank you for this, and for your thoughtful and sensitive approach in general. I love what you wrote in response to the commenter above (in regards to sleep training being imperfect).

    As you may or may not remember, I contacted you months ago in a state of extreme stress over my own baby’s horrible, horrible sleep. You referred me to Precious Little Sleep on FB; at first I was very disappointed and upset and torn – I really hate CIO and could not stand to listen to my baby cry out for me. Then, after months and months of gentle sleep training that didn’t change much and using the Sleep Lady Shuffle, which only worked when we stopped responding to her in the end, I realized that we were essentially letting her cry sometimes. I also realized that literally nothing else had worked. I felt very grateful to you for your guidance. You didn’t laugh off my concerns (I know PLS means well but many people do joke about babies’ pain or people who worry about stressing their babies) and you didn’t push CIO, but you gently showed me the flaws in articles/studies that pointed to CIO being harmful.

    Today, I still *hate* hearing my toddler cry and not responding, but I do realize that my family was falling apart and the harm that was being done to her through the dangerous sleep deprivation of all involved was worse than the harm of not always responding at nap- and bedtime. At the same time, I really and truly wish I didn’t ever have to be unresponsive, it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do (it’s just rightER), and I have sworn to myself that if we have a second kid we will start with the independent sleep from the beginning and do everything we can to avoid more sleep training. Your posts about M will certainly be my guidance.

    I guess what I’m saying in the end is that I really appreciate your ability to be nuanced on this topic, and to even express ambivalence, sans judgement, because I don’t know that I’ve seen that anywhere else on the internet!

    Thank you again and all the best to your lovely family,
    Keshet

    Like

    April 19, 2016
  11. In the 2nd blog on Lansbury you say:

    “If all of this seems sort of unconventional and maybe a little crazy, I hear you.”

    I am not sure you realize how innovative what you did is. Even Ferber apparently only solves sleep problems caused by sleep associations and he does this after 3 months. You prevented sleep problems starting well before 3 months.

    From what I see, parents often fail to prevent problem sleep associations and then, when it’s too late to prevent them, they proceed to have a big debate and dilemma over what to do about the problem sleep associations.

    You present a completely different approach that is based on prevention. The dilemma never arises, the debate is not necessary.

    Since the prevention of sleep associations his been so very much neglected, it’s hard to say how much is temperament and how much is due to failure to prevent problem associations in the first place. Could be temperament is less important than it seems.

    Like

    May 19, 2016
  12. “Perhaps not surprisingly, the easiest option is preventing sleep problems in the first place, through simple parent education, whether one-on-one training, group classes or booklets. Such programs typically encourage parents to have a peaceful, consistent evening routine in which children are placed in bed “drowsy but awake” to help them develop independent sleep skills. Three well-designed randomized trials have found that the babies of parents who had such training slept significantly better than those whose parents did not.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/12/health/12sleep.html?_r=0

    But, the article does not provide links to the three randomized controlled trials.

    Like

    May 20, 2016
    • K #

      Dear Alice,

      Thank you for sharing your story and for your nonjudgmental approach to how different families make sleep work- what a relief! I now approach articles about parenting with trepidation as I am afraid I will feel bad after reading them (see the Darcia Narvaez article) – as if there’s not enough anxiety and guilt around mothering! It is a huge relief to know that it’s ok if my baby cries – thank you for reminding me of that.

      Speaking of sleep, I am on information overload between articles and books and advice and feel so confused. My baby, E, is 3.75 months old and does that red faced sweaty scream cry you mention in your post above that seems like a physiological response – when I try to put her down, when she is in the car seat, when she is in the carrier. I nurse her to sleep for naps, bedtime and night awakenings. If that doesn’t work, my husband and I take to the yoga ball. She often wakes when I transfer her to her crib at night (we tried co-sleeping, but she’s so squirmy, no one can sleep) and I end up putting her down many times over a 2 -hour period. For her naps, she wakes up after short times and sometimes will go a whole day with only two 10 minute naps (and I will have spent the whole day trying to get her to nap as she makes signs that she is tired). I worry that she is not getting enough sleep. I also worry that if I/we don’t figure out her sleep right now, we are looking at years of long bedtime struggles, non-restorative sleep, and frequent awakenings, which stresses ME out as I don’t know I can survive that.

      I really love the idea of letting her self-soothe, but I don’t see how to do that. If I do not respond to her fussing after about 2 minutes, it becomes the cry mentioned above- the one that made you respond immediately. How do I let her/give her time to self-soothe and learn to sleep when she immediately goes into that red-faced sweaty scream cry, where she is so worked up – and that doesn’t stop until I nurse or bounce her? Is self-soothing a possibility in that state? I feel like I get a mixed message about helping her sleep: Let her learn how to self-soothe/fall asleep/put her down “drowsy but awake” – but respond to her if she cries that very distressed cry. I can’t do both. And if I let her scream-cry for 10 minutes and see what happens and she doesn’t stop, does my going in to comfort her at 10 minutes ultimately make it harder for her to ever fall asleep on her own because the message I will have just given her is if you cry hard and long enough, mommy will respond? How long did you let M fuss? Or was it based more on the quality of the cry?

      I was considering doing some form of CIO at some point- as gentle a version as I can figure out, but I am anxious that we have not set her up well for success. We try a bedtime routine every night, but our options are to read her books etc while she is screaming or while she is sleeping. We have tried changing the times of the bedtime routine- maybe she’s overtired? Same result. OR we get through the bedtime routine and then put her down, she screams, and 2 hours later she ends up going to sleep…..I doubt that she even remembers the bedtime routine at that point. I also got anxious when I read your 6 sleep tips that mentions 4-6 months might not be the best time to do this….which means I have a week to figure this out or I need to wait two months and then my baby won’t be crying-it-out, I will!! 🙂 Apologies for the lengthy comment, I’m desperate to figure this out- to make sure she is getting rest AND to get sleep myself. Help!

