A few thoughts on infant sleep and eating...

Since having a baby, I've noticed that the first question people ask you about your baby after finding out their name, age, and gender, is inevitably, "Is he sleeping through the night?", or some variation. People seem obsessed with having babies that sleep through the night. As I sit here typing, sweet Judah is sleeping. When I first started the post, he was down for a nap, and now he's down for the night. It's a nice feeling, knowing that I have a few moments to myself while he is getting rested. So I sort of get this obsession- it's exhausting getting up with your baby at night. And when you're breastfeeding, you really never get more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep in one stretch right at the beginning, since you are the only one who can feed the baby. It's also wonderful knowing that you can get them into bed during the day and have a few minutes to shower, vacuum, or rest yourself.

But I also feel that people are sometimes a little too obsessed with infant sleep. After Judah was born, the only place we could get him to sleep was in the swing. At first, that was the only place he'd sleep at all. We'd have to put him in either the bouncy seat or the swing at night to get him down. Eventually, he'd go down in his bassinet at night, but still needed his swing for daytime naps. I also often had to nurse him to sleep. It kind of stressed me out - not that I was having to nurse him to sleep, but that I was somehow ruining his chances of ever being a good sleeper.

Around 2 months or so, I tried a little harder to get him napping in his crib and going to sleep without being nursed to sleep. It didn't work. I had a few different books, including Babywise, the ever popular/controversial book about scheduled feeding, as well as numerous books about demand feeding and some that were sort of in the middle. Honestly, though, that was the only way I could get him to sleep. "Crying it out" was not going to work for us - Judah would cry and eventually get so wound up it would make it harder to get him to sleep. And he'd wake up most mornings around 5, and trying to get him back to sleep without nursing was impossible. Every time I was asked about him sleeping through the night, I'd feel ashamed that he wasn't, like I was messing him up. Eventually, I decided I didn't need to be stressed out about it.

So here are a few thoughts I have about the sleeping and eating habits of babies....

1. I don't feel that sleeping through the night is the ultimate goal of parenting a newborn. Yes, it's nice now that Judah is sleeping longer, but I'd rather Judah learn that he can trust me and that I'm going to provide for him what he needs. Now, maybe my years as a med student and resident have gotten me used to functioning on less sleep that the average person. Maybe for people who are miserable and stressed out when they aren't sleeping as well, this would be a more important goal. But since I was happy and functioning fairly well, it was fine with me that he wasn't sleeping quite as long as I'd eventually like him to.

2. After a few weeks of worrying about his sleeping, I had to remind myself that he was only 6 weeks old. Or 10 weeks old. We still have months and months to change habits and get him into a better routine. Sure enough, right around 3 and 4 months, he started using the swing less and less and actually sleeping much, much better in his own crib.

3. I do believe that in the beginning, replicating the conditions in the womb make babies much happier - i.e. the 5 "S"s described in the happiest baby on the block - swaddling, shushing, sucking, side position, and swaying/swinging.

4. In the beginning,I think however you can get them to sleep is ok. We would not have managed without the swing. And I think it was silly of me to feel bad about it. As much as I wanted Judah to fall asleep without it, life was better for all of us when I didn't stress out about it. He never naps in the swing anymore. It was the same thing with going back into his room after we'd put him down at night. When he first started sleeping in his crib, I'd put him down, his paci would fall out, and he'd start screaming. I'd try to wait it out, but he'd just get louder and louder and more desperate. It was much better for me just to go back in sooner, before he got so worked up he couldn't fall asleep. This is not to say that I always rush back in if he makes a peep. But I can tell when he's upset enough that he needs a little extra help. Now, most days we do our little evening routine - I put on his jammies, get him swaddled, read him a story from his bible, sing him a bedtime hymn, and put him down. We use a sound machine, too. And he mostly falls asleep on his own. I also rock him in the chair in his room. I don't rock him all the way to sleep, but I enjoy that evening time of snuggle/rock/read/sing as much as he does.

5.One thing that annoyed me about the whole schedule feed vs. demand feed debate is that the strongest supporters on both sides make it sound like if you don't do it their way, your child is going to grow up to be a hellion or you will have no success breastfeeding and you're ruining your child. I think it's ridiculous. It is definitely possible to be somewhere in the middle.

6. Having a routine is nice - one big benefit of having some time in between work weeks has been getting in a better groove with the eating and napping. We do the eat - awake - sleep routine as recommended in The Baby whisperer. But we do not live and die by the clock. I do not think that Judah needs to eat every time he cries. But sometimes, when he's fussing and won't sleep, has a clean diaper, and I can't do anything else to make him happy, I'll feed him. Even if it's only been two hours. (Normally he eats every 4). But since he's growing, I figure that some days he's just going to be hungrier. I do not think there is any need to listen to him screaming (stressing out everyone) when I can quickly calm him down just by nursing him.

7. There is no need to compare Judah's sleeping or eating habits to other babies. He is his own person and will do things in his own time. My worth as a mother doesn't come from how long he sleeps or how quickly he gains weight. Especially since he's nursing, we're going to develop our own routine. Breastmilk is metabolized differently than formula, so there is definitely no need to compare a breastfed baby to one who gets formula. And women produce milk differently. Some babies need to nurse both sides to get full. Some need only one. At the beginning, Judah seemed to need both sides, but now is usually content only nursing on one side. But some days when he seems extra hungry, I'll offer the second side to him.

Obviously, I've only been doing this for just over 4 months. I'm no expert. Maybe things will change and Judah will stop sleeping well, or will suddenly be much fussier, or I'll have some problem with nursing him. And maybe then I'll rethink my opinions, realizing just how wrong I was. But this is what I think now. My best advice to new moms, as both a doctor and a new mom, would be to relax - every child and family are different. What some people swear by may not work for you. Try to enjoy parenting your baby.

Any other moms out there with thoughts about this?


Emilie said…
you are totally right. every baby is different. I don't think there is a book or method that works for every baby. Jacob sleeps for long periods of time and is pretty scheduled but there are still times when he wants to eat again after two hours or will skip a feeding altogether. It definitely depends on growth spurts, etc. You need to do what works for best for you and your baby and not apologize for it. You know your baby better than anyone else does. I think flexibility is the key. As much as I think schedules are a good thing. . . I think it's possible to be too scheduled. I don't want Joseph & Jacob going to college and being surprised that everyone else's schedules don't revolve around them. :) Joseph & Jacob both sleep best in their beds but there are times when they've had to nap in their car seat or some other random places. . . because we had family plans. So - all those random things to say - I think your post is right on. :)
Elsa Meyer said…
Excellent post. I agree 100%.
Shealy Size said…
Amen! Every baby - and every family - has different needs and therefore sleep/feeding habits will look different for everyone. Why do we moms freak ourselves out by reading too many books and comparing ourselves and our children to others? Good job on reminding us that there is no need for mommy guilt when it comes to our children's habits and routines. Sometimes you just have to do what will make you and children the happiest!
Oh man, the comparison battle! One of the bigger hurdles of mommyhood.
I also took away the eat, wake, sleep pattern and will recommend babywise but tell people just to focus on the eat, wake, sleep. You are so right about every baby being different. I think sometimes it is hard to realize that until you have a second child, esp if you aren't around babies much. It was for me anyway. And, good conscience mothers want so badly to do everything right!

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