Q&A: partner taking night shift

Audrey writes:

"I’m embarrassed to ask this, but since you’ve mentioned it various times, and in comments to others, I’m finally gonna.  Can you share the gritty details of a dad taking "nightshift" for a frequently-awakening breastfed babe? We’ve got a co-sleeping 11 month old who wakes, oh, every 1-2 hours all night long, and nurses just about every time he wakes up.  I work outside the home (dad is a stay-at-home dad, actually) so I like the snuggle time, and mostly get enough sleep by a wickedly early bedtime.  I have no desire to night-wean–our son is not too much into solids yet, and also since I’m gone during the day, I always worry about keeping up my supply (though no problems yet).

I would love just a couple nights of really good sleep, especially after a few "rough" nights in a row.  But I can think of 2 concerns with daddy taking the night:

1) We live in a small (800 sqft) townhome–I’m not sure I can sleep through the screaming.  I totally agree that crying in daddy’s arms is NOT the same as CIO.  But still, I’m afraid that laying on the sofa while I hear him cry will be far less restful and more stressful than just doing the nightshift myself.

2)  What do you do about feeding?  I can barely go 3-4 hours during the day without pumping–certainly I imagine he’d need to be brought every 4 hours or so to feed during the night.  How does the dad decide when the fussing is hunger vs. anger at the change in routine?"

First of all, I want to say that I’m in no way saying that everyone should try to cut down on nursing with a co-sleeping child (or even with a crib-sleeping child). If you’re happy with your sleeping situation, then it’s great, even if you’re nursing throughout the night. A baby (or even toddler) who wakes repeatedly throught the night to nurse is not going to have any lifelong sleep problems. The only dangers to having a night-nursing baby or toddler in with you are that 1) it makes you tired, and 2) your partner can get kicked repeatedly in the kidneys. If those things aren’t bothering you, then keep doing what you’re doing.

But, if you have decided that you want to cut down on the night waking, one way to do it that doesn’t involve CIO (although it might involve some crying) is to have your partner take the night shift for 3-4 nights in a row.

A note: I think this plan is only going to work for families in which one parent is most usually the one who deals with the night-wakings. My experience is with breastfeeding, but I’m guessing bottlefeeding families in which one parent is the one who always does nightfeedings might have gotten into the "reflex-waking" cycle, too. If the two partners always alternate who deals with feedings at night, this plan isn’t going to do anything for you.

Now, back to the logistics of the "plan" (if you can even call it that): Basically, you find a different place to sleep in your house or apartment. (I’ve been on the couch for almost two glorious weeks, because we have a small apartment.) Then you do the last feeding before you go to bed (for me that’s around 11 pm). If you’re ready to go to sleep and your baby hasn’t woken up, try going into the room where your baby is sleeping and making a little noise to see if s/he’ll wake up and want to nurse. Then, once that feeding is done, it’s all about your partner until morning (the two of you should decide what time is "morning").

One of two things will happen: Your baby will wake up the same number of times s/he usually does, and your partner will have to comfort the baby back to sleep. Your partner will also have to determine when the baby is aqctually hungry and when the baby is just waking up. When the baby’s hungry your partner will have to give a bottle of pumped milk (or, if you’re me and your baby won’t take a bottle, your partner will knock on the wall and you’ll come in and nurse).

The other thing that could (and IME probably will) happen is that without you and your milk there, your baby won’t wake up as often. I know that I can’t go for longer than 4 hours during the day without eating anything, and less than that without drinking anything. But I can sleep for 12 hours in a row with no food or water. A baby may not be able to go 12 hours, but most babies can go a lot longer while asleep without eating or drinking than they can awake. It’s entirely possible that your baby will only wake one time, or even not at all.

How your partner determines whether or not the baby needs to eat is up to the partner. It’s part of their being able to trust each other and develop a relationship that doesn’t have you as the gatekeeper. If you’re nursing, you’re always the one determining the eating schedule, but that doesn’t mean your partner couldn’t do it if given the opportunity. If your partner seems at a loss, help set up some general guidelines beofre the first night of the plan, some signs to watch for. Audrey, in your case, since your husband is at home all day with your son, this won’t be any kind of problem. Your husband will definitely know what to look for.

You should also have some sort of way for your partner to summon you if you really are needed. (For us it’s my partner knocking on the wall between our room and our living room–I can easily hear it when I’m sleeping on the couch. If you have a bigger living space, maybe you can sleep with your cell phone by your head and your partner can call if you’re really needed.) That way you can make yourself relax and go back to sleep if you hear crying, knowing that your partner is taking care of things, because if s/he really needs your help you’ll hear the signal. Who knows if there will even be any crying at all? If there is it will tug at your heartstrings, but you can trust your partner to comfort your toddler or baby.

The question about feeding is a tricky one, because the baby might not even need to be fed, and certainly probably won’t feed as often. When we did it here I just figured my husband would be able to tell when my son needed to eat (we’ve been working on the sign for "milk"), and that’s exactly what happened–when morning comes, El P wakes up signing "milk." If your baby doesn’t sign yet, your partner is going to have to figure it out. If I had a child who would take a bottle, I’d probably pump right before bed and leave the bottle right on my partner’s nightstand so it would be room temperature and easy to get in the middle of the night. But you know what your routine is, so ask your partner how s/he wants to work it, and then make a plan.

But don’t have every problem solved for your partner ahead of time! IME a big part of the experiment is that not only are you getting more sleep, but you’re also not the one in charge at night for a few days. If you’ve planned every detail out ahead of time, you’re still in charge, and you’re not letting your partner take responsibility.

My recommendation is to talk with your partner, pick a start date, and just do it for 3-4 days. See what happens. Your baby may surprise you and sleep really well those nights (and then nurse like a pie-eating contest winner in the morning). You may surprise yourself and sleep through unless you’re summoned. It may go poorly the first night, in which case you should try to figure out if there’s anything you can do to make it go more smoothly the next night (like feeding earlier or later before the time your partner is in charge, for example).

Whatever happens, see if you can stick to 3 nights. That way, even if it doesn’t have any lasting effect on your baby’s waking up habits, you will at least have gotten a few nights to catch up.