Kai happily playing on his own bed in his own room, post-nap
I've been very lucky in my limited time as a parent so far. Most of the things I theorized about what having a baby would be like have been confirmed by the experience. Not buying a stroller and using slings/carriers instead: totally the right decision. Elimination communication and cloth diapering: Going awesomely. And most importantly, Colin and I made a conscious decision that we would not think of Kai as a presence for whom we needed to change everything; rather, we wanted to try to find ways to integrate him into our life and passions as much as possible. By and large, so far, so awesome.
At the same time, in such a huge life transition there are always going to be surprises! Recently I got a huge lesson in how to let go of my preconceptions and really pay attention to what my child was trying to tell me when we decided to stop trying to cosleep.
Why I hated cosleeping.
When preparing for Kai I knew that I wanted to cosleep, at least at first. It seemed so aligned with all of our child-centered, vaguely-AP style. In our specific micro-culture cosleeping seems to be the established norm. What's not to love? The baby is right there, and I wouldn't even have to wake up fully to feed him in the night. Just roll over, latch on, and drift back to sleep. Right?
For me? Wrong. Although I figured out side-lying nursing pretty quickly, it turns out that I absolutely can't sleep when feeding Kai. Believe me, I tried for almost six months, and almost every time I was awake the entire feeding. Moreover, the positions in which I sleep are not compatible with having an infant in bed (too much blanket bunching and cocooning). And again, believe me when I say I tried to teach myself to sleep in different positions. For months. It didn't work. For what it's worth, Kai didn't seem to like sleeping next to me, either. Even when I tried to make it work, whenever he slept next to my body, any time he came into contact with me his instinct was to push and stretch and kick until I moved away. (Gee, Jess, maybe you could have taken his hint that he needed more space?)
We got around the sleep position issue by having our mattress on the floor and placing a crib mattress alongside it. When Kai woke up, I pulled him into our bed, fed him, and put him back on his mattress. Easy peasy.
For the first couple of months, it WAS easy. His sleep was fairly straightforward - consolidated at night with two or three wake-ups, and overall trending towards gradually longer stretches at a time. When he was one day shy of two months old he slept for seven hours straight, and I thought I had won the baby lottery.
Ha ha ha ha! Literally the very next day, the slow reversal began. His trend towards longer stretches flipped and the time between waking to nurse got shorter and shorter and shorter. Within a few weeks he was waking every hour and a half on average - sometimes less frequently, but often more.
Maybe if I had been able to do full-on cosleeping, where I really could just roll over and feed him and fall back asleep, this would have been manageable. But as it was it took a huge toll on me. Colin tried to convince me that having Kai in the same room as us was disrupting his (that is, Kai's) sleep, that Colin and I were waking him up in the night, and that and maybe it was time to move him to his own room. All I could think, though, was that this couldn't possibly be true. Babies are evolutionarily designed to sleep with their family, right? I blamed the sleep issues I was having on me and my inability to sleep through feeding. Moreover, I thought moving him to his own room wouldn't change anything, and thus would involve me getting out of bed seven times a night. Ugh. This sounded like even more of a nightmare than sleep already was.
What caused us to change our approach.
Cue our six month pediatrician visit in mid-December. The doctor asked how sleep was going, and we told her. I put a much more positive spin on it, mind you, because I was still convinced that I was Doing the Right Thing, as much as I wasn't enjoying it. And although Dr. Meezan was careful to emphasize that we should make our own choices, she gave us her pitch: we could either full-on commit to long-term cosleeping (like, potentially until age 2 or 3 or more), or we could consider moving Kai to his own room while he was still a younger infant, before object permanence set in. She even recommended sleep training, if we were up for it; Ferber and other Cry It Out options were mentioned.
Colin was immediately on board, but I was more skeptical. CIO sleep training was one of those things I thought was pretty black and white regarding my own parenting practice. Although I didn't buy the argument that it does long term damage to children (I personally believe they are more resilient than that), I was utterly convinced it was the wrong choice for *me*. But Colin and I talked it over and we decided that we would at least give it a try even though I was still reluctant. The worst that could happen was some rough nights and finding out for sure that it wouldn't work for us.
How we started the shift.
We couldn't start him in his own room right away, because we had a two week period of family and friends coming to visit for Christmas. Not exactly the best time for sleep training. This turned out to be a blessing, because it meant that we were able to ease into it. I believe that this was absolutely key to what happened next.
