We are currently having a little night time adventure. I call it that to cheer myself up as in the past week our bedroom has been too hot to be able to sleep. When we couldn’t take any more we moved our mattress into the living room and that is where we intend to stay until it cools down.
Parenting at night is perhaps for many people the hardest of all. After all we are for the most part used to going to bed at our chosen time and having a relatively undisturbed nights sleep. In my role as a midwife two of the most common parenting questions I get asked is how do you cope with a baby waking at night and how do you go about getting them to sleep at night and be wakeful in the day. My answer to the latter question is that you can’t, at least with a newborn. They are meant to feed around twelve times a day including at night and they don’t come with a clock that sets itself to an acceptable routine. Rather they come with their own internal rhythm. One baby will have their most awake time at 4pm whilst for the next it will be 4am. I’ve come across plenty of parents who in desperation have kept their baby awake in the day with disastrous consequences that night when they find themselves dealing with a screaming, inconsolable baby. Research shows that babies are meant to wake at night. The goal as a parent is to make it as comfortable and restful an experience as possible and to create a night time environment that gently encourages your baby to begin to recognise the difference between night and day. This will likely take time. I’m not going to cover the topic of sleep training in this post as I don’t personally advocate taking such an approach.
I have always felt that the transition from womb to being earthside must be terrifying. For nine months the baby is held in constant warmth with reassuring sounds of the mother’s heartbeat and cradled by her moving body. Then, all of a sudden her world changes. There is cold and heat, there is the harsh brightness of electric lights or the darkness of night. There are mechanical noises, car engines, washing machines, and then there is the night silence. No longer are you constantly cradled but you are placed on a cold, firm surface and expected somehow to sleep. If we really stop for a moment and put ourselves in the place of our newborns it becomes clear why so many of them cannot sleep in the beautiful cribs we have prepared for them.
One of the first things I did was decide where my baby would be sleeping. I decided to follow her cue but anticipated that she would either sleep in a crib at the side of the bed or in my bed. Guess which it ended up being! On night one it was clear that this was a little girl who liked to sleep cuddled up with me. To help me get some quality sleep I started go into bed earlier and my partner would take her for a few hours before he was ready to sleep. That way It was fine if she had a night where she wanted to feed constantly. She is now almost six months old and although she is still in my bed she now sleeps without constant contact, though her little hand reaches for me for reassurance from time to time. If you decide to share the bed with your baby there is safe bed sharing advice which should be followed. One of the things I did which gave me peace of mind was to put our mattress in the floor. Having it at this level has made me much more comfortable with our daughter being in bed with me. I removed any excess pillows and the duvet so we now use only sheets on the bed. I dress her carefully for bed since she will be warmed by my body heat. Therefore even in the coldest months she has only ever worn one short sleeved, short legged layer in bed. She has never been cold and we sleep every night of the year with our bedroom window open.
Right from the beginning I have made sure that I differentiate between day and night by minimising how much I talk to my little one at night and by speaking in soft tones. The room is always darkened with closed curtains when we first go to bed. If a light is needed I use a Himalayan salt crystal lamp. She understood that night time was different very quickly and has only ever had an extended wakeful period at night a couple of times. Mostly she stirs a little and goes straight to the breast to dream feed. This arrangement has meant that I have rarely felt tired. I always make sure I have plenty to drink and something to eat at the side of the bed as breastfeeding is thirsty work. I also have the IPad and Kindle, knitting and any book I am reading too. All this adds to my comfort during night hours. If a nappy change is necessary it is done quietly. It helps to have a changing area set up right by the bed with a clean nappy ready to go.
Very early on we began an evening and bed time rhythm to help indicate when it is time for bed and this has worked really well. For us this is having the family meal time then walking our dog. When we get back it is time for a bath. By the time she comes out of the bath she is rubbing her eyes as she knows it is almost time to settle. We dry and dress her on the bed in the room which has already been prepared and then it is straight under the covers and cuddled up with mama for a breastfeed. During this feed we say a bed time prayer which we have used since birth and which she clearly recognises as she visibly relaxes and her eyes close as I say it. I used to then follow this with a gratitude practice and a short visualisation but lately she settles so quickly these have been left out. Bed time happens around 6.30 to 7pm. She gets up in the morning around 7am.
I write this at 4am and my nearly six month old daughter sleeps soundly just across the bed from me. My full breasts attest to her changing need. Not for much longer will she feed at night as she is adapting to being earthside. I feel a little sad about this as I love these dark and quiet hours with my baby. If you are in the throes of that newborn phase when day and night has no meaning I know it won’t help you to read that this won’t last forever but it really doesn’t. For now I will cherish the times my baby reaches for me in the darkness, the sweet closeness of her as she snuggles in for a feed and curls her fingers around mine. I will close my eyes and listen to her soft baby breath and make memories of these beautiful times.