Q&A: Nighttime Sleep #1

Shaynee writes:

"I'll start with a parenting favorite: difficulty sleeping. My 10-month-old daughter has never been a great sleeper. For most of her life she has awakened every two to three hours, either to eat (when she was younger) or simply by starting awake. For the last couple of months she has been waking every 45 minutes to an hour--essentially, at the end of almost every sleep cycle. Her twice-daily naps have never lasted longer than 45 minutes, and recently they have dropped to 30 minutes.

For a little background on our sleeping arrangement: She slept in a co-sleeper and our bed until she was about five months old. Since then, she has been spending the first part of the night, when we are still up, in her crib in her room and the rest of the night in our bed. (The more frequent waking did not coincide with moving her to her crib part-time--she was actually sleeping for two- and three-hour stretches in her crib for a while.) She wakes slightly less frequently when in our bed but still typically needs to be patted back to sleep every one to two hours. As a result, I have not slept for more than three uninterrupted hours since she came home from the hospital.

She often wakes up suddenly, crying almost immediately. At times I have been lying next to her and watched her start crying vigorously in her sleep even before she wakes.  She will also roll over and start crawling while she's still partially asleep. This often results in her lodging herself in the corner of the crib, which then confuses and frightens her.

While I don't rush in to comfort her at the slightest peep, when she truly wakes and cries, I pick her up to calm her down. When she's in bed with us, I can pat her back to sleep sometimes, but at other times I need to pick her up and rock her.

To compound the situation, she has been very attached to me for the last couple of months and will not relax to fall back asleep if she's with my husband. Instead, she cries hysterically until I take her. Granted, we haven't pushed the envelope on how long she will cry when he's trying to calm her; after half an hour of infant emotional meltdown, she, he, and I are usually so worked up that it just doesn't seem worth it to keep trying.

Let's see, a few other random things: She doesn't have a toy or blanket that she's attached to which could help her sleep; we've tried various items, with no success--she's simply not interested in them. We give her a pacifier when she goes to sleep; this helps her sleep but she's not so enamored of it that she seeks it out at bedtime. Nursing her will calm her down, but I try to avoid nursing all the way to sleep so she won't become  dependent on that tactic. A recent string of viruses and febrile seizures has made her even more loathe to sleep anywhere but on my chest in the last month or so.

That's about it. I love my little girl, but not having more than an hour or so to myself to do anything not related to her has become trying. Even absent any suggestions, however, simply writing this down has been cathartic. Thanks for the forum."

I suggested propping the head of the bed to see if it would help at all (to see if it was the old favorite, silent reflux). Shaynee replied:

"Thanks for your response. I'll try raising the crib head, although I tend to think it's not reflux. When she was younger and still spitting up (which she did only rarely, maybe once every couple of days), she was never bothered when anything came back up. Also, she used to calm down instantly when I picked her up, but she would not do so for my husband. Now, with all of the viral goodness that has been going on around here, it takes a while longer for me to calm her at night as well because she's congested or coughing.

A couple of things I neglected to mention in my earlier message: As you probably discerned, I'm not comfortable doing sleep training that involves leaving her to cry. I don't mind if she fusses in an "I disagree that it's time for bed" way, but if she's truly crying I don't want her to be alone. Also, about half the time when I pick her up, she has a lot of gas, so she has a good reason to be crying.

Clearly this has been weighing on me, perhaps more than it should. My milk supply has dwindled markedly in the last few weeks, a combination no doubt of cumulative lack of sleep, her increased intake of solids, and a recent medical procedure that required fasting and really screwed up the mammary system, it seems. (Perhaps that's a topic for a future question.) I've also started to question my ability to parent any additional children, not because I think that poor sleeping is a reflection of bad parenting skills or even bad parents. Rather, I'm worried that if this somewhat minor issue causes me such distress, then I would be unable to handle a "difficult" child, such as a baby with colic. Aside from the sleep issues, my girl is a mellow, easygoing kid who rarely cries and laughs often (and who seems to suffer no ill effects or moods from a lack of sleep)."

I don't think sleep is a "somewhat minor issue" at all. I think sleep is a major major (did I say "major" yet?) issue, and is the thing that causes parents the most stress (aside from serious or chronic illness in their children). Someone once mentioned to me that she thought sleep was The Issue for our generation of parents, the way feeding was in the 80s (when breastfeeding started to come back), and the way toilet training was in the 40s. I don't know why this is, but I agree. Maybe we have so many more issues with sleep because our kids don't sleep on their stomachs anymore? Who knows. But I do know it makes most of us feel completely, worthlessly incompetent at worst and totally fried at best.

Anyway, Shaynee, if I were That Kind Of Lady I'd give you a hug. (I'm not That Kind Of Lady, although if I knew you IRL I'd bring over a sixpack and talk trash about celebrities with you while our kids rolled around on the floor together.) Reading through all of this, I think it sounds like you're just the unfortunate victim of a shitstorm of separation anxiety, sickness, and a tough sleeper. You've thought through everything, and I can't think of anything you haven't tried or ruled out. Did the waking crying thing start after a round of vaccinations? I've heard of some kids having what sounds like sleep apnea for a few months after some shots. The only issue I might try to pursue is the gas one. Can you give Beano to babies that young? Will she sleep on her stomach? She's old enough to roll into whatever position she wants to sleep in, but I wonder if starting her out on her stomach might give her a longer stretch. (She's out of the SIDS range, so I, personally, wouldn't worry about stomach sleeping at this age, but I'm not a professional, so use your own judgement about your own child.)

Now for the good news:

The only-being-comforted-by-you thing sounds like classic separation anxiety, which she'll grow out of in a month or two. At which point you won't have to be the sole comforter. It's also a sign of good attachment, so you know you're doing a great job.

She'll sleep through eventually whether you let her cry it out or not. There are millions of us who couldn't/wouldn't let our babies cry and our kids eventually slept through the night. Probably not at 10 months, but by 15 months, yes. There will absolutely come a day when you're annoyed that she only slept 9 hours in a row instead of her usual 10-11.

I think the most immediate problem that you can take steps right now to fix is getting yourself some sleep. Because that's a separate but equally (if not more!) distressing problem. Since she only accepts you as the comforter at night right now, you'll have to figure out a way to sleep during the day. Can your partner take her for 5 hours one (or two) day(s) this weekend so you can sleep? Do you have a babysitter that she already likes and feels comfortable with? (Now is not the time to try to introduce a sitter for the first time. Not that I made that mistake myself or anything.) If so, can that person take her for 5-6 hours one or two days in a row? I don't know if you WOH, but I would sit down with your partner and talk about the lack of sleep problem and make a plan for you to be able to get 5 hours of sleep every day for three days running. If you could do that, then you'd be caught up just enough that you wouldn't be so brittle and it wouldn't feel like someone was scraping the inside of your skull with a spork every time your baby wakes up in the night.

As for not having another kid, well, I'm not going to be the one to tell you it's a piece of cake, because I find it challenging. But the sleep thing isn't as awful the second time around. I think it's because you know what's coming and you know it's not your fault, and you have a bigger kid and know that eventually the little one will sleep through the night like the big one does.

In the meantime, hang in there. Make sure you're drinking plenty of water, and sit down tonight to make a plan to get yourself some sleep. You're doing a great job.