I’m not tired, I’m just tired of you (Sleep Like A Baby #5)

I lost my momentum on the “How to Sleep Like a Baby” series when sleep turned into a problem for me again.  It takes some chutzpah to post sleep advice when you’ve still got only one kid and (God willing) many more years of childrearing for things to go wrong in.  It’s probably clear from my previous posts that I have sleep problems, too.  I think that, like the two-timing preacher who speaks so poetically about grace, having these problems is what qualifies me to give advice.  And if any of you reading this have parental sleep advice or stories about what’s worked for you, chime in!

Rebecca’s sleep got bumpy again around sixteen months.  This time around, I wasn’t just tired.  I was angry with her, because she kept insisting on rocking, even though she’d grown too heavy for me to rock comfortably or settle back into bed smoothly.  So she’d wake up when I put her down, suck a little on my already spent nipples, and pull me out of my warm snuggy bed to go back to rocking.  After a couple weeks of this, I decided that I’d hold her in bed however she wanted, but not rock her in the middle of the night.  She screamed for a few minutes–she wanted to rock–then conked out in my arms and didn’t ask to rock again.  Currently Rebecca’s waking up between two and twelve times a night, but I’m happier.

This story introduces my final major point about night parenting:  Take care of yourself.  A year ago, when I started writing this post and it still seemed good to soothe Rebecca back to sleep every time she woke, there were a lot of mornings when I woke up well-rested but simultaneously feeling like I needed a break.  Taking care of a baby all night is hard work, even if you manage to get enough sleep in the process.  But though you may need to be up at night, you get to set some of the conditions for it.

When you wonder why no one’s as solicitous of you, as you are of this baby.

Hardest thing for me about becoming a mother was that a lot of my pre-baby self-care practices stopped being practical, right when I needed them to deal with the emotional turmoil of becoming a parent.  And the more I got stuck thinking through the things in my head, the more frustrating soothing a baby was.   In The Myth of the Bad Mother, psychologist Jane Swigart explains how emotionally difficult it can be to take care of someone when you don’t feel taken care of yourself, or when taking care of someone else leads you to re-experience ways you were deprived in the past.  As she points out, helping parents have the resources to be emotionally available to their children is a societal issue, not just something to be solved privately.  But it does help a little to be gentle with yourself in the dark.

My mom loved Christmas, so she sang Christmas carols as lullabies year round.  I used to like to wear my mom’s scarf when I rocked Rebecca at night, because it reminded me how she used to rock me and my siblings.  Would you enjoy being up more if you lit a candle or did aromatherapy?  If you had some knick-knacks or pictures next to the rocking chair, or a few of your childhood stuffed animals? If you said Hail Marys to calm your baby to sleep?  If you kept a full glass of water with a bendy straw on both night stands?

You don’t necessarily need to go all cozy and feminine here, if that’s not your thing.  During the first month of Rebecca’s life, my night uniform consisted of my dad’s old army shirt and my mom’s do-rag.  I giggle a little now when I see pictures of myself, but my choice of costume did reflect a sense that I could be in for anything over the night.   I didn’t know when I went into it what resources it would take to get through to morning, but when I got up for Rebecca’s first nursing session of the night and tied on the do-rag to keep my hair out of my face, I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m ready for business.”

What makes you feel loved and strong?  What gives you a sense of plenty?  If you know you’re going to be up at night with your baby, can you add elements to your routine that will nourish you, too?

What if sleep isn’t the real problem?

Before I had a baby, nights were a time when I wasn’t on the job unless I decided to be, and I wasn’t urgently responsible for doing much of anything.  It must’ve been refreshing.  Being at my own disposal all night helped eliminate what  psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy.”

The attention we pay to things throughout the day is a finite resource.  In other words, you only have so much attention to give, and keeping an eye on your baby all day and night is obviously going to be draining.  But the consequences go beyond that.  Csikszentmihalyi argues that how we allocate our attention determines the quality of an experience.  Immersing oneself in a task without distractions creates a well-ordered psyche and tends to feel good.  Having your thoughts continually interrupted or cultivating a state of distraction doesn’t necessarily feel bad, but it gives rise to mental chaos or psychic entropy, which prevents you from being able to direct your attention effectively.

