It has been more than two years since I wrote my less-than-glowing critique of Tizzie Hall’s baby programming method. Obviously it struck a nerve as it’s still the most widely viewed post on the blog. I’ve long been uncomfortable letting it dangle there with its unalloyed intensity. Parenting at night stinks. If it didn’t, baby programming literature like Tizzie’s wouldn’t be so popular, and movies about sleepless newborn nights wouldn’t make us giggle-cringe so fiercely. We’re allowed to protect ourselves from loss of sanity by trying to make changes to the way our nights go, but our babies deserve respect and compassion in every scenario. Here are a few thoughts on what respectful night-time treatment should include and what it might look like.
1. Use what your baby is already giving you.
When I’m talking to expectant parents something I really stress is that their when new parents are fatigued it’s rarely because their baby isn’t sleeping enough. It’s because the baby and parent aren’t sleeping at the same time. The clinical definition of sleeping through the night for a baby is SIX hours. So if your baby goes to sleep at 7pm and sleeps until 1 am, then your baby has done exactly what he or she ‘should’ do. Your baby does not have a sleep problem and does not need to be ‘trained’ to sleep longer. But if YOU chose to stay awake until, say, 11 pm and are therefore tired for the 1 am wakeup, then that’s YOUR problem. Every parent, myself included, struggles with this. Isn’t it important to have some grown up time to yourself while baby is sleeping? Yes, it is, but it’s not a baby’s responsibility to meet the parent’s needs. Your baby should not be expected to modify her behaviour if you haven’t modified your own first.
2. Make your job as easy as possible.
If you’re getting as much sleep as possible but you’re still feeling like a zombie during the wakeup the next thing you could do is see if your job can be made any easier during the wakeups. This is the primary reason why I love co-sleeping. By the time my kids were a couple of months old, night feedings basically consisted of baby wiggling silently, mom pointing chest at baby’s face, baby self-latching, zzzzzzz. But not everyone is as comfortable co-sleeping as we are and that’s fine. So how about keeping baby next to your bed and feeding in bed even if baby doesn’t stay there? If you go downstairs to the couch for each feeding, of course you’ll be tired in the morning. Not to mention, if you’re so tired that you doze off during the feeding, then you’re unwittingly practising incredibly unsafe cosleeping anyway and it would be safer to feed on your flat mattress.
3. Understand the difference between needs and wants – for yourself.
Baby training manuals are all about delineating the baby’s needs from his wants. He needs sleep and he only wants to be rocked or held. Well, what if we applied the same thinking to our needs and wants as parents? Yes we need sleep, but we don’t need it to be 7pm-7am every day of the week, we only want that. As adults we can be a lot more flexible about how and when our needs are met than a baby can. Maybe we need a couple of solid naps every week. Maybe we need to be able to hit the sack a bit earlier than baby or get up a bit later. When we consider what our true needs are, we realize we probably don’t need to make such a drastic change in our baby’s behaviour in order to meet those needs.
4. “Help train” an adult.
Following from number 3, meeting our own needs might mean help training another adult. I’m specifically looking at you, partners! One thing Mr. Fair did when Little Man was little was let me have Saturday mornings in bed. As soon as the baby started fidgeting, Mr. Fair would whisk him away downstairs and entertain him while I slept (or at least just relaxed.) Little Man would be brought up when he needed a feed and then whisked away again. I got caught up enough on those mornings to get me a good half way through the week before feeling super tired again. I recently read a blog post about a woman who was discussing her serious fatigue with another new-mom friend who, needless to say was in the same boat. So they both decided to pay a sleep Doula to teach them to let their babies cry. I left a comment asking why they didn’t choose instead to team up and trade off naps? It seems much more fair to me to seek assistance from another grown up before forcing assistance from a baby.
5. Make changes with respect.
Sometimes, once you’ve fulfilled all of your obligations as an adult, you might still need to exercise your right as the parent to guide how things go in your family. That’s fine!!! And guess what, even I’ve done it – gasp!!
Picture me pregnant, hit by the Mack truck that is postpartum/prenatal depression, working from home all day and nursing Little Man every 1-2 hours all night. I needed to night-wean. It was hard, and there was crying. Yes, you read that right. Crying.
But here are some things to take into account when deciding how to proceed:
Calories – if baby is waking less at night, then baby is eating less at night. There are all kinds of thoughts as to how long babies can safely go without eating at any age. A decent guide is to use your baby’s self-directed longest interval. If once in a while your babe will sleep for a long stretch of his own accord, then the length of that stretch is probably a safe and reasonable length to aim for.
It’s important to remember to allow for those calories to be made up. If you’re breastfeeding, make sure that you feed on cue during the day. If you’re bottle-feeding, then the bottles that would have been consumed at night need to be offered during the day.
Object Permanence – is a developmental milestone that babies achieve somewhere between 8 and 9 months that allows them to understand that an object (which includes a person) still exists – i.e. is permanent – when it is out of sight. Until baby reaches this milestone they are cognitively unable to understand that you exist when they can’t see you. In other words, if a baby is being left alone to cry before this age, he or she is completely unable to deduce that Mom and Dad are just in the next room. In fact, as far as they are able to know, they are literally the only person left in the universe. Actual horror movies have been made about being the only person left in the universe. After this age they’ll at least know you’re out in the hall, even if they still don’t really understand why. That distinction gets totally glossed over in baby programming literature but it is the difference between a baby who cries to sleep peeved at Mom and a baby who cries to sleep terrified. If you can hold out for upset over terrified, it’s worth it.
Language – then once you know your baby can understand a good chunk of what you’re saying (for my kids that was about 15 months) then they can understand when you explain to them (simply) why it’s not time to eat or play. They’ve also known you long enough to trust you. By this point, a baby has virtually every skill necessary to understand what is happening, to specify his or her needs and to participate in meeting those needs. That gives parents a lot of leeway to interject our needs back into the relationship. A year, or maybe eighteen months is really not an outrageous amount of time when you think about it.
What approaches have you used to get a bit more rest while still treating your baby’s needs with respect?