Help my baby and me get some sleep
July 13, 2012 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I do not know how to get to sleep, and my five-month-old has the same problem.

I have never known how to get to sleep. Over the years I have tried lots of things: exhaust yourself, relax every muscle, one by one, then magically there is sleep. Or no caffeine, or no caffeine after 3 p.m. Or bed is only for sex and sleeping, no other activities. No naps. And on and on.

But none of these folk remedies has ever actually worked for me. At best, I spend the night drifting into and out of light sleep and contemplation, in the morning awaking knowing that I must have gotten at least some sleep but also feeling like I'd been up nearly all the night. Over time I have grown to accept that this is just what sleep is for me, and it's not something to stress about which makes it worse.

For a few decades now my approach has been passing out from substances like alcohol and that works OK but there are other drawbacks and I'd prefer not to pass that technique on to my five-month-old son. He's only ever fallen asleep when held in daddy's arms dancing to music, attached to mama's nipple, or in the carseat or backpack. He has fallen asleep maybe two or three times, ever, any other way.

My theory is, people lay down in the dark when they're tired, and then they fall asleep, but how does that actually work in practice? When I lay my son down in the crib even ten seconds before he's actually sleeping he cries and I can't just leave him there crying. (He may have inherited vivid nightmares from his mother, and we do not want him to feel terrified and alone, so letting him cry it out is not really an option.) He fights sleep like a viking, too—I get that "must see all the things" is de rigeur for someone his age, but he is a champion sleep fighter.

I have gone to a sleep clinic, and have a CPAP machine which has helped with sleep apnea and snoring. I also have a prescription for Ambien, which works really well, apart from some side effects. But I'd really rather figure out how to sleep without depending on substances, and I want my son to have better sleep than his father has had.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
He's only ever fallen asleep fallen asleep when held in daddy's arms dancing to music, attached to mama's nipple, or in the carseat or backpack. He has fallen asleep maybe two or three times, ever, any other way.

Just so you know, this is completely, totally 100% normal in an infant. I understand you have lifelong issues with sleep but there is absolutely no reason at all to project those onto your baby at this stage. There are a wide variety of unfortunately named sleep training approaches and you can begin some of the routines of some of those quite early. In general, MeFi generally likes the No Cry/Sears methods mentioned and saves the Ferber method as a last resort (or else just makes it very uncomfortable for posters to admit they Ferberized their kid.)

If you're concerned about what the future of sleep looks like for you son, I'd encourage you to read one book from each column now so you know this is something many, many parents get through, successfully ending up with well-rested children.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:11 AM on July 13, 2012 [13 favorites]

Five month olds are natural sleepers, but they don't sleep for long. Let him cry for a little while. It's okay. That's what babies do. They cry. If he's not hungry, cold, hurt or needing a change, he's fine. Let him cry. He's too young for nightmares because he hasn't experienced anything to make him afraid. IMO. He knows how to sleep. Let him be and he'll do it all by himself. Babies eat when they're hungry and sleep when they're tired. It's when we try to make them conform to our schedules that we run into problems.

Your problem with sleep is that you keep *trying* to go to sleep. It's quite easy really, except when you're trying to do it. Like breathing or walking, it's just one of those things a body knows how to do until we try and do it, then it gets all kinds of hard. Sure, if you lie there telling your body to "go to sleep" it's going to stay awake because you're telling it to do something, you're engaging your brain. I know this is easier said than done, but turn your brain off. Let your thoughts go, one by one (envision releasing balloons into the air if it helps) until you're left with nothing but noise and your body will do the rest.
posted by patheral at 7:15 AM on July 13, 2012

Your son's sleep habits are normal! My son still falls asleep at the breast or in the car at 20 months, but he can also fall asleep with dad laying next to him now too. We didn't do any "sleep training" and most of those are not recommended before 6 months anyway. At 5 months he's becoming more aware of the world around him and being more wakeful is 100% normal. You're not going to spoil a baby by holding them or rocking them to sleep.
posted by chiababe at 7:21 AM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some members of my family fall asleep best while being read to. For me, the book ought to be appealing enough that I can actually listen to it, rather than intentionally monotonous. My inner chatterbox quiets down, (rather than replaying my mental 99 Worries tape for hours which it otherwise does) and that lets my tiredness take over and I fall asleep within minutes, sometimes seconds.