When you’re doing something, get interrupted with something you need to do, then get interrupted again while doing that, you don’t kill the mental job each time you’re interrupted.  Or at least I don’t.  I end up with several different tasks going on in my head until I hardly know what I’m thinking.  It’s not quite the same as multitasking, where you’re intentionally doing several things at once and figuring out the best way to get all of them to happen.  When psychic entropy goes up, my ability to process new information slows down, and I have trouble making decisions or executing plans.  More concretely, Ted asks me where I want to go for dinner and I just stare.   Plus I’m more emotionally volatile.

I experience this state as premature exhaustion, and sleeping usually can solve it.  But here’s the thing:  Sleep often isn’t the best solution for me.  If I can get someone else to watch my daughter for twenty minutes or a half hour, I pull out paper and start free-writing, jotting down whatever comes into my head and not stopping.  If I get the jumble on paper, then I’m no longer trying to think everything at once.  Typically I feel wide awake and energized afterwards.

Has anyone else experienced something like this?  What activities would you recommend?

Click on the category “Sleep” to see the rest of this series.

Bargaining With Happiness: The Suck Stops Here

Sometimes I make a bargain with my life: I won’t be happy unless I’m happy with our workload distribution, with my day-to-day opportunities, with how I got here, with my level of control. As if I could only allow myself to be happy when I look out and judge everything good. As if I were saying, shape up, Life, or I’m withholding my happiness! I see Ted bargaining with his happiness, too, though making different agreements: I won’t be happy, unless my family is happy. Be happier for my sake.

Here’s what the intersection of these approaches looks like: When I have something I’d like Ted to do, I first make myself unhappy that he’s not doing it. I present my unhappiness as an argument for action, Ted fixes it, and we’re both happy again. Usually I ask him directly, but after twelve years of cohabitation, sometimes the unhappiness itself becomes a question. Like I never seem to snap at Rebecca unless there’s someone else around, because my snapping is quasi-performative: Can’t you see how much I’m doing? Why aren’t you helping me? Ick. In the background there’s a fear that if I’m not unhappy, then I won’t be able to negotiate for help when I’d like help. I mean, how can I justify asking for help when I’d be happy either way? But that question assumes that helping other people must be terribly unpleasant and that I have no coin but my own happiness to pay for what I want.

Those are bad assumptions, but historically, this approach has more or less worked for us. I was invested in grad school, which Ted couldn’t help with no matter how strung out I got, and typically I didn’t care enough about the state of the household to make myself unhappy about it. I didn’t even realize we were playing a game with happiness until we moved in with our beloved housemates, Shayna and Vernon, who not only don’t play the game, but threw the existing emotional economy into confusion. Ted does things Shayna wants him to do, expecting to be paid enthusiastically in happiness. He feels frustrated and inadequate when her happiness proves not to be so mechanical, so he redoubles his efforts–and still may or may not make her happy. To make matters worse, now that there are multiple people openly bidding for Ted’s time, I sometimes feel like I’m on the verge of a bidding war with unhappiness as the currency. Poor Ted.

Vernon, for his part, is calm and solid no matter what’s going on.

One Tuesday afternoon in February, I was rocking Rebecca with my sweater and her hair both smelling like puke, baby’s first stomach bug. Not the day I’d planned. Ted already had the flu, so I’d been doing most of the parenting all weekend and I would’ve told you I needed a break–when something slipped into my heart. Now? You’re happy now? Because this was my job, and yeah, I’m gonna do it. Later Ted identified the feeling as pride.

And with brief blips, I’ve been happy ever since, even when I came down with the same flu and had to do as much parenting as possible sitting down and trying to puke quietly so I woudn’t wake Rebecca and was too weak to do the laundry, which now included the bathmat, several towels, my sweater, a shirt, two pairs of my jeans that had succumbed to diarrhea, and our bedding, because we had fleas. However, I’m better at handling nausea with equanimity since I’ve been pregnant. On the phone I told Ted, “It would definitely be nice if you came home, but we’re holding it together for now.”

