Baby Sleep: what can you realistically expect?

The hardest thing about the earliest months of being a mom for me was how little my son slept. I felt like I never got a break, so the hands-on baby care was utterly relentless, and on top of that, he seemed to have absolutely no clue about the sleep milestones he was bypassing! Looking back, I guess he was a pretty happy, predictable, easy to feed baby (and if your baby is mostly unhappy, unpredictable, and a lot of work to feed, I have so much sympathy for you!) and the fact that I couldn't let that be enough and just be happy only added guilt to the feelings of overwhelm, inadequacy, and incompetence that plagued me most of the first year or so of his life.

This swaddle did not have the right magic sleep dust.

This swaddle did not have the right magic sleep dust.

There were several baby sleep expectations I had that my son simply did not. For example, I was under the impression that, especially in the first month, a well-fed baby would reliably sleep 2-3 hours after a feeding. I expected that bedsharing and nursing on demand would result in more nighttime sleep for both of us. I thought that at some point, a tired baby would go to sleep regardless of whether the room was a little bright or a little loud. Even after several disappointments, I continued to hope that there was a swing, rocker, bassinet, or cradle that would have the right flavor of magic sleep dust for our particular baby. And even after all that disillusionment, I still expected that at some point, he would start sleeping longer than 3 hours at a time at night. 

Of course I knew that living with a newborn was going to be hard, and that sleep deprivation hits every single parent on the planet. But like I mentioned in my last post, I spent ages fighting the reality of the situation. I was miserable because my expectations about baby sleep went completely unmet and deep inside, I felt that reflected poorly on me. I felt that obviously I was bad at this or I would have figured it out by now.

Still sleeping?! That was a first!

Still sleeping?! That was a first!

After working with a really excellent sleep consultant, I started getting more rest and more time to take care of myself. Recovering from months and months of sleep deprivation helped me get past the fury and misery I felt every time my son woke up because I was able to see that his sleep habits and patterns were not really an evaluation of my parenting skills! Having since immersed myself in the world of newborns and their parents in my work as a postpartum doula, I have also finally come to terms with the fact that my expectations about baby sleep were just not realistic. Granted, there certainly do seem to be babies who match one, two, or even all of my pre-parenting expectations, but from my observations, I would estimate that perhaps only about a quarter of babies are easy to put to sleep and meet sleep milestones the way that I had expected. And if that is the case, it is really important to try to get more realistic baby sleep expectations into the hands of a majority of parents!

Enter Sweet Sleep - an attachment parenting manifesto and baby sleep guide published by La Leche Leage International. I read a great many baby sleep books and am likely to continue to recommend several of them to my one-on-one clients, but the baby sleep information in Sweet Sleep seems much more realistic than the optimistic milestones and recommendations in the other books I read. So, in an effort to ease the mom-guilt you and your friends who are new moms may be feeling about your baby's earliest sleep habits, I'm offering you my TL;DR (too long, didn't read) summary notes of La Leche League's Sweet Sleep right here. Let's dive in!

The Attachment Parenting Bible

The Attachment Parenting Bible

Sweet Sleep is a great book for new moms who would like to try cosleeping or bedsharing and are looking for guidance to do so safely. The book is divided into 4 sections which are outlined below. These notes are my own interpretations and paraphrases of the key ideas in the book and should not be used as baby sleep recommendations from me to your particular family! 

Part 1: Sleeping Better

When you bring a newborn home, you quickly find that sleeping places are limited. Maybe the hospital advised you to swaddle your newborn and lay them in their crib or bassinet, but the baby cries whenever you put him down. You sit on the sofa to nurse him one more time and find yourself drifting off moments later. You know the sofa is not a safe place to fall asleep with the baby, but you don't want to put him down and wake him up again – so where can you go? 

Have you considered bringing him into your own bed? Here’s the practical bedsharing framework the book is based around: 

The Safe Sleep Seven

Mom – non-smoker, sober, breastfeeding
Baby – full-term and healthy, kept on his back, unswaddled and lightly dressed
Both – on a safe surface (firm-ish mattress with tight, fitted sheet, blanket, pillow for you)

Sweet Sleep suggests that if all 7 criteria are met, your family's SIDS risks are equal whether your baby sleeps with you in your bed or in a crib next to your bed.

Part 2: Mothers and Babies Together

Science says mothers and their babies belong together so much that some hospitals now call them ‘nursing dyads’ – a breastfeeding mother and her nursing baby are one. This togetherness helps both mother and baby recover from the birth experience and allows both to thrive in the fourth trimester. And research has suggested that bedsharing families sleep the most of all the different kinds of sleeping arrangements.

Newborns learn to sleep from mothers: in the 2nd trimester (in-utero), babies are neither awake nor asleep, and dwell in a kind of twilight state. In the 3rd trimester, they begin having noticeable, though immature REM and non-REM sleep, and start to kind of organize it in a pattern based on mom’s hormones, heart rate, stress-levels, and temperature. In the 4th trimester, after birth, baby continues to learn how to sleep via nearness to parents who sleep. 

There is some suspicion that babies who sleep ‘better’ (ie. longer, deeper) in the earliest weeks may be more vulnerable to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or more recently and accurately, SUID – Sudden Unexplained Infant Death). It seems that the frequent wakings that characterize newborn sleep are normal and may even protect newborns from sleeping so deeply they cannot rouse themselves.

