By Michelle Lang previously published in Birth Issues, Fall 2009
Last summer, I visited a mother and she shared some challenges she was having getting her children sleeping through the night. After this visit, I decided to write an article to help pregnant moms and those with toddlers. Our newest baby was sleeping 7 hours each night by 6 weeks. I believe she was sleeping through the night so quick because we had a fabulous delivery, she was born in the spring, and I avoided all my previous pitfalls. I breastfed for three years the first time because it comforted her and provided her fluids when she was suffering (owies, needles, illness) and provided endorphins to help both of us sleep. These reasons kept me going when I was lacking sleep. She was finally sleeping through the night after she was fully toilet trained. Some of the challenges I faced were: I was suffering from childbirth trauma, she vomited frequently, she thought 2:00 a.m. was bedtime, she didn’t want solid foods, and her sleeps were two hours at most.
I addressed my guilt surrounding her lengthy hospital stay so that I could sing, laugh and play with her. I wasn’t aware of traumatic childbirth workshops so I wrote a complaint letter and sobbed and this brought most of my healing. I did my best to keep peace in my relationships and get my work done. I asked for specific help and graciously thanked those that provided that help. I decided to trust my husband and not bother arguing on any topic when so miserably short on sleep. I kept a master to-do list for tasks that could wait a month or more. I added tasks to my day timer that I was truly committed to doing. I was behind on stuff, but I was okay with it. If I got too far behind, I would ask for help. I would start each day with a task that energized me, like washing a full rack of dishes.
I found that I read further along in books when I recorded my progress in my day timer. I started a task-at-a-glance list that had columns such as ‘When Baby’s asleep’, ‘When Ken’s home’, ‘When Baby’s awake’, ‘When home alone’. When I woke up from a nap and baby was still sleeping, I would either shower, do diaper laundry, fill my water bottles, or prepare grab foods such as hard-boiled eggs, sliced cheddar, a smoothie or a veggie plate. I would keep a pad of paper and pen handy so that I could jot down the fleeting thoughts regarding solutions, ideas, and imminent tasks. I had ongoing lists for errands, packing list, diaper bag, repeated costly mistakes and guests coming. When learning something new, I would start a new page and write down all the details and keep it in a safe filing place.
I asked Ken to do shopping and errands because anticipating big days would rob me of sleep. Outings would stimulate her and she’d fall asleep while I was awake. I found that my milk supply was less if I nursed outside of her room, if my breasts got cold, if I missed my naps, or if I didn’t drink water often. I would drink water two ounces at a time so that it would go to my cells and not to my bladder. I would freeze water in a bottle to drink on hot days. I kept my daily vitamins in an ice cube tray so that I could see whether I was taking them regularly.
My biggest time wasters were: baby vomiting, overcooking food, and losing things. I prepared a ‘breastfeeding rules’ list for myself regarding delaying second latch, burping, checking the smell of her breath, being awake, and avoiding choking. When she was ready to nurse, she would be very gentle in her touch towards me, my face and my breasts. Otherwise, she would thrash, pull hair and hit. A sneeze or a hiccup would shut down vomiting completely. A few swallows from my emptiest breast would get rid of hiccups.
When using the stove, I would cook on minimum heat and set a timer. I used the microwave timer to remind me to take iron supplements between meals because it would beep three times and then turn off. I used the stove timer for cooking food, laundry, making daytime phone calls, and other time-sensitive tasks. I would write a note beside the stove to remind myself why I had set the timer. I kept my cell phone on vibrator mode and used it for waking up early. Toaster ovens were helpful because they would cook for up to an hour and then shut off automatically. Cooking turkeys and pots of soup or chili made my life easier. To avoid losing things, I would make sure I was alert and well nourished before handling important things. I would do certain tasks in only one room to contain it.
When I needed excitement in my life, I subscribed to Above Rubies, met a new friend at children’s programs, created a DVD of her photos and pictures, ordered Chinese food, planned a fun event, put items on hold at the library and reviewed children’s books. I would borrow books on cassette such as Christy, the Anne of Green Gables series, and First Things First. I would watch a movie in 15-minute intervals and think it over during the day. I would keep a current address book so that I could stay in contact with people.