So he didn’t come home. And we held it together. I got to be proud of myself for being strong, but I was thoroughly depleted by the time he got back. He took care of everything and made me miso soup while I sat wrapped in a blanket and told my war stories. He said, “Oh no, I should’ve come home”–remember our happiness game. I said no, that I’d gotten the best of both worlds, being both strong and taken care of. (But thank goodness his mom was in town to take care of Rebecca the next day.)

This is not a post about how the things we think will make us happy don’t. Sometimes they do, after all. Other times happiness happens on its own, flowering by grace, if you stop promising yourself you won’t be happy Until.

First Words (Just Like Magic, Part Two)

Given how standard it is to ask about a baby’s first word, it’s ridiculously complicated to figure out. One time when she was a couple weeks old, Rebecca was sleeping in my lap when I heard a very small voice, very clearly say “Help!” I looked around the room, half expecting a fairy or gnome, when I realized that the voice had come from the baby in my lap, and that she did in fact want help. So, was “help” her first word?

She said “help” several more times as a newborn, but similar things happened later, like saying “I like this one” about a necklace. I’m pretty sure that she meant to communicate just what I heard, but she did it without knowing the full conventionalized meaning of the English syllables. I figure this can’t be too uncommon. We’re predisposed to hear words in a flurry of voice the same way we are to see faces in a flurry of shapes, and in those days the part of my head that picks up patterns was working overtime.

While I was making patterns out of Rebecca’s noises, she was making patterns out of mine. Littlest imitated whole strings of intonation before she got around to isolating word syllables for concepts. That’s how last summer Ted and I both independently overheard her saying “I love you” to the coffee table, which was her favorite thing to pull up on. She got the consonants all wrong, but I think she knew what she was saying. I have a couple regular intonations for saying “I love you,” and that pattern of affectionate sounds had a clear, repeatable meaning before the individual words did. A baby figures out the meaning of individual words by abstracting them out of a series of meaningful contexts, so it doesn’t surprise me that she’d repeat a recognizable phrase before repeating recognizable words. In a sense, sentences come before words as a unit of meaning. There are plenty of words that I need context to understand, even as an adult.

Okay, but what was her first actual word? It may have been “mama” or “dada,” sometime late last summer, but it’s hard to be sure when she started using them with deliberate prescribed meaning, versus babbling or versus whatever you call it when a two-week old says “help.” Once she started using those syllables discriminately in particular situations–like mamamama! when she was indignant about something I was doing–it was still hard to tell whether she meant the word as a name. So I’d try to do things that would elicit the word, so that I could tell how she was using it, but that may have changed the meaning of what she was saying.

Which would totally screw up the romance behind her first words. The game parents play–even knowing it’s a game–is that first word choice is an independent emanation of something deep within our babies, and that it can finally tell us something about who these little people are and what their worlds are like. I’m too crotchety for it, or maybe just too earnest. It weirds me out that people emphasize babies’ ability to produce context-independent meaningful syllables, despite the fact that both you and the baby are speaking in a particular context and you both use that context as part of your interpretive schema.

Besides, first words don’t tell you much about where the kid’s language is headed. Rebecca’s probable first words (mama, dada, and baba for boob) had fallen into disuse by December. Instead she said “this” and “that” a lot, in conjunction with pointing, and seemed to call me “I” when she wanted my attention. “I” is how I usually refer to myself, after all. And I could make like calling me “I” reflects some profound truth of the mother-baby relationship, but maybe she was just saying a version of “hi” without the h?

So, anybody else have better stories about first words? I’m wondering whether my experience is unusually convoluted, because usually my experience is.

I had an irresistible impulse to edit this a few hours after posting, and I know it’s not the first time I’ve done something like that. RSS readers, have I annoyed you? Because if no one cares, I’m unlikely to stop.

