forcing the queen of sleep

Posted by on May 2, 2007

I have a sizable extended family on my mom’s side. There were eight of us grandchildren who grew up together in Orlando, and we played together fairly regularly, often playing board games like Aggravation, Operation, Parcheesi, Sorry, and Clue, and cards as well, particularly the game of Hearts. I think Hearts is the game in which the queen of spades is worth thirteen points, and you don’t want to get stuck with her, because points are bad. At some point, everyone gangs up on whoever has the queen and leads with low spades in order to force her out, so that whoever is holding her has to “eat” the points. My ruthless boy cousins had a chant that went: “Force the queen, force the queen, force the queen,” each word punctuated with equal emphasis. It felt terrible to be the one stuck with the queen in your hand, assailed by the barbaric force that only juvenile boys can levy.

I started thinking about this chant today in regard to Esme, who I sometimes think of as my little queen of sleep. But that needs to be qualified. While she’s been a regular daytime napper from her earliest age, she still (at 7.5 months) does not sleep through the night. I want to put this in all capitals to express the way it resounds inside of my haggard, sleep-deprived brain and body: SHE DOES NOT SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT. This means that for seven and a half months, I have not slept through the night either. Sometimes I manage to feel o.k. with this if the wakings are few and brief and if I can get in at least one solid sleep cycle; other times I just feel saturated with fatigue.

Night feedings are within the range of normal needs for a baby under nine months. Some babies are able to sleep all night very early but some still require night feedings. Since Esme is still not very interested in solid foods (she halfway dribbles out most of what I try to give her) but exclusively nurses, I’m guessing she just needs those nighttime calories. Plus, now that she is so curious and aware of everything happening around her during the day, nighttime feedings, when all is quiet, dark, and sleepy, tend to be her best and fullest.

While I was still pregnant, I was warned about the fragmented sleep of motherhood from multiple friends. I didn’t really know what to do with this information except to just keep it in mind and hope for the best. I’ve never been one of those people who adores sleep, so I wasn’t very alarmed (ah–the naivete!). I like to be awake, doing things, and participating in life, and, according to my mom, I’ve been this way since infancy. By pre-school or kindergarten, I was already a veteran non-napper, and never fell asleep during the scheduled nap times. I’ve always feared that if I fell asleep, I might miss something interesting or exciting. One time, when I was about ten years old, an alligator somehow made his home in our residential lake; animal control people had to come and hunt it late into the night and they happened to trap it right in our backyard, of all places, at two in the morning. Everyone in my family woke up and witnessed it except me, who slept through it. When my sisters told me about it in the morning I was crushed! As the youngest member of my family, I wanted to keep up with my big sisters, and they were probably always rallying around me and keeping me wakeful and stimulated anyway. And not to be down on my mom, because I know she was a very attentive mother when I was small, but she is probably the most unscheduled person I know, so there was not even the smallest chance that I was put on any kind of structured sleep routine–or any other kind of routine–growing up.

Before Esme’s arrival, I got pulled unwillingly into the widespread parental squabbles about sleep training. Actually, before I was even thinking about getting pregnant, I was riding the train back from the Chicago when a grandmother sitting next to me began to unload her troubled mind, and I felt obliged to listen. She had just come back from a frenzied weekend of watching her two grandsons in Chicago. Her daughter, the boys’ mother, had read the book Babywise and was implementing it religiously. Mind you, I had never heard of this famous/infamous book at this point. But I got an earful about Babywise that day, and this woman was mad enough to spit nails about what she felt it was doing to her youngest grandson, who she claimed was an extremely frustrated child.

I didn’t really think about it again or look into books like Babywise until I was actually pregnant, and only then it was because I got a few such books as gifts. Plus, I have to admit that I was curious about what all the controversy was about. I thought that I would make it through motherhood by relying on intuition alone (again, so naive), not how-to books. But one trusted friend sent me Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and I cracked it open. It was in reading this (which, in my assessment, is a lot more nuanced and sound than Babywise, which I found to be rather pedantic and annoying) that really gave me the most insight into the topic of sleep. The author won my trust through his in-depth explanation of childhood sleep needs and the formation of good sleep habits, all backed very methodically with real-life evidence and anecdotes from parents who had found themselves in difficult dilemmas in this area. More than thinking about the baby who was at that time growing inside of me, I thought about myself, a poor sleeper. One insight into my childhood after another opened up before me, and without going into all the details, I saw the root of my crappy sleep habits there. There are around seventy-five adult sleep disorders, I’ve now learned, and I think I’ve identified mine. I never learned to fall asleep as a child or to retreat into sleep willingly, and my overtired childhood turned into an overtired adolescence. Because since adolescence I’ve routinely pushed my bedtime later and later, I’ve reset my internal clock, and now I can’t fall asleep early even when I desperately want to. Once I recovered from this epiphany and accepted that this is something I’m probably going to struggle with for the rest of my life, I privately resolved to help my baby develop good sleep habits so she wouldn’t bear this kind of burden when she grows up.

As banal as it sounds, I now consider putting Esme on a daytime nap routine one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. I wasn’t born with the routine gene, and my childhood gave me no precedent for how to do this. I had to actually write down her sleeping patterns and check and re-check Weissbluth, and after this extremely out-of-character effort on my part, Esme fell fairly easily into a beautiful routine. I couldn’t believe that this napping creature was genetically related to me, the insomniac non-napper.

