Aug 282011

If there is one universal truth to parenting, it is that all parents will, at one time or another, do some night time parenting. Even those fortunate families who are blessed with “good sleepers” have their ups and downs. Such things as teething, fevers, developmental strides, stressful days and changes in family dynamics can have formerly great sleepers sitting up in bed at night crying for mama. And once we get through infancy, we look forward to potty training trips to the bathroom for our toddlers, and night terrors and school anxiety to keep up our elementary school kids. We are blessed with night time texting and hormones keeping up our adolescents. And then come the anxious nights waiting for teenagers to make it home by curfew. It seems that once we sign up for parenthood, we also sign up for years of disturbed sleep.

Unfortunately, sleep issues are compounded by the fact that no one is at their best at three am. Even the most patient, caring and mindful parents are put to the test when they are asked to be patient, caring and mindful for the 20th time in the middle of the night. What parent hasn’t resorted to begging, pleading, bribing or threatening as we chant the universal nighttime mantra of parents everywhere…”please, just go to sleep!”

Compounding issues even more is the fact that nighttime troubles are not easily diagnosed. Our children may not be able to verbalize what is wrong with them. Is it teeth? Is it a bad dream? Stomach ache? Anxiety? Is it just a case of growing pains? Practicing their new skills? Are they hungry? Or is it just that they haven’t mastered the skill of putting themselves back to sleep when they wake during the night? Doubtless, if we knew exactly why our kids were up, and we had our full wits about us, we would respond to our baby night owls with compassion, tenderness and a remedy that fit the situation.

But the reality is that we don’t know, and most of the time (if we are really honest with ourselves at three in the morning) we don’t really care. Let’s face it, at three in the morning, it is really hard to think to ourselves “Yes! She is on the brink of a developmental milestone! I just cant wait for another opportunity to support my child!”  or “Oh boy!  Another moment to cuddle and and bond!” Nope, We just want everyone to go to sleep. And we don’t just want everyone to go to sleep in this moment – we want the sleep problem to be cured. We want our pre-parenthood sleep rights restored in full.

Unfortunately, trying to convince our children that we will be better day time parents if they leave us alone at night just doesn’t work. Children live in the moment and for some reason, this moment…this three a.m. moment…is the one they want us to help them with. So how do we do that?

Google the words “baby sleep” and one finds 11,600,000 results; A smorgasbord of experts offering a litany of advice, rules, programs and solutions. A quick review of them finds so many contradictory “facts” that it can bring a new parent to tears. Some tout crying it out as the end all be all. Others claim that co-sleeping is the only way to go.  Friends, parents and pediatricians add to the mix. Everyone has a story, everyone has “the perfect solution.” How can they all be right?

Maybe they are all right.

For some babies.

And maybe they are all wrong

For other babies.

Or maybe, they work for this baby this week, but not the next week.

And maybe the solution a particular parent is trying this week, just happens to coincide with a natural change in the child’s sleep pattern development. Anyone who has kids knows that kids change constantly. Just when we think we have their number, they pull the old switch-a-roo and we have to figure them out again. Wait long enough and almost every kid will start sleeping differently on their own.

So what is a parent to do? I fear that the quest for the perfect sleep solution is the holy grail of infancy. Like an anti-wrinkle cream or perfect diet, everyone is searching for the one solution that always works for everyone. That doesn’t mean that the advice out there is bad, or that it should go to waste.  But it does mean that it should be considered and used with perspective. Here are some things to ponder:

  • Remember that even if it’s three in the morning, it’s still parenting. What is your goal? What may be going on with them? As hard as it is to try to think about these things, it deserves your attention.  Offering the right kind of support to your child can help them, and you, get back to sleep quicker.
  • What is the least amount of intervention you can give to help your child sleep on their own? The ultimate goal is that when your child comes out of a sleep cycle, they roll over and go back to sleep, rather than call for you to help them. It is easy to pull out the big guns (e.g. breastfeeding, no pun intended) when something simple like hearing your voice would suffice.
  • Remember that whatever support you offer your child, you are teaching them to go back to sleep using that intervention. (E.g. needing to be picked up or rocked or nursed every time they wake up.) If we want them to eventually do it on their own, we have to guide them towards that. “Cry it out” methods take the jumping off the deep end approach, “co-sleeping” is the other end of the spectrum.
  • What works for your family? No matter how sound the advice, if it doesn’t work for your family and your child, it’s not the right advice.
  • What feels right in this situation? Listen to your inner mama (or papa). She (or he) may just know something.
  • Remember that this will pass. All stages, are just that. Stages. The good ones pass too quickly, the difficult ones too slowly, but they all pass.
  • Give yourself permission to try different things. If it doesn’t work, try something else. It’s okay.
  • Talk it over with your partner during the light of day. Have a specific plan and try to stick with it.
  • Remember, when you are up in the middle of the night, you are not alone. Mama’s and papa’s everywhere are right there with you. Chanting the mantra…”just go to sleep…please.”

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself, your baby and your partner.  Families have been dealing with sleep issues for generations and somehow we all get through it. Whether you find something that works for your baby or just white knuckle it until they grow out of it, you will get to sleep again. Funny thing is, that seems to be about the time parents start thinking about having another baby.

 Posted by at 10:06 pm

  2 Responses to “Nighttime Parenting”

  1. Wonderful post, Darci. One message I cull from it is that parents need to learn to become adept at self-experimentation. Rather than rely on scientific studies or anecdotal evidence of what works for some/many babies and families, it’s important to actively study what works for each child and each family. As you point out, this means picking out an approach and sticking with it . The other important part is tracking how well it works. This sounds obvious, but I know it’s something I’ve had to learn (am still learning) and I have a fairly scientific mind. So we need enough data points (enough days/nights of trying) to actually show an effect plus the persistence to actually make a note of what happens and look for trends (rather than just rely on our memory, which is quite poor when we are sleep-deprived). Also useful, and this is really hard when you’re desperate:changing one significant thing at a time so you can actually determine whether what you tried is having the desired effect.

    Thanks for a great post and wonderful blog!

  2. Thanks Amiel! Your so right about the self-experimentation. We want parents to be comfortable being the “experts” on their own families, which for some reason, it seems we are relucant to do. Collecting data is an important part of that. I notice that when it comes to children’s behavior we have short memories and two or three nights feels like “forever” and “always”. Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture (even if that picture is only a month or two) can be very helpful in collecting that data and understanding our kiddos (and ourselves for that matter).


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>