The Background Drumming (Just Like Magic, Part One)

I’ve been writing a post about language since January. It keeps changing and getting bigger as Rebecca does, so I decided I’d better break it up.

It surprises me, words aren’t as important to me as I thought they were. Over the last year or so, I’ve become more sensitive to the tone of voice people use and sometimes hardly notice the words. I’ve become more sensitive to the patterns structuring our day, and what they tell me about whether I’m valued or interesting. I’ve started wanting my husband to act romantically, which I always thought was kind of a crock before, and oh, aren’t I stereotypical now?

(What happens instead of romance: On Valentine’s Day I buy myself a box of the same cheap chocolates that I used to buy my mom. When we get home, Rebecca sits in my lap and feeds me half the box, minus a few bites for herself.  She finds out that not all the chocolates fit in all the holes and uses the box as a shape sorter. I feel joyful and loved, and I call some other people I love on the phone.)

Words lost their force when Rebecca was a much smaller baby and interpreting what she wanted was mostly a matter of finding patterns over time. If I was around her all day, I’d know quickly what a cry meant, but if she’d been with her daddy or grammy for a few hours first, I’d feel blind. I didn’t have the contextual information to interpret her cries. Even if someone told me what she’d been up to and when she ate, it didn’t sink down to the level where it needed to. It makes me think that maybe there’s something to this full-time parenting gig after all, even if some days it feels like I’m being force-fed chocolate, too much of a good thing.

Having a relationship with someone who communicates non-verbally is simultaneously more raw and more big-picture than a relationship filled with words. She’s long been too emotionally complex to be read as the sum of her needs, but everything she says registers as part of a pattern of moods and hunger, fatigue, and frustration, which is a level of meaning that I sometimes lose sight of when I’m talking to an adult. Not getting wrapped up in individual words makes it easier to be compassionate, and makes me think about taking parts of that awareness to my other relationships. Not in a dismissive way–I’m so used to seeing people blame hunger or hormones or whatnot for conversations that go bad, as if the feelings involved weren’t real and as if the view of the world they disclose were wholly mistaken–but as another part of the message being communicated, as the background drumming that the rest is built on. It’s the register where you glimpse the secret animality hiding behind the things we say, where the tides of life wash in and out of us.

(What happens instead of compassion: I know in theory that I don’t know enough to surmise about anyone but Rebecca and me, and that even my intuitions about Rebecca need checked.  Knowing that doesn’t stop me from jumping to conclusions more than I used to–it’s practically a lifestyle, eh? People get irritated with me.   I’m working on it.)

Silly Sleep Tricks (Sleep Like A Baby #4)

This is Part Four of How to Sleep Like a Baby.

Okay, maybe you’ve embraced the possibility of getting a good night’s sleep despite the interruptions and maybe you’re waking up in sync with your baby, but what if you keep finding yourself awake long after your baby goes back down?

This happened to me fairly regularly for a while. I’ve perused advice for insomniacs, but most of it seems oriented toward establishing conditions conducive to sleep at the beginning of the night. Who wants to repeat a bedtime ritual or go drink warm milk every time you get up in the night? (Okay, your baby probably does want that. But that’s not my point.) It’s odd that most sleep advice focuses solely on external conditions, since sleep is an inward mental process. What you’re doing with your mind affects how readily you fall asleep.

First off, lying still in bed often isn’t enough for me to fall back asleep. I can tell myself that I’m trying to fall asleep, but if everything I’m doing with my mind says the opposite, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that sleep doesn’t happen. Maybe that’s okay; sometimes I need quiet time to think uninterrupted more than I need sleep, and I’ve had valuable insights from thinking in bed at night. So the first thing to ask yourself when you’re lying in bed at night is, do I really want to fall asleep right now? Or am I more excited to be thinking about something else?

When I am on the track to falling asleep, my thoughts become less verbal than they are during the day and more pictorial. As I get closer and closer to sleep, I start seeing things–hypnagogic images–that don’t make sense by wakeful standards. By contrast, if I’m holding onto an excited or anxious train of thought, it’s usually got a lot of words in it. I’m not alone in this pattern: insomniacs experience less hypnagogic imagery than people who fall asleep readily.

