A Hot Mess: Sleep Training, Un-training, and Finding Our Way (Part II)

(Continued from previous post.  I’m trying not to publish such ridiculously long blog posts, so I split this one in half for easier reading).

Vacation.  New time zone, new faces, new room, new bed.  Fireworks! (%$#@*&^!).  On the 4th of July Gabe woke up screaming at 1AM and he was inconsolable.  I was sobbing in our bed.  How could we expect him to “behave” while nothing was like it was at home?  We quickly decided we had to do something different.  I nursed him, I changed him, I rocked him.  Tried to put him down asleep in the Pack n Play, but I have since decided that is an impossible task (if anyone out there can manage it, you are an absolute genius).  So when he woke as his body made contact with the bottom of the Pack n Play, I tried patting him back to sleep, for like half an hour, which was really comfortable for my back, lemme tell you.  He wasn’t having it.  I brought him into our bed and snuggled him for the rest of the night, nursing him every couple hours.  I didn’t sleep much, but I knew I was doing what my baby needed.  Still I felt awful.  I had “fixed him” and was now unfixing him.  Like it was all for nothing.  That’s just mean!

And he was definitely unfixed.  We thought he could still GO to sleep on his own since this was a night-waking incident and he had been going down on his own just fine.  Not so much.  While on vacation, he learned to sit up on his own.  So previously, when we put him down, he was stuck there and slept easily, because really what else was he going to do?  But in Tahoe, the game majorly changed, and he would sit up over and over and over and over and over again.  And after a terrible bout of crying the next evening (that still makes me cringe to think about), I said “Enough!” and nursed him to sleep and bed-shared the rest of vacation.

If I loved bed-sharing, I probably would have never gotten myself into this pickle.  We would have all slept serenely cuddled up together, our little family of 3, probably for years.  And I do love love love the closeness, knowing he’s safe because he’s right there (a video screen monitor is just not the same), the kisses and the precious moments.  But as Gabe has grown from helpless newborn to mischievous baby, I find there are many more annoying moments than precious moments (like when a giggly Gabe sits up and slaps my husband in the face — true story).  I hate the terrible quality of sleep that I get when he’s in bed next to me.  I’m sure this sounds crazy to those of you who are able to sleep comfortably with your baby next to you, but I came to prefer getting up out of bed to nurse 3-4 times a night over “just rolling over to nurse.” That way, for me, at least the time I was actually sleeping was better quality sleep in which I could sprawl out and move freely.

When we returned from Tahoe, we started “retraining” after a day or so.  I did not take the time difference into account as much as I should have.  And I shudder to think of those first few nights post-vacation.  He wasn’t tired.  Or he was too tired.  I couldn’t figure it out.  He cried A LOT at bedtimes.  I went in to comfort him A LOT.  I was beside myself.  Sure I was the WORST mom ever.  I figured the 2nd night would be better.  It wasn’t.  The 3rd, only marginally.  And every night during that stretch I cried too.  Stop this craziness and nurse him to sleep? –> more waking –> less sleep –> tomorrow is even worse?  Allow him to cry/fuss longer and sleep on his own? –> my soul is shredding –> my baby hates me –> this is so not worth it?  Bah.  As I type this I am remembering how those July nights made me feel and I sincerely wish I could go back in time and redo it.  It was too much.  I feel that I crossed the line into unreasonable a few times.  It wasn’t palatable to me (and if Mama’s not happy, no one is happy!).  Strangely enough, he didn’t wake much during the night after he initially fell asleep during this time period (at least not at first).  One of those first post-Tahoe nights, I was at a birth once again, and my husband can sleep through anything, so…who knows what happened.  I told myself it couldn’t have been THAT bad if Daddy slept through it.  The next night, Gabe definitely slept through the night.  So on Night 3 — when my breasts had been off-duty 2 nights in a row — and Gabe woke up crying, do you think I wanted to nurse?  No!  I was finally not waking up engorged and in pain!  But he was crying!  And I was frantic, restless, wide-eyed.  And my husband was snoring for snippets until I’d wake him up and send him in to comfort our baby again and again.  We got through it.  And then he’d sleep through the night for a few nights and we’d think we were home free.  But then Gabe would have a *horrible* night again, several times up and crying for over an hour.  And then he’d sleep through a time or two.  Rinse and repeat.  Over and over.  He had no pattern, no consistency, and I felt like we were torturing him.  He did not seem to be learning anything.  I called the Sleep Lady (at 2AM) and asked crazed-psycho-mother questions of desperation.  I called my own mother at 2AM another night and bad-mouthed the Sleep Lady and sobbed to her about my massive failings as a mother.   Gabe got his two front teeth and started CRAWLING.  And pulling up.  (There were more reasons he wasn’t sleeping!  #feelawful #hindsightis20/20  #firsttimemom #thisjobishard).

