This is a post that I’ve been planning to do for a while — but part of me is hesitant for some reason. Perhaps because there’s a stigma attached to co-sleeping, tummy sleeping… all of the things that ended up working for us. I understand the risks that pediatricians’ recommendations seek to minimize, but one thing I’ve learned over the last six months (and even during my pregnancy) is that when it comes right down to it, sometimes you have to follow your baby’s cue.
A good example of this is our complete and utter disobedience to modern infant sleep guidelines.
Believe me, we definitely intended to obey the “back to sleep, tummy to play” rule. Before J was born, I read up on all of the reasons infants should sleep on their backs instead of their tummies, and I studied tummy time techniques to encourage physical development. (Side note: When I was a baby, the recommendation was the exact opposite. Reminds me of the points I made in my last post about Struwwelpeter!) We set up a bassinet next to our bed, and planned for the baby to sleep in our room for the first few weeks. Then, when we were all ready, he would transition to the crib in his own room.
But as is often the case, the baby arrived, and we quickly discovered that our plan was not going to work.
For one thing, he absolutely could not sleep in the bassinet. I would lay him down on his back in the bassinet, swaddled in a blanket, and he sounded like he was suffocating. It was horrible. He would wheeze and cough and cry until I finally picked him up. We thought maybe it was the old bassinet (circa 1984 — it was the same one I slept in) or maybe spray paint fumes (though it had been months since it was painted).
I started doing some research on other options. He was perfectly able to fall asleep — but he could only sleep as long as I was holding him. What could we do to allow us both to get some shut-eye? I looked into co-sleeping, and I discovered Dr. Sears’s site, which is a great resource for reasons co-sleeping is beneficial to babies. But I was hesitant to let J sleep in the bed with us. The comforters and pillows that we adults require seemed (and, I suppose, are) an obvious hazard to a tiny baby. So as an alternative, we purchased a very nice Arm’s Reach co-sleeper bassinet, which Dr. Sears recommends. This seemed like it would solve our problems — J would be right next to me, without being in danger of being smothered by our bed covers or his father, and I would be able to easily reach him to comfort or breastfeed him during the night.
But unfortunately, he had the same exact response to the brand new bassinet — crying, wheezing… he just sounded like he couldn’t breathe when lying on his back. I then tried placing him on his tummy (unswaddled). No more breathing trouble — thank goodness! — but still no sleeping. He absolutely could not sleep in a bassinet.
I don’t really remember when it happened, but after several sleepless nights (and probably in a very desperate state after hours of the baby screaming), I rocked the baby to sleep and, instead of placing him in the bassinet, placed him by my side in the bed. I had him swaddled and lying on his back, with my arm wrapped snugly around him, and while he was positioned between us, there was plenty of room between him and his father. (There have been studies that show the mother is attuned to the baby’s sleep habits and heart rate when the two are lying next to each other — but this is not the case with dad.) I kept pillows and covers away from him as much as possible. (This often meant cranking up the heat since it was January…)
D was more nervous about co-sleeping than I. (He’s definitely the parent who is more likely to worry.) But I really felt very secure with my baby snuggled close against me. It also made breastfeeding much easier — there was no getting out of bed, and J would not even fully wake up; he would simply begin to whimper and root until I woke up and fed him. Then, we would fall right back to sleep after a meal.
During the day, it was a different story. For the first few weeks, I held him while he napped, but this got very tiring very quickly — newborns sleep a lot! So I started placing him in his crib in his own room for naps. I found that as long as I placed him on his tummy, he would sleep soundly for hours at a time. I routinely went to check on him, and we eventually purchased a video monitor for extra security, but he napped beautifully in his crib. Unfortunately, he continued to detest the bassinet at night — believe me, I tried.
We continued in this way for two (or so) months. Then one night, just a few days before my maternity leave ended, we placed him on his tummy in his crib for the night… and he actually slept! It wasn’t all night from the beginning, but after just a couple of nights of sleeping in his own room, he was sleeping for 5 hour stretches. It’s amazing to me that this was only a few months ago — I can hardly remember those days when I would have to feed him during the night. On March 10 (at two and a half months old), he slept for six hours straight — and he’s been sleeping through the night ever since… last night, for instance, he slept for 12 hours without waking up. (He obviously takes after his mother.)
There have been some recent developments in his sleep habits, though, now that he’s becoming a little more mobile. For about a month now (and with increasing frequency), he’s been propping himself up and sleeping on his side (at least until he accidentally falls onto his back and wakes up). He’s also started putting himself to sleep! (Hooray!) Previously, I had to rock and bounce him until he fell asleep, then I would carefully — carefully — place him in the crib. Now, he will often wiggle until I finally put him down in the crib, and he lies still and falls asleep on his own. It’s heavenly.
Here are a few of the sleep aids we use:
- Pacifier (Philips Avent is the only brand we’ve tried that works for him.)
- Sleep Sheep (still use it every time — we like the ocean waves setting)
- Aden + Anais blanket (for swaddling, cuddling, or a thin cover. The gauzy material makes me feel like it’s unlikely to suffocate him.)
- Fuzzy lion blankie (This is a new addition to the crib. It’s very small and soft. He sometimes strokes it as he’s falling asleep.)
It’s probably a bad idea, but I’ve kept all of this from my pediatrician. During the routine questionnaires at each visit, when the nurse would ask if J slept on his back, I would sheepishly say “yes…” Little white lie, right? Look, I hate it… but I didn’t want to get a lecture from the doctor. I knew I was disobeying the guidelines, but I believe it’s my choice to either take the recommendation or not. Ultimately, I feel like I did the right thing for our individual child and family. Each baby is unique, and while pediatrician’s recommendations are important and helpful, they are just recommendations — not steadfast rules. As they say, babies don’t come with manuals — and there’s a reason for that. In my opinion, a big part of being a good parent (at least in my very limited experience) is following your baby’s lead and doing what you believe is best for your child.