Daytime sleep remains smooth and painless, but nighttime sleep has been more difficult. After a few half-hearted efforts to get Esme to sleep for longer stretches, I gave up and decided not to push my luck. I didn’t want the burden of deciding which cries in the night were out of need and which were out of want. I decided to simplify the matter by just responding to every cry. And anyway, I enjoy rocking my baby and cuddling her in the night.

Lately though, it’s gotten to be too much. My own disordered sleep habits, which I used to get away with as a free agent, have become a major handicap now that a baby is a part of this equation. Sometimes but rarely does my insomniac bedtime harmonize with Esme’s wakings. She seems to wake about an hour after I might have normally fallen asleep, and this causes me to delay my bedtime even further, because, why bother going to bed at midnight if I’ll just be woken up an hour later? Then she usually wakes again when I’m in the deepest state of sleep, sometime between 3:30 and 5:00 a.m. I stumble into her room and sweep her into the rocking chair with me for a feeding. I’ve actually been so sleepy during this time, that I’ve fallen asleep with her in my lap and woken up not knowing how long we had both been sitting there.

Another issue is that we’ve inconsistently co-slept with Esme since her birth, on and off. I oscillate between a desire to have her close and cuddle, to feeling protective of my own space on the mattress. If I’m exhausted late at night, I’ll sometimes bring her into the bed for her feeding and leave her there for the remainder of the night, just because it’s easier than making those few steps back to her crib to put her back down. When it comes to babies, inconsistency is bad news, and from what I’ve heard and read, co-sleeping has to be consistent in order to really work. I think I’ve been sending Esme mixed messages at night.

Then there’s been the whole fiasco of trying to follow Marc Weissbluth’s advice for nighttime sleep, which requires me to be led by the head, not the heart, which is almost impossible for someone like me. I definitely fall into the category of parents who find it almost intolerable to let my baby cry– ever. So while I’ve tried following Weissbluth’s advice at various stages, I inevitably regress, because it’s just too hard, and go back to responding to every cry. According to Weissbluth this leads to a night waking habit, and boy does Esme have a night waking habit. He says that babies cycle through light stages of sleep every hour or so, sometimes crying out during the light stage but not rousing fully. If you establish a precedent by going to them, consoling, replacing a pacifier, or feeding during these times, then the baby will learn to push herself to wakefulness for the pleasure of your company, rather than drifting easily back into deep sleep. It also seems that the more attentive I am to her wakings, the more frequent they become, until it becomes intolerable. I reached a breaking point the night before last, and woke up feeling miserable and unable to face the tasks of the day, even the simple task of just sitting on the floor with Esme while she plays and making sure she doesn’t put a choking hazard in her mouth, which is the bare minimum of babysitting. I want to lie down and close my eyes while she plays around me, and the house chores go undone. I’ve finally decided that this is an unsustainable way to live. With the exception of two feedings per night, I think I have no choice but to let Esme cry sometimes. I write this knowing that there are parents who are very much against this in all circumstances, and I actually wouldn’t argue with those parents. I sympathize with that side of the debate.

But for me, it just isn’t working out. I need to be my best during the daytime hours, and that requires getting at least five hours of sleep per night– not an unreasonable aspiration, after all.

Basically, my point is that having a baby has really forced my hand, so to speak, in this whole area of sleep. I’ve had to face my own dysfunctional relationship with sleep, develop a proper respect for it (which I’m still working on) and make difficult decisions about Esme’s sleep habits too. I’ve had to admit that my wonderful, ever-prized intuition is actually unreliable and mixed up in some areas, and needs advice from more informed voices. If my intuition were calling the shots, both Esme and I would be doomed. I would be getting ever more haggard and mentally muddled while she would be getting more over-stimulated and over-tired, missing out on the sleep which is so important for her growth at this crucial time, and never learning that sleep is a wonderful place to be, maybe more wonderful than her mother’s arms. The most encouraging thing for me though, is that Esme is a brand new human being, far more supple than me. I really do see her growing into an adult with healthy sleep habits as a reward for my efforts, including the emotional effort it has taken to allow her to cry a few times. The real comfort in this situation, is that Weissbluth has been right: very quickly, the crying ends, and is replaced with sleep. It does not take very many nights of “training” for a baby to learn to sleep better, and then crying is no longer an issue. And of course, I still plan on exercising my own judgment if I think there might be a valid reason for her cry, such as a chilly room, or whatever (this is where you are supposed to reassure yourself that I’m not a terrible mother).

At least in this one area, my hope is that Esme will miss inheriting and repeating one of my dysfunctional traits. I can’t yet speak about all the others.

  1. Anonymous
    May 3, 2007

    Sleep Psychology 101, you get an A+, how much energy it takes to be inert! and the ramifications of it all, it’s very eye opening…Lisa

  2. Jenny
    May 4, 2007

    Hey You,

    I enjoyed this post–I’m with you–somewhere in the middle, knowing that I’ve made lots of mistakes, and hoping for some kind of balance between my own (faulty) intuition and the sound advice of others.


  3. Ser
    May 6, 2007

    Good luck, Julia! You are a stronger (and perhaps more desperate) woman than I am. I have always taken the path of least resistance when it comes to sleep issues with the kids, which is easier from night to night but probably harder in the big picture. Good for you, recognizing what you (and Esme) need and making a plan for how to get it.

    I hope you can post about how the “sleep training” goes.


  4. Julia
    May 7, 2007

    Thanks, you three. I was afraid this post was so long and tedious that no one would read it. Ser, I’ll try to write a really thrilling sequel.