Just to keep things crazy, we went on ANOTHER vacation at the end of July, this time with my side of the family (Tahoe was with hubby’s side), and to Door County, Wisconsin — think Cape Cod in the Midwest.  More setbacks?  Yes, absolutely.  But not as bad, not on vacation or upon returning home, praise the sweet Lord.  (And/or we just got better (aka more united) in handling said setbacks).  While in Door County, I changed things up a bit.  I didn’t want to bring Gabe into our bed Tahoe-style, but I also felt that expecting Gabe to sleep well in a foreign environment was not fair to him.  And I was so DONE with listening to my incredibly strong-willed child cry.  So I started nursing (and changing and cuddling) Gabe when he would wake up and not return to sleep easily.  I still put him down awake after this, but with a full belly, a dry booty, and some kisses.  He would (and still does sometimes) fuss for 5-15 minutes afterwards, but never the hysterical or prolonged bouts of crying as sometimes happened when nursing/cuddling was not part of the equation (ie when we only offered reassuring words and lean-into-the-crib butt pats and neck nuzzles on set intervals).  Bonus: he would generally still sleep through the night the next night following a night of wee-hours-nursing!  Wahoo!

In August Gabe slept through the night for about 2 weeks straight.  It. was. awesome.  And then…he started standing up without holding on to anything.  He turned 9 months old.  He developed a strep infection on his bottom (leave it to the nurse’s kid to pick up a weird butt thing).  He’s got his 7th and 8th teeth coming in.  He’s doing some serious flirting with WALKING!  And with all that going on, he’s not sleeping through the night anymore.  (Also, he’s just so MY child: passionate, obstinate, attention-seeking, and totally high maintenance).  Depending on the time and his behavior, I either let him “figure it out” on his own (like if its 8:30pm and I know he’s exhausted and he’s just whimpering quietly — generally 120 seconds or less til he’s out again), or I follow what has become the Kim Family Way for “I’m legitimately awake and I’m seriously ticked and you parentals best be helping me out”: nurse upon waking, put back down awake.  As of now, I’m typically nursing once a night, and will do so til this doesn’t work for us anymore.  Is he un-trained?  Depends on how you look at it I suppose.  A better question, I think, is this: Is motherbaby happy?

Motherbaby.  A term coined by birth junkies like myself to convey the oneness that exists between mother and child.  You know, those of us who champion a woman’s right to make her own maternity care decisions are infuriated with critics’ assessments of women as selfish for caring about their birth experiences (“Your baby is healthy; that’s all that matters!”).  To state that it is selfish for women to have desires and feelings surrounding their own bodily experiences — particularly one as sacred as childbirth — is insulting and ridiculous.  The mother is the birth power source!  Of course her needs and wishes should be honored as much as possible.  I am so proud to be a part of women-honoring maternity services.  In the midwifery model of care there is a focus on the integration of mother and child as one beautiful unit (“motherbaby”) as opposed to thinking of the woman only as a Petri dish and eventual expulsion system.  What’s good for the mother is good for the baby.  Helping a pregnant woman minimize her stress simultaneously optimizes a baby’s growing environment.  Supporting a mother in labor is protective of her infant’s birth outcome.  Teaching a mom to breastfeed equips her with a powerful tool and her baby with perfect nutrition.  Is is crazy, then, to postulate that teaching a baby to sleep better (in whatever way a family prefers) is both good for parents AND good for baby?  Good for motherbaby?

I have noticed in “the crunchy club” — the homebirthing, nursing, co-sleeping, organic, all-natural subculture — that there is an insidious undercurrent proclaiming that “good” parents (and good mothers especially) should NOT honor their own needs.  Actually, scrap and resubmit that: They ought to pretend they don’t even HAVE needs.  Except when you’re pregnant — then it’s cool.  Mother blessings, weekly massages, time off from work, a 2nd slice of pie — whatever you need, honey.  But if you’re bun is no longer in the oven?  You WILL wear your baby every day, even if your back hurts.  You WILL use cloth diapers, even if you hate laundry.  You WILL stay home with your baby, even if you feel deprived of adult interaction.  You WIlL nurse your baby back to sleep 4, or 6, or 8 times a night, no matter how exhausted you are…

Does anyone else see the irony here?  Why are we honoring women’s needs in pregnancy and birth, and then telling them they must be perfectly needLESS once their babies are born?  It makes me very angry actually.  I want to stand up and scream, “NO!”  I want to tell my fellow mommy friends that it’s OKAY to be HUMAN!!!  How much postpartum depression can be traced back to the expectation that mothers be *perfect?*  How much suffering — or absolute tragedy — happens in the wake of PPD??!  This matters!  This is not fair!  Mothers DO have needs and we NEED to be told we can have them!  Our needs are normal and they deserve acknowledgement and they deserve to be addressed.

Also…what is the higher view of babies?  That in their helplessness they require our assistance with everything from falling asleep to rolling over?  Or that they are capable and can learn to do all kinds of things if given the chance (when appropriate)?  (I’m actually asking!  I think it’s debatable!  I think babies OF COURSE require and DESERVE our help!  But I’m also convinced that they are not helpLESS!  This hybrid of thinking is perhaps why MY personal strategy of nurse/put back down awake suits me well).

