Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Insomniac, Again

My best friend's baby won't sleep. I feel so completely bad for Kimberly and Michael, because I remember how completely awful it was when the kid won't sleep, how it totally destroys any sense of routine or normal in your house, how thoroughly it clouds and confounds all of your other experiences.

To be totally fair, let me just say that Max was a really good sleeper, all things considered. Sure, he wanted to get up in the middle of the night some nights, and there was no convincing him that the day doesn't begin at 3:15 a.m., and there was nothing to do but sit in the living room, facing him as he bobbed cheerily in his bouncy seat, blearily staring at him and wondering how I was going to get through the next 24 hours. But I also had the reassurance that it was only going to last 24 hours, give or take, and soon, the kid would go back to sleeping four or five hours at a time at night, and an hour or two at a time, a couple of times a day.

We did go through a few phases where things that had worked before stopped working. They are panic-inducing, and you're sure your kid will never sleep again. Don't worry, he will. The single-biggest victory in the sleep war was the swing. We never had a regular-sized swing for Max, we figured with the bouncy seat and all the other stuff, we didn't really need it taking up room in the apartment. But at seven months, he gave up sleep totally over the space of about a month. It was a gradual thing--when he'd been going to bed at 8 or so, suddenly it was 9. Then it was 10. Then it was 11, and midnight...and he was still getting up at around 2 or 3 for a snack and a cuddle, and again at 7 in the morning, for good for the day.

I didn't know what else to do, so I bought a small, travel swing for him. It's just like the regular ones, only it sits closer to the ground and folds. It ran on a battery, and for a few months it was a total game-changer for us. We'd put Max in it at bedtime, tuck one of his "friends" -- a stuffed animal -- in next to him and tuck a blanket around him, turn the lights down, play some music, and lo and behold, the kid would be asleep within half an hour. From there it was just a matter of sneaking him out of the swing and into the crib, without waking him up. You had to wait just long enough for him to be really out and not get impatient with your non-sleeping, still squawking baby.

The thing that finally worked on a more permanent basis was when we examined what we were doing every night, and what time we were doing it. When they're tired, babies's brains make a substance that makes them think, I've been awake so long, now I might as well just stay up. The less sleep they get, the worse they need it and the harder it is for them to get it. It's a bad system. We realized we didn't really have a routine at all. and we were putting him down way too late--around 10. Everything we read said we should start working him into bed around 7.

By establishing a routine--bath, story, snack and cuddle, and into bed once he was asleep--we really helped the whole sleep situation a lot. He still got up in the middle of the night and wanted to eat, but we were pretty well accustomed to that by then, and one half-hour wake-up was pretty bearable. We would feed him until he was so deeply asleep that the bottle was literally falling out of his mouth. Also, we would pre-warm his bed with a heating pad--going from a warm lap to a chilly mattress was enough to wake him up again most of the time. Yes, of course we took the heating pad out of the bed when we put him in. We're, you know, not Brittney Spears or anything.

This all worked pretty well until he was about 1. That was when we transitioned from two naps a day--which he mostly took on the floor of the living room, on a blanket--to one nap a day, around noon. He just wasn't sleeping at night and we figured he was getting too much sleep during the day.

None of this addressed the fact that he just didn't fall asleep on his own. When he was about a year and a half old, we decided it was time. We did what the books recommend--put him down sleepy but awake--by altering the bedtime routine to keep him from falling asleep in our arms. When he started to look like he was having trouble keeping his eyes open, we would put him into bed and leave the room. If he cried, we would let him cry for a couple of minutes, then come back, comfort him without picking him up, and leave again. If he cried again, we would wait a little longer, comfort him without picking him up, and leave again. And so on.

It honestly wasn't that bad. There were two really bad nights, a couple of medium-bad ones, and a couple of not-so-terrible nights, and after that he didn't need us at all. Let me qualify that by saying that Max has always been extraordinarily independent, which we've encouraged by not always jumping in to help him when we thought he could work something out for himself. It hasn't always been easy, but the payoff has been enormous, especially as he's gotten older.

At one point, we started letting him go to bed with a bottle of water to drink--never milk or juice, but the water helped him settle down. We had to eliminate that when he was around two and a half, because he was drinking sixteen ounces, and then filling his diaper so full overnight that he woke up in a giant puddle every night. Breaking the bottle habit wasn't too bad--a couple nights of asking for it, but that was it.

I don't know a ton about getting babies to sleep. Mine slept mostly on his own. But some of the things that helped was keeping Max physically and mentally active during the day--just walking around the house or the neighborhood, pointing things out, imitating the car noises or the dogs barking or the birds, flipping through books, or sitting in front of the sliding glass door watching the birds. I would put him in the bouncy seat, which encouraged him to be physical without requiring a lot of effort on my part. I tried not to hold him too much--I felt like it discouraged him from being very independent and the more I held him, the more he wanted to be held and the less he would tolerate not being held. I didn't let him fall asleep in my arms--that became a total recipe for disaster, since he wouldn't sleep anywhere else.

Parenting doesn't get a whole lot easier, but it gets more rewarding, and the challenges come in forms other than sleep-depravation. We are struggling with potty-training, with defiance, with getting him to eat. The things that are hard about parenting change shape, usually without warning. But don't beat yourself up. There aren't really right or wrong answers, just things you've tried already, things that have stopped working, things you're not willing to try, and things you just haven't thought of yet. The right thing for your little person is out there.

Oh, and I should add--I was a stay-at-home mother until Max was 14 months old. One thing that really helped me was to hand Max over to Dan when he got home from work and lay down for a nap for a couple hours in the evening. I knew I'd be up at night, and the change of parenting scenery helped Max, and that couple of hours made life manageable. We decided it made more sense for me to get the couple of hours than to have a sit-down dinner all together as a family while I drooled into my food and fell asleep with my chin in my hand.

Those are my suggestions. If you have other suggestions for a desperate set of parents and their wide-awake Sprout, leave them in the comments.


cici said...

Nice blog. You're a great writier. I can't think of any suggestions, sounds like their doing everything right. I guess it's true what they say. Some people are just night people. Maybe it starts from birth. I just read your good news in your last post. Congratulations!!!!! This is exciting:D I am so happy for you.

Kimberly said...

Thanks for this. We're doing most of it already, but maybe what didn't work last week might suddenly start to work. It's an everchanging game. Last night was good, mostly normal. Here's what sucks though: We suspect he might have some food sensitivity issues. Since he's a breastfed baby, that means I'm on a strict diet. Let me just say that coffee, chocolate, and cheese, are pretty much the only things I live for these days. Those have now been replaced by rice, turkey, and potatoes. Go ahead, feel sorry for me. I'd feel sorry for myself, but I'm sure that would be a downward spiral that I've got nothing to pull me out of. I won't bitch about it anymore because I read about you're car getting stolen. Holy crap! I'm grateful that you guys weren't hurt and the only damage is the property kind. Still ... I'm at home and will probably give you a call later. Hang in there.