I got together with a group of Mamas the other day to talk about sleep – what works, what doesn’t, the challenges and joys…but mostly…the lack of sleep with little ones in the house. It was a wonderfully candid conversation that was validating and raw. It was reassuring to know that we’re not the only family who has evolving sleeping arrangements. In the last 11 months, sleep has been a constant give and take, ebbing and flowing with milestones, teething, growing, emotions, and desperation. Here is a glimpse of what evolving sleep looks like at our house.
When we were preparing for J’s arrival we set up the nursery. We borrowed a crib from the family I used to nanny. It was a beautiful wooden crib, already filled with years of memories. I was excited to add our sons memories to it. My Aunt quilted a beautiful nursery set. We set up the co-sleeper to use in the early months. I was ready for our little bee.
But then he came and everything I envisioned happening, changed. My assumption that we would use a co-sleeper and then a crib went out the window. Our sleeping reality morphed as we did what felt right in the moment and took suggestions from others along the way.
From night one we were a bed-sharing family. He was so sweet, so small, so snuggled, so content in my arms. The midwives helped us set up a safe space, checking the firmness of our mattress and going over the do’s and don’ts of safe sleep. (For more on creating safe sleeping arrangements read here)
They taught me how to nurse side-lying. Lying in bed, side by side, skin-to-skin, all night long and nursing whenever he stirred was so beneficial to getting our breastfeeding journey off to a good start and it helped us all get the most sleep possible.
For the first few weeks the co-sleeper I was so excited about at first, proved to be a great storage spot for the wipes and diapers I would need in the middle of the night. It held my water, books and nursing necessities. And the nursery was occasionally used as a safe space so I could sneak in a shower.
But he slept by my side, waking often but never for long. Stirring just enough to alert me to his hunger, latching by my side, nursing slowly and intently while we both dozed off together again.
This was our routine for a couple months. But winter came and it was cold. I missed the blankets up to my chin and leg warmers on my arms just weren’t cutting it for me anymore.
Plus J moved. He wiggled and rolled. He tossed and he inch-wormed. So it began. The gentle transition to independent sleep that would take months and likely years. It started with the co-sleeper. Instead of spending the night curled against me, J slept in the co-sleeper beside me. I would pull him in to nurse whenever he stirred but as soon as he was asleep again, I’d put him back in his space (unless I fell asleep first!) He could move, he could roll, he could spread out.
And oh yes, that reminds me, my husband…the one I used to snuggle in the night with. He was patient, understanding and supportive of our sleeping arrangements but I missed him and he missed me too. It was so nice to have our bed back, to be able to snuggle again, with blankets up to our chins, while J snoozed close by. But we still didn’t spend the whole night together. Mike continued to start the night with us, migrating in the middle of the night to the spare room so he could get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before heading off to work.
This worked for several months until J started to push himself up. Our plan was to drop the co-sleeper down so he could continue safely sleeping next to us. But the thought of needing to lift him up to me was discouraging (ok, ok, I know. Super lazy. But seriously, when your sleep is so interrupted, every way you can keep your eyes closed and your head on the pillow a moment longer matters!) Plus he was moving too much and my mornings of dozing in bed while he played next to me were surely over, for fear he’d fall off the bed. So I did a bit of complaining to my village. The veteran Moms of older babies understood the balancing act of nursing and sleep, dozing and safety. They suggested that it might help to move my mattress to the floor so that J couldn’t fall out of bed. They shared that it helped them continue co-sleeping and nursing.
So I talked to my husband. Did I mention he was patient and supportive? He didn’t like the idea of sleeping on the floor but he really loved the idea of being able to continue with what was working so well for us. So our bed frame made its way to the attic and our mattress went on the floor. But now the co-sleeper was above us and didn’t make sense to use. We still needed a separate space for J. We talked about it and decided to put the crib in the attic too. The quilt became our favorite blanket to rock and read stories snuggled in and the crib skirt was perfect for around our changing table to hide away extra supplies and blankets. It was more practical this way, seeing we weren’t using it the other way. Everything went to good use, and we could use the crib mattress alongside ours for the added space we needed. And so began the next phase of our family bed.
