Confession: I have a bit of an obsession with healthy sleep, especially for babies and children. So I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, and now here it is, for my sake if for no one else’s. I need to get it out of my system. :-)
I’ve been interested in healthy sleep for several years, through the journey of some of my younger siblings. I’ve seen first hand the results both of well-rested children/babies and those who aren’t. When I was pregnant with Vivi, and when she was a newborn, I devoured books that went into the how-to as well as the science of sleep, what’s necessary and why, and how it has life long effects, negatively or positively.
But my actual obsession probably grew mostly out of our journey- because God blessed me with a daughter who taught me just how valuable sleep is. While healthy sleep is very important for all babies/children (okay, and people in general- but the purpose of this is to talk about our small fry), some absolutely demand it. They just can’t live without it, and you won’t survive if your little one doesn’t get the sleep they need. That little one was Vivi. Any baby can benefit greatly from healthy sleep, and experience positive changes, but in Vivi’s case, healthy sleep meant a 180* turnaround in her personality and interactions with people.
*A quick note before we proceed: I don’t necessarily see sleep as being the most important aspect to Vivi being where she’s at today. But it’s definitely a very important component. If you’ve been around very long, you know that I’m passionate about natural mothering, and many facets of that, especially babywearing and cosleeping, helped Viviana tremendously, as well. The many things that helped her are all probably somewhat interrelated. But some of those are a topic for another day…*
People tell me all the time how lucky I am to have such a happy, social, content baby. Sometimes, I wish they knew the other ½ of the story….others, I just feel highly complimented, remembering back to the comments I got in the early months of her life, and thinking how far we’ve come. It’s kind of wild, looking back on the journey, that people would assume she’s just one of “those babies” that rare moms get lucky and have. When she was an infant, I got my fair share of advice from random strangers- “She’s probably hungry…” (Um…actually, if you lift the cover, you’ll see that it’s all hanging out and she’s not buying …) “Sometimes babies just like to be put down and left alone.” (Totally see that one working out…) There were also comments about my array of baby carriers, and fairly often, a mentioning of how cute or beautiful Vivi is. But I don’t think I ever heard the “you’re so lucky to have such a happy baby” comment I get all the time now, till she was several months old, became a model child, and started smiling at everyone and cooing and talking during our shopping trips and outings.
During the first two or three months of Viviana’s life, she was very fussy/high needs. Part of it was just her personality and high level of neediness. But there was another contributing factor: she soon became very sleep deprived. She had conflicting needs in the first few months. On the one hand, she needed constant touch and a lot of movement. On the other, when sleeping, the slightest sound or movement shift would wake her up. And, she took many hours to get to sleep. This was a problem that just grew with her sleep deprivation, because the more tired a baby is, the harder time they have falling asleep. So- she struck me as the type of baby that would probably do best transferred to a bed (or nursed to sleep in bed), in a quiet, dark room, free from any interruptions. That just didn’t work with her needs for touch and movement.
Somewhere around 2 ½ or 3 months old, we hit a turning point. I started being able to transfer her to our bed after I walked her to sleep in the sling. We had a month or two of centering our lives around her sleep schedules and needs. It took about that long to make up for the damage of being sleep deprived for two months, and to develop healthy routines. Some naps, she stayed on me, in the sling or ergo. For others, I put her down in bed. Sometimes she’d stay asleep, or sometimes she’d wake up. Usually, if she woke up, I could nurse her back to sleep, and after a while, creep away. Sometimes she’d be back awake 20 minutes later, but not ready- so I’d be able to nurse her to sleep again, and repeat the process. That might happen 3-5 times during a nap before she woke up happy and ready to greet the world. If she was tired at someone else’s house, I’d try to wear her to sleep, which worked till she was at least four or five months old- if I was in a room by myself during her nap and there weren’t any abrupt noises that drifted in.
She went to bed for the night really early- often between 6 and 6:30. It made it difficult to see families, so we had a “dry spot” of not seeing them as much, but it was what Vivi needed. She was tired, and ready to crash. She slept till somewhere between 6:30-8:30am. (She had plenty of nighttime wakings- but that was her wakeup for the day range.)
I also worked hard on hitting her narrow window of tiredness before she got overtired, which occurred one hour, or a little less, after she woke up. This meant that if I had to go to the grocery store, I’d get everything ready to go while she slept, nurse and change her when she woke up, fly out the door and make sure we were back home 15 minutes before the one hour mark, so I could change her again and start to put her down. Our days were totally centered around her sleep needs, to an almost crazy degree.
But, it paid off. By the end of the couple months, she was doing so much better with life in general. She was pretty stable when it came to naps, and I was consistently able to nurse her to sleep in bed and creep out. Her naps were usually solid, long, and very restful for her. We still had rough days occasionally- and days when I wouldn’t quite catch one of her naps at the right time and that’d throw the day off- but overall, it was consistently good.