At first, I started to try and stretch out Kai's first feeding to a little bit later. His first sleep stretch was always the longest, usually around two and a half hours. So instead of feeding him at 10:30 when we went to bed, I pushed it back a little bit more every night. We aimed for midnight. He kept waking up at his old feeding time and there were a few rough nights of crying, but we didn't do the CIO-alone thing. We patted and held and comforted and helped him go back to sleep without feeding. The crying stretches got shorter and shorter: his body adjusted to the new schedule, and I could clearly tell he was no longer waking up hungry before midnight. After midnight I fed on demand for the rest of the night.
Two weeks and this was fairly solidified. Though he still woke up a bit when we came up to our room to bed, he was going back to sleep more easily. Then came the Big Night when we put him on his floor bed in his room.
We were prepared for a TERRIBLE night. We had all the Ferber timetables cued up and ready to go.1 Even people who succeed with Ferber talk about how the first few nights are the worst, and that one should be prepared for a couple hours of full-on screaming for the first week. Gulp. I planned to do feedings at, I think, 12:30 and 4? I was really dreading it, especially since I still wasn't fully on board with the whole plan.
So, what happened?
Um. He slept for six hours. I fed him when he awoke at 1:30, and then again when he woke up at 5:45. After which he slept until 7:40.
So apparently I have a kid who, uh, likes his own space. Not that he tried to tell me that before or anything. Ha!
For two more nights, he woke up twice, around 1:30 and 5ish. And then? THEN. He transitioned, on his own, to pretty much only waking up ONE TIME. Since then, that one wakeup has been trending later. Last night he slept for nine hours, ate, and then slept for another two and a half. A couple of times he's slept through entirely without any feedings. For context, just five weeks ago he woke up eight times.
This still boggles my MIND.
For full disclosure, we did end up doing a few Ferber-style progressive-checking CIO instances. But truly, only a few. Like maybe five, in the past month, all near the beginning of the process. And generally the crying is mild (more like fussing) and only lasts for 5, maybe 10 minutes at most. Then he puts himself back to sleep.
Was this, like, magic?
It sure felt like magic. Still does. Although I believe moving him to his own room was the biggest, most crucial part of this shift, I actually think there are a bunch of factors at work here.
*He was showing signs of changing sleep patterns. Right around six months his naps suddenly shifted (with no effort from me) from these random, 20-45-minute catnaps to a very regular two-per-day schedule. Morning naps suddenly extended to anywhere between 1-2 hours. I think he was ready to consolidate more, and I'm not convinced moving him to his room significantly earlier would have had quite such a dramatic result. (Though it probably would have been a big improvement anyway.)
*He started eating more solid foods on top of still breastfeeding a lot, and thus way increasing his daytime caloric intake. This boy LOVES TO EAT, and I think the solids definitely helped curb the reverse cycling2 thing he had going on.
*Having him in another room meant we really LISTENED to his cries. I finally learned to distinguish his half-awake fussing cries from his full on I-need-services cries. Instead of swooping in and ensuring that he woke up fully, giving him 30 seconds or a minute to work it out and go back to sleep changed everything. And, of course, our noises were no longer waking HIM up (I now think Colin was right on the mark there).
The important lesson for me.
Here's the thing. I had this idea of what nighttime parenting SHOULD look like. In retrospect it clearly wasn't working, yet I was unable to see that another approach might be appropriate. Even though Kai was giving me signals about what he needed that I just wasn't receiving. Going forward, I think it is important for me to remember this experience so that I can more critically examine the choices I make.
I know that this doesn't by any means guarantee perfect sleep forever. Ha! If only. As the awesome Moxie says, sleep is not linear. We've got the supposed 8-9 month sleep regression on the horizon, to say nothing of the adventures we're sure to have with our choice of foregoing the crib for a floor bed. But I think I can be pretty confident that the nights of seven, eight, or even nine wake-ups are unlikely to return in any significant long-term form. And I can guarantee you that Kai, Colin, and myself are ALL better off for that!3
1For those who are unfamiliar with the Ferber CIO method, it involves checking and briefly comforting the crying child at increasing intervals until the child falls asleep. There's more to it than that, but that's the gist.
2Reverse cycling is where a baby tends to feed more frequently at night than during the day. This often happens when breastfeeding mothers are working during the day, though clearly it can happen even when the baby is with mom all day.
3Well, at least, not 'til we have another kid. Haha.