Sunday, January 22, 2012

Let There Be Sleep

I know a few things about babies and sleep.  And if I can wake myself up enough to remember them, they come in quite handy.
Basically, I know this: it’s rough.  Getting a baby to sleep so you can log a few hours of personal rest seems to be one of the greatest challenges of new-parenthood.
With my first child, I was so obsessed with creating the perfect atmospheres and routines for sleep that I became obnoxious and irritable and all-around miserable.   Because here’s the other thing I know about babies and sleep:
It’s mostly uncontrollable.
I’d say that the best thing to do when faced with an infant who won’t sleep is to embrace the wild-eyed pandemonium and know that it will pass with time.  But since I’m too impatient to accept such advice myself, I can’t condone it.  The sentiment is true, yes, but in practice, it’s not so much helpful as hopeful.
Instead, over my years of (slightly) fanatical focus on sleep and how to glean as much of it as possible, I’ve narrowed the essentials down to a few steps.  And even if all of these practices are only marginally useful in helping an infant learn to sleep peacefully, I at least feel good about doing something – anything – to keep our family rested.
For us, it starts early: right after delivery.  In order to avoid the fearsome fate of a baby who has his days and nights backwards, we choose to room-in.  The lights and activity of a hospital nursery are vital for those infants who need such care, but most healthy babies only need to be near their parents.  And getting into a habit of dark, quiet nights can’t begin too soon.
Once home, we immediately pretend there’s a bedtime.  It’s undeniable that infants need around the clock feeding and care, so instilling a bedtime seems silly at first.  But remember, it’s easier to start a habit than to change one.
If your newborn is used to heading out to the living room – with a flashing television or glowing computer screen – for his midnight feedings, he might learn that nights are no different than days.  He’ll be ready for action at all hours.  Instead, do nighttime feedings and diaper changes with a minimum of lights.  As hard as it can be when you’re in the glow of admiring a new infant, aim for little interaction in the overnight hours.  Save the cooing, tickling, and talking for first thing in the morning. 
Although it gets said often, creating a nighttime routine is no clich√©.  Babies make connections when events repeatedly occur in the same way.  First comes a diaper change, then lotion, pajamas, lullabies, a feeding, and finally, sleep.  Use whatever methods you’re comfortable with, with the knowledge that the way you begin is how you’ll probably have to continue.  If the baby gets used to a pacifier, swaddle, and rocking before he can fall asleep, he’ll probably require the same bit each night.
When it comes to daytime sleep, my understanding becomes fuzzier.  Errands and appointments and siblings add levels of complication that can make naps very hard to come by.  This is frustrating because all of the experts promise that a well-rested napper will also be a good nighttime sleeper.
It becomes a chicken/egg scenario.   Instead of pondering such mind-traps, may I instead suggest this:
Follow your instincts.  If you have any left after all the sleeplessness, they have to be worth something.

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