I’ve found that shifting my thoughts from words to images usually puts me to sleep relatively quickly. This shift is helpful not only because it jumpstarts the hypnagogic images that precede sleep, but also because translating thoughts into images lets me manipulate them to my benefit. Here are some of the techniques I’ve used:

-Think of an interesting dream image or anything else appropriately surreal: your baby riding bareback on a horse, whatever. Start animating the image and then watch it like a kaleidoscope to see where it goes or what it changes into next.

-Pick a set of words / objects you find interesting. I usually use the four elements, but you could also use something like colors or the rooms in your childhood home. Free-associate on each of them in turn, using words or images or both. The goal is to let the associations build momentum and take off on their own, so that you can sit back and watch them. If you notice that you’ve actively started thinking about something unrelated, just jump to the next item on the list. This approach is a little like counting sheep or counting breaths, except that counting things doesn’t work for me because it’s boring.

-If you find yourself repeatedly returning to the same thought, you might try conjuring up a sleep spider. I imagine a giant spider like Shee-Lob in The Lord of the Rings, but more delicate. My sleep spider bites the thought I’m stuck on, paralyzes it, and wraps it up in a cocoon for later. I picture her wrapping up the idea with as much detail as I can, until I can’t see what I was thinking about any more, only the bright spider silk around it. I know that the idea will stay safe there until morning, and I don’t need to think of it any more right now.

This is one of my favorite techniques because of the eerie feeling I get when I’m done: “I know I was just thinking of something, but what?” At that point you should shrug and let your mind drift, rather than trying to remember what you were thinking about. But another approach to obsessive trains of thought is to get up and go to the bathroom, telling yourself that you’ll go to sleep when you get back to bed. That worked really well for me when I was pregnant.

-If you’re uncomfortable and can’t do anything about it, you can try translating that into an image, too. I’ve watched anxiety sit in my stomach glowing like a miniature sun, moving slowly across the sky. I’ve gotten a fever and seen myself back at a childhood sleepover, getting sweaty in my pink flannel sleeping bag.

-If you keep thinking about how you won’t be able to get enough rest to function or if you have more serious sleep problems, read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia and maybe think about consulting a specialist to help you change your thought patterns and sleep associations. You can do it online, even.

What do your thoughts look like right before you fall asleep? As you try to get back to sleep, can you make your thoughts look more like how you think right before you conk out?


We’re lying on our backs on the dining room table, watching the reflection of puddles on the ceiling. The shadows ripple each time a drop falls from the roof, and I feel like I’m watching a turtle in a Zen garden or time lapse clouds, the cheesy kind that fly across your TV to signify spirituality. January stillness sweeps across our house in a layer of sunlight on dirty wood floors. Rebecca thinks watching the ceiling is a decent break from running up and down the table.

You could hardly do better than December if you were designing a month to make me feel desperate. The festivities came down in torrents of rain, exhilarating, more than the earth could absorb. I celebrated like I was taking part in a census.

No room for me at the inn, no room for clothes in my hamper, and by the last week in December I’ve got nothing left to take care of myself. I remember that Santa’s supposed to bring me what I want and that in fact, he used to. This Christmas I want my mom and I want to feel special and I want to be pregnant again. (Though, yes, it’s just as well Santa didn’t give me the latter.)

Living with a baby is like long-distance driving, the constant attention and repetitious motions. You drive into and out of storms and watch the land change from the corner of your eye, until abruptly you realize you’re somewhere new. In January we flee the Promised Land and its jealous madness, toward Egypt, into the desert. We find Presence in the emptiness and formless hours.

Synchronized Sleeping (Sleep Like A Baby #3)

This is the third part of “How To Sleep Like a Baby.” The first two parts are Problematic Parental Sleep and Rethinking Sleep. Another three parts are in the pipeline.

