Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nighttime parenting and the right attitude

Welcome to The Breastfeeding Cafe Carnival!

This post was written as part of The Breastfeeding Cafe's Carnival. For more info on the Breastfeeding Cafe, go to For more info on the Carnival or if you want to participate, contact Claire at clindstrom2 {at} gmail {dot} com. Today's post is about nighttime parenting and nursing. Please read the other blogs in today's carnival listed below and check back for more posts July 18th through the 31st!

cosleeping toddler and mother

I was researching sleep training vs. cosleeping the other day, and what struck me was not so much the results but the definitions of success — specifically, an emphasis on children who woke fewer times during the night.

I started wondering if a study could be (has been, will be) designed that does not take as its starting point that children sleeping a certain number of hours = good.

And then I realized how strongly my own perceptions of what is good in terms of family sleep have changed since becoming a breastfeeding, cosleeping mama.

I thought I might write a little post about the three factors I think have influenced me the most in terms of making me satisfied with the kind of sleep we get, even though my three-year-old has yet to sleep the whole night through without waking, and even though he nurses as much as he can when I'm sleeping beside him.

This post is not meant to be prescriptive or accusatory toward families who have chosen different sleep arrangements, or toward those who have chosen one that's the same as ours (one family bed) but are not satisfied with the amount or quality of sleep they're getting. I know firsthand that sleep is very important, and that lack of sleep is grouchy-making after just one day, and well nigh unbearable when the deprivation is chronic. So you do what you can.

But, just for the sake of sharing, here are the three reasons our nighttime situation is working for us.

1. Circumstances.

This is where I admit freely that we have it cushy when it comes to arranging our sleep schedule. Sam and I both work from home in an online business with flexible hours, so we can sleep in or nap in many cases if needed. We have just one child, so we can sleep when he sleeps, and he is not on a demanding schedule in terms of morning school hours or other fixed activities. We each have a committed co-parent who can spell us when things get tough.

I appreciate that not everyone has these privileges, so this is the category that's least applicable to others. It's really the second two where I think improvements to your situation might be made if you are trying to cosleep and it's bothering you, or you want to cosleep but think it would be too challenging.

2. Technique.

The first thing I had to do was learn how to cosleep in a way that was safe for my baby and comfortable for us both. It took me some research and trial and error to find the right position, clothing choices, and bedclothes arrangement that worked for all of us, so give this some thought and if something's not working, try something else.

For instance (and this is a privileged-circumstance thing again, I realize), we were able to buy a king-size mattress and put it directly on the floor so we all had enough space but there wasn't a steep drop off the sides. Other people find sidecarring a crib, cosleeper, or child's bed or mattress (depending on the height of your bed) gives the baby more space to flail but keeps the parent close enough when needed.

Since I was cosleeping because I was breastfeeding and wanted things to be as easy as possible, I knew I had to learn how to nurse lying down with as little sleep disturbance to all of us as possible. Again, this took some research and practice, but it was so worth it when it clicked. So if side-lying (or back-lying) nursing doesn't work with your newborn, try again later and see if the problem hasn't solved itself.

3. Attitude.

This is the factor I've been most thinking about since reading those research results on the effectiveness of sleep training and ruminating on why I take issue with what "effectiveness" even means. I think my attitude change has been more important than anything else in terms of the quality of the sleep I'm getting, and my satisfaction with it. In reading about the effects of sleep deprivation, I also saw references to marital discord due to lack of infant sleep, and I can say that the fact that both Sam and I have had our sleep-related attitudes transformed as parents has helped keep our relationship strong and unaffected by the cosleeping and breastfeeding.

In doing research on human infant sleep patterns when I was preparing to parent, I grew to understand what was biologically and anthropologically appropriate for sleep. Reading books like Our Babies, Ourselves made me realize how much of our expectations for how adults sleep, and by extension, how we gradually train children to sleep, is determined not by biology but by culture. In other words, the way we think it's "natural" to sleep — in a dark room, isolated, in the midst of deep quiet, for at least seven hours at a stretch — is not in fact the way humans need to sleep but the way Western humans have chosen to sleep. I was astounded to learn that other cultures have completely different ways of sleeping — some in large groups, some in cat-nap-like snatches broken by conversation and laughter — and yet these people do not consider themselves sleep deprived or missing out on quality of sleep. They have different criteria for what makes good sleep.

