Taming the Sleep Dragon


The colic dragon is slain, and the villagers have been rejoicing under the noon sun. But wait! When the sun sets, there’s more. There’s another dragon.

The sleep dragon.

I’ve read so many books on baby sleeping, I should be a guru. Instead, I would just come across failure after failure; always some reason why Technique A (or B or C or D…) wouldn’t work for Timmy.

Co-sleeping was never an option. Timmy was in his own bed — and own room — from the first day he arrived from the hospital. There was no space in our bed for him (territory negotiations happen even when I’m only sharing it with my husband), and there was insufficient space next to the bed for his cradle. I’m inclined to think I couldn’t have tolerated him there anyway. In his own room next door, I was even attuned to hearing his heavy breathing through the wall sometimes. If he slept next to me, I’d never sleep at all.

When he was very small, I accepted that I’d need to be getting up at all hours of the night, whenever he was hungry. When your stomach’s only the size of a coin, you won’t be adaptable to being made to wait for the dinner bell.

But where was the line between catering to a child’s genuine need at any hour, or nurturing bad habits? At what age does their need for frequent night feedings become unnecessary, done only out of habit?

Of course, the more advisors I heard, the more conflicting advice I found, even among expert ‘baby whisperers’. One baby whisperer said that if a baby sleeps lots during the day, he’ll sleep well at night. (This is the position the majority seemed to agree with.) Another baby whisperer said that if he sleeps lots during the day, he won’t sleep at night, because he won’t be as tired — a logical progression, seen in anyone else.

It seemed that Timmy was more inclined to fall in step with the latter. If he hadn’t slept much during day, he’d be crying for a bottle about every three hours, which was manageable. If he had slept frequently, I often wouldn’t even get two hours together.

As time went on, not only did a three-hour run feel less sustainable, but sometimes I wouldn’t even get that, regardless of his day sleeping. There was no regularity or reason to anything. How I fared overnight was potluck.

Most of the sleep-help books I read had the aim of getting a baby to sleep. As I recall, Timmy’s getting to sleep was never a great difficulty — it was staying asleep that he had an aversion to. There wasn’t so much addressing that. ‘Expert’ conclusions boiled down to:

  1. Feed him to sleep; or
  2. He just wants to suck for comfort so give him a dummy; or
  3. Cuddle him until he settles, then put him back to bed; or
  4. Controlled Crying; or, the worst,
  5. There’s nothing to fix it, he’ll just grow out of it.

Feeding him to sleep was the problem I now found myself in. He needed me to do it too often. Rarely would alternate comforts work. Cuddles weren’t what he wanted — he made that quite clear. He wanted something in his mouth. A dummy would work for a short while. He’d suck it furiously until sleep reclaimed him…but then if the dummy had fallen out by the time he next stirred in light sleep, he’d wake up and cry again, sometimes only 20 minutes later.

Controlled Crying is a method seen by many as archaic and cruel, in which the baby is allowed to cry for periods of time that are gradually extended — the parent will come to comfort the child between longer intervals. “Let him cry for five minutes before you comfort him,” it says, “then if he’s still crying after ten minutes go in again…then after fifteen minutes…”

I’d put off trying that one so I didn’t have to hear eternal cries, or be flogged by the party who call the method cruel. But when the problem persisted, I had to try it…

It didn’t work, anyway. If anything, seeing me come in and yet not give him what he wanted only made him cry harder and longer. He took no comfort from my voice, pats or cuddles at this juncture.

Clinically, he is at an age (and corresponding healthy weight) where night feeds aren’t needed at all, but he was still wanting regular visits throughout the night because he was using the bottle to get back to sleep. Sometimes it would be another sleep aid, that may work for a short time: a dummy, or white noise. But the underlying problem was that he couldn’t get himself back to sleep after each sleep cycle. He needed props.

Well, he thought he did. I thought he needed to learn to go to sleep himself. In my readings I’d learned that those in the camp of “He’ll grow out of it” would find their children were often not only still calling them in at night at one year old, but even at 3 years the child would likely be restless by night, and easily/quickly irritable by day, never having learned to sleep properly. I wasn’t going to let myself live with that!

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it was having these failings and frustrations behind me that brought me to point of deciding that what Timmy didn’t need, Timmy wouldn’t get.

No night feeds. At all. I warned my husband when I would start this, so he could expect disrupted sleep.

The first night, Timmy had been put through his bedtime routine, finishing at 7pm, and I waited apprehensively for the first cries. It wasn’t long.

Night One
First waking: cried for 20 minutes before going back to sleep.
Second waking: cried for 30 minutes before I caved and gave him the bottle.
Third waking: cried for 50 minutes before settling to a light sleep with occasional grunts that lasted until morning.

I regretted giving him the bottle. I was sure I’d just made the process more drawn out. I needed to be strong, for both our sakes. I wouldn’t give my son a diet of only chocolate just because he really, really wanted it, would I? Sometimes the right thing, the better thing, feels mean. And now, the right thing was teaching Timmy how to sleep independently.

Night Two
First waking: cried for two hours. After 45 minutes I’d gone in to check he was okay — a good temperature, not stuck in cot bars, not lying in vomit — and saw he was fine, but his seeing me arrive only made him more passionate. And for me to see him looking so miserable almost made me cry, so I had to leave quickly.
Second waking: cried sporadically; crying and dozing, off and on, until morning. (I think I was too exhausted to keep an accurate track of times and durations, at this point.)

I was glad I hadn’t caved this time. When Timmy saw his breakfast bottle he actually hyperventilated until it was in his mouth. He was so enthusiastic that he had too much, and did a vomit of impressive proportions. He was grumpy much of that day (as he certainly hadn’t slept well the night before), but took longer naps and larger feeds.

Night Three
Nothing. Then nothing. Finally at 5:20am…a few little grizzles. Then nothing.

A wonderful, wonderful night.

I went in at 7am, and found him happily playing with his toes. I brought him out to the living room and he patiently waited for me to get his breakfast bottle ready, as he watched. He was alert, and happy.

Tonight will be Night Four. I wonder if it’s too soon to be excited. (Although really, I can’t help myself.) I’ve noticed though that, similar to yesterday, Timmy’s been taking more formula at each feed, and his naps are longer; more consolidated rather than things of various length sprinkled throughout the day.

That’s promising, is it not?



(2) Comments

  • Andrea Latoa
    13 Sep 2012

    Oh I fervently wish you all the very best of joyous sleep from night 4 and forever. I love your writing… and alas I am in the camp of “there’s a percentage of children who do not fit into any category” as I have a 6 year old (7 next month) who still wakes in the night and says her bed is too cold and needs extra bodies! She is a hot sleeper – I am a cold sleeper (can’t bear getting too hot) and so nearly 7 years on I still suffer from broken sleep – frequent sleep deprivation and dislike of child on a regular basis. So maybe I could (as I used to do) read all the related material, as you do, and try to find that elusive solution to my plight.

    • Eve
      14 Sep 2012

      Night Four was another wonderful one. I didn’t hear a peep out of him for 12 and a half hours! Then the only noise I heard was his talking to his toes. 🙂
      I’m a hot sleeper too, but Shaun’s a cold sleeper. My side of the bed gets an electric blanket and two layers of mink on top of the duvet. Sleep is impossible when I’m cold. I could never sleep during the day while Timmy napped unless my bed had been pre-heated, in anticipation.

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