It was wonderful. J would sleep the night away, rolling into me to nurse, sometimes even helping himself. He followed our rhythms, intrinsically understanding night and morning. As soon as it was morning, he would climb out of bed and play with the nearby toys in our baby-proofed room, while I dozed and lazily played with him.
For a long time, this was the perfect arrangement. He loved his own space and I loved his growing independence. Being able to play after naps or in the morning was fantastic. And being able to roll to me when he needed to worked for both of us.
It was great until he turned 11 months. And it hit me. The heavy realization that for 11 months, I’d been sleeping in hour and a half to 2 hour increments. I couldn’t even remember the last time I got more than 2 hours straight of sleep. Sure Mike would help out sometimes and let me sleep in or let me go to bed early. But the middle of the night was mine. If you asked how I felt about night time parenting I would tell you I loved it. And it wouldn’t be a lie. I love being able to soothe him, to nurse him, to nourish him. I love the snuggles and the sleepy gaze. But short bursts of sleep are draining, oh so draining. And I was feeling like it was time to work towards longer stretches of sleep. But we didn’t want to push him or force him. And we weren’t comfortable with letting him cry it out in a crib. We didn’t think it was fair to expect him to sleep through the night. After all, neither of us do. We wake for a sip of water, to pull the blankets a little closer, or to kick them off. We wake from dreams or from trucks passing in the night. We felt it was important to honor his own wakings just as we do our own – to continue letting him take sips of comfort, readjusting his blankets, adding or removing layers for him until he is able to do so for himself. We knew we needed to balance meeting his night time needs with encouraging more independent sleep somehow, but how?
So I once again consulted the village to see what others had found to work. What could I do to continue fostering the nursing relationship, still tending to his night needs, while encouraging longer stretches of sleep? They suggested that moving him to another room might help. If he didn’t sense me all night long, he may sleep a bit longer. I could still have him on a mattress on the floor, and go in to nurse him when he woke and could either return to my room or finish the night with him. It sounded perfect, a gentle transition to more independent sleep, the logical next step in our sleep journey.
So our sleep evolved once again. We gave J the eviction notice and began sleeping him in his own room.
The first few nights were promising, with longer and longer stretches of sleep. He seems to have found a pattern and it works for now. Mike puts him to bed around 8 or so. It is so cute to see them snuggle up together until J drifts off to sleep. Then we remove blankets and pillows and clean up all his toys before heading to our bed for the night. He typically wakes around midnight and 4 to be nursed again.
Teething nights interrupt his pattern and he makes a return to our bedroom. But mostly this is working. I have my husband all night long again. And J is slowly working towards independence. He seems to be doing so well with it too. He fusses in the night and cries out from bed. I make my way in to comfort him before returning to the warmth and comfort of my pillow. Yet in the morning when he feels rested and refreshed, he just gets up and starts his day. He makes his way to my bedroom, stopping along the way to play with one toy or another. It’s great laying in bed listening to him play and chatter.
But it’s a little sad too. I’ve shed a few tears through the process. I miss being able to brush his back and know he is there. I miss hearing his steady breaths and feeling his warmth beside me. But I still get midnight snuggles and sleepy gazes while I nourish my nursling. I cherish nighttime parenting most now because I know these moments too will fade with time.
I never thought I’d say it but getting more sleep is bittersweet, a telltale sign that our little baby boy is growing into an independent toddler. I know that our sleep will continue to evolve as he continues to grow. I know that it will continue to morph as he needs us less or sometimes needs us more. We’re just along for the ride, following his needs and hopefully fostering healthy habits that will stay with him throughout his life to come.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Watch and guide me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.
But if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Sleep, sweet one, sleep!