This opened my eyes and made me reconsider why I think I need the kind of sleep I've been conditioned to expect. It's not as if I could immediately switch off all my years of cultural programming and become content with broken sleep, but it did make me question it. When I felt ill-rested, I asked myself if a nap would help instead of assuming that nothing would cure the feeling besides having the next night go perfectly according to Western sleep ideals.

Reconsidering human sleep needs in general let me reconsider infant sleep needs in particular. I discovered through research that babies biologically are driven to wake up frequently during the night, and that waking up and nursing often help to drive breastfeeding success and keep young babies out of the dangerous deep sleep that can lead to respiratory failure. Rather than be resentful of my son's night nursing, then, I could feel satisfaction and relief that he was keeping up my milk supply and decreasing his risk of SIDS.

Once I let go of the goal of getting my baby to sleep a certain number or hours in a row by a certain age, I could also let go of a lot of the guilt surrounding what I used to soothe him to sleep in the first place, or to lull him back into sleep when he awoke: breastfeeding. Always, always breastfeeding. Since I now had full confidence, after studying cultures where this is so, that nursing children do eventually learn to fall asleep on their own without the breast, and since I had thrown away my timeline for when this must occur, I was able to nurse him to sleep without qualms.

I'm so glad, too. I so enjoy our cuddles in bed together as he drifts off. It's a time for me to unwind and read fun things on my laptop in the darkened room. I can look down and see his eyelids flutter close, and feel his suck slow down until he unlatches completely.

When he wakes in the night and I'm not there, he calls out and I know I am the one person in the world he wants. This can be an exhausting thought at times, it's true, but usually it's gratifying to be needed so strongly, and to be able to fulfill that need so easily.

When he wakes in the night and I'm beside him, he just rolls on over and finds me in the dark, murmuring a groggy, "Nummies, nummies, Mama," as if he's doing his own form of echolocation.

It's not all roses, so I don't mean to idealize. Every morning my back aches from being collapsed on top of by a 38-pound toddler until I can stretch out the kinks. Some nights I get to bed too late and know I'll be so tired in the morning that I'll purposely start off sleeping at the foot of the bed so Mikko's boobdar doesn't go off. (This never works; it's much too strong for such shoddy cloaking tactics.) Some nights I'll have just relaxed with a glass of wine downstairs when Mikko wakes up screaming for me, and I have to leave my lovely vegging behind for mother duty.

cosleeping toddler

But. But, overall and in the long run, I know this time of nighttime parenting is fleeting. I know eventually he won't need me to sleep, and won't need to sleep beside me. My attitude is so thoroughly adjusted that I have no idea or expectation of when this will be — and no fear of how open-ended that is.

This is why and how we've been able to cosleep, breastfeed, and not stress beyond feeling a little sheepish when the subject turns to how old our kids were when they first started sleeping through the night. ("Um … I'll let you know?") Our circumstances we're blessed with and the techniques we've taken the time to learn have definitely helped — but the attitude has been everything.

Have your expectations of "a good night's sleep" changed since becoming a parent?

Here are more posts by the Breastfeeding Cafe Carnival participants! Check back because more will be added throughout the day.


Cassie said...

This is a wonderful post. I think you are right-attitude is everything. Once I stopped caring about number of hours (though it's almost impossible to ignore since EVERYONE asks) it was so much better. I just try to make sure I take a nap during my sons nap time if I'm tired. It makes such a huge difference.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post! I think it is so important to remember WHY babies sleep (or don't) the way they do, and I'm so glad you talked about this here.

It makes me sad that we live in a culture that tries to turn our children into adults as soon as humanly possible, especially when it comes to sleep. I've found that my sleep needs have changed since I've had my son--I don't seem to need to have several hours in a row to feel rested in the morning. Perhaps that is because of my attitude about infant sleep. (I'm not sure which came first.)

Thanks again for sharing your perspective and knowledge on the subject!

