Getting Through the Night

While “Is he eating enough?” might be the biggest dilemma for the breastfeeding mother, “How can we get through the night?” is likely the cross of the new father to bear.

Sleep is a precious commodity as a parent. Your day is no longer measured from sunup to sundown. Your are on a 24-hour clock and you need to sleep when you can. That sleep will come in fits and starts, as well. At the start, expect to see anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes of sleep at a time at the most. Anything else means you are lucky, an outlier (unless you’re getting less, in which case you are unlucky). And while sleep is precious to Dad, it needs to be even moreso to Mom, and she likely isn’t as focused on it as she needs to be.

Mom will be concerned about the baby and want to ensure that he gets down to bed properly. You can have her wait in bed and try to sleep while you tend to the infant, but she won’t be able to sleep, not while he’s crying. But she needs to sleep. The production of milk turns new mothers into factories. Just sitting on the couch and eating bon-bons, Mom is now burning 500 extra calories a day producing milk. To give you an idea of how much that is, I’ve gone to the gym and run (not jogged, RUN) on a treadmill for 30 minutes, covering several faux miles, and only burned in the neighborhood of 300 calories.

Do not think of the baby as a barrier to your own sleep. If you think about the process as being one of problem solving, regardless of the timeline. You’ll do fine. As soon as you expect a result, or view the baby himself as the obstacle, you’re on the road to frustration and ruination. Come prepared to not sleep until he sleeps and you’ll be golden before you realize it. According to this piece from Runner’s World, Janelle would have to run over 6 miles to equal that kind of caloric burn rate were she not breastfeeding. What the what?! Basically Mom is training for a half marathon on about 4-5 hours a sleep a night, assuming things aren’t going too poorly.

So not only is getting through the night important, but the responsibility of making it happen is something that falls chiefly to Dad. How to manage and control an infant that cannot be controlled? It’s mostly a matter of managing expectations. If you go into your nighttime routine expecting that your baby will go down to sleep quickly and easily and will be calmed quickly and easily should he awake in the middle of the night then you will be primed for disappointment and frustration.

Be ready when you go to put your baby down that you’ll be spending 15-20 minutes getting him calm enough and sleepy enough to actually feel like falling asleep. Similarly, expect the same each time you need to wake up to help him get back to sleep. If you expect things will take a good bit of time, any time that it happens faster is a bonus. Not only have you earned some more sleep for yourself, you get a nice little confidence booster for being so awesome.

Also be prepared to be mobile. Calming a baby in the crib will only work for the most minor of fusses. You can either just lay down some calming shushing noises, or turn the baby onto his side for a bit (they like the side—beats me) and let him calm himself down. More likely, though, you’ll have a potential crying disaster on your hands and it will require more drastic actions. When you pick your baby up from the crib, try and do it gently and quickly. You want to be quick to act, but you don’t want to jostle and take him farther away from sleep. To start, see if body heat, some gentle shushing and simply the innate reassurance that someone is there to help try and calm the baby. Failing that, you might need to bust out the fancy tricks. Swinging him around, bouncing him, burping him. Maybe you need to head out to the living room and let him sit in his bounce seat. Maybe the car seat is magic. Maybe the car seat and a ride around the block in the family sedan is the thing.

How do you discover the magic nighttime tricks that will put your baby to sleep? I don’t suggest midnight experimentation. You’re likely tired and probably on your way to frustration. Not the best breeding ground for great ideas. Take note during the day of what does the trick. The two times that I’ve put Joshua into a front carrier and taken a walk around the block with him he has passed out hardcore. Mental note. Extra blankets for extra heat tend to make him nod off easier as well. Good to know. He likes to sit upright, and likes to be swaddled. Sounds like a car seat to me.

Once your baby is in a deep enough sleep, you don’t need to continue your tricks until dawn. Place him back down, walk away and cross your fingers. Chances are you’ll have to pick him up again, but again, try the gentle approach first. If that fails, though, start the cycle over and keep going until he’s been down enough times to get the point.

