Friday, May 4, 2012

Sleep...or Lack Thereof

Children's sleep seems to be the topic of conversation among new mothers.  Within minutes of meeting a new mum at the park, after the introductions and the, "How old is he? He's such a cute baby!" comes the inevitable, "Does he sleep through the night?" Sleep is a topic that mothers love to discuss because the conversations are endless.  There's an eternal list of books to read to get your baby to sleep, and just as many clothes they should be wearing, positions they should be sleeping in, food they should be eating...  You get the idea.  New parents would love a magic formula that if followed exactly, will get their child to sleep.  I don't exclude myself from that group.  If such a formula existed, I'd be following it to a tee because as sleep deprived parents know, not getting enough sleep is miserable.  It takes a toll on you, your relationship with your husband and children, and it's just not fun.

I'm far from being the most experienced mother, but over the past few years, I have learned a few things about my little ones and sleep.

As newborns, they loved being swaddled.  Even if they didn't seem to love it (i.e. grunted and groaned and tried to break free), they slept so much better when they were swaddled.  I swaddled Lilly and Jack as long as I could, until they started rolling over.  For Lilly that was until she was three months old and for Jack it was for four months.  Even if they broke out of the swaddle while they were sleeping, they slept for longer stretches when they were swaddled than un-swaddled.


I asked Mum for lots of advice regarding sleep--well, regarding everything babies actually.  Every single piece of advice that Mum has about raising children has not only been helpful but also 100% correct.  When Lilly first came home from the hospital and I was sitting on the couch holding her while she was asleep, Mum suggested that I get into the habit of putting Lilly down in her basinet when she's asleep, to teach her how to sleep on her own.  As hard as it was, that one little piece of advice was a lifesaver for us.  As a result, Lilly always took naps and slept in her own bassinet/crib/bed.  Putting down the baby allowed me to have a few minutes or hours to myself.  It made me feel like I had a little bit of personal space, even if it only lasted a short time.  We did the same thing with Jack from the very beginning as well and I can't advocate for this enough.

Mum also taught me the importance of distinguishing between day and night, as soon as possible.  Daytime is fun, bright, and chatty.  During the day, you wear daytime clothes, sing and play.  Nighttime is quiet and dark.  We put on pajamas, sing quiet songs, rock in the rocking chair, have some milk and go to sleep.  We have different daytime and nighttime routines, and those routines are consistent.  That way, even when the little ones are sick or teething or awake in the middle of the night, they know it's nighttime and for the most part, are content to be in their beds.  Again, this couldn't be more true.  From the very earliest days, Lilly slept for 5, then 8, then 12 hour stretches in her bassinet or crib.  Even when she woke up in the middle of the night, she learned to play by herself and then go back to sleep.  The same has been true for Jack, although we've run into different obstacles because Lilly and Jack are sharing a room and Lilly likes to come into our room and inform us when Jack is playing or when she thinks he's hungry.  On more than one occasion, Lilly has come into our room when she heard Jack in the night saying, "Mum, can you please feed him?  You're the only one with milk," with this dead serious little look on her face.  Jack is lucky he has his big sister advocating for him.  He has Lilly to thank for his extra meals.

I've learned that naps are important.  Well rested babies are happy babies.  Babies' brains develop an extraordinary amount in the early years, and most of that development occurs with proper sleep.  With Lilly, I was very regimented about her naps.  She loved her morning nap and only under extreme circumstances would I interfere with it.  Every day, she'd sleep for about two hours in the morning.  And around six months, she started taking a great afternoon nap too.  Her naps made her happy and they made me happy.  So why mess with them?  So many parents try and fill days with activities and want their babies to be adaptable (i.e. able to sleep anywhere).  In my experience (and again, I'm not pretending that 3 years is a ton of experience), babies will be adaptable when they have a schedule and know what to expect and when.  After the first few months, when the newborn days were over, being home during nap time became more important to me.  I didn't want Lilly to fall asleep anywhere.  I wanted her to sleep during nap time and at night.  When we were out, I wanted her to be awake and happy.  And that's what she does.  Of course she falls asleep in the car when we're driving down to DC or up to NH...but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.  She knows that she has a rest time every day and will have that rest whether we're at home or visiting family or on vacation.  The same goes for bedtime.  It's predicable.  There are no surprises.  And it works.  Why keep a three year old up until 9:00 at night when she'll go to bed at 7:00?  To me, those two extra hours of sleep are important at this age.  I'm having a harder time enforcing naps with Jack because we're often out and about and doing things for Lilly, but just last week was chatting with my friends (or the ladies' network, as our husbands refer to us) about how I think the time has come where I can no longer be out and expect Jack to take his morning nap on the go.  It's not fair to him and messes up his entire day.  That means I have to meet up with friends later in the morning or leave early from any afternoon gatherings to be home to put Jack to bed at 6.  But that's what works for him and when he gets his naps and a good night sleep, he's a happy baby too.  I'm not completely unreasonable (although I'm sure there are people who disagree) and of course we miss naps occasionally and let Lilly stay up later at night every once in awhile but again, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Being a mother the second time around has taught me lots of things.  I'm much more comfortable in my beliefs.  Lilly is a sweet, happy, well rested little girl so if I believe that if Jim and I follow our instincts, Jack will also thrive.  I don't mind if people look at me like I'm crazy if we're leaving early to get Jack or Lilly home to bed.  I was much more self conscious about this the first time around but I know this works for us and our family.  Raising a baby seems comes more easily the second time.  Both Jim and I are more relaxed and as a result, Jack learned to go to sleep by himself when he was four months old.  With Lilly, we would rock her to sleep until she was close to one.  Neither way is better.  Or right.  And that's the *biggest* realization I've had over the last six months.  There isn't one right way to do things.  What worked for Lilly didn't necessarily work for Jack.  I couldn't sleep whenever Jack slept during the day while he was a newborn, so I had moments of complete frustration and exhaustion.  As I tend to do when things are difficult, that's when I turned to Jim for hugs and support.  I turned to Mum and Dad for advice.  And now, we've made it to a point where we can look back and smile and say things have settled down again.