Stephanie said...

I love this post! We have very similar circumstances that enable co-sleeping, and nursing to sleep to work for us. I love how you said you like feeling so needed and that you are the only person in the world he wants in that moment. I feel the exact same way, and yes its frustrating when I just sit down to relax and have to be off to nurse my daughter to sleep, yet again. These years will be gone so quickly and I know I will look back and give anything to have these moments back.

Anonymous said...

Have you even needed to (or wanted to) leave for the night? romantic get a way, girls night out, etc. How did you deal with being away for a night?

Melodie said...

This is so interesting. I love the part about how we choose to sleep a certain way instead of need to sleep a certain way. Do I really choose this? I guess I do. Sleep deprivation and all.

I have given you an award. Come and see!

Traveler of the World said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Traveler of the World said...

Hehehe - I so see much of my sleep-patterns in your story!
My issues were - believing in what books, doctors, family told me about 'sleeping through'...until I read and read and read...My comment to them now, if they (still) ask 'is he sleeping through by now' - is: 'hopefully not!' :o)
It is definetely a culturally based syndrome, but unfortunately not recognized until one start to seek more information. With this missing information, which I believe is vital to inform new mothers in the Western world with,they(we) could have a choice - an educated choice.
We EXPECT the babies to sleep through,because it is a symptom of independence, revealed through physical separation.
If we look at Japan - it is opposite: they believe babies are born with independence but needs to learn social behaviour, which is why they are in very close physical contact with the parents. Here the newborns (and older) cosleep and the parents have no expectations of separating baby from the mother.
This whole sleepconundrum should be very well informed to new mothers, and not just from a cultural behaviour, giving (us)the chance to take an educated choice, or at least a choice by situation, and not because we are told so.

kateisfun said...

I really love this post, especially the section on adjusting one's attitude. When I occasionally feel spent from a rough spell of co-sleeping and breastfeeding, I remind myself that I chose this for a reason, not just because "it's easy" to have my baby beside me. Thanks for sharing your personal experience as well as your research findings!

jami said...

OMG 'boobdar'! I literally laughed out loud! I find that when I get to bed to late I sneak into the family bed and cover my nummies with the blanket just on the hopes that he won't smell it! Not very successful in my case either! Great post, as usual!

Brooke said...

Love this post. My expectations of "a good night's sleep" changed about a year after my son was born. For some reason 12 months marked a turning point in how accepting I was of frequent (read very, very frequent) night wakings.

For the first few months of my sons life I had maternal health nurses tell me that he wouldn't develop properly on so little sleep. Being a first time parent this really played on my mind and added to my mother guilt. I kept thinking that I must MAKE him sleep, otherwise I was stunting his growth and development (hehe, make a child sleep...). It wasn't until he started talking ( a lot...) that I knew that my intuition was right and the maternal health nurses were wrong. The change in attitude (and the relief that I'm not doing the wrong thing by not forcing him to sleep) has reduced almost all feelings of frustration I've had about lacking sleep. One day he will sleep through, one day he wont need me so much and I'll miss it. I'll really miss it.

BTW absolutely love that close up shot of Mikko. Those eyelashes are divine!

Inder-ific said...

Ah, attitude. So true!

Right now we're in the middle of cutting four molars and a couple of eyeteeth, and every night is pretty much an all-night suck-a-thon these days. I'm usually pretty content and resigned to my fate when it comes to (not) sleeping, but this has been kicking my behind. I described this (with ahem, some bitterness) recently, here -

But anyway, yes, it's temporary. When it gets rough like this, I try to remind myself that (a) things are always changing; and (b) it's not like there are any "easy" options when it comes to sleep. Cosleeping isn't always easy, but then, no method is always easy, and cosleeping is probably the easiest of the bunch, overall.

Also, yes, your child has the most stunning eyelashes!

(In response to a prior commenter, speaking for my own situation, my husband CAN put my baby down with a bottle. This is necessary sometimes because I have to attend night meetings here and there - I work in local government. So girl's nights out are technically possible, although I admit, I am usually too tired to bother with going out and partying!)

Jenna said...