This has been working for my toddler too, who until we hit on this method was having lots of trouble. She listens (I don't know how much she comprehends) to the chapter books I read my older child and she's almost always asleep by the end of the chapter.

Maybe give it a shot? Maybe hearing you reading will occupy the part of baby's head that is otherwise bored or upset at being left in the crib?
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:22 AM on July 13, 2012

A book that will really help you understand children’s sleep patterns better is Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth. When you said your son fights sleep, I immediately thought that he may be getting overtired. Weissbluth does fall into the “cry it out" camp, HOWEVER – he teaches that if you read your child’s sleep cues and get him to bed at the right time, there should be very little crying. This was definitely true for both my kids. Even if you don’t follow Weissbluth’s methods, I think the book will be tremendously helpful to you in understanding what normal infant sleep should look like.
posted by yawper at 7:23 AM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

For you....I have found wonderful help with melatonin. You have to give it a few weeks before it starts working....but it's a natural way to "get your body in sleepy mode". And it won't knock you out so you will hear the little one cry. Good luck...
posted by pearlybob at 7:26 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think Weissbluth is a good recommendation since the OP does not want to cry it out. "The most common Weissbluth method is the "extinction" method where a child is allowed to cry it out indefinitely at bedtime and for an hour at nap time. Follow the regular bedtime routine with your child and put him to bed. Leave the room and don't go back in. At nap time, allow for up to one hour of crying. If the child is still crying after the hour, soothe the child and try again at a later time." link
posted by chiababe at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2012

Happiest Baby on the Block. Not saying it will work for you, but my sister put my 4 month old nephew to sleep in about 60 seconds right before my eyes using the method.

You don't need to get the book (there are youtube vids galore), but it's helpful to understand why it works.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:33 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about babies, but I know you can't "inherit" nightmares. Unless your son was traumatized, I doubt he has the same dreams you have.
posted by MinusCelsius at 7:37 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, a five month old baby doesn't have the cognitive capacity for the nightmares adults have. I think you have two separate questions here: why does your sleep suck, and how you can get your baby to sleep. The answers are so different as to be irrelevant to one another.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:43 AM on July 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm curious how long you have ever left your child crying when going to sleep. In my personal experience, it often lasts less than 3 minutes (sometimes less than 1).

Our anecdote: Our five-month-old will cry intensely for a short time before sleeping if we let him get overtired. This will typically last for anywhere from 3-10 minutes (we usually check on him after ~5 minutes). After he falls asleep, he will have a deep and restful sleep and will not really wake up until the morning (i.e. he wakes up to feed in the night, but then goes immediately back to sleep). My point is just to point out that crying before he goes to bed is not in indication that he's deeply unhappy or is going to have a miserable night. However, from the intensity of his crying, he might be able to convince you that he's really unhappy. However, he then immediately falls asleep; he goes from scream to total sleep in literally 2 seconds sometimes. When we "hit things" right, he will fall asleep quickly without crying, but otherwise his night is no different from other nights.

I don't know if it's because he's getting older or if we're getting better at divining his schedule, but he seems to fall asleep without crying more and more these days. If zero crying is an absolute requirement for you, take a look at Weissbluth's book; he doesn't suggest zero crying, but he might find his stuff about reading the signs from the baby helpful. As with all of these baby books, I think that some of what he says is BS, but we've found some of the "hitting the schedule right" stuff really rings true for us.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:24 AM on July 13, 2012

I firmly believe there is no generalized sleep solution for anyone, baby or adult, so this is just a few reactions from someone who has had a life-long issue with sleep (not to your degree however) and saw a baby through to being a generally great sleeping child.

With respect to you and your baby: I've found it important not to borrow trouble for my child by projecting my health/mental issues on him. It's really too soon to read much into how your baby is sleeping. Treat your issues separately and don't assume pathology in your baby's sleep issues until you've thrown a lot of conventional options at it.

