A nap story

Do you ever obsess and obsess and obsess about something (like, I don’t know, diaper rash), and then, one day, it’s all resolved and not even an issue anymore?

Here’s the fascinating (or endless) story of Beatrice’s naps.

Just Born

For the first two weeks of her life, Beatrice was on the perfect textbook newborn sleep schedule: sleep for two hours, eat, get a fresh diaper. I could tell the time by where she was in her routine.

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Erik and I smugly congratulated each other about a million times. Taking care of a baby was so easy, and we were obviously excelling at it! Beatrice had one out-of-character moment at six days old when she cried instead of going back to sleep, but we swaddled her tighter and she went right back down. More high fives!

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You see, not only had I read The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems, but I had also spent the last six+ years working with families of infants and supporting them through one sleep crisis after another. Not to mention that babies had been falling asleep on me since c. 1985 when I discovered I had that effect on them. I knew what to do like the back of my hand:

1) Maintain a consistent routine from the start.

2) Try to insert some brief activity (even just changing a diaper) between feeding sessions and naps so that Beatrice could learn the difference between eating and sleeping and would not be dependent on one to do the other.

3) Acclimate Beatrice to sleeping in her own space.

By following those steps, we successfully circumvented any and all sleep drama. For two weeks.

Weeks 3-5

In week three, things started to go a little bit haywire. Erik went back to work, so my mom came to stay for the week. Thank goodness she was there because I ended up bedridden with mastitis. Every time I finished feeding Beatrice and was nearly unconscious with the pain of it all, my mom offered to walk her around the apartment until she fell asleep.

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At first I resisted. I had a very specific vision for Beatrice’s sleep routine, and it did not involve walking, bouncing, or nursing. Those “props” were fine for soothing, but I did not want Beatrice to become dependent on them for sleeping. We had spent the first two weeks successfully using the 5 Ss to calm her and help her sleep, and I did not want to create any new sleep associations in week three.

As the week went on, however, Bea started to need more and more help settling down to fall asleep. I felt like I had been hit by a truck, so I let my mom take over when Bea was fussy. Grammy would swaddle her and then walk her through every room in the apartment, describing the art on the walls, listening to the washing machine, singing, etc. She would bring Bea back and deposit her in the cradle when she was sound asleep.

Grammy went back home at the end of the week, so I was on my own by week four. Just in time for this.

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I knew she was fussy because she was tired, and the more tired she got, the more fussy she got. She was only peaceful when she was asleep, but she was never asleep. She would not rock, bounce, nurse, or snuggle to sleep. Newborn babies are not supposed to be awake for more than two hours at a time. By week five, I was sometimes spending seven hours straight just trying to get Beatrice to sleep.

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I started going outside for walks with her in the carrier during her morning and afternoon fussy periods because that was the only way I could get her to sleep.

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And let’s not forget to mention that, every night, Beatrice would scream from 5pm-9pm, refusing sleep completely. All we could do was bounce her on the exercise ball and try to reassure ourselves that it wouldn’t last forever.

All of my rules went out the window.

1. There was no routine. There was only survival.

2. I could care less if Beatrice got dependent on nursing to sleep. I just needed her to sleep.

3. I could care less if Beatrice got dependent on sleeping on me or on Erik. We just needed her to sleep.

On rare days, by some huge stroke of luck, Beatrice would fall asleep nursing in bed, and we would take a glorious three-hour nap together.

Around this time, I discovered that Beatrice loved the men of country music. By chance, I played Jason Aldean’s song “Night Train” on Pandora one morning when she was starting to lose it, and this look of total wonder and awe came over her.

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And then, I did not even care if my precious innocent baby girl grew up to think that her self-worth depended on wearing extra short cut-off jeans and dancing on a drunk cowboy’s tailgate. I just needed her to sleep. So I downloaded the entire “Night Train” album and bounced her around the house to it whenever she got fussy and tired.

Jason Aldean was my hero.

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Weeks 6-7

I figured out that Beatrice would fall asleep even faster (like exponentially faster — in 5 minutes vs. 2 hours) if I put her in the Moby wrap when she got fussy.

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Once she was asleep, I could easily transfer her to the cradle for the rest of the nap. Until I couldn’t.

At around 7 weeks, Beatrice started waking up 10 minutes tops after any “successful” wrap-to-cradle transfer. I bent my rules even further and decided that a well-rested baby was better than a baby who could sleep for 10 minutes in a cradle. I stopped trying to transfer her and just kept her in the Moby for the entirety of every single nap.

My life changed.

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Weeks 8-12

I could make lunch. I could wash the dishes. I could check my email. I could even lie down on the couch! Beatrice raced to catch up on two months of missed sleep. She would nap on me for 1-3 hours at a time. When she woke, she was actually happy and rested enough to play instead of just scream.

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We would hang out on the floor for about 45 minutes until she got fussy again. I would put her straight back into the Moby and walk around the house with Jason Aldean until she fell asleep. If she cried for longer than 15 minutes, I’d nurse her right in the Moby until she fell asleep. My napping baby was amazing enough to override all my concerns about her getting so accustomed to sleeping on me that she would never sleep anywhere else.

Weeks 13-15

Here and there, I would experiment with taking Bea out of the Moby to sleep. She started being able to fall asleep nursing while I sat with her in my arms.

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A few times, I even transferred her asleep into the crib for naps that lasted 30-60 minutes!

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I developed a three strikes strategy. If the crib transfer failed three times, I’d put her back in the Moby so she could get the sleep we all needed.

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Weeks 16-17

Even though I was usually needing to nurse Bea to sleep so that I could get her into the crib, I felt ok about it because it seemed like such a peaceful way for her to fall asleep … until it stopped working suddenly around 16 weeks. Actually, she could still fall asleep while nursing, but she would wake up and scream the moment I tried to get her off the boob. When she started needing to nurse for the entire nap and not even the Moby would keep her asleep, I realized that this system was no longer working for her.

