Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sleepwalking Through the Early Months

Bless her heart--fabulous Catherine Newman is writing about sleep training this week. I've gushed about Catherine's column before, and if you knew me back in the desperate newborn days of 2004, you would have thought that at times her words were the only thing keeping me sane--or at least laughing through my tears.

With baby #2 almost here, amidst my excitement, I've also been thinking a lot about the hardest (what an inadequate word!) parts of parenting an infant--the things I truly dread having to live through again. The whole issue of "sleep training"--or whatever you choose to call that whole process--is one of them. In our house, with our first baby, sleep was an incredibly fraught issue. It--or the lack of it--in large part defined the first seven months of Julia's life, and of my life as a new mother. By the time she was 4-6 months old, Julia basically didn't nap--at all--unless she was in my arms after a nursing session, and then only if I didn't move or speak, the phone didn't ring, no one knocked on the door, a plane didn't go by overhead (we lived near the airport, so...), and the toilet didn't flush elsewhere in the house. She always, despite my best efforts, fell asleep on the breast after nursing, and she never--and I mean NEVER--slept through the transfer from my arms to the crib. She never slept in the car or the stroller. I never got a break--those stories I'd hear of other mothers having a reliable two-hour stretch in the day to cook dinner, or do laundry, or shower or take a nap themselves, seemed like a different world to me--and I felt totally alone. I didn't have any friends with babies in my city, and I didn't know any stay-at-home moms nearby at all. The cumulative sleep deprivation of multiple nighttime nursings paired with no naps during the day left me overcome with exhaustion and desperation for months on end. I didn't know how I would survive it.

I knew in my gut that the popular "sleep training" books weren't right for Julia then, but I was still vulnerable to the judgments of those who felt that letting a newborn "cry it out" was the one, true way to sanity and happiness for the whole family. Until she was six or seven months old, our occasional attempts at the cry-it-out method were disastrous, and I knew that although the zealots would say that was only because we didn't let her cry long enough--we should have persevered for 2 hours, or 3, rather than 1 or 1-1/2--I knew in my mother's heart that Julia-- colicky, difficult-temperament, highly-sensitive survivor of a complicated and protracted delivery that she was--was not neurologically capable yet of the self-soothing it takes to learn to sleep. My only comforts during those days were some of the gentle, supportive writings of grandfatherly Dr. Sears--finally, someone describing babies just like Julia, who was like no other baby I'd ever known or read about!--and Catherine Newman's column, wherein a couple of times she mentioned her family's own sleep travails and unconventional solutions, and also said something to the effect of, "If our babies can learn to sleep, so will yours, and everything will work out okay no matter how you choose to put your children to sleep." No judgments, no lectures on the only "good" way to teach a baby to sleep. Just this: I know what it's like; we didn't follow the books either; and everyone's fine now.

In the end, Julia did learn to take naps. It ended up being something she sort of "grew into," just as I knew it had to be. As she got a little older and her brain became more developed, she seemed to "settle" a little bit, and gradually--and sort of suddenly--she napped. Granted, for another year (until she dropped the morning nap), her naps were rarely more than a half hour long, but it was something. As for nighttime? I hardly remember what we eventually did, but I know we didn't "train" her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime until she was about 6 or 7 months old, and we didn't night-wean her from her last nocturnal nursings until soon after that. By then, though harrowing, it wasn't as bad as I feared. I still believe it worked then because she was neurologically, developmentally ready.

It all sounds so mundane, and unemotional, to a non-parent---I know, I was one once. But looking back, it was absolute torture--all those months of sleep distress, the pacing back and forth listening to the screaming and wondering which was the right thing to do. The nights felt like they would never end; the non-napping afternoons felt like a weight trying to crush my eyelids closed. The books and the zealots made me feel like I'd done something wrong to have a baby like that, while at the very same time, deep inside I knew--I just knew--that it had nothing to do with me, that it was the baby I was given, with her hyper-sensitivity to noise and light and texture, with her jittery infant soul.

How is Julia now? She naps, almost every day. But for her, 90 minutes is about all you can expect; it's a good, solid nap. Two hours, or more, is an extreme rarity that prompts calls to Christopher at work, e-mails to my mom, out-loud marvelings the whole rest of the day: "Can you BELIEVE she slept for 2 hours?" For a very long time, almost a year and a half, she successfully put herself to sleep at bedtime with nary a peep and generally slept 12 hours straight, unless teething, sick, in a strange environment, etc. I think. Actually, now that I think about it, I dimly recall long spans of multiple nighttime check-ins, when she'd wake up crying because her blanket wasn't on anymore, or wasn't on right, or she was cold, or hot. She remains, as she was as an infant, a very light sleeper (just like her mama), known to awaken from the phone ringing or the toilet flushing or a truck going by outside. More recently, she's begun to protest most bedtimes, calling and fussing in her bed for up to an hour, necessitating myriad interventions, before giving in and falling asleep. Christopher and I have decided to indulge this for the time being, theorizing that she is more clingy these days as the new baby's arrival approaches, and we should both expect and be compassionate about that. All in all, the sleep issue is largely a non-issue for us, partly because Julia learned to sleep better, and partly because we accepted that this is how our child is--that she is and probably will always be a tough sleeper in some ways (who ever heard of a 1-year-old baby who doesn't nap during an entire 3-hour road trip scheduled precisely over naptime?). That sleep has to happen for her in just a certain way, and that it is a delicate phenomenon for her, in need of protection and patience. (I remember vividly the time before she was 1 year old when I realized that her cries at night were due to the feel of a hand-knit baby afghan against her bare legs. Once we switched blankets, she was fine.)

So. We're in a bit of a sleep groove, and a newborn is coming within weeks. And all of this will start again--maybe not in exactly the same way, but it will start again. Like I said, when I consider it, I feel complete, soul-shaking dread. I know there will be nights of sweaty, heart-pounding pacing while the baby cries inconsolably---not just in the beginning, when all newborns scream all night long (don't they?), but later on, in response to the message, No, you can't nurse every hour for any more months in a row; no, you can't be nursed to sleep forever and ever, because I can only do it for so long, and I've done it long enough now. I hate those moments.

So in the end, wonderful Catherine Newman reminds me--and all of you fellow parents out there--once again, in her own inimitable way, that all those phases you suffer through with your babies, the ones you somehow become convinced at the time will never, ever end....well, that they do. They pass. The baby sleeps. You sleep again. You all feel a lot better about life in general.

Someone remind me to re-read her column in a few months?

1 comment:

Jim said...
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