Stuff we were utterly dependent on early on (some of these are roundly criticized by some): motion sleep (we used a vibrating chair). Relied on this for mainly "I desperately need a break" naps. Never did night sleep in it. Pacifiers (Mayo on pacifier guidance). Swaddling. Long, looong cribside soothing, stroking, signing sessions in the dark (he was premature and we followed the advice we were given to never co-sleep, except for "kangaroo care" sessions with us sitting up) - he was in his own bed from the get go. Extra heavy, blackout curtains (still a godsend almost 8 years later). And while this is one for the pediatrician, like a lot of premature babies ours had bad acid reflux and needed medication for this for a long time. Uncontrolled this hugely interferred with his ability to sleep.

I found Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits book, mentioned above, very helpful in terms of guidance on nap frequency, overall sleep time goals, identifying sleep readiness, and general guidance on sleep preparation and sleep conditions - while never following any dictate to let the baby "cry it out". I always felt like my child communicated a variety of things by crying, and letting a him cry unattended was not a uniformly terrible thing, and that I could discern real distress, and crying that was escalating rather than tapering, and intervene accordingly. I don't think I ever let him cry for more than 20 minutes, and never ignored what I judged to be genuine distress, fear or pain.
posted by nanojath at 8:34 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My son only ever fell asleep on the breast or while being rocked until he was one year old.

Then we did sleep training -- The Sleep Lady Shuffle from the Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight -- and after only one night he was going to sleep on his own and (mostly) staying asleep all night. Seriously.

Your baby sounds completely normal and fine, and I would not stress about it at all at this point. Your baby is being a baby, and is not developing terrible lifelong sleep habits. I wouldn't even try sleep training for at least another 3 months.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:57 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have almost posted this very question several times over the past few months.

I am also a terrible sleeper and have a child who is a terrible sleeper. Here is what helped me: therapy. Talking about my anxieties to a compassionate stranger who helped me sort through which of my thoughts were reasonable and which were not. (The panic you feel right now about sleeping is not sustainable or helpful.) I know therapy is, like, a boring old MeFi saw, but damn, after zero previous forays into mental health care, it really helped in this particular situation.

The other thing that's helped is scheduling an expensive outdoor exercise class for 6:30 am on weekdays. Expensive so I feel motivation not to miss it, outdoors for the morning sunlight, early so I have an awfully good reason to settle myself in the evenings. And exercise has helped with mood stabilization in general.

Nthing everyone who says your baby's sleep sounds fine and normal (if exhausting -- oh, it's exhausting.)
Feel free to mefi mail me to chat about this.
posted by purpleclover at 9:32 AM on July 13, 2012

I have a not-quite-six-month old. We do not sleep a whole lot, or at any rate, we do not sleep for very long very often. I'm a big fan of these two posts, which point out (as others have mentioned) that babies are just not really all that good at sleeping. I have also taken the "by any means necessary" thing far past the 12-14 week mark. The means change from week to week, and sometimes they don't work at all, but I just keep telling myself it will Get Better. That, and just assuming that the baby will never sleep.

And I'd echo purpleclover on therapy. I'm still not the best sleeper in the world, but I've gotten better probably as a result of getting a little better at handling my thoughts.

Good luck--and I'm also available via mefi mail to commiserate, if nothing else.
posted by newrambler at 11:08 AM on July 13, 2012

Yeah, babies suck at sleeping, really -- until they can establish a routine, which is still tough at 5 months.

I can't just leave him there crying

Actually, this was one of the hardest -- and best -- things we ever did. Our first child was lengthening out his time awake to after 11pm at 6 months or so (and we were spending a lot of time falling asleep beside the crib, waiting for him to nod off), before we tried the "cry it out" methodology.

The first night, I was a resolute rock, and my partner was almost in tears. He cried for about 20 minutes.

The second night, I was the waverer, and she was the strong one. He cried for 15 minutes.

The third night, two minutes, and he was out. We've never had a problem since.

