Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Night waking is normal... sleep training for mothers

Yesterday I woke up feeling rather desperate after another night of incredible activity. Bella woke so many times I lost count. She is teething, so unlike the usual quick cuddle or feed back to sleep, she stayed awake for ages each time. In a panic that she will never ever sleep through the night I posted a question on my two favourite forums, and the Continuum email forum: Has anyone successfully trained a co-sleeping babe? The answer was no. I am so glad I asked.

I am serious. The responses I received restored my faith in what I already knew to be true: 1) that babies are supposed to wake at night and 2) that eight months is way too early for sleep training. I just needed reminding.

To spend long hours in a deep, lone sleep may be desirable for western parents but it is not a natural state for a baby. It is the result of being placed far away from human warmth and physical contact and, as expert James McKenna clearly explains below, is biologically entirely inappropriate for several very good reasons:

“(Physiologically): Born with only 25% of its adult brain volume the human infant is neurologically the most immature infant primate of all, the slowest developing and the most reliant on its mother for the longest period of time for physiological regulation and support. Indeed, nothing that a human infant can or cannot do makes sense except in the light of the mother’s body.

(Breastfeeding): Human infant milk composition, characterised by its low protein and fat content and high lactose, necessitates short intervals between breast feeds making human mother–infant co-sleeping not only expectable but biologically necessary.

(Security): Moreover, mammal infants whose mothers leave them to sleep alone in nests neither cry nor defecate until she returns (to lick them) so as not to attract predators. Human infants cry and defecate spontaneously when their mothers leave indicating that the constant physical association between them is evolutionarily stable and appropriate.

(SIDS): The supine infant sleep position evolved in tandem with both breast feeding and mother–infant co-sleeping (an integrated adaptive system). It was only after breast feeding was replaced by bottle-feeding and solitary infant sleep environments replaced maternal–infant social sleep that recommendations to place infants prone (i.e. on their stomachs) for sleep made sense, or was even possible. But it was a tragic mistake that led to the deaths of thousands of Western babies from SIDS. Several studies show that without instruction, the supine infant sleep position is universally chosen by the breast feeding–co-sleeping mother as it is extremely difficult for the breast feeding infant to move to initiate and receive a breast feed while sleeping next to its mother on its stomach, the most dangerous position for an infant to sleep. Western parents paid a big price to learn that!”

I have already written about co-sleeping here and here and you can read the whole of Mckenna’s argument at So rather than extol the virtues of co-sleeping again today, I just felt like saying how lovely it was to receive so many responses that reminded me that allowing my baby to do what comes naturally to her, waking to feed or cuddle, is the best thing I could possible give her right now.

The usual reaction to my confession that my eight month baby wakes every two hours at night to feed is: “What are you going to do to change this?” When I say “Nothing, look how happy she is!” I feel that somehow this is not the answer they were looking for.

“But what about you?” they reply. And they are right. As caring friends they remind me that I need to look after myself. I do tend to look exhausted and sorry for myself when I talk about Bella’s sleeping habits, so I can hardly blame them. This is where another response came to my rescue: sleep when your baby does, rest when you can, concentrate on as little else as possible other than your baby. (I.e. Bella is not the problem, I am!)

I felt ashamed when I read this response because this is advice I am constantly giving out to other mothers, but have ceased to practice myself. I have written a whole bloody book about letting go, and allowing my baby to lead me; about giving up control and living in the moment, for me and my baby’s sake. Four years ago I chose not to earn any money for the foreseeable future in order to allow my children to develop as naturally and peacefully as possible. And yet here am I considering training my baby out of her natural, biological, behavioural patterns for the sake of a good night’s sleep, so that I can carry on with life as normal!

I have learnt a lot of lessons today, which both Bella and I are going to benefit from. She will be able to carry on as normal and I am going to enjoy the moment instead of worrying about the future. Beginning right now. I'm off for a nap.


Gayle said...

I’m going through exactly the same thing and it’s really hard. My first child, Josie, woke every two or three hours until she was 15 months old and it eventually took some gentle encouragement from me to get her to give up her night feeds. It surprised me how easily she changed her pattern. I truly believe that it was because she was ready and the night waking had just become a habit which both of us no longer needed. My second baby, Margot, nearly eight months still wakes every two or three hours too - so they are very similar in this respect. Knowing how happily Josie changed her pattern sometimes makes me think I should be encouraging Margot too, but it just goes against my gut and I just know that she’ll be over a year before I do.

What worries me though is that it not always just about me selfishly wanting a good night’s sleep. Often I worry that my constant state of sleep deprivation really hampers my ability to be the mother I want to be. Often I’m so tired that I’m snappy and inconsistent with Josie and sometimes the telly is on because I can’t summon up the energy for the park. I barely see my husband because I have no energy in the evening to stay up for more than an hour after he gets home. I feel tired unhealthy and for me with that goes loss of confidence and self esteem. Is this really best for my children?

Also something else I’ve noticed is that lack of sleep has totally destroyed my memory .I can never remember what I’ve done the previous day let alone the first year of Josie’s life and that saddens me.