Adult sleep typically happens in cycles that last 90-110 minutes and include various stages of sleep, but really deep sleep typically happens only in the first couple cycles (the medieval “first sleep”). I argued in the previous part that discontinuous sleep isn’t necessarily bad sleep, but it does seem to be true that being pulled abruptly out of a deep sleep can leave you exhausted, even if you still manage to clock a full night in bed. (I’ve lost my citation here, but I’m pretty sure there’ve been studies.) Normally adults wake out of REM sleep, not deep sleep. So the goal isn’t to avoid all interruptions; it’s to avoid having your deep sleep interrupted.

Sleep’s cyclical nature means there are also times throughout the night when you’re sleeping more lightly and are easier to waken. How can you increase the likelihood that your sleep cycles will mesh with your baby’s?

Start Together. Although sleep cycles incorporate all the stages of sleep, the relative length of each stage differs from cycle to cycle. The deep sleep part of your sleep cycles is longer right after you go to bed than it will be later in the night. The same pattern starts to hold true for most babies as they get older, too, once you get past erratic newborn sleep (though sometimes babies have a short sleep cycle first before diving into their longer ones). When I find that I’m not getting enough rest otherwise, I go to bed when Littlest does, between 8 and 9 PM, so that we have our deepest, longest sleep at the same time. If she’s done with her first sleep at 12 AM, it’s better for me if I’m also done with my first sleep by then. I also figure that going to sleep together helps our sleep cycles mesh better throughout the night.

Does your baby’s longest sleep cycle happen at a consistent time? Can you take advantage of it?

Use the Power of Suggestion. When Rebecca was about a month old, I started waking up just before she woke to nurse. Not all the time, but when I did, it felt magical to be able to give her what she wanted before she even thought to ask for it. Mostly I credit my boobs, who were keeping track of how much Rebecca drank and telling me when it was time to nurse. My experience of waking up just before Rebecca isn’t unusual, and if it’s not already happening for you, you may be able to nudge it along by deliberately telling your brain you’ll be ready to wake up when it’s time for your baby to eat.

In my experience, sleep cycles respond flexibly to mental suggestion and some kinds of external stimuli. My brain moves out of deep sleep when it anticipates waking up, meaning that subsequent interruptions don’t impact me so negatively. For example, if I know I need to wake up in three hours, I say something to myself like, “Sleep now, three hours, and wake fully rested,” about a dozen times as I drift off to sleep. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. As long as I get woken up when I expect to wake and not too long before or after, I’m more likely to feel refreshed than if I don’t bother with it. Now, I don’t normally do this with my baby because her night wakings are too erratic, but I’ve heard of babies you could set a clock to.

Alternatively, since tiredness happens in your head, you may be able to persuade yourself to feel less tired just by repeating that you’re going to feel well-rested tomorrow. No guarantees, but I’m pretty sure that if I kept telling myself the opposite, that I was going to be tired all day, then my brain would find a way to keep that promise.

What assumptions and wishes are you already making when you go to sleep? Are they appropriate cues for how your night is likely to be structured?

Sleep Close Together. Waking up to a gradual stimulus, rather than something like an alarm or a screaming baby, can also help you wrap up a sleep cycle. Most people, including my baby, become more restless before they wake. If you’re sleeping near each other, your baby’s increasing movement can wake you up gradually, too.

The other advantage of sleeping relatively close together is that if I wake up as my baby does, I can usually start to soothe her back to sleep before she’s fully awake. If she wakes up enough to start crying, it takes her much longer to go down again. Mosko, Richard, and McKenna’s study shows that I’m not alone here: compared to cosleeping babies, solo-sleeping babies wake up more fully, for longer periods of time, and seem to be more alarmed upon waking, which means that their mothers engage in more intense soothing activities, like rocking or bouncing. Bedsharing infants could often be soothed by stroking and such without getting out of bed. As a result, cosleeping nursing mothers in the study woke more frequently than mothers who sleep without their babies and spent three times longer nursing them, but 94% of them reported getting enough sleep, compared to 80% of the non-cosleepers.

How does your baby normally wake up? Does s/he start groping for a breast in her sleep like mine does?