      Lastly, I observe E and I cannot figure out what is going on for her most of the time- but for the obvious ones like yawning and rubbing her eyes, I am not able to read her cues. I feel bad – I can’t help her b/c I don’t know why she is crying except if she is tired or hungry.

      Thank you so much for your authenticity, generosity and kindness – we are all in this together and all doing the best we can! And I can’t believe how hard I find it!

      Like

      July 1, 2016
      • K – Oh man, your comment brings back lots of memories about being in that limbo place where every possible solution feels like a trade-off and you’re not sure if you’re moving in the right direction. I think that’s really normal at that age. Did you read my posts on Janet Lansbury’s site? They’re linked at the bottom of this article and describe in more detail what I did with M – a very gradual, supported process of letting him fall to sleep on his own. I think that approach might work well for you given what you wrote here.

        Like

        July 1, 2016
        • K #

          Alice, thank you SO MUCH for your response. I’m driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy. This post is actually in response to your post about how you helped Baby M learn to sleep, which I’ve now read several times. I’ve read them all! 🙂

          It sounds like M handled the gradual transitions well. E does not seem to be responding in the same way and I am at a loss of how to move forward. If I take my nipple out of her mouth at that same point you mention, she wakes herself up from her drowsy state and starts to scream/cry and my reassurances/singing/patting appear to have no effect. When she wakes herself up during a nap, I give her time to fuss and to figure it out, but mostly she goes from fussing and mild frustration to the scream/cry you mentioned in your post and then I don’t know what to do. She has found her hands which provide her some comfort, but don’t seem to stop her from escalating.

          You mentioned you let M fuss- How long did you let him fuss before responding? Was it more based on the quality of the fussing?

          it sounds like you responded when he got to that scream state? Do I let her cry in that state? Is that helping her self-soothe/learn to sleep? How long do I let her cry? Is it possible for her to figure it out in that scream state? If I let her cry for over 5 min, that sounds like it’s moving towards the CIO method, in which case, I want to be more intentional about it- and do the reassuring at intervals.

          I’m so worried that if I continue the way I am, I will ultimately be making it harder for her (and our family). This is a long comment, and I am aware that I have gotten obsessive and mildly psychotic about this all – all this to say, I would love your response but I also understand if you do not have time to respond. You have two children and I can’t even figure out one!!

          P.S. Ironically, she’s taking a decent nap right now! haha

          Like

          July 1, 2016
          • Ha, enjoy the decent nap! Every time that happens, it’s a good sign! And I understand the obsession with this and desire to figure it all out.

            I think if you want to try the gradual, learning to fall-asleep-in-your-lap approach that I described, I would find a way to ensure that she is calm when you start. That may mean feeding her, finishing the feed before she starts to fall asleep (or even before she gets too drowsy, as stopping that process by removing the nipple as she’s starting to fall asleep may be making her just too mad), and even doing something like changing her diaper to ensure that she is awake when you start. You might also consider feeding her in a different room to further dissociate the feeding process with sleep. You could implement a new post-feeding routine of diaper change, book, say goodnight to things in the window or in the room (this is still part of my routine with M, and we both enjoy it), close the blinds, etc. Then see how you can approach the falling-to-sleep process in a calm way. Maybe you start by holding and singing and walking around the room for a few minutes, then sit down in a chair and let her relax on your lap, or put her down in her bed but stay to pat, etc. I would think more about a really soothing routine to guide her towards the approach to sleep that *doesn’t* involve feeding, because otherwise that removal of the nipple feels like a loss to her that she has to protest. These are just ideas, but I hope that they’re helpful. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference.

            As to responding to cries – M didn’t usually get very upset when he was crying in my lap, though he did if I tried to lie down next to him on my bed – which just goes to show that you sort of have to experiment with what will work for your baby. He did sometimes start to cry in that very upset way when I put him down for bed even after he was used to going to sleep on his own. There was a certain cry that I always responded to within a few minutes, as it just sounded like it would only escalate further. I would go in, get him calm, and then try putting him down again. That worked for him, but I’m sure it wouldn’t work for every baby.

            You mentioned earlier that you are worried you are approaching the 4-6 month window when sleep training might not work as well. I have to say that since I’ve written that post, I’ve seen very little evidence to support that warning. I think you can sleep train in that period just fine. And I agree with you that if you go that route, you want to be intentional about it and be prepared to be consistent. Have you seen the Happy Sleeper book? They recommend an approach with consistent 5 minutes checks that I think can work well at this age. There are also some good FB groups that can help with more support from other parents, which can be so helpful I think – check out Precious Little Sleep and Respectful Sleep Training/Learning.

            Like

            July 1, 2016
            • K #

              Thank you so much for this.These are great ideas and resources. I haven’t seen the book “Happy Sleeper” but I’m going to check out and try some of the ideas you mentioned. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your compassion. 🙂

              Like

              July 1, 2016
  13. If there were indeed three randomized controlled trials on this basic prevention method before 2006, then how come it seems unconventional in 2016?

    I have noticed the field of parenting has lots of technology transfer problems of this sort.

    Like

    May 20, 2016
  14. Nice to read a post where sleep is truly appreciated. I am definitely going to be adopting your mantra. Maybe you could use this as a reminder as well:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2011991/Lack-sleep-drove-brink-madness–happen-too.html

    Like

    June 10, 2016
  15. K #

    p.s. it IS going to feel so good to rest!! Here’s to hoping that may be soon! 🙂

    Like

    July 1, 2016

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