Now, the problem here is that I’m writing to the assumption that your baby is being fussy for the sake of being fussy, or because he’s tired. That’s really the only time that any tricks or tips will get you anywhere. All the other reasons will require a specific response. Dirty diaper? Gotta change it and hope that doesn’t cause more problems than it fixes. Hungry? Time to wake Mom (assuming the timing is right—check out the next post for tips and tricks on breastfeeding). Upset tummy? Well… you’re just screwed aren’t you?

The upset tummy is one of those things that you just can’t do a damn thing about. Similarly, while the above tricks may work and are good starting points, there’s no fast guarantee that they will get a baby to stop crying. Most of the methods described are reasonably foolproof as they activate triggers in the baby’s brain that they should be cool. Did the kid throw any tantrums in the womb? Nope. Why not? Tight space. Warm temperature. Well fed. Rocked constantly. Perpetual white noise. Using any of these tools is likely to send your baby back to the good old days when he lived in a luxurious square foot apartment. Likely—but not guaranteed.

With an upset tummy, all you can really do is hope. Try burping your baby, try laying him on his back and pumping his knees up to his chest to help with gas. Trying switching up positions to crunch his tummy and push those air bubbles out to the surface. But consider the very real possibility that you just need to ride it out. Just as babies don’t know how to use their limbs for some weeks (hell, they don’t even realize those arms belong to them for awhile, something just keeps hitting them in the face), they don’t really know how to poop or pass gas. There’s a good chance that at the same time you kid is trying to push down to work out some gas he’s also clenching his little butt for all he’s worth to keep it in. Now if that isn’t just the picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

Expect putting your baby to sleep to take time. I’ve found that I need to stay awake while Janelle feeds so that when it’s time to put Joshua down, I’m awake and ready for the throwdown. If I tried to sleep until the main event, I would wake up both groggy and on stage and I would just be too damn grumpy to do either of us any good. I’d ask him why he felt the need to be so difficult and what, after all, the big deal was. He’s a baby. Life can’t be that bad. But a Michael that’s awake and ready to go is a Dad that’s ready to be patient and keep trying different positions to hold the little dude until it’s actually bedtime.

Crying it Out

Letting a baby cry themselves to sleep at night is not something I ever considered an option. It is, however, a fairly popular idea thanks to the research of Dr. Richard Ferber. Ferberizing a baby isn’t quite as simple as letting babies cry until they fall asleep. It involves staging up the amount of time you let a baby cry before you soothe them, and when you soothe them the point is not to pick them up. This is intended to teach a baby to calm itself and to sleep through the night.

But, really, what’s the point?

The Ferber method assumes that you child is a manipulative little monkey. The presumption is that your baby likes to be held and so will wake himself up from sleep and cry just to get you to come and comfort him. So, you take your infant and you begin withholding care from him. If you’re going to go ahead and make the assumption that you baby knows enough while this young to mess with you, then you also need to make the assumption that your baby knows enough to understand that you’re simply not coming. That’s not a lesson that I like the sound of. I’m not trying to raise John Connor here. “Learn to sleep while you’re young, little dude. No one will be there to hear your screams in the middle of the night.”

It’s not even an approach you can really consider economical, as it involves ever increasing intervals where you wait before trying to calm the baby. You start at, for example, 3 minutes. Then up to 5, then 7, then 10, then 15, then 30, etc. You’re looking at an hour of essentially hoping that your child stops crying. What if their tummy is upset and what they need is being held upright for 3 minutes so it can settle? Or if some extra body heat will be just the thing to push them over the edge into sleep? Picking a child up and trying a few options to see what calms them down or puts them to sleep could be the kind of thing that takes you 2 minutes.

The notion is that the Ferber method will train a child faster to sleep through the night, but considering that you’re looking at a couple of months before the kid is ever going to be likely to do that anyway, you’ve probably got an idea of how to calm him anyway. So… why abandon those methods?

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