I still watched her closely for her first tired signs, and we still went home really early in the evenings, because she was tired and needed sleep. Her naps were a little further apart, if I remember correctly- but still no more than 1 ½ hours. She stuck with the one hour trend for a long time…it was obviously what her body needed. She was several months old before she moved to 2 hour spacings.
At this point, she still didn’t have “scheduled naps”. Since she absolutely couldn’t be up any longer than 1-1 ½ hours, waking up at times just a ½ hour different would swing the day into totally different modes. Also, her naps varied in length, which affected it drastically. But, I could predict from one waking when the next nap would probably fall, and plan the next couple hours around that. In a healthy sleep cycle, routine and following tired signs is much more important than following the clock. There are some general guidelines that can be good to follow, but a baby’s body knows better than the clock when it’s tired. And following a rigid schedule has plenty of other negative effects on babies, in my opinion.
Her personality was much happier at this point. She was very cheerful and social. When she was tired, she let you know it….but otherwise, she was an incredibly content baby, as long as her emotional needs for touch and interaction were being met, and she was well rested. The difference was really pretty incredible.
Over the following several months, leading up to now, at 11 months old, things just continued to get easier. There were some rough spots- where I’d spend a couple hours getting her to sleep at night before I could leave her, or when her naps were shorter than they needed to be- but overall, it’s been good. She’s also able to handle more deviation from her routine if it doesn’t happen all the time. We might stay later at one of our family’s on occasion now, or I might risk messing up her nap routine and getting her down extra late to go to a babywearing meeting. It’s the privilege of having a well-rested baby- meeting her sleep needs enables her to be happy and rested, but it doesn’t chain us anymore. Because she is well-rested, it isn’t a big deal to deviate from time to time, and do something different.
At this point, she’s transitioning to one nap a day. Most babies hit this point around a year, some as late as 15 months. On her good days, she wakes up between 7 and 8am, takes a 2+ hour nap between 10:30-11, and is ready to go to bed at 7pm. On bad days, anything might happen. :-) Sometimes she doesn’t fall asleep when I put her down at night, even though she’s tired…so she gets overtired and hyper, and ends up going to bed rather late (8:00-8:30, usually, but on rare occasions, later). Sometimes her nap is only 45 minutes long, so we do a second mid/late afternoon nap.
When she was still doing 2 naps, one occurred a couple hours after she woke up, and the other early/mid afternoon. I knew we were ready to start transitioning when her naps were falling late enough that the second nap often wasn’t starting till 4pm or later, and it was much harder to get her down the second time. During this transition phase, if her first/single nap is short, I try to get her to take a second, because she still needs a certain number of hours of sleep. I suspect in the next few months, her ability to be flexible and just go to bed earlier or sleep in a bit later will increase. Somewhere in there, her single nap will probably start happening later, around 12 or 1.
So…that pretty well sums up our journey. You can’t really blame me for being obsessed with sleep, can you? I try to avoid analyzing people and what their kids’ needs are, because I know the parent’s know that child best. But with sleep, it’s kind of like how specialized doctors notice certain things in people pertaining to their field….how a midwife notices certain things….how a scientist notices specific things in his field around him. Except that I’m not a doctor, midwife, scientist or otherwise expert. :-)
Sometimes, it’s really aggravating to see sleep deprived babies- and it’s something I see a lot of. Aggravating, because I can’t do anything about it….and usually, the parents don’t even notice it. I’ve seen children and babies get punished and disciplined when their only problem is that they’re tired and/or sleep deprived. Most adults don’t do a very good job at holding themselves together when they’re severely tired and/or sleep deprived. Try living on several less hours a day of sleep for a long period of time, and see how it effects you. Or try sleeping on a schedule that completely conflicts with what your body’s used to and needs- say, sleeping day shifts. It’s not easy, and you, at least, are a grown adult who isn’t growing and maturing still.
A word of clarification: I use the terms healthy/unhealthy sleep a lot. What do I mean? Obviously, the first step is enough sleep- which varies not only from age group to age group, but from baby to baby, even within families. Just like it varies between adults, within a general range, it varies quite a bit in babies- usually, within a general range. However, there’s another extremely important, often neglected component: getting sleep at the right time. One of the biggest aspects of this is putting your little ones down early (typically between 6:30-8:30pm, depending on the baby and their age) for the night. It interrupts adult schedules and life as it used to be. But it’s critical to baby and children’s health and general well being. Modern research shows clearly that early bedtimes (9-10pm, typically) are extremely important even for adult health. These studies show how much more valuable sleep before midnight is, than sleep after. It’s the healthiest time of the night to get sleep, and it’s when we, and especially babies/children, sleep the most soundly/restfully. Adults can choose what they like, since it’s their own bodies- and while consistently late nights do cause damage, I think adult bodies can probably handle it a little better. But babies and children are still growing and developing. Their bodies are working hard to grow and mature, their minds are expanding…and all the while they play hard and live full days. Healthy sleep, including early bedtimes, is critical for a happy, well rested, healthy baby/child. Another timing aspect is hitting their first tired signs for naps as well as bedtime. Unhealthy sleep encompasses all the opposites- not enough, staying up late, getting overtired before sleep needs are met.