Maybe I’m just having a bad time of it like you at the moment, but sometimes I think scientists can make pronouncements about what’s right in an ideal world and whilst I often agree with what they say, it’s not always easy to translate it into reality. Sometimes looking after yourself has to be just as important without the feeling as if you are failing you children in some way.

Urgh I’m too tired to decide what to do!!!

Georgie said...

This is a brilliantly expressed comment for such a tired mother! I really feel for you and totally agree with lack of confidence, affect on relationship with children and husband etc. I suppose the ideal is that we do nothing other than look after our children, but how do we sleep with them when one is not napping? I know that in my case I can go to bed much earlier and that when I do I can cope well. But I have an easier situation in that my daughter is at preschool every morning and Sophy is around the house. I really have no excuse. But your situation is much harder, Josie is younger and you have them all to yourself for most of every week. Ultimately I do not think either of us are in for a better night's sleep for a long time unless we do some serious sleep training, which neither of us want, so the only thing we can do is try to sleep more when we have the opportunity. Can you try to nap when you have some help at home or when J is at preschool? I have started lying down with Jemima and having a sleep at about 730pm for a bit - a power nap I guess - and it helps calm me down and get me to bed earlier. I'm also too tired for much of a coherent comment right now - so will go to bed and come back for more tomorrow! At least second time round we know it will pass and that when it does we will miss our tiny lovely squidgy babies who like to cuddle up at night! GXxxx

JaneyV said...

I'd just like to add my little 10p worth too. I breastfed my daughter for 17 months and she woke every night while my boobs were on offer. The day I stopped (my decision this time) was the first night she slept through. She's always been a fantastic sleeper and I believe that the fact that she always had the breast when she wanted for as long as she needed it was responsible for that. By 17 months she no longer wanted it during the day and I knew she was just using me as a dummy at 2am. This is why I gave up.

My youngest son, however was much like Bella in that he fed every 2 hours for the first 6 months. He rarely slept for more that 20 minutes during the day [he was very collicky] and I never got a complete 3 hour sleep cycle in all that time. I was at the point of thinking I was suffering from PND because all the joy of motherhood I'd felt with my first two was absent. I was a mess. Then one night I slept for 5 hours on the trot and I woke up a different woman. The fact is sleep deprivation is a torture and the symptoms are very much like depression. As he started eating proteins he went for longer between feeds and life got a whole lot sweeter. I know I was a better mother when I had quality undisturbed sleep. It's the disruption of our sleep cycles that's the killer. At 8 months he certainly slept with us a lot. I don't think I even contemplated sleep training till he was one and had stopped being breast-fed. Even then it was more because we have a 4'6" bed and he's a kicker! He's 4 now and he still comes in at night. I think he likes the company and the warmth. Once the summer comes and it's hot I know he'll choose his own bed over ours.

Kat said...

Millie started sleeping through the night from three weeks, we thought we were so lucky. When she started waking once a night for a poo at four months we weren't too fussed (although a little more tired). This is when we started co-sleeping, she wanted to be near us and we had always wanted her near us but had been swayed by others' opinions (and the baby whisperer). At eight months or so she started waking more frequently and feeding, which she had not done since the early days. Now at nine and a half months she is still waking regularly. Last night I think I was awake off and on from 1:30 - 5:30 when my lovely husband took her and let me sleep until 8. I am really pleased to hear that I'm not alone in thinking that babies don't need to be fixed or trained. She obviously needs this (the Winch BF counsellors put it down to major growth and development at this stage) and I am happy to provide it. She's also finding napping alone difficult - I had to move her onto Dan to write this comment :0) I just keep thinking 'this too will pass' and as hard as it is now, I will miss it when it has passed.

I have read and enjoyed the extracts from your book. I kept wanting to comment but all I could think of to say was: 'I like it, I want to read more.' big chunk but I'll get there in the end.

maddy said...

"Often I worry that my constant state of sleep deprivation really hampers my ability to be the mother I want to be". How wonderfully articulated, Gayle! I feel exactly the same with a 22 month old who is yet to sleep through the night - granted the 2-3 hour waking phase has passed (around 15 months I guess) but he's still awake at least twice in the night (either suffering from a night terror or for no real reason that I can fathom) despite sleeping in bed with me. I feel that it is Ruby, my 4 yr old, who incidentally didn't give me a good night's sleep til she was beyond 2 (and then I used and adapted Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution), who bears the brunt of my tiredness. How guilty do I feel? Very!
I have no energy or time to 'train' Dylan, a la Pantley. To be honest, I don't know if her methods would work for him and so I have resigned myself to being permanently tired knowing that this will not go on for ever!
The night terror experience is another thing entirely and not simply just waking in the night.
Anyway, it's nice to know I'm not alone...x

Georgie said...