Dad sent me an email shortly after a trip down to DC when Jack was about 6 weeks old.  I'm lucky to have a dad who always knows the right things to say and I do not take that for granted.  There are a quite a few conversations that I've had with Dad over the years that stick with me and this is one of them.  While I was in DC, there were nights when Jack was up three or four times, and then he'd be wide awake for the day at 4am.  I kept getting sick and almost better, and then I'd be exhausted and would get sick again.  And I wanted a solution.  I wanted someone to tell me what to do.  Just when I thought I'd reached my breaking point, I received this email from Dad:

Dear Amelia,

I sensed when you were here that you were troubled, partly by being tired, perhaps also because you felt a bit unwell, but mainly (it seemed to me) because Jack hadn't dropped into the same routine that Lilly had. I am obviously not a mother, so there are lots of things you are having to do that I only know from a man's perspective. I also don't pretend to be an expert on being a parent, or even a father. As a wise friend of mine said when I was a young man, in some areas of life there are no experts, only survivors.

That is really what I wanted to say to you. You will survive this time. You will look at this time in a few weeks or a month, and you will laugh and it will be an interesting part of your family history. One day, you will tease Jack about it (I suspect Lilly will too), if you even remember it at all. Now is just that: now. It is not tomorrow or forever. It is this moment, today, and all we can do is deal with it and accept it, and be ready for tomorrow when it rolls around.

One thing I can say for sure is that there have been many times in my life when I felt like the waters were rising fast and I wasn't sure if I could keep my head up any longer. Sometimes I was so tired, so frustrated that I would just want to hide or sit somewhere and stare. I wondered if I would ever be able to sleep normally or breathe without gasping. I have woken at night with chest pains and wondered if I was dying, and realized later that it was stress, pure and simple. I have sat up at night when all was quiet in the house and felt alone and a failure, because no matter what I did, I couldn't seem to provide properly for the five people I loved with all my heart. I prayed sometimes and felt that no one was even listening. There were times when the days and the nights blurred together and I would have two hours sleep and start work again and have to be on my game and pretend that everything was OK while inside I was so worried it felt like I had a knot in my gut. There were times when I felt like the world was conspiring against me, when I felt a failure, when I felt like I didn't even deserve to be called a father or husband. This is no exaggeration, I promise.

What did I learn from this? I learned that life tests us, and that we survive by taking each day as it comes, and being grateful for the good we have but too often overlook. I finally learned that the disasters in my mind were just that -- in my mind -- and they were distracting me from enjoying the precious moments with my family. Instead of worrying about what might happen, or telling myself that things weren't working out the way I wanted, I said to myself that while I had breath in my body, I would find a way to make things right. I would do my best, always, and leave it at that, and be at peace. There is a line in the Tao te Ching which says: "Do your work and step back; the only path to peace." It took me years and a lot of anguish to learn this, but once I did, it was incredibly liberating. I let go of my expectations and focused on doing my best, knowing that things would fall into place, and they did. I had long days and difficult situations, but I handled them so much more easily because I stopped judging myself and worrying about outcomes and thinking anything negative (even if I had been calling it "constructive"). I just dropped all that, completely, and did my best each day, and was grateful for the wonderful things in my life. I started to let my mind go blank and quiet. When I was riding, I would just enjoy the fresh air and the trees and the sound of my wheels. When I was at work, I would think of  the concern and decency of the people I worked with, and do my best. Of course things would come along to challenge me, and sometimes they would knock me down, but the key to happiness is to do your best always, with a good heart, and let the results be what they are. Judging, worrying, fretting, doubting -- these are poison. They only do harm.

