Empathy and Baby Sleep

baby sleep tipsHighly Sensitive People often need more sleep. I prefer a full 7.5-9 hours each night to be the best mom I can be. Turns out my kids also need their sleep. They are so much happier when naps and nights are restful, so we’ve made sleep a priority in our household.

We had a rough start when our eldest was a baby, but by trial and error we figured out what works best for our family. I’ve tossed all the old sleep books with a million tricks that didn’t work. I’ve banished the idea of “cry it out” and the opposite idea of “no cry”. We take a holistic approach to good sleep- biological hacks for their circadian rhythms, environmental hacks like setting up the nursery in a certain way, and a super healthy diet to ensure that digestive issues or hunger don’t get in the way of sleep.  But I think the psychological approach is what really allows babies to fall asleep on their own without a fight. Here’s what it comes down to…

  1. Think like a baby. Let’s think first about what will make baby feel secure at sleepytime. What will build trust between baby and the adult putting her to sleep? Let’s put ourselves in baby’s booties for a bit. Imagine falling asleep in your mom’s arms- you are warm and snug and you can feel her heartbeat. You easily drift off to sleep to the sway of her rocking. Then BAM! 20 minutes later, you wake up in a cold crib alone, mommy has magically disappeared. You cry and cry until mommy reappears, picks you up, and rocks you again. But this time, you better not close your eyes. You need to stay awake or mommy might magically disappear again! And like that, a “sleep fighter” is born. I regret all the times I let Sisi fall asleep nursing, put her in the crib, then snuck away. That must have been scary for her. Sneaking out was no way to build trust.thanks for your support!
  2. Less is More*: R.I.E. Founder Magda Gerber says “Do Less, Enjoy More.” She’s talking about parenting in general: sit back and observe while our kids accomplish things in their own way and on their own time. Free the babies! But I’ve applied that principle to sleep and seen amazing results. My goal is to intervene as little as possible when baby is falling asleep and having partial wakings between sleep cycles. Elaborate sleep rituals are often unsustainable, tiresome for parents, and can be overstimulating to a tired baby (which kind of defeats the point.) I know from experience. Check out Sisi’s overly complicated bedtime ritual here. A cozy Moses Basket or crib, a dark room and a sweet but simple sleep routine are all Matteo needs to fall asleep soundly on his own. Even if he wakes up earlier than I’d like, at least we didn’t invest a ton of time and energy into putting him down. There is nothing more frustrating than rocking a baby to sleep for 30 minutes, carefully placing them in the crib and sneaking out like a ninja, then hearing them wail again 20 minutes later. When Matteo wakes up between sleep cycles, I don’t rush in immediately. I pause a few minutes, reassess the situation, then comfort him as needed or continue to give him space to fall back asleep. We have been doing this since he was a brand newborn. Often, our attempts to soothe are stimulating to babies and interrupt with the natural going to sleep (or going back to sleep) process.
  3. Two-Way Communication: The only infant sleep books I recommend are Cherish The First Six Weeks (for newborns under 6 weeks) and Dream Baby Guide (for infants over 5 1/2 months). Both books stress the idea that good consistent communication is the foundation for a happy, secure sleeper. I bought the Dream Baby Guide book hoping for a quick fix to our sleep problems, but instead I got valuable advice about talking to baby respectfully, clearly, and not sending mixed messages. There is so much room for confusion when it comes to sleep.  Is it nap time or night time?  If I wake up, will mommy nurse me?  Or rock me? Or tell me to go back to sleep?  Is it morning yet or still the middle of the night?  Only we know the answers to these questions, so we must tell baby what’s up with words, routines, and other cues.  They are intelligent and they learn quickly!
  • I talk to my baby in simple, clear sentences: “It’s time to go in the crib and sleep now, bub.” “It’s time to nurse.” “It’s not nursing time, it’s sleeping time.”
  • I also talk via routines: If he wakes up in the middle of the night, going right to the nursing chair means it ok to nurse.  If he has already nursed once that night, I take him to the hallway to be soothed so he knows not to expect nursing.
  •  I also talk via cues/props:  We have a song for when I put him in his zipadeezip.  We use cues like the sound machine and closing the blinds to signal sleep time.  We use cues like opening the blinds to signal awake time.

There are so many times when Matteo will be practically begging to be put to bed.  He will be crying and cranky but as soon as I put him in the zipadeezip, he literally smiles.  He knows what comes next. I shut the blinds and see him yawn.  Then I turn on the sound machine, sing him his special song, tell him I love him, and put him in the crib.  I see him flop over onto his tummy and immediately conk out.  There is no struggle, no fear.  Just the comfort of a good night’s sleep ahead.

*Matteo was a pretty calm newborn, so putting him to sleep drowsy but awake was doable from the very beginning.  Babies with reflux, eczema and other issues may have a harder time with this and may need more help getting to sleep.  But I still suggest doing less- intervene as little as is possible.  That way baby doesn’t have to unlearn a ton of sleep habits that are no longer sustainable.

*Might I also add that this post is in no way intended to shame/criticize/guilt anyone who puts their baby to sleep differently.  I’ve been asked how my babies sleep so well many times, and thought I’d share the approach that works for us.

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