Let's Talk About Sleep, Baby

Re: Sleep deprivation, sleep training, lessons learned

Sleep while your baby sleeps, they say. Well, it's a bit trickier when you have a toddler to juggle too. If I’m able to, it’s because of visiting Grandparents. Generally, here's how (lack of) sleep worked out with two kids.

It’s no secret that unless your brain is wired to be superhuman, the lack of sleep directly equates to a lack of ability to think and plan effectively. If I can’t plan effectively, then “WTF am I supposed to do with my day again? I know there’s a lot, but [brain fart].” …some call that Pregnancy Brain, some call it Mom-has-way-too-much-to-keep-track-of Brain. But these are the cards we are dealt with as women who decide to produce offspring(s).

In moments of self-doubt, I do have to keep in mind that it’s normal for occasional brain lapses to happen, and it happens to even the best of Moms. Before folks get all melodramatic about it, it’s only a 3% deficiency in the brain, which has an outcome equivalent to men trying to multitask. It does go away and a part of the recovery process, recommended by all medical professionals, is sleeping while my children sleeps. If I’m able to, it’s because I have help from visiting Grandparents. When I’m not, this is how it went down, in two phases:

Phase 1 - Sleep deprivation:

It’s bound to happen. Sleep vs. Feed Baby vs. Eat vs. Work vs. Self Care: You can only choose one, whatever you choose WILL be interrupted by the others, and ALL are crucial for survival. Needless to say, the first 3 months with either kid were brutal. The second time around was definitely less mentally stressful, but with two kids, there’s rarely an opportunity to nap during the day when the kids nap. They either didn’t sleep at the same time, or if they did for a little bit, I’d celebrate by eating something that’s still hot..or lukewarm.

The only time I did get to sleep was night time, in between feedings. With child #1, it was either waking up to nurse, sensitivity to baby’s every move, or fear of SIDS (apparently a common new-parent problem). With child #2, it was baby being such a voracious eater and growing so rapidly that I needed to nurse him every 1-2 hours. This resulted in unplanned, unregulated, power naps being forced upon me by my body during the day. There were times when I’d suddenly feel physically weak and need to crash. Then, Husband would have to drop everything he’s doing and take over, so I can nap for an hour or two, until I have to wake up and feed baby. Fortunately, this too has passed.

Also, after the first go-around, we realized that - as much as he wanted to be actively involved in alleviating the sleep deprivation for me, aside from changing the occasional middle-of-the-night diaper - Husband was frustratingly unable to help with much at night. Therefore, I made the decision to take on all night time duties with baby #2, except for diaper changes. If I’m going to be sleep deprived anyway, might as well enable Husband to get a full-night’s rest and be functional for work and toddler duties. That was another blow to my sleeplessness, but it made strategic sense. In exchange, he took over all the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, heavy lifting, etc. Not going to lie though: Postpartum nursing life has probably shaved a few years off my life expectancy. But then again, so will global warming.

Phase 2 - Sleep training: Time to get my sleep back!

As soon as baby seemed capable of sleeping for more than 6-hours at night, I passed the sleep-dep baton to Husband after the last feeding of the day, and he started the arduous process of sleep training, commonly referred to as the “Cry it Out” method. Formally, it’s called the Ferber Method, which is a scientifically proven way to train kids - as early as 4 months old - to fall asleep on their own. Baby #1 started at 4 months, baby #2 at 5 months. Husband spent two weeks tops getting screamed at by our child in-training; checked in after 5 minutes by patting baby or repeating the same “It’s time to sleep, I love you, good night!” - without picking baby up, then wait 10 minutes and repeat, then 15 if necessary, etc. etc. until baby realizes that crying is not going to result in more cuddles or nursing; finally gives up; and starts sleeping on her/his own. Once successfully trained, both are now asleep by 8:30pm and stays that way until at least 6am! Glorious!! A few caveats:

  1. If you’re a nursing Mom, it will break your heart to hear your children cry and deliberately refrain from feeding them. My husband had to force me to stay in our room when he’s in the middle of sleep training, because the second I intervene / baby sniffs me out, he’ll have to start the training all over again. I was initially not mentally prepared for this gnarly counter-intuitive experience, so there were lots of “Are you sure I shouldn’t…?” or “Let me just go in and…”….NOT HELPFUL. I should’ve read the book, or at least this, so we could be on the same page.
  2. The crying will trigger lactation even though I thought baby had already emptied my supply for the night.
  3. Sleeping with earplugs sucked. Dad has to have the stomach for it. We had to keep in mind that Ferbering our baby is a long-term benefit for us and baby to get better sleep. Even though it means Dad will potentially be as sleep-deprived as Mom for 2 weeks, it was worth it for us. The trick was to plan for the training to happen when we don’t have overnight guests at the house, and hopefully work is relatively less demanding.
  4. When we used to travel with baby, every time we changed time zones for more than 2 days, there will be a sleep regression. So the return home always involved re-training our kid again. Sometimes they come back stronger and harder to retrain, sometimes it’s a piece of cake. It really depended on our child’s stage in life and the circumstances. Returning from first China trip at 7 months: It’s as if we never trained her before…had to start over. Returning from Christmas in Ohio at 8 months: A bit easier, but still needed a week to get back into the swing of things. Returning from back-to-back weddings in Salt Lake City and Chicago at 14 months: Teething was worse than sleep regression.
  5. To the neighbors, it probably sounded like child abuse. Thank goodness we’re surrounded by understanding parents!

My Lessons Learned:

  1. Baby moving and making weird noises at night is actually a sign of them in REM SLEEP!! It definitely woke me up when we were in the same room, but once I knew I didn’t have to check on them or refrain from waking them up, I gladly obliged.
  2. SLEEP = SELF CARE! When I couldn’t pump enough milk for #1 - and the NICU nurses had to formula feed to keep her alive - it was because I was so stressed out from waking up on a scheduled alarm every 2 hours to pump that I forgot to shower in the process. When I finally stopped alarming myself and just slept a bit longer, and took a nice hot shower, the milk came. Should’ve known: When Mom is cared for, baby is cared for.
  3. During sleep training, baby needs to be in a SEPARATE ROOM. If it means they go in the walk-in closet with a baby cam, so be it. If we have to give up our room and sleep in another room for a few weeks, so be it. Knowing that my second will most likely be my last, I did try to squeeze in some more middle-of-the night cuddles with #2 before enforcing crib time in preparation for Ferberization.
  4. OBSERVE & LISTEN CLOSELY. It’s amazing how well babies communicate what they want and don’t want! Half the battle was watching them and figuring out their habits, and they pretty much told me what I needed to do. #1 wanted to be rocked to sleep, #2 preferred not to be rocked and simply needed a proper burp before going down (he “told” me by spitting up on me until I learned). #1 was a professional escape artist and did not want her arms swaddled at night, #2 couldn’t sleep unless he’s properly swaddled and snug for the first 3 months. Once fully fed, they were both obviously more comfortable and slept longer on their own than with us around…and that’s when I knew I had to let go.
  5. POWER NAPS ARE PRECIOUS. Keep trying to sleep when kids are asleep, even if it means sacrificing Husband time…he’ll like me more when I’m alert and able to register what he says anyway. Don’t push through the fatigue or risk crashing. If I can’t sleep because my mind is racing: write it down, and then go the f- to sleep!

Some Bright Sides:

Lack of sleep brought about some pretty weird hallucinations and made the whole period easy to forget. I guess that’s why Moms conveniently remember the birthing process in its best light, and opt to do it again and again. I must admit, this period did spark a lot of random thoughts that would have never crept into mind…some might even call that creativity? Believe it or not, I finally got the push I needed to work on my side hustle, and in a more efficient manner.

Because this period force me to reconsider what my priorities are, it especially made me more mindful of my physical and mental health, now that I have kidSSSSS who rely on my well-being for their survival. The global pandemic happening in the backdrop became an unnecessary - yet oddly encouraging - healthy slap to the face.

Written: 2020-05-06

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