My number one tip for managing night waking is this: always follow the path of least resistance.
This means doing whatever you need to do to see baby back off to sleep as quickly as possible, and in a manner that requires the least physical exertion and effort from you.
We all need more sleep, right?
What if I told you many more precious minutes of sleep could be all yours if you were willing to stop fighting your baby?
What if I said maintaining your habits and beliefs was reducing the quality of your sleep, and your baby’s?
Would you believe me?
Here are three truths.
Your baby will wake.
Your baby might wake a lot.
Your baby might wake and need you any night during the first couple of years of his life.
What You Resist, Persists
You can choose to accept night waking as normal, and switch your focus from trying to stop the waking to trying to maximise your sleep while you manage the waking.
See what I did there?
I suggested taking the path of least resistance and turning the negative into a positive.
Sleep trainers love getting into people’s heads about ‘sleep associations’ and dictating what a baby needs and shouldn’t need to get back to sleep.
All they do is make already exhausted parents even more exhausted by prescribing ‘re-settling’ techniques that are meant to teach babies (who are usually far too young to understand or learn) they will not be fed each time they wake.
The lesson a young baby is supposed to learn is how to ‘self soothe’ and respond to different ways of settling to break the nursing-sleep association.
The Nightly Routine
This is the way it usually plays out:
- The baby, who sleeps in a different room from his parents, rouses and starts to signal waking. Parents might or might not wake at this point.
- A parent wakes and waits to see whether the baby will ‘self-soothe’ back to sleep.
- The waking baby is now waking more fully. he might start to cry. The parent waits to whether the baby can calm down alone.
- If the baby doesn't calm, then the parent might go to the baby and verbally reassure him and begin to pat him. The baby wakes even more and the crying escalates.
- The parent then might pick the baby up and try to soothe him, without feeding, by rocking or pacing.
- At this point, both baby and parent are wide awake.
- If the person attempting the settle isn’t the primary carer, there’s also a very good chance by now the primary carer is also wide-awake, listening to the baby cry, and unable to sleep.
- The parent tries techniques such as walking around the house, bouncing on fit balls, walking with the pram. The baby will cry more.
- Maybe the baby eventually gives up and sleeps.
- Maybe the primary carer eventually steps in and feeds the baby back to sleep.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
How many minutes did all that take? Probably quite a long time.
And now you, the exhausted parent, are finally back in bed after that settle. How are you feeling?
Are you drowsy or wired, relaxed or anxious, peaceful or stressed?
Maybe you can’t get back to sleep, and then the anxiety of ‘Will I manage to get back to sleep before he wakes again?’ kicks in.
Or perhaps you start calculating the minutes until his next wake, or the time your partner leaves for work.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
You finally wind down again, enough to start drifting off, and then… ‘WAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!’
That when you explode with, “I really can’t do this any more!”
It's Groundhog Night!
You or your partner lose your cool. Terse words are exchanged.
Still the baby cries.
You have now reached the point where you call sleep training consultants, and seek sleep school referrals.
No-one can maintain this method of settling indefinitely.
There Is Another Way.
Instead of following the same strict routine, when your baby wakes, just do whatever sends him back to sleep the fastest.
If you know your baby never settles alone and will fully wake up whenever he stirs, then it’s okay not to not wait and see whether he settles.
It’s perfectly acceptable to catch your baby while he's still super drowsy, put a boob in his mouth and see him back off to sleep instantly.
If your baby sometimes settles back after a little stir, then try waiting a minute to see which way things are heading. But don’t hesitate to pick up your baby and feed him as soon as the direction is clear.
By preventing your baby’s stirring from escalating to full blown crying, you achieve two things:
- Your baby remains more relaxed and drowsy, and is usually easier to settle. This is a win for you, but also for your baby who wants to be asleep, but just needs a little help getting back there.
- You remain more relaxed, drowsy and low-key, so you can go back to sleep once your baby is settled. This is far better than trying to unwind, after every single nerve in your body has been fired-up by hearing your baby’s cry.
You can add another layer to this, which will further assist your quality of sleep and rest: consider bringing your baby back into your room.
By limiting the amount of physical exertion needed to tend to your baby, you're allowing yourself to maximise the rest and sleep available to you. Having to be awake enough to drag yourself out of bed, and walk into another room, and then trying to keep yourself awake while you attend to your baby, is adding layers of fatigue you can avoid.
Breastfeeding mothers who can safely bedshare might benefit from learning how to nurse lying down. Even if you can't fall asleep while your little one is latched on, you can remain drowsy, relaxed and calm. If you do fall asleep, you will be on a safe surface.
This also allows the amazing hormones in night time breastmilk to work their magic. They will help your baby go back to sleep, as well as soothe your body, so you can get back to sleep more quickly as well.
For those who can’t or don’t wish to bedshare, there are co-sleeping options where the baby remains on his own separate surface. Co-sleeping can make a huge difference in reducing unnecessary physical fatigue.
Roomsharing is recommended, for safety, by peak SIDS bodies.This is another great reason to consider it.
Read more in Red Nose’s article on Roomsharing With Baby.
Take a moment to reflect on how night waking is managed in your house. Ask yourself what you are still resisting that might actually help your whole family get some more sleep. Then channel your inner-Frozen and ‘Let it goooooooooo!’
Night waking during the first couple of years of life is completely normal. Your child is not doing something he should not be doing, and he doesn’t need ‘fixing'.
If the waking is excessive, then you might like to read this article.
Whatever the situation, you need all the sleep you can get.
Some nights, no matter what you try, the waking will be full-blown waking, and the rocking, the walking, the terse words, the weariness, will feature in your life again. But it won’t happen because you are resisting.
Sometimes, we cannot seem to work out what is making sleep so very hard for our small person, and nothing in our repertoire works, but this shouldn’t be your norm.
It’s perfectly okay to surrender to your child’s need for night-time parenting, and follow the path of least resistance.
Nursing to sleep is often the fastest way to see a baby back to sleep and this is by nature’s design, not through some ‘bad habit’ or ‘sleep association.’ Quite simply, it’s because this is how human infants are meant to find and maintain sleep, while their busy little bodies and brains grow and develop in their first years of life.
Hang in there, tired parent.