Sleep is the best medicine

by MaryBeth

Few people have more difficulty getting enough sleep than new parents and doctors-in-training. When I attended the Texas Maternal Mental Health Conference in April, sleep was mentioned as the first line of defense for any mom dealing with postpartum depression or anxiety. Good sleep can truly be life-saving. So it’s no surprise that researchers spend a lot of time investigating the safest and most effective sleep strategies for infants and their parents.

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics published a new study that contradicts their previous recommendation that infants share a room with their parents for the first year. The data from this study suggest that infants who sleep in a separate room from Mom and Dad between 4 and 9 months may get more sleep and sleep for longer stretches than infants who share a room. These findings are pretty descriptive of my own experiences–even as recently as last weekend, when I tried unsuccessfully to room-share with my 11-month-old because we had family staying with us.

Below I’ve shared some of the basics of my approach to sleep during the first year of baby’s life. I am a firm believer that finding the key to infant sleep is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. Every family has to figure it out for themselves and go with what works for them. But, in the interest of passing on any wisdom I have, here it goes.

Safe co-sleeping was a life-saver for me as a nursing mom. The routine that we developed with our first baby (once his early weight issues were resolved) was that my husband slept in our guest bed and let me and the little one hog our entire Queen-sized bed for the first few months. We kept our bedding very simple and I made sure that my little guy was snuggled right next to me (not near any pillows). Our pediatrician knew that I co-slept and she supported that decision. Honestly, I think most moms who nurse understand that, when baby is eating frequently, the ability feed throughout the night without getting out of bed results in more and better sleep for everybody.

I always struggled with low milk supply, but as soon as we started supplementing with formula and/or solid foods between 6 and 9 months, I found that moving baby into the crib in a separate bedroom worked best. For the first few days after the transition, we used a gradual cry-it-out method for dealing with nighttime waking. We would go in and reassure after about 7 minutes of crying, but we’d always verbalize, “it’s time for sleep,” and we would not bring baby back into bed. This approach successfully limited the length of our sleep training period with all three kids to about one week. Once the night waking dropped to just 1-2 times per night, we’d stop going in the room altogether and 99% of the time, baby would get back to sleep in under 10 minutes.

Getting all of our kids to sleep through the night in a separate room by about 9-months-old wasn’t easy and I know people who’ve made different strategies work for them. But by the 9-month mark I was always ready to get my evenings back and sleep independently from my baby again. The space was welcome and helpful. Plus, we all got more sleep!! I’m also convinced that the transition would have been much harder if we’d waited until separation anxiety set in, which happened recently, around 11 months. And this was very apparent last weekend, when I could tell almost immediately upon trying to sleep in the same room as my baby girl that it was NOT going to work. Neither she nor I could sleep peacefully: I was afraid of making even the smallest noise and she awoke more often and did more crying because she could sense that I was in the room.

Even for seasoned parents, trying new things with your baby is important if the status quo is not working. I hope you have found or will soon find a sleep solution that works for your family!

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