Ah Maddy you are not alone! It is so lovely to hear everyone's experiences. Today I slept in with Bella and feel so much better. She woke up so happy after a night of hourly waking (teething but also I think she sensed I had given her the green light!!) and has this gorgeous habit of laughing out loud when I offer her the boob! She did it a lot at the parent teacher meeting last night which was quite embarrassing but very sweet too. I am just trying to embrace all of this, but not being so tired helps! I have to say though, yoga is a great substitute for sleep. I must write about how it has helped energise me = that can be tomorrow's post.

What I was thinking is that modern western life makes it so difficult to do as we see fit for our children. If we all had big families who lived with us and supported us and cared for each other's children, well napping etc would be possible. Although I don't ever remember seeing any mothers napping in Africa! They worked all day in the fields with their babes on their backs. BUT they were all asleep by 8pm... which means no time for anything else... (which obviously matters less to you if you live in a hut in a village with limited electricity! Or does it - someone has to grind the flour and dry the beans and collect the water before going back to the fields and we all know who that is! The answer is to have lots more children, who will do everything for you. No no, that would mean many more years of sleepless nights.... hmm, the answer for me is to have B right next to me, stick her straight on the boob and then I hardly wake and we are both asleep within 5 mins.

Thanks Kat re my book! We are off to Vietnam in April so I shall continue to publish more... Gxxxx

Mangy said...

Gayle I really feel for you! My memory is shot to pieces and tiredness is not doing any of the important relationships in my family any good either! I semi-co sleep!! By that I mean that I put Henry down in his cradle by my bed and when he wakes (an hour or 2 later!) I have been feeding him lying down and he continues to nap all night. I should explain that he is 5 1/2 months old and still exclusively breast fed. The upside of this is that we both sleep fairly well and he snacks all night.

The down side is that my back is killing me for sleeping in the same position all night and I wake in the am with very full breasts even though he has been feeding.

Therefore on closer inspection I realised that he only swallows once in 5 sucks so really think he is using me as a dummy. Whilst I don't really mind about this, I discussed this with the breast feeding counsellor who suggested that as I am quite flat chested!! perhaps I should have gravity on my side!!

The upshot of all of this is that the last few nights I have tried feeding upright - it pains me as takes 20mins or 30 mins or so but I then settle him in his cradle at end of my bed and he sleeps for twice as long as before - ie 2-3 hours rather than snacking every hour or so.

Don't know if this helps and have to say my resolve is weakening so that by 5am he comes into bed with me until waking up time.

I definitely feel better and less stiff though and feel as if perhaps he has been sleeping more deeply too as before he seemed more grumpy during the day...

would love to know if anyone else has had this experience...

Georgie said...

Thanks Mangy! I'd be interested in knowing if others have been helped by this. I feed lying down and she seems to really drain me so I am not sure if it is a problem for me. BUT I will try it tonight and see if it makes a difference. B doesn't snack though, she wakes every two hours (when all is well) and has a good guzzle. She seems genuinely hungry, although more food at bedtime makes no difference! (tried filling her up with porridge)

LIke to know what others say too. You should post this on as well maybe? GXxx

30 Minute Mommy said...

Great post! My doctor mentioned sleep training at my LO's 6 month visit and I just smiled and nodded. I am not going to get into it with him. I know I need to find a docotr who thinks co-sleeping is ok and sleep training early on is not- but that is not an easy task.

Georgie said...

yes tis so true. But I hear there is a good article in British Medical Journal about SIDS and co-sleeping so perhaps you could take that along and wave it in his face next time? Going to check out your blog!

Anonymous said...

Mangy, I thought to share my story with you because I actually did a similar thing with my 3.5 month old and it really helped. I found that if I had my son beside me feeding at night, he would eat a little and fall asleep. I would fall asleep as well. This would take place all night long. We'd fall asleep and he would wake up an hour later and wake me up wanting to feed again and so on...I was absolutely exhausted from waking every hour all night. I also had a horrible pain in my neck from sleeping on my side while feeding. In addition, he was struggling with horrible colic throughout the day. All of this was affecting all my relationships and my ability to parent my 3 year old. So after much thought and some research, I changed my ways. Now when he wakes to feed, I sit up in a chair with him, feed him (draining one breast per feed), when he falls asleep, I change his diaper (we are using cloth so I want to change it every 3 hours or so). The diaper change wakes him up a little and he eats more until he falls asleep. He is now eating every 3 (sometimes 5) hours at night and we are all much happier including him. The feed and diaper change does take me about 30 minutes but its worth it. I learned later that with the very short feeds he was getting only the foremilk which may have been abseting his digestive system. He is much happier (no colic!) now that he is draining each breast completely and getting the high fat hindmilk. In hindsight, I feel like I was helping him create this habit of waking up every hour contributing to the daily digestive discomfort. Now, this worked for me after I assessed my situation and realized what we were doing wasn't really working for either one of us. It doesn't mean this is for everyone of course. Kasia

Georgie said...

Oooh this is interesting! Mangy and Kasia I will have to post about this properly, using your words if I may, as it looks like many of us could benefit from this! Tried it last night with B and she did not even want to feed! Very interesting. But I will wait and see cos she is also unwell. Thanks for sharing! Gx

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative information - I enjoyed reading it! I always enjoy this blog. :) Cheers,