Everything you need for baby and nothing you don't
OK, here’s me at eight months pregnant: “I’m not going to go nuts getting my baby on a fixed schedule: we’re social, we travel, and I want her to know how to sleep on the road. I’m not setting up some rigid, baby-centric plan where she can only sleep in her crib at home in total darkness, silence and at super specific times.”
Here’s me four months later: “Where can I get some blackout curtains? And don’t forget the iPod with the white noise on it. We’re never traveling again.”
Granted, that was after three weeks on the road, some of it at mountainous altitudes (which babies don’t enjoy), and after it became clear Astrid had big plans to be up multiple times a night for the indefinite future. She just wasn’t a sleeper. Some babies aren’t. I can’t say I ever made my peace with it – unless going right up to the edge of losing your mind is a kind of peace – but we got through it and so will you if your baby isn’t a sleeper either.
Just so you know, pre-baby, there are some things you can do to help matters along – or at least feel like you’re doing something while you wait for your night owl to sort out his nights. These aren’t a substitute for sleep training (whichever – if any – path you choose there) but some basics that might make things better and support that effort (if you sleep train it all).
1. Consistency. Kids like routine and it’s your friend too, especially when you’re sleep deprived. Knowing what’s next is calming for you and Baby.
A bedtime routine – bath, story, feeding and bed – at the same time every evening won’t initially seem like it’s making any impression on Junior, but it’s laying down expectations and physical cues (warm bath = sleepy time) that will eventually take hold. It also gives shape to what can be increasingly chaotic evenings as parents go back to work, getting home right when babies start fussing in the 6-8PM time frame. (Nice coincidence, huh??)
(The doctors, nurses, baby experts and sleep consultants I talked to generally agreed that bedtime should probably be no later than 7PM if you can manage it. 8 at the latest. Babies need lots of sleep and while it can be fun to hang out until 9:30, it’s not generally considered ideal for Baby.)
2. More consistency. Transitions are not your friend. If you’re blessed with a narcoleptic child, moving house, switching baby’s room, changing cribs, and hitting the road might not bother little Rip van Twinkle, but otherwise, your child is as likely to be as disrupted by these things as you are – if not more so – which makes sense since their Spidey sense is all they’re going on before they can understand language. In babies’ case, eating and sleep are where that stress is going to show.
Little story: we did all of those things – traveled for five weeks, moved, graduated her from mini crib to full-size crib, and gave her her own room in the new house – in the space of months 4-9 when she might otherwise have been settling into longer stretches of sleep. I’m not saying that avoiding all those disruptions would’ve meant 10-hour nights, but in retrospect I don’t think it helped matters.
3. Keep it dark. Along the same lines as the bedtime routine, keeping it dark can be a visual cue for Baby that it’s time for sleep.
For a few weeks after she’s born, your infant will seem like she prefers to be up at night: that’s a hangover from being in the womb when Mom was moving around during the day and providing nice, rocking sensations for comfy baby sleep. It will take a little while for her to adjust to the opposite schedule, and providing light and dark at the proper intervals can assist that learning. Open the curtains when she’s awake, take her for a walk, and get her into the rhythm of daytime. Likewise, when it’s time for sleep, do your best to keep it at least dim, if not dark in her room.
Blackout curtains were something I swore we wouldn’t need but which we eventually got and are still a help, especially with summer’s long days that keep the house and her room bright past bedtime.
4. Keep it quiet. This might seem obvious, but you will probably have gotten used to Tiny sleeping pretty much everywhere all the time in the first month or two. I navigated a number of ridiculously loud dinners in San Francisco and Manhattan with Astrid snoozing in her Ergo. That stage is short though and you’ll want to keep in mind that you don’t get your best night’s rest sleeping in a restaurant either. And that, if you’re like me, you wake up when dogs are barking or sirens are wailing outside your window.
A quiet room away from the street is great, and white noise (from a machine or from a rainshower track on iTunes*) can even out sleep-disrupting upticks in noise that do make it through, like those German Shepherds next door. Again, it’s all about creating a consistent environment for learning how to sleep.
If you’re having trouble getting off an infant sleep schedule, give these a shot and see if they help. I hope they do. Either way, eventually it will get better. Really. I promise. Our little one is a great sleeper now. They all get there!
*Make sure you listen to the whole rainshower/rainforest/waves track before setting it on repeat on Tiny’s iPod: some of them throw in monkeys and parrots mid-track. Or rabid seagulls. Or thunder. It freaked me out, and I guarantee it’ll wake up a baby. Don’t ask me what they were thinking: I have no idea.