Part 3: Practicalities

Napping in the early months can be so hit and miss, so do what works and learn to accept that as the new normal! Don’t be afraid to use nursing to make your baby sleepy and whenever possible, consider nursing the baby in the bed so you can lie down and have a rest too, even if you don’t sleep. If you don’t plan to rest, wear the baby in a carrier – that’s a natural way to get tummy time, and you can get stuff done. If you can manage it, put the baby down in a basket you can bring from room to room – do not let the baby out of your sight in the first 6 months. Napping can be really unpredictable, so try to roll with it – it’s all a phase and will be over before you know it.

Nighttime sleep for many new parents is interrupted, insufficient, and exasperating. Keep in mind, though, that newborns have tiny stomachs and are growing the fastest they ever will, and they NEED to eat often, so don’t restrict feedings at night. Often, consolidated sleep, or sleeping ‘through the night’ totals a 5 hour stretch of sleep, and at some point, even though you've been enjoying longer sleep, baby will start waking frequently again – this can be from teething or from learning new skills – this, too, is normal. After about a year of age, it might be possible to start gently nudging a baby to sleep longer, and separately, but not before then. Prepare your baby’s crib, play yard, sidecar, or whatever you plan to have them sleep in, but even if you are never ever ever ever going to bedshare, make sure your bed is safe for it anyway, because weeks of 3am feedings can make it an irresistible prospect.

Remember, there are LOTS of different baby personalities – some babies are really easy-going and flexible, mellow, and easily soothed. Others seem stressed out, grumpy, loud, and persistent. You can guess which of these types might respond well to so-called sleep training, but even those who don’t protest when being stranded and left to self-soothe may feel quite anxious about it, so consider avoiding sleep training, and remember that your baby’s personality is one of a thousand kinds of normal, and you will get through this.

If mom goes back to work during the day, baby might start waking up more at night to make up for lost time with mom and because they’re missing out on cuddles, snuggles, and nursing. This is good for your bond with baby, and really good for your milk supply – stick with it! One way to cope with lost sleep is to get even more done in the productive morning hours so you can wind down and get into bed much earlier in the evening. Make sure you talk to someone if you’re really feeling like you are having trouble coping. Do NOT feel guilty. This is a really hard time!

All you need for a happy baby is: diapers and wipes, a baby carrier/wrap, and a couple of onesies and blankets.

Part 4: Sleep Ages and Stages

First 2 weeks: baby’s sleep is totally disorganized, doesn’t know night from day. You can help the organization process by staying busy during the day and quieting down at night. During the day, go outside, be active, meet people, and at night, dim the lights, quiet the noise, and promote calm in your activities. 

Week 2 through 4 months: a pattern (NOT a schedule) starts to emerge, so pay attention and work with it. Encourage napping with lots of babywearing and nursing to cue drowsiness. Go with the flow. Baby's circadian rhythm (a 24-hour day) may emerge during this period, but the lower body temperature that cues nighttime sleep in adults may not develop until closer to 5 or 6 months. Do what works.

4 months to toddlerhood: support the patterns; nighttime sleep should lengthen but be interrupted by several ‘regressions’ when baby is learning something new. If your #1 parenting goal is to minimize baby's fussiness, you should try to babywear, bedshare, and nurse all the time – moms who do this have babies who cry and fuss the least of all babies.

That is it! There is also a substantial section about how to practically evaluate and manage your family's risk factors for SIDS/SUID but that is something to discuss with your family doctor. Overall, Sweet Sleep left me feeling like baby sleep was going to be a lot more work than other baby sleep books did, and it also made me feel much less guilty than other baby sleep books for not being able to get my son to meet any sleep milestones. It also made me feel good about the aspirations I had toward attachment parenting and was a good reminder that those instincts were good.

However, the book also inspired guilt because after several months of trial and error'ing, it turned out I did not like bedsharing. And I often wondered whether the authors could continue to offer such happy attachment parenting advice after spending a day or two in my shoes. Additionally, Sweet Sleep does not condone any kind of sleep training and may cause massive mom-guilt if you have tried and failed, tried and succeeded, or have considered removing your children from your family bed or bedroom against their will for your own sake. If you feel a similar guilt, please try to remember this is your life, and your family, and you matter too. This book and the organization that published it have good, sound, optimistic intentions, but you don’t have to follow the advice in this book if it makes it too difficult to take care of yourself. Use what you like, leave what doesn’t work, and get your family as much sleep as you can!

Are you interested in my full, detailed Sweet Sleep notes? Sign up below and you can have them in your email today!

Additionally, I did a series of Facebook Live videos based on Sweet Sleep for our Book Club in my Facebook group, The Moderately Crunchy Motherhood. To watch those videos and hear more about our own experience with our sleep consultant, join me and new mothers just like you in the group!

And finally, stay tuned because the in the next post, we will wrap up this series on baby sleep with a conversation I had with a baby sleep coach. We discussed all our favorite baby sleep issues including sleep tools in the fourth trimester and beyond, cultivating healthy sleep habits for babies of all ages, and how she helps families who contact her looking for support with sleep training! Until then, here's to your sleep!