It’s also worth noting that your baby may be responding to your waking cues as much as you respond to his. According to James McKenna, bedsharing babies tend to wake to nurse at intervals matching adult sleep cycles. If that’s the case, positioning your baby so that she can sense changes in your wakefulness may be just as important to preventing ill-timed interruptions as tuning in to her is.

–On adult sleep patterns, look at “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sleep (But Were Too Afraid To Ask). And this is a cool alarm clock app for the iphone. It takes advantage of the fact that people toss and turn more toward the end of a sleep cycle to wake them at the optimum time.

-The original academic version of Mosko, Richard, and McKenna’s1997 comparative study is here. McKenna has also written several popular press articles summarizing his research, and they’re archived on Dr. Momma’s blog: If you look at “The Science of Sharing Sleep” and scroll about a quarter of the way down, you’ll find a discussion of maternal sleep and the fact that cosleeping mothers reported feeling more rested despite waking up more frequently. “Bedsharing Still Useful” is where you can read about the synchronization of sleep cycles between mothers and babies, about half of the way down, and it also has a good discussion of cosleeping safety. Miranda Barone’s work used the same data set as Mosko, Richard, and McKenna, and she summarizes her analysis here, reprinted from Mothering. It’s a nice balance of science and readability, though focusing on babies more than parents.

It’s particularly interesting that McKenna’s research indicates that bedsharing babies tend to match adult sleep cycles, because babies are frequently described as having shorter sleep cycles than adults. You can read Parenting Science and Baby Care Advice for more about the science of baby sleep patterns. But that data was based on solo-sleeping babies. Does the length of a baby’s sleep cycle change when she has someone sleeping next to her? McKenna and other advocates of cosleeping say infants rely on physical cues from parents sleeping nearby to help regulate their own biological processes. I haven’t done the research to see if there are any more recent studies on infant sleep cycles, though. The other kink is that the babies in these links may be a couple weeks younger than McKenna’s(?).

-But what if you’re too worried about cosleeping safely to sleep soundly? In addition to “Bedsharing Still Useful,” you might want to look at this.

Sleeping Across Cultures (Sleep Like A Baby #2)

This is the second part of “How To Sleep Like a Baby.”  If you missed it, the first part is here.

Parents don’t discuss their own sleep patterns in sleep deprivation posts because we as a culture take it for granted that interrupted sleep sucks, so no one feels the need to explain what’s bad about it.  From there, the burden of fixing parental sleep shifts to getting rid of the interruptions.  But this approach to interrupted sleep is relatively new in human history, and it isn’t the only way to deal with the problem.

Our bodies should be able to adjust reasonably well to more frequent wakings, because that’s how humans evolved to sleep.  Like the electric light, the unbroken night’s sleep is a modern Western invention.  Historically we’ve slept together in groups, had more babies, and slept with those babies in those groups–you do the math.  One of my friends did fieldwork in areas of Nepal and China where contemporary families sleep together at night, and she assures me that they were not chronically sleep-deprived as a result.  They’d gotten better than we are at sleeping through disruptions, or stirring briefly and going back to sleep.

They may also have approached sleep differently than we do.  In addition to brief disruptions throughout the night, people often wake up for a longer stretch, too, at least during the winter.  Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr ran a study showing that people exposed to long nights without artificial light tend to take their night’s sleep in two main chunks separated by a quiet wakeful period, as do many other mammals.  According to historian A. Roger Ekirch, preindustrial Europeans kept a “watching” hour in the middle of the night and used it about how you’d expect: praying, talking, thinking about dreams, being glad not to be working, smoking, playing cards by candlelight, getting sexy, stealing fruit from other people’s trees, and so on.  What’s more, preindustrial Europeans prized this free hour in the middle of the night enough to keep it even though they were apparently relatively short on sleep.  Anthropologist Carol Worthman notes a similar sleep pattern among traditional cultures including the !Kung, Ache, Balinese, and Pashtun.    Both Worthman’s and Ekirch’s descriptions suggest that the people they study woke many times during the night due to minor disruptions and discomforts.  A lot of minor rousing plus one longer waking?  That’s sleeping like a baby.

