Guest Author: Heather Boyd, Occupational Therapist

There was a time in the early months of parenting when I counted my son’s sleep in minutes. Not hours, not half hours, and not even quarters of an hour.  Minutes. I wrote down these minutes on scraps of paper in the dark while soothing and breastfeeding my son. I scanned this list of digits, also in the dark, hoping to see some trend, however minuscule, towards longer sleep periods.  Hoping to see some indication that he was sleeping longer and, by extension, that I could sleep longer too. If he slept even two minutes longer I felt maybe something had improved…. Instead of seeing improvement, though, I saw a deflating list of double digits that represented wakings that also were numbered in the double digits every night.

These early days of parenting had moments of pure bliss, and smittenness at my beautiful, plump, and amazing baby.  He was gorgeous. He breastfed voraciously. He was so lovely to hold, to gaze at, to soak in. The moments of bliss were competing, however, against colic and my baby’s need to breastfeed constantly; his need to be held till nearly midnight every night.  The evenings consisted of momentary relief when my baby finally fell into a deep sleep in my arms, followed by near tears on my part at having to choose between competing priorities: go to bed immediately for 30 minutes of sleep, or get ready for bed and brush my teeth first, leaving me with only 20 minutes of sleep.  I dreaded this decision. It seemed cruel that I had to choose.

My first born was, without a doubt, a baby who spit up a lot.  However, the conventional wisdom at the time, reinforced by my training as an Occupational Therapist in a neonatal follow-up clinic, was that plump spitter-uppers were laundry problems, not medical problems.  And so I soldiered on, assuming this was what “they” were talking about when they said you’ll be tired, that babies don’t sleep. I focused on attachment-based strategies of nurturing and meeting the need –strategies that are foundational for any baby, but perhaps even more critical (albeit less fruitful early on) for babies in pain.  I occasionally filled out infant reflux checklists which had the same questions that I asked parents themselves to fill out when they came to me for their appointments.  I ruled out reflux repeatedly based on a lack of empirical evidence, despite my nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. I trusted the checklists more than my own instincts.  I hadn’t had to rely on instincts to assess a baby before. But I hadn’t had to do this as a mom before either.

These early days were relentlessly exhausting –the fatigue was physically torturous and did nothing for my lofty, if naive, goals to learn to play guitar or do something else in addition to mothering during my maternity leave.

But my drive to figure it out was relentless, too.  I wanted to find a way to parent through this that resonated with my expanding knowledge of attachment theory and bonding while also “solving” this sleep problem.  But first I had to figure out if this was a problem: was this normal sleep challenges of a typical baby?  Or was this something more?

This led me to read everything I could find about how to nurture better sleep. Before motherhood, infant-mother attachment had been very theoretical.  Now, however, it was a practical matter. There wasn’t a shortage of books to read on the topic. The Continuum Concept, the Dr. Sear’s Baby Sleep Book, Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution: these amazing books each offered ways to meet baby’s emotional needs and biological sleep tendencies.  But they didn’t seem to work.

They didn’t seem to work because they were not designed to explore and identify underlying health issues.   In hindsight, however, they did buy me time. They supported my burgeoning instincts to nurture, to meet the need, and to not worry about spoiling a wee baby.  These books bought me time to try things out (chiropractor, osteopath, attempts at diet changes) while still absolutely and undeniably meeting my baby’s need for comfort from me, even if that comfort seemed purely emotional, rather than the comfort that would have come from receiving proper medical advice to treat reflux.

I’ve reflected on why I failed to “fix” the issue of my son’s poor sleep -not in a guilt-laden way, but in a way that asks what pieces were missing that, if in place, would have soothed him, and would have smoothed the edges of fatigue and helplessness.  Circumstances were simply not in my favour, and I worked within their limits. If my empathetic and skilled social worker-cum-family doctor had not started mat leave at the same time as me…If I’d read “Solve Your Child’s Colic” in those early days (which asserts that dairy and soy sensitivity is the main culprit in colic), instead of after our second was born…If our new physician hadn’t been so opposed to treating reflux in a healthy chubby baby…  Perhaps I would have avoided such extreme sleep deprivation and prevented such awful nights of undertreated colic. But I didn’t have these resources. And I did the best I could.