Most babies get what they need sleep wise the first couple months of their life. Often, they fall asleep when they’re tired and sleep as long as they need to. For most babies, this all happen effortlessly for the first two, sometimes 3, months of life. Especially if you wear your baby a lot, and they can just nestle in and sleep when they want/need to. Obviously, all babies aren’t that way, and I don’t have any personal experience with those types of babies. But I’ve heard they exist, anyway. In fact, I’ve heard most babies are that way- so maybe I’ll get to try it out, sometime! :-)
However, while there are a smaller number who continue in this fashion for several months, most babies start needing more routine and help falling asleep by the time they’re 3-4 months old, if not sooner. By this time, they have more of a set number of naps they need (3-4), and it’s also critical for them to go to bed for the night early (6:30-7:30, usually). Prior to this point, your baby may’ve stayed up with you all night, sleeping on and off, and just going to bed with you when you did. That wasn’t a problem before, but at this stage, it’s becoming one. For most babies, this is the age when you start developing a healthy routine- whether you’re able to just put your baby down and have them fall asleep on their own, or you nurse them to sleep and lay them down, or wear during their naps, or wear to sleep and then put down, it’s likely they may need help, or at the very least, guidance. They need you to read their early tired signs, which happen long before the cranks come out in full force, and help them fall asleep. For some babies, that means being at home, or being in a quiet environment, distraction-free. For others, it means very minimal effort. Each child is unique and will have different needs.
Early sleep signs include a slowed-down pace, yawning, droopy eyelids, slight lethargy, etc. Each baby’s just a little different, and each parent has to learn how to read their baby’s sleep signs. I had to learn what Vivi’s were, and learn how to watch for them- it wasn’t something that came overnight.
From there, life in the sleep journey typically just gets easier. Eventually, they drop to 3, then 2 naps, and finally, 1 nap. They may also reach points of being able to stay up till 8 or so. For most babies, once you’ve established a healthy routine, it just gets easier to put them to sleep as they get older.
Just like in our journey with Viviana, if your baby is sleep deprived (which doesn’t take very long- within just a month or less of unhealthy sleep it can be set in fully), it may take extra effort initially, for a month or two. But it more than pays off! You might have to settle in for a few months of centering your life around your child(ren)’s sleep needs….and especially with a difficult baby, it may take all your extra time everyday. But the end results are so huge, and so incredible- and so worth it. By the way…don’t automatically discard the idea of your baby/child being sleep deprived. I know so many babies and children that look desperately sleep deprived all the time (all times of the day), but whose parents don’t see it- probably because they live with it and assume it’s just normal. If your baby/child hasn’t been getting the healthy sleep they need, chances are very high that they are, to some degree, sleep deprived. Unlike what’s commonly assumed, babies can’t make up for lost sleep themselves. It doesn’t just automatically happen. It makes sense that if a baby was extra tired, they’d just sleep really well/long- but it doesn’t work that way.
Healthy sleep is a journey….and it can be a really exciting one! It’s exciting to see so tangibly how the decisions we’ve made for Vivi have influenced her life so positively- one of those decisions being for healthy sleep. But it’s also one that involves sacrifices and commitments, for the sake of your baby/child’s well-being. Just like with other aspects of parenting, though, the rewards reaped more than make up for the small sacrifices. And in the long run, to speak in self-centered terms for a moment, it makes your life so much easier, because a happy baby is much easier (not to mention, more fun!) to take care of than a cranky, sleep deprived baby. Viviana and I are best of friends and constant companions. She’s an absolute joy to be around, as anyone who knows her now will testify to. And while there are many factors, at least part of that owes to being well rested.
For more reading, consider these resources:
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth. This book is in depth and has a lot of research and the science behind sleep needs. He brings up studies showing permanent effects of healthy/unhealthy sleep, talks about sleep needs for different ages, goals to strive for, and more. He also gives ideas for putting babies to sleep. I don’t agree with him totally in this area- while he isn’t a totally cry-it-out philosophy, some of his suggestions tend that way, which is something we disagree with. (I believe his main premise with all this is that if you catch your baby at just the right time, they won’t cry for more than a few minutes. It’s better than standard cry-it-out, but that’s not the case for every baby, and in any case, not a direction we’re willing to go in or encourage.) However, all the research in a very readable format is fascinating and well worth the read.
The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley.
The Baby Sleep Book: The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Rest for the Whole Family by William, Martha, Robert and James Sears.
These two books share some research and information about needs, and are largely just practical books on the how-to, especially if you have a difficult baby, and have issues soothing to sleep- or are totally new to the parenting/baby game and want ideas under your belt. Both encourage gentler methods of sleep-soothing. I really appreciate Sears’ perspective on “nighttime parenting”, too, since you hear a lot of complaining on that end…although that isn’t something we touched on in this article. Maybe that’ll be a part two edition. :-)