Let me tell you a couple of other things, things you already know. You have a wonderful husband and a strong marriage. Millions of people don't, and they would give everything to have a husband who adores them the way Jim adores you. You have a sweet little daughter, who is a joy to be with. She is happy, healthy, incredibly delightful. She is a treasure (as Gigi calls her so correctly), and will brighten your life for the rest of your days. Jack is a sweet, chubby, gorgeous little boy, whose biggest problem seems to be that he wants to eat everything in sight. Again, millions of people today are wondering why they can't have children, or why their child is in hospital, or a wheelchair, or why their child died of hunger, or sickness, or war. The views of other people don't really matter, in one sense, but it can be useful occasionally to remind ourselves that our problems would be the greatest gift you could give someone else. You and Jim will find the key to Jack's feeding and sleeping, in a day or a week, or when we are in Florida. There will be other issues and challenges with him and Lilly as you go through life. I guarantee it. God knows, we had challenges that bewildered us. This is a good time to develop the best way of handling things.

Until Jack's feeding and sleeping are worked out, I suggest that every time he wakes a little early or otherwise puzzles you, you smile and make a mental note to raise this with him when he is older. Remind yourself that you have a fantastic husband and marriage, because you do, and this is a rare thing indeed. Remind yourself that you have a fantastic daughter and son. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and that's all you can ever do. Take all the pressure off yourself, and smile and breathe and be at peace. There is nothing at all to be gained by worry or putting pressure on yourself. Sometimes, we make so much noise by asking questions and telling ourselves things that we leave no space for the answer to appear. The answer is there, and it is forming each day. Be grateful for the wonderful things in your life, and be confident in your own love and goodness. Everything is well, and your problems are temporary and, if I may say so, wonderful challenges to have. Besides, Jack is Jack, and you are now understanding that he is his own little person. 

I hope this makes some sense. We love you very much. You have high standards, and that's good, but make them standards of action, not result. The results are what they are, and with children, you don't always control those results. Do your best and step back. Be at peace.



What Dad helped me to understand was that while I (and every new parent out there) would love a magic formula, there isn't one.  I put away all the books and started following my instincts.  Jim and I stopped trying to "figure out" Jack and started enjoying him.  As Dad suggested, things started to get better.  And easier.  Jim and I kept reminding each other to keep things in perspective--a word that means a lot to us after having gone through some of the things we've experienced together over the past 11 years.  Now, I can look back and truly say that being a parent is challenging at times, but there would be no reward without the challenge.  I can't think of a more rewarding role than being a parent.  Having children who you love and who love you more than you knew was humanly possible.  Watching their faces light up when they see you and when they see each other.  Hearing them ask you for hugs; wanting to hold your hand; realizing that you are the ones they turn to for comfort.  Overhearing Lilly help a friend who has fallen down or offer to share a toy with Jack and knowing that we're doing all we can to teach her to be kind...and it's working (most of the time!)

The moments that Jim and I have shared in the middle of the night are ones that will stay with us.  Would we have been up at these times in the middle of the night by choice?  Probably not.  But knowing that these times are short lived makes them easier to survive.  We've exchanged looks of disbelief when a tiny baby is refusing to sleep and we can barely keep our eyes open.  We've smiled at each other when they start babbling away and playing at 3:30 in the morning.  When Lilly came into our room for the 4th time the other night to tell us that Jack was playing and asked if Jim could take her to the bathroom again, Jim's "are you kidding me?" reaction couldn't have been better. We both started laughing.  And we know, however many crazy nights of sleep we have as parents, we have twice as many good ones.  Eventually, babies sleep.  It might not be when you want them to, but they cannot stay awake forever.  In car seats, on the floor, on mum and dad, on their backs and their tummies, and maybe, sometimes, in their beds.

Lilly asleep under her play mat
Jack fell asleep here too!
Jack sleeping on the floor
Lilly, asleep in the middle of our bed.
Jack enjoying the view in Florida

Lilly's earliest days
On the train to NYC

We won't always have a three year old who wants to come into our room and snuggle when she wakes up in the morning.  Or a six month old who wants to fall asleep while lying on his tummy on his Dad's chest.  So, every day, we do our best as parents...we take a step back to breathe...and smile...and appreciate all the good in our lives.  And we know that as long as we have each other and love each other, everything else will fall into place.      

Little Lilly
Jack in Florida
One of my favorite pictures...Lilly is 1 day old.

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