Some babies respond just fine to rocking or nursing to sleep. Then there are the babies that you help into a floppy, blissful state of sleep and set them down ever so carefully only to have them WAKE UP the second their little bodies touch their bed, leaving you in frustrated tears. That was the story with both of my children. With my son, we suffered through four sleep-deprived, tear-filled months (him and us) before making some changes. With my new daughter, I wanted to avoid creating parent-led associations that hindered my son’s sleep and instead, give her the confidence to trust her own body. Lisa Sunbury, who was a great support, reminded me that Magda Gerber often said to “start as you wish to continue.” That was exactly what I was trying to achieve: long-lasting habits, right from the start. Newborn sleep CAN happen, and it can happen respectfully.
Getting To Know Her
With my son, I was so stressed about his crying that I tried everything to just get the tears to stop, without actually listening to what he was telling me. In contrast, with my new baby, I did not immediately try at all costs to make the crying stop, but rather approached the tears in a calmer and more intuitive way. When she cried, I held her and told her I was trying to understand what she needed. Instead of trying to shut her down, I spent my energy listening to her tears and learning about what they meant. As a result, I found that I bonded with her sooner than I did with my son, because I had viewed my son as an infant in distress, and anxiety about my failure to stop his tears clouded our bond; with my daughter, I understood that her crying was communication and that it didn’t threaten her attachment to me.
Preparing the Day for Sleep
Babies are so easily overstimulated. Anything from a lamp to the sound of a passing car can be too much for some. Try to keep your baby in an area that has low lighting and minimal sounds. When feeding or changing, move slowly and use a gentle voice. It can be challenging to provide the optimal setting for a newborn 100% of the time, but you can do the best you are able. It’s also important that you let your baby release their frustrations, kind of like a friend that needs to cry on your shoulder at the end of a hard day. Being a newborn is so emotionally exhausting with the huge amount of newness in every little thing they experience; so everyday for them is a long, hard day. With my baby, I would snuggle up with her and let her cry out all of her frustrations. As soon as she was done, she would finally relax in my arms, ready for peaceful sleep.
Falling Asleep with Mama*
I wanted to avoid giving my daughter the habits that had made my son’s sleep so hard. I made sure to nurse her while she was awake and to avoid rocking, bouncing, or wearing her to sleep. Once I learned my daughter’s tired signs, I would go to her calm sleeping place, hold her, and allow her to fuss if she needed. I would not try to MAKE her sleep; instead, I gave her a quiet and peaceful space where she could fall asleep easily. She could snuggle in my arms and cry out her tensions, and then drift off to sleep. For the first week or so, we co-slept because I was recovering from birth and in bed most of the time anyway.
Once my daughter was used to falling asleep in my arms easily, I began putting her next to me. I would lay my hand on her while she fussed or cried to sleep. Gradually, I started moving my hand away and just watching her while she fell asleep. Eventually, this made for a lovely situation where she would coo and try to smile before falling asleep. She was learning that sleep was a wonderful thing and that it was in her power to drift off as she liked. She was learning to trust her body. This step worked for us because I was still in bed most of the time and slept with her.
*This would be a step you can skip if you don’t want to co-sleep.
Once I was recovered a bit and ready to re-enter my daily life, it was time for her to sleep on her own in the co-sleeper. When my daughter was drowsy, I would put her down in her bed and sit by her. I would rub her head and say soothing things as she drifted off. Sometimes she cried, and sometimes she simply closed her eyes and fell asleep. Once she was calmer about her bed, I started putting her down without physical soothing, just singing to her until she fell asleep so she knew I was still there.
She would fuss a bit while she worked on finding her own methods to soothe. It took some practice, but eventually she learned to put her fingers in her mouth for comfort. After she made this discovery, I would just lie in my bed while she fell asleep, helping only if her fussing turned into full-on-crying. If, at any point, she got very upset in a way that did not sound like a tired cry, I would help her by starting with minimal support (singing or stroking) and then eventually picking her up and holding her for a bit before trying again.
Trusting Her Self-Moderation
I still don’t try to force sleep on my baby. If she is genuinely having trouble settling, I trust that she’s telling me that she’s not tired yet and bring her out to play until a bit later. She has gained the confidence to fall asleep on her own and knows that I respond to her if she needs me. This means that some days she sleeps less, and some days more. At this point, I can put her in her bed, kiss her sweet head, and walk away. Sometimes she fusses a bit before finding her thumb and soothing herself to sleep, but most of the time she smiles as I lay her in her bed. She loves sleep and loves her bed; it’s a comforting place for her. Sleep has never been something that must happen to her, but something wonderful that she gets to give herself.
Coping with Setbacks
Of course, although my daughter can now fall asleep without my help, we still have setbacks and fussy or troubled sleep times. My daughter still wakes 1-2 times a night for a feeding, and sometimes she needs more snuggles when she’s teething or going through a milestone. What helps is making more time during the day to see where the real challenge is coming from and then supporting that. For instance, she’s working on crawling now so I’ve been giving her ample opportunities to practice. The biggest help during setbacks will be this kind of observation and adjustment to her daily routine. They are always changing their needs and often times troubled sleep is the first indicator that minor changes might need to happen to their day.
There is no magical solution that eliminates all night wakings for any child. Even when they CAN fall asleep on their own and soothe themselves to sleep, they will still need us often over their early years as they go through milestones, developmental leaps, illness and other stressful events. Helping my children with their confidence to fall asleep without parent-led associations is not just for me and my sleep (though a well-rested mother is important) but it’s for their own well being as well.