There was a time last year where I worried that feeding my baby to sleep was a terrible habit that I’d regret in the future. Hah! I couldn’t have been more wrong. Feeding to sleep has been the surefire method of helping the Rascal relax off to slumberland, and it rarely failed me up until a couple of months ago. Since then, every evening it’s like trying to bathe a cat when it comes to getting him to sleep. Except dealing with the cat would be easier. Why on earth did I ever think that feeding to sleep was a BAD THING?
Well… once upon a time I found myself with a newborn baby, and not a clue of some of the fundamental basics like “How much should my baby be feeding/sleeping?”. I was more or less doing both on demand, but it wasn’t always clear what he was demanding, or when he actually wanted it. After shuffling along for a while in random mode, I found some time to sit down and try to research the answer on the internet. My god, what a rabbit hole of parenting websites and books and advice. It’s a lengthy process to start weeding out the ones with the completely batshit notions, and then start narrowing it down to what might possibly be compatible with your personal beliefs and current notions about how to raise an infant. As I had yet to actually form any strong beliefs in these areas, it took time to rule out most of them. Unfortunately you’re generally led to believe that your baby should be sleeping well through the nights, but in reality few do. For most babies plenty of night-waking is common. It’s tough to deal with, but even harder if you’re under the impression that it’s abnormal behaviour. The topic of babies and sleep is a contentious one, mostly divided along the lines of CIO (cry it out) or not. I decided early on that I was in the not CIO camp.
The most useful looking of the baby books I could find was “The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems”. The title was already promising more than I thought it could deliver. After all, if it really did solve every parent’s problems then surely it’d be common knowledge that this particular book/author was the go-to baby GURU? I thought I’d give it a try anyhow. The logic seemed plausible enough as I read through it. I would later revise my opinions of most of it! But if nothing else, the book was worth it alone just for the sample EASY schedules it provided. I never followed the schedules rigidly at all, but they did give me a vague idea of what was considered ‘normal’ at different ages. Sadly we had totally not been trying to provide the Rascal with anywhere near enough sleep. It was good to know that some extra quiet time would probably be appreciated by him. When it came to sleep schedules, the Rascal did loosely follow some of the sleep patterns. So knowing what to aim for with naps helped greatly with figuring out what worked for him.
The idea is simple. Baby eats when they wake up (Eat). Baby plays for a while (Activity). Baby sleeps (Sleep). During which it’s You time (You). In practice, the You time was eaten up by catching up on sleep myself. As baby grows older, the length of time awake stretches out. Key takeaways from the book apart from the schedule is to avoid many bad habits for getting baby to sleep that include feeding to sleep. I dutifully attempted this, but it only worked intermittently. When baby was hungry, baby was hungry. Screw any routines. I did implement a bedtime routine which was of some use. And for a very brief spell the Rascal was content to be put down in his cot after his feed and bedtime routine, babble for a few minutes, and fall asleep. Seemed like the book might be a winner! However then the Rascal turned 4 months old. Hello sleep regression. He also started teething. Hello general insanity. Trying to put him down and let him self-settle was just not an option after this. The few weeks I spent trying to only resulted in absolute misery for both of us, though mostly me. Hours and hours trying to get him down for the night without encouraging bad habits. I eventually realised that avoiding the bad habits was far far worse than doing whatever worked and having a happy, sleeping baby for at least an hour or two. I did keep in mind that some things weren’t great for getting him to ultimately settle to sleep himself, but as the months went by, we just did whatever worked.
Once he was able to stand and walk I had to completely give up on notions of putting him into his cot still awake. He was like a robot. No matter how drowsy, he would immediately roll, stand, and quite often start jumping up and down in his cot. Sometimes he would wake during the night and start doing this almost in his sleep, wailing loudly and seeming disorientated. As his ability to move increased, he found it harder and harder to settle himself. I gradually transitioned to feeding him in a chair until he fell deeply asleep, and then transferring him into his cot. That was all well and good until a couple of months ago around 17 months (leap ten). Now he rarely dozes off during a feed, and it can take an infinite amount of time for him to drift off afterwards. It’s torture. He lies there, eyes wide open for an endless, boring, amount of time. Thrashes about on top of me. If I put him in the cot he just gets worse. He seems to physically need to be held to help restrain his twitching limbs until he eventually relaxes enough for his eyes to start drooping. Just as I think I’m almost in the clear, he suddenly starts up wide awake again to begin the cycle anew. It can take anything from 10 minutes, to 2 hours to get him down to sleep initially. On a really good night he only wakes up again twice during the night… but it’s usually multiple times, and once it’s past 4am it can easily take over an hour to get him back to sleep. I’ve been desperately wishing that he still had the ‘bad’ habit of feeding to sleep. It’s really only when your baby stops feeding to sleep that you realise what a great habit it is. Ironically it’s supposed to be one of the first steps for sleep training. Not for this toddler!
Avoiding bad habits and gently ‘training’ your baby are all well and good, but I think that some babies take to routines easily (even without any effort on the parent’s part). Others fight a little and maybe it’s worth a little friction to improve the quality of life for the whole family. However our little angel is as stubborn as they come. I can nudge him in a direction and see if he goes for the idea. But if he’s not interested, I’m just upsetting us both by trying to force the issue. We’ve fed on demand, used Baby-led weaning and elimination communication (see how I know all the technical terms I hadn’t heard of when he was a newborn?). He’s done well on everything where we’ve followed his lead. Even gentle sleep-training just isn’t compatible with any of those. I don’t doubt that it might indeed work eventually if we persisted long enough. But while I struggle with sleep deprivation most days, I find myself unwilling to risk breaking my son’s trust in me by not comforting him when he needs it, even in the middle of the night. It’s impossible to know whether it would have any long-term effects on him, or on our relationship. That’s the goal. Sadly, lack of sleep makes me a grumpy person. I don’t always respond as gently as I would like to when he’s performing acrobatics for the umpteenth time in the early hours of the morning, but I do my best. That’s all any of us can aim to do. My best is different to someone else’s best, just as every baby is different. We all find different paths as parents that hopefully take us to where we want to be. At this point in our parenting journey I’m firmly in the camp of ‘do whatever works for you and worry about bad habits if they ever actually become a problem’.
As for all the parenting guides out there? They’re worth a read for some ideas, but I don’t worry about the ones that are gathering dust. I’m too busy trying to be the best mother I can be for my baby today.