One Baby to Two to Three... my (very difficult) baby sleep journey
When I had my first baby I literally had no clue what I was doing. I assumed, being a women and being (I thought) emotionally ready for motherhood, how hard could it be?!
This is what we're built to do, isn't it?
Well-meaning advice from everyone came pouring in during those 9 long pregnant months; everything from "feed 4-hourly no matter what" to "don't spoil your newborn or you'll regret it" to "don't let your baby cry at all". To be honest, this advice meant very little to me while my baby was still on the inside, but I smiled and nodded and filed it all away. Weirdly the influx of information abruptly ceased the second my baby was born. It was like some barrier had come down and people, I assume, felt like you can't or shouldn't give advice to new mums. Suddenly, I was a mother and I had no idea what to do with this helpless wee person in my arms, let alone remember or make sense of all the often conflicting information I'd received during my pregnancy...
My daughter was not a sleepy newborn. Now, 3 children later, I realise I do not produce sleepy newborns. Needless to say, I struggled. A LOT. I've detailed it in the blog Why is my newborn NOT sleeping (and screaming instead), but in this article I wanted to look at the difference between parenting my first baby and my second (and third!).
I winged it a lot with my eldest. I assumed that's what every mother did. I assumed that's what we were supposed to do. After I cottoned on to a few things like swaddling and white noise and avoided the overtiredness she was plagued with early on, I still had no real idea about baby sleep, about sleep regressions, about how quickly a baby's sleep needs change, about how milk and solids intake affects sleep, about nap transitions and early waking and under tiredness. About anything really. It was a hell of a lot of exhausting trial and error.
I remember at one point, when she was perhaps 4 months old, I was waking to her every hour or so all night long. I was pretty sure she wasn't hungry all those times but I couldn't work out why she was waking. I knew nothing about the 4 month sleep regression. Everyone told me it was "normal" for my baby to be waking all night long and there was nothing I could do about it.
Eventually we were advised to do VR with our baby at 5 months. This is the sleep training method 'Verbal Reassurance' and it was suggested to me as an option to help her learn to self-settle during the night. After a whole two nights of a screaming unhappy baby (and mother), I gave up.
I felt like a failure and I wondered what was "wrong" with my baby.
I now know how sleep training, of any sort, can't be approached in isolation and I should have been advised to also be looking at her nap times and lengths, her milk/solids intake and timings, her awake hours BEFORE any sort of attempt at tackling night waking...
No one told me.
By some miracle she slept through the night at around 9 months. I now realise this coincided with me going back to work, meaning she had to fall into a more predictable routine with her carer. Even then, we were still battling 5:30am starts, which we had no idea how to fix, nor any idea that this is the hardest sleep habit to break and can set up an early waking cycle that lasts a long time. We didn't break it and horrifically, it's only just come right in the last 6 months. She's 6 years old.
By the time I had my second baby I was determined to do things differently. I knew parenting, or baby sleep, wasn't necessarily an automatic thing, I knew that just going with the flow meant I wound up frustrated and confused about my baby's needs and I knew that with a toddler in tow, I needed something more.
My son was established in a really good, natural sleep pattern and great sleep habits from very early on. I made his sleep my total priority - he was napping at the best times for his age. He was happy and settled in his awake periods. I was able to spend quality time with my toddler while the baby slept in his own bed. He was feeding well, settling on his own. Sleeping through the night with a dreamfeed at 8 weeks old. (NOTE: I did NOT "sleep train" my babies if that's what you're thinking!) The difference to my whole perception of motherhood was incredible. In hindsight, I couldn't believe how unnecessarily difficult I had made it on myself the first time around! I had been told and assumed that stress, frustration, sleep deprivation was just something you HAD to put up with, that it was normal, that it was selfish to want my baby to sleep better.
By the time I had my third, I had nailed it. I had the sleep formula right. I had three kids under the age of 5 and it was less stressful and exhausting than when I'd just had one. I had predictability to my day, structure. I could plan activities and outings for my older kids, confident in my knowledge of the sleep timings and needs of my baby.
Of all my children, the only one who was ever properly "sleep trained" was my eldest. The only one who ever cried going to sleep, was my eldest. The only one who woke all night, woke in the early morning, was difficult to settle, was my eldest. The babies I felt closest to, felt I bonded more with because I was rested and prepared and in a good head-space, were my younger two. The only one who made me question my parenting, had me in tears every day, rocked my relationship with my husband... was my eldest. And she was the one, remember, I winged it with.
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Kitsaras, George et al. “Bedtime routines child wellbeing & development.” BMC public health vol. 18,1 386. 21 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5290-3
Goodlin-Jones, B L et al. “Night waking, sleep-wake organization, and self-soothing in the first year of life.” Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP vol. 22,4 (2001): 226-33.
Perkin, Michael R et al. “Association of Early Introduction of Solids With Infant Sleep: A Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial.” JAMA pediatrics vol. 172,8 (2018): e180739. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.0739