Mothering was exhausting in a way that makes the word exhausting seem so inadequate.  And it was bearable only because I had emotional support — from family, but in particular from a new mom friend who lived nearby and who valued attachment theory.  She was compassionate, and also at arms length –able to see the big picture and pour me another mug of coffee.

Infant sleep (or the lack thereof) is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of early parenthood.  A google search I did recently of “How do I get my baby…..” came back with 4 of the top 5 ‘hits’ related to sleep.  The only one that wasn’t about sleep was “How do I get my baby into modeling”. I have a theory on that. Those parents who are googling about baby modeling have babies who have finally fallen asleep; they are staring lovingly at their beautiful, angelic, sleeping baby and, in the glow of the moonlight basking their peaceful wee one, whisper to themselves,  “my baby is the most beautiful baby in the world”. The rest of us are googling “what on earth can I do to make this better?”.

Before being initiated into the world of infant sleep we, as soon-to-be-parents, are superficially aware of the idea of sleep deprivation.  However, it is virtually impossible to understand just how physically painful, and emotionally exhausting this sleep deprivation is. Like understanding what giving birth is like, there was simply no way for me to know what fatigue actually feels like without experiencing it. No all-nighter to finish an essay for school, or staying up to watch the sunrise, or an international flight with jet lag can compare to the ongoing (and ever changing) circumstances that make sleep deprivation as a parent so challenging.

I have come to believe that it does not need to be as tough as it is.  That even with medical issues underlying sleep, there are cultural factors that make sleep deprivation with a baby more challenging than it needs to be:

  1. We believe babies should be sleeping through the night by 4 months (or 6 weeks, or at least by 6 months).  When they don’t sleep through the night we believe that we are making mistakes with our parenting;
  2. We believe babies are supposed to develop sleep skills at an even pace and never slide backwards on this march towards independent sleep.  When a previously “good sleeper” needs more support we think we need to “do something” to fix this;
  3. We believe (or convince ourselves) that if sleep is really going poorly that it must be something we are doing wrong.  We may not consider fully enough (or have the right supports to pursue the idea) that there is something medical going on;
  4. We believe we need to control our child’s sleep, that somehow we are in charge of getting them to sleep;
  5. We believe meeting their need for support at bedtime (whether at 6 weeks or 6 years) develops bad habits;
  6. We believe that babies need to learn to self-soothe; and
  7. We believe if we don’t fix, enforce, address, or deal with our infant’s sleep we are setting ourselves and our children up for years of disordered sleep.  Whether this comes in the form of “our baby will never leave our bed”, or “they need to be independent to be successful”, the result is the same: a burden that, based on research evidence, we don’t actually need to carry.

So what can replace these myths?   Here is what I have figured out as a mom and an Occupational Therapist/Sleep Educator.  If I could go back and wrap my arms around my new-mama self I would share with her that:

  1. Babies have two irreducible sleep needs.  These needs are to be close to mama (or other key caregiver) and to wake up often.  These aren’t negotiable needs. They are needs driven by biology and that shift over time through neurological development.  Trying to eliminate or speed through these needs is like trying to time travel. Theoretically it sounds nice (and I do love my share of books about time travel), but there are consequences to skipping out on nature’s plans.  Sharing a room with babe for at least the first six months (and ideally 12 months) are the current guidelines; other evidence reinforces much longer even than this. And, serendipitously, room sharing also makes it easier to meet that need to wake up often, while also supporting breastfeeding.  Mother nature is one smart cookie.
  2. Mama instincts count for a lot.  Although it can feel overwhelming, and we feel the confusion of messages that conflict with our instincts, underneath the layers are instincts that we can tap into to help guide us.
  3. Support makes all the difference.  When we can’t hear our instincts over the background noise of cultural messages or maternal anxiety and depression, a single supportive person can make all the difference.  We need someone who will listen, who empathizes, and who can see the whole picture and help us navigate. Someone who understands our values and priorities, and who can cut through the mixed messages to provide reassurance, concrete strategies, and give us perspective can change everything. When you are in the deep end as a new mama, your swimming skills don’t matter.  You still need a hand to pull you out. Despite our skills and knowledge and ability to problem solve, we need support. We are too close to problem solve our way out of sleep challenges.
  4. Time in nature makes sleep better –indeed, makes everything feel better.  What has become so clear through this personal journey is that all of us in our family sleep so soundly when we are camping: we pay attention to the rhythms of nature, and we let our rhythm fall in sync with that.  With no electricity, no screen, no lights other than our flashlights, we are in bed and drifting off to sleep by 9pm. We are not up washing the dishes or wiping down the counters –these things are done immediately after dinner, and with minimal kitchen items we have minimal clean up.*  We are also not using television or facebook as our way of relaxing.
  5. You are not screwing this up.  Although it can start to feel trite to hear that you aren’t destroying your child’s chance at healthy sleep, there is truth to it.  Babies grow, they develop, their entire neurology and sleep cycles and brains change. And they change in ways that respond to their environment.  If you are aware of your priorities to provide responsive parenting that meets your baby’s needs, you are giving your baby what they need in ways nature intended.
  6. This is a 1000+ day project. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to solve sleep problems tonight.  To think that how our baby sleeps today is indicative of how they will sleep in two years.  To think that lying down with our children now will mean they will not be able to sleep alone when they are 12.  It doesn’t work that way. This is a multi-year project of mistakes and learning, infant development and mama personal growth.  Taking the long slow path allows us to not sweat the minute to minute issues. It allows us to truly lean in to the need at this moment, without fear or reservation.
  7. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.   It’s easier to ignore messaging around infant sleep if you reflect on whether what is happening in your own family is working for you.  If it is, carry on, regardless of whether it meets the expectations of extended family, friends, or the latest book on sleep training.  Day by day we can meet the need and feel good that it is reflecting our priorities to nurture our babies.
  8. If it’s not working, change it.  If what is happening day by day by day is frustrating and leaves us feeling resentful, then it’s time to look at changing it.  How we do that takes some thought and reflection, and change can be hard. But there is no need to be a martyr. Make the changes needed to respect everyone’s needs, including your own.
  9. Little pieces of self care adds up.  Self care does not need to be a day at the spa, or a girls’ weekend away.  These things are lovely, there is no doubt, but are not necessary and not always possible.  Find as many ways during the day to catch a moment of self care to fill your cup. Taking a slow deep breath before heading out the door, enjoy the moment (even if it is a minute) to prepare a hot tea before babe wakes up. By living in the present and enjoying what is immediately in front of you, it may be easier to relish it in a way that allows you to sustain the feeling of peace and balance.  Acknowledging brief moments of self care can add up to be a sustainable ‘filling of your cup’ throughout the day…You don’t need to save up extraordinary amounts of time for this to happen.
  10. Be the Mama Bear: If your gut is telling you there is something interfering with your baby’s sleep, listen.  Even if it whispers quietly. Listen and reflect, and don’t let your brain get in your way on this one.  Pay attention to the questions that push you along the path of who to connect with to find answers.

Now, 9 years later, I have a bright, and empathetic kiddo who….drum roll….sleeps well.  He prefers to stay up “late” (9pm), who would like to have his own room (he shares with his brothers), and who will say “I’m tired.  I want to fall to sleep now” –magic words to a mama who was worried my kiddo would never sleep.

*One of my favourite parts about camping is that there is no kitchen floor to sweep!

Heather is an Occupational Therapist, a spouse, and a mom to three young boys. Her mission is to offer family-centered, attachment-based tools for families of infants and young children to thrive in nurturing and healthy environments. Heather places great value on attachment theory and nurture-based parenting practices that support the biological, evolutionary, and developmental needs of infants and young children. She envisions making a difference to families by helping them focus on how they can improve their child’s environment through nurturing parenting approaches, and healthy homes.