My advice?  (If you don’t think I’m totally off my rocker by this point)

1. Do NOT go on vacation with a baby after sleep training!!!  Just don’t do it.  SO NOT WORTH IT.  (And/or WAIT til after your vacation (or move, or big life change, etc) to start putting your baby to bed awake).

2. Do NOT go from nursing 3X overnight to only pumping a little bit one time the next — DUMB MOVE!  I woke up with a clogged duct in late June after doing this, and NEVER regained my supply on that side, which still bums me out :/  (Thankfully, but also annoyingly, my opposite breast has more than compensated and is darn near constantly full.  #workhorseboob). Take it from me: if you decide to eliminate night nursing, do it gradually.  Either slowly reduce the number of nursings, or actually pump a *significant amount* and cut that back slowly over a week or more!

3. Related to #2, if you are anything like me and if your baby is anything like mine, consider NOT completely eliminating night nursing.  You can have the “best of both worlds” — nursing your baby at 3am when he is distressed AND putting him down awake afterwards to ensure he sleeps longer/more soundly.  I’ve found it makes for a happier mama and a happier baby.  (And happier boobies!).

4. I’ve learned that there are good and bad times to attempt sleep training from a developmental standpoint.  When we first did it at 6 months, that was golden.  I think 5 months would work well too.  But once baby starts sitting up on their own, crawling, pulling up, etc…it’s so not fun.  So not nice.  They are changing so much during those times; their sleep is already wonky regardless.  Asking more of them…it’s a fight and a fight I’d like to avoid like the plague.  Personally I think 7, 8, 9 months is a horrible time to sleep train.  (I can’t vouch for 10 months because I haven’t lived it yet, but I doubt it’s awesome).  (On the other hand, I think “enforcing” bedtime sleep training before 4 months old is unfair and not reasonable and I personally would not feel ready to ask that of any future babies until closer to 5-6 months).  So…I’m thinking 6ish and 12ish months are good times.  In between?  Not so much.

5. A baby who gets 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period is much happier than a baby who only gets 11.  A well-sleeping baby is not only good for parents.  It’s good for baby.  Proof is in the puddin’.

6. Sounds trite but I think it’s so applicable in this case: listen to your heart.  Your mama instincts are powerful and generally right on.  If I’ve nursed Gabe and checked his diaper and comforted him, and when I leave the room, he pitches a fit for a few minutes but quickly calms down — I can play Candy Crush through the crying and just glance at the monitor every so often.  If  I haven’t nursed/comforted him, if Dad going in hasn’t helped, if the crying is escalating and the minutes are dragging — I melt into a hot mess and start bawling myself, eyes locked on the monitor screen, totally distraught.  And I’ve learned to listen to that.  When Scenario B happens now (freaking sleep regression), I go to my baby.  Regardless of what the “rules” say.  We made up new rules.  I nurse, I coo, I sway, I deposit clearly-sleepy-darling in crib.  Enter Scenario A.

7. Most importantly — do it your way, not my way.  Take your own advice.

My regrets?

1. Not blogging for months because I was THAT afraid to be honest about how my husband and I decided to approach Gabe’s sleep.  I really thought I might be the victim of some legit mommy bullying.  How sad is that?!

2. Not realizing faster that rules are meant to be broken.  Amended.  Edited.  When we first starting sleep-training Gabe in June, it happened to be during a difficult season of life.  My family was going through some painful changes, and I felt pretty powerless.  Following the Sleep Lady’s protocol to a tee was something tangible that I could control.  If I do ABC, XYZ will happen.  Deviation from “the plan” (and a highly detailed plan from an expert, no less) felt too risky.  This is getting a little deep for my blog, but I’ll just say that my life circumstances were such that I felt I needed order.  Direction.  A plan.  So I followed it religiously.  Can’t do anything about where I was circumstantially, emotionally.  But in hindsight, for everyone’s sake, I personally think it would have been better for both me and Gabe to never attempt to fully cut out night nursing (at this time — obviously we’re not going to do this forever), for the reasons I mentioned above.  3am is no time to try to be “strong.”  Prompt nursing, a few minutes of snuggling, and putting baby back down awake is the Kim Family Way.  Peace of mind = check.  Works for us.  I guess it’s only natural to wish I had come up with that sooner.  (Sorry, sweet boy — you’re the guinea pig first child.  Mama knows how that one goes!).

That’s all, folks.  That’s my story (or saga, rather) and my musings.  I’ll leave you with this: I read recently that only good mothers worry about being good mothers.  I take so much comfort in those words.  Because that means I am a good mother.  And I bet it means you’re a good mother too. ❤

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One thought on “A Hot Mess: Sleep Training, Un-training, and Finding Our Way (Part II)

  1. I’m so sorry you felt like you would be judged. Sadly, it’s so much easier to judge people online than it is face to face. People who can look a mother in the eye and say “you’re doing it wrong” either don’t have kids or need a good dose of plank-pulling-before-speck-pointing! We need to be encouraging each other, not tearing each other down. Thank you for your honesty!

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