I remember the afternoon that I decided our days of nursing to nap were done. I had tried to put Bea in the crib asleep after nursing her, and she started screaming. I picked her up to try to soothe her, and she kept screaming. Since she was screaming regardless, I put her down in the crib and went into the kitchen to finish making my breakfast. The washing machine was running, so I couldn’t hear her. I chopped five strawberries and went back to check on her. I stood in the hallway outside her room and heard two pitiful whimpers followed by silence. I peeked my head into the room and saw a sleeping baby.

OMG, she fell asleep on her own!!

I ran with that success and started letting Bea cry for four minutes at a time before going in to hug her and leaving the room again. By the end of the week, she was usually asleep within 20 minutes of putting her down, but those 20 minutes were brutal! I would sit on the floor outside her door staring at my watch until the four minutes were up and I could go reassure her.

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My nerves were shot by the end of the week. My peaceful methods of nursing to sleep or wearing to sleep were not working for her, but this abbreviated cry-it-out was not working for me! I switched to pick-up/put-down. If Bea was too hysterical by the end of her first four minutes, I’d go into the room to pick her up and calm her. Once she stopped crying, I’d put her down. She would usually start crying again as soon as I started putting her down, so I would put her down all the way and then pick her up again and repeat. Sometimes this process would continue for 45 minutes until I put her down and she fell asleep.

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Because we were finally working toward the goal of Beatrice falling asleep on her own, we started a consistent naptime routine that I was hopeful would give her some healthy sleep associations over time. When Beatrice had been awake for around an hour or a little more, we went into her nursery where I would nurse her, change her, read You Are My Cupcake, and then sing three verses of “You Are My Sunshine.” On the third verse, I would put her into the crib, zip her sleep sack, turn on the ocean sounds, and wind the music box. I would give her a kiss and leave the room. If her crying escalated, I’d go back in for the pick-up/put-down.

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(Bedtime routine was almost exactly the same, with Goodnight Moon in place of You Are My Cupcake.)

Months 4-7

Within a couple of weeks, Beatrice stopped needing the pick-up/put down or even any checks once we finished the nap routine. Every once in a while, she’d need a bit of extra help falling asleep, but it definitely was not the norm.

The other side effect of the new nap routine was that, out of nowhere, a more or less predictable daily schedule developed. I had spent four months obsessing about our lack of routine, that I had no idea how many times Beatrice napped or ate per day, that I was providing a chaotic introduction to life for my baby … and, all of a sudden, without even trying, the day had shape. Beatrice was taking four 45-minute naps each day with about 90 minutes awake time between them. She nursed when she woke up from each nap, and she nursed as part of each nap routine. If I had known that this whole situation would work itself out as long as I kept following Beatrice’s lead, I could have been so much less stressed!

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Beatrice’s naps became particularly easy once she got more confident about rolling over. I started to find her in the most adorable sleep positions that probably took all her energy just to arrange.

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I had to get in close and listen for her breaths when I saw this one!

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Months 8-9

OK OK, I would be lying if I said I was totally cool with four 45-minute naps each day. Especially in the beginning, I had a niggling worry that 45 minutes was not actually restorative enough. Shouldn’t she be taking two-hour naps every two hours? The few times she would go for a long nap, I’d be so caught off guard waiting for her to wake any moment and wondering if she was still breathing that I would not actually do anything productive with the extra time. I considered doing pick-up/put down at the end of her 45-minute naps to get her to sleep longer, and then I decided I did not care enough and she would figure it out eventually.

And now, all of a sudden, completely on her own, Beatrice has gone from taking four 45-minute naps each day to two 1.5-2 hour naps each day. IT JUST HAPPENED!

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My mind is blown.

* I was worried that Beatrice would get addicted to nursing to sleep and sleeping on me. She grew out of this on her own by 3-4 months.

* I was worried that Beatrice’s days would never have a predictable rhythm. She grew into this on her own by 4-5 months.

* I was worried that Beatrice would never nap longer than 45 minutes. She grew into this on her own by 8-9 months. (Though, she will probably only take 10-minute naps tomorrow just to prove to me that I don’t have it all figured out.)

I thought I needed to enforce all of these sleep goals from birth to make them work so that we could avoid instilling terrible unbreakable habits that would haunt us for Bea’s entire childhood. I forgot that, regardless of what any book or pediatrician or family member tells us, babies know what they need. Beatrice knows what she needs. She might not hit every milestone at the moment I think she should, but she will get there when she is ready.

Beatrice is just about 9 months old now, and she is still waking an average of twice (sometimes once, sometimes three times) each night to eat. Erik and I have been thinking about strategies for helping her sleep through the whole night. Most pediatricians say that babies are physically able to go all night without eating at around 6 months. We have tried a few times, each about a month apart, to have Erik soothe Beatrice when she wakes rather than have me feed her. Each time, she has gotten progressively more hysterical until I end up going in to nurse her. We have waited so long between attempts because I don’t want her to get the idea that she needs to cry like a maniac in order to get my attention. I know how important consistency is, and I know I am sending mixed messages by “giving in” and feeding her after trying not to. Reflecting on the evolution of her nap routines is making me think that maybe I need to trust her nighttime sleep signals rather than what a pediatrician or a book or a website says.

Maybe Beatrice is just not ready to sleep through the night. Maybe she really does need the comfort and reassurance of nursing when she wakes up alone in a dark room. Maybe feeding her for 10 minutes twice a night does not really bother me or even exhaust me right now, and I am just getting caught up in what is supposed to happen.

Why create drama where there is none?

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