I know it seems cruel, and I don't think that people who don't do it are bad parents, but I know that I would never consider doing anything else.

Both of our kids are very well-adjusted, good sleepers now, who occasionally come and slip into our bed in the middle of the night. We never made them go to sleep; we just said they had to go to bed, where they could read until they were ready to sleep.
posted by liquado at 11:50 AM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

We did not do cry it out for the first 26 months of our son's life. We did not sleep well for 26 months. Finally, after a particularly bad week, I convinced my wife that we needed to do it. I told her to leave the house when we put him down, and I would call her when he was asleep. It took 30 minutes the first night, 2 minutes the second night, and by night 3 he only whimpered for about 10 seconds. Now, a few weeks later, he goes happily to bed by himself each night (after a long bedtime routine that includes lots of snuggles, kisses, and stories, not in that order).

There are many no cry sleep books, and we tried most of them without getting very good results. I know it may work for some kids, but not for ours. As long as there was a chance for snuggling, he wouldn't let you leave the room. Once we laid down the law and he know that there were no more snuggles, he accepted it, and it now is working great.

As for your sleep, I have a feeling that as time goes on and your kid is more and more active, you will find sleeping easier, since you will be more exhausted. Unfortunately I don't have any other suggestions (and I too have a very difficult time falling asleep, and never really feel that rested). The only thing that ever worked for me was doing the South Beach diet, and reducing my carbohydrate intake significantly. While we were doing that, I slept a lot better.
posted by markblasco at 1:04 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing I will add is that while five or six months seems impossibly tiny for sleep training to me (like really, can we not just sit down and discuss this rationally and without upset when you're four, or fourteen, or maybe forty?), it is easier to accomplish before your infant can pull to standing. You are coming up to the time period (6 - 10 months) where this seems to happen fastest and with the least trauma.

I think for first time parents, though, it can be really hard to undertake this since they are not fully convinced they're not going to break the baby by not behaving like poorly paid staff on 24 hour call. You really need to do a bit of research and find a method you and your partner can stick with when you are all ready. If that's 26 months instead of 6 months, so be it.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:44 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought this was pretty interesting.

Short version: blue wavelength light at night is new in evolutionary history, and we aren't adapted to it. Also, it's normal to wake up at night for a while and go back to sleep.

You can eliminate or block the blue light by various methods. Some people find their sleep greatly improved this way. I have no idea if this would help you, but it's a pretty easy experiment.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 4:53 PM on July 13, 2012

Your baby's sleep patterns (hah) are completely normal for a five-month-old. Whatever his particular sleep habits are, they are not your fault.

Please read the Weissbluth book. You don't have to sleep train him, but understanding the hows and whys of baby sleep will help set your expectations and put your mind at ease. Note that Weissbluth says that nursing to sleep is perfectly fine as long as it works, and 2 wakeups for feeding are completely normal at this age. Then go read the Pantly book, and the Sleep Lady book, and decide what you're comfortable with in terms of sleep training.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:54 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mentioned that you have sleep apnea and use a CPAP. Is your machine well fitted? Are the settings right? Do you use it every night? Article on how chronic insomnia often goes together with sleep-disordered breathing. It could be that your breathing issues were what caused your insomnia (imagine smothering in your sleep every night and your unconscious trying to protect you by keeping you awake).

The only thing I would worry about with your baby "inheriting" your sleep habits is to make sure that he doesn't inherit any predisposition to sleep apnea. If you are not overweight, your apnea is most likely caused by anatomical issues such as a small jaw, thick short neck, and/or large tongue. If you happen to be one of those slim apneics then just keep an eye on your son for sleep-breathing issues (snoring, noisy breathing, sweating heavily when asleep, looking like he's struggling for breath, always waking up grumpy and whiny even after "enough" sleep). Enlarged tonsils can cause apnea in babies and children, too; your doctor can tell you if they are swollen or not.

tl;dr: don't project your sleep issues on to your son but do be sure he's breathing OK while he sleeps; insomnia is not inherited but apnea often is.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:11 AM on July 14, 2012

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