My goal was to have five hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. I attributed her short sleeps to her being cold, low humidity, illness, house noise, having a poop coming, needing to burp, or being uncomfortable. Once she fell asleep, I would often wait out the 25 minutes to see whether she would really sleep. Her pediatrician had told me ‘Babies need three things to grow: food, warmth, and sleep. If babies get cold, they feed more to produce additional energy to warm themselves.”
My daughter was born in the fall and together we survived a very cold winter with -40 degree temperatures. I would undress her in the very warmest room, which was the main bathroom. Sometimes she would fall asleep in there during a diaper change because it was so toasty warm in the room. Before her bath, I would turn up the heat in the house and warm up her towel and clothes on the heat vent. During the day, I dressed her in layers with loose pants under her sleeper so that I could remove the pants if her diaper leaked without having to remove her entire outfit. I could also replace the dirty outer sleeper without her losing much heat. I started keeping a thermometer in her room and used it to determine a temperature for each of her bedtime outfits. Her room was cold when her door was shut so I used a heater that would steadily raise her room temperature to 19 degrees. I found that an electric heating pad made the crib too hot.
She would sometimes fall asleep on her own during the day, but at night she would need to nurse to sleep. Just before falling asleep, a burst of heat would come from her neck and I captured it in swaddling blankets. I wrapped her in a soft blanket, a small blanket, and a large blanket. She would wake up whenever I transferred her to the cold crib so I started nursing her to sleep on the twin bed in her room. She would stay very warm dressed in layers, swaddled in blankets, and the heat she produced would stay underneath her.
My very best sleeps were sleeping with her this way. Sometimes she would wake up, touch my face, and go back to sleep. When I would wake up, I would find that she was clutching my hair or her head was on my hair. Upon waking, I would pull my hair out of her fist little by little so as not to wake her. I would surround her with rolls of blankets so that she wouldn’t roll off the bed. At nighttime, I would dress warm so that I’d fall asleep right away upon returning to my bed.
On cold nights, the heater would pump heat into her room non-stop. This was a problem because she needed high humidity levels to recover from colds. I would turn down the heater, close the heat vents in other rooms, and dress her in her warmest sleepers. I also hung her clothes up to dry in her room for respiratory reasons and to provide extra humidity. When her nose was really stuffed up, I would turn on a hot shower in the bathroom or roll up a piece of one-ply toilet paper to pull snot from her nostrils. When I noticed that she was drowsy and moved less and less, I would burp her well, check her diaper, clear her nose, replace her sleeper with a nightgown, eat something, shut her door, darken the room and turn on white noise.
When I was expecting guests, I would nurse her to sleep somewhere loud and then transfer her to her bed. I found that she slept through noise better when she was in the noise while nursing to sleep. Generally, she would wake up to every noise such as the garage door opening, front or back door opening, the door bell ringing, the phone ringing, a loud TV commercial, someone emptying the dishwasher, laughing from another room, her door opening, or even sweater buttons rubbing on the crib railings. For white noise, I played music, turned on a fan and eventually resorted to a very loud humidifier. When her door was closed for hours, her walls would drip. After a few months, she was warm, healthy, and accustomed to her room noises and she no longer needed the humidifier going or her door to be closed.
I made notes about what time she fell asleep and what woke her up. I noticed a trend that she was sleeping from 3:30-5:30 p.m., 2:00-7:00 a.m. and 7:30-11:00 a.m. When we turned our clocks back an hour, she would fall asleep an hour earlier for quite a while. I was able to move her bedtime back to 11:00 p.m. by feeding her solid foods in the morning, doing morning outings, eating my 2,800 calories earlier on in the day, waking her from nap at 2:00 p.m., and starting the evening routine at 4:00 p.m. Her evening routine consisted of meals, cluster feedings, bath, toys, brushing teeth, cuddles while reading books, keeping warm, gentle music, and then nursing to sleep.
I found that I was struggling to keep my weight on because she wouldn’t eat solid foods. I did my best to feed her solid foods at consistent meal times followed by breastfeeding. I followed a suggestion of feeding her sauerkraut to increase her appetite and it worked. I provided variety by rotating her menu every second day. I kept a list of Day 1 foods and Day 2 foods and chose from them during the day.