Great post. I totally agree that so much depends on what we assume to "goal" is. I really really hate the "sleep through the night" rhetoric as if its some kind of important developmental milestone.

My son was 4.5 weeks old when he first came home and within a few weeks he was sleeping through the night, and it was NOT a good thing - it was because he was hypoxic! At that time his oxygen saturation was usually around 70% and he was blue most of the time. He had very few hunger cues and it took all my energy to push enough fortified breastmilk down with a bottle to keep a minimal weight gain without a feeding tube. So I would usually set an alarm for a pumping/feeding session at 3 am, but when I forgot, he'd usually sleep all night. I had one online mama who was in the process of Ferberizing tell my how "lucky" we were! :(

I'm much happier now that he's 2.5 and NOT sleeping through the night. He wakes up in his bed at 2 am and comes to us for cuddles.

pocket.buddha said...

Great post!

My husband and I were just talking about this the other day.

We are friends with a couple who have a son not much older than our boy, so of coarse there's always a little bit of comparison in a 'is my kid normal?' kind of way. We usually try to avoid it knowing that this couple's parenting style is vastly different if not opposite to our own. They simply see the world differently than we do.

whenever the subject of sleep comes up they ask me 'is he not sleeping through yet?' 'is he still in your bed?' 'are you still letting him nurse to sleep?' and when I answer yes they start offering 100 different suggestions as to how to make him stop doing all of these things.

I don't know why, but the fact that we've never complained about our sleeping arrangements nor mentioned wanting to change them has never occurred to our friends. they just assume that our situation is accidental and not something that we researched in depth and made a very deliberate decision about.

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Wonderful post! I agree with so much. The first year and a half of my eldest daughter's life I coslept, nursed to sleep, and angsted so much about it all, despite really liking many aspects of our arrangement. Reading about how the cultural expectations about sleep were so different around the world really helped me, though.

My expectations about sleep have absolutely (though also gradually) adjusted, that is for sure. I can feel rested on so much less (and interrupted) sleep, now. The first 6 months with nursing twins makes anything now pale in comparison, too, ha ha!

To the commenter asking about going out at night -- well, for a long time, I just didn't, and was fine with that. I treasure my downtime at home in the evenings -- going out just was not a big priority for me. Eventually all my girls were able to be put to bed (and soothed through wakeups) by Daddy, which is freeing but took some time. The stress just wasn't worth pushing it. We have never been away from our girls at night yet (at age 4 and 2 years old) and though we are starting to think about it, we still don't feel ready. There will be so many years for that down the line, these early years are just so fleeting!

Millie Simons said...

Oh... how much I loved reading this!!

I started off with all of the "rules" we had learned about child rearing, especially the whole cry it out bit. It started not making sense. We are built for each other, this baby and I. I have what she needs, I instinctively know how to respond, she gives me satisfaction and joy. What sense is there in stifling it and killing it?

I actually dread the day when she no longer wants to sleep next to me. She props her little leg up on me and off she goes. My husband, my girl, and I all wake up together... lots of times... too early for our taste, but who can be upset when you're woken by a happy baby who reaches over and tweaks your nose and giggles???

I had to stop breastfeeding WAY sooner than I wanted (she's only 10 months old) due to health issues that I put off medicating for as long as I could. But I have this. And I will cherish just as long as I can.

Thank you for your post. Your research and conclusions are mirroring mine. In our joint families, our beliefs and choices can make me feel quite a alone. So glad I'm not.

geeks in rome said...

excellent, excellent stuff.

I'm fascinated by what you said about newborns being wired to wake frequently at night. Instinctually I knew the night feedings were compensating for my being away at work during the day so I never resented them until the babes got big and it became a thirst issue, not nutrition. It took my going on business trips to help them transition from boob to bottle of water.

And I had read that SIDS was close to non-existent in co-sleeping cultures, they thought because the newborn subconsciously felt and heard the breathing rythyms and patterns of the children and adults sleeping next to them. But the not-falling-into-deep-sleep makes sense too.

I love your comment on his boobdar! So true!! My daughter always stirs and roots the minute I come back to bed to sleep.

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