Children can be uncomfortable due to clothing, blankets, strange surroundings, digestive troubles or diaper rash. I picked her most loose, comfortable clothing for night time, avoiding clothes with snaps on the back, rough tags, seams up the back, or zippers. I tried to remove clothing tags without destroying the garment. Early on, I would find her with both of her feet in one leg of her sleeper. I tried to reproduce her womb environment by letting her bare feet touch each other, crossing her arms across her chest, putting something firm against her back, and keeping her room as dark as possible. Slings imitate the womb environment very well.
I used a flashlight instead of a nightlight so that she wouldn’t be stimulated and wake up. I kept the baby monitor light away from her eyes. I found that there’s no point cluster feeding in the dark. I nursed for a few hours so I would leave the light on and read a book or magazine that opened flat. Listening to a book on CD would lull her to sleep as well. I put her to sleep in the same position and location every time. When going to a buffet or to church, I would nurse her to sleep at the restaurant so that she’d sleep and I could eat.
I’ve heard two mothers tell me that their child stopped crying and started sleeping once they eliminated milk from their diet. I also found that eating too much fruit or foods high in citrus, vinegar, or grapes gave my children diarrhea. I tried to only eat junk food with a large meal. I did my best to forgive others and to alleviate stress because these seemed to ‘sour’ my breast milk.
With our newest baby, I learned how to bring her to the toilet to poop and sometimes to urinate at six months. This saved me time and improved the condition of her skin. I learned to put her on the toilet in the night instead of nursing her. I learned that feeding on demand is better than scheduled feedings. Although it is recommended to switch breasts after each feed, I would lose track of which breast I had nursed from last, and so I started nursing predominantly from my left breast from 8:00 am until noon and then switched sides each four-hour time frame. During cluster feeding, I would allow her to nurse from both sides.
I also was more willing to risk waking her up in order to change her diaper or to get that last burp. If she would fall asleep after a heavy feed, I would hold her upright and sway ten times to get out her burps. I involved her big sister in my daily tasks and had to alter her bedtime routine. We ate at 4:00 pm then bathed together, then ate again at 7:00 pm. Our adult daughter moved out and so I moved the crib into the empty bedroom. I read books to her while I breastfed and then we cuddled together in a double bed. Once they were both asleep, I moved Baby to her crib. I visited a Naturopath during the summer and he told me that I wasn’t absorbing vitamin B1 from my foods or my vitamins. At his suggestion, I started taking Benfotiamine and this made a big difference.
Here are some things that fathers can do to help: delay making large purchases (vehicles, homes), avoid buying new electronics for her to figure out, avoid surprising her, prepare snacks that she can eat with one hand, wash pots and pans, write notes for her with questions, shadow her for an hour at different times each day and watch her, fill up her water bottles and put one in each room, do errands and shopping, sleep at regular times and be rested, quiet the house around 9:00 pm, spend time burping baby and keeping her outfit clean, vacuum when babies are awake, do up a will so she feels secure and learns how much you trust her, and take lots of pictures and videos. Also forget trying to change her or her methods right now, instead help her cope! You can overlook mama’s mistakes and correct them, and only mention them in she asks about it. Smile at her making sure she knows that you are not laughing at her. Thank her for all she is doing and encourage her to drive the car once in a while. Fathers can best help by asking her how they can help and being reliable.
My advice to new moms and those that are pregnant is to be gentle with yourself during this time and to conserve your energy. Keep asking for help. It’s good to avoid difficult situations. Your well-being affects baby directly. It’s good to begin thinking about how you intend to continue with meal times and routines. Make small commitments to yourself such as ‘If I step on it, I’ll put it away’ or ‘As I enter a room, I improve upon it slightly each time’. Decide that you have truly done your best and refuse to let guilt or worry rob you of sleep.
Michelle and Ken were married 15 years ago, at which time he had been widowed for five years and was nurturing his son and daughter on his own. She worked full-time as he home schooled them for four years. She now helps her husband in their business, works part-time from home and is actively involved in community politics and in her church. Since her VBAC, she has become an advocate for women, helping them to avoid traumatic childbirth experiences. She enjoys watching IMAX films, playing walleyball and badminton, and going camping.
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– Alberta Health Services. Strategies for Helping Your Child to Go To Bed. Tip Sheet #1. Early Intervention Program