Even for American adults, discontinuous sleep can be enough.  People take advantage of this when they practice polyphasic sleep, getting all their sleep in the form of naps rather than in a long nightly chunk.  Research also shows that cosleeping mothers wake more frequently at night but feel more rested in the morning (more on that later).

What if a good night’s sleep didn’t mean a night that hardly seems to exist, but a full, cozy, contemplative time?  What would need to change for you to enjoy being up in the middle of the night?

-A. Roger Ekirch’s “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles” in The American Historical Review, April 2001. Or maybe that link doesn’t work anymore? But the article became a chapter in his book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which is on google books here.
– Bruce Bower’s “Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape: People in traditional societies sleep in eye-opening ways” in Science News, September 25, 1999.
– Richard A. Friedman’s “Sleep Disorder? Wake Up and Smell the Savanna” in the New York Times, March 14, 2006.
-Steve Pavlina’s blog posts on his experience with polyphasic sleep
– Tim Zimmermann on long-distance solo boat racers’ sleep practices: Miles To Go Before I Sleep in Outside Magazine, April 2005.

How To Sleep Like A Baby (Sleep Like A Baby #1)

Last May I wrote some lengthy sleep advice that never saw the light of day.  That’s a problem, because I keep wanting to link people to it.   So intermittently this month I’m going to post my instructions for sleeping like a baby.

I see a lot of sleep deprivation on baby discussion boards:  “Help!  My LO wakes up every two hours, and I’m beyond exhausted.  What can I do to get her to sleep longer?”  “Hey, my baby does that, too,” I think.  The week I started writing this she was up every hour and a half or more.  However, I’m well rested most of the time.  That’s not because I don’t need sleep.  Before I became a mother, I typically needed seven hours to feel rested, and I need several hours more than that when I’ve been doing heavy lifting physically or emotionally (as happened postpartum).  I’m average that way.

What’s the difference between me and the crazy tired parents?  I suspect part of it may be our sleep practices.  Most parents who write about being tired focus on their babies’ sleep habits without saying anything about their own.  You can’t tell from the posts if they’re taking some other part of their situation for granted, like not mentioning that they also go to bed at midnight to finish chores and then get up at six AM to get their older kids ready for school, or else maybe they’re really talking about how it sucks to schlep your tired body down the hall in the cold to the baby’s room.  Maybe they have colicky kids who wake directly to wailing and skip squiggling around first.  Maybe their babies take longer than the fifteen minutes mine usually needs to nurse and go back to sleep.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The real problem is that the mom is tired, not necessarily that the baby isn’t sleeping the night.  The baby’s sleep patterns are obviously a contributing factor, but changing the baby’s behavior is not the only way to tackle the base problem.  It may not even be the best way, because trying to get a baby to do what you want is frustrating for both of you, especially when you haven’t had enough sleep.  You have more direct control over your own mind than over your baby’s, so why not start there?   In other words, teaching yourself new sleep tricks is probably easier than changing your baby’s behavior.

I’ve spent the last decade chronically getting less rest than I need, and sleep deprivation pushed me to think about my sleep patterns and explore techniques to sleep more quickly and effectively, so that I could be as rested as possible on too little sleep.  This approach paid off again when I became a parent.  The advice I’m going to give here contains assumptions that mean it won’t work for everybody, but maybe some of it will work for you.  Even if none of it fits your situation, maybe thinking differently about parental sleep deprivation will help you find your own solution.

Scuba Fiasco

I have a friend whose baby is nine months older than Rebecca, and recently she and her husband decided to do a romantic getaway before their next baby comes. That sounds nice, I said, whenever she mentioned it. Was I really oblivious that she was nervous about leaving her daughter? I really was. Despite having been a stay-at-home parent for over a year now and having read a lot about other mothers’ experiences, I apparently still haven’t gotten it through my head that leaving your baby can be hard to do, even when your baby is more like a toddler and even when you’ve got someone you trust and who isn’t unduly put out to look after her. Lots of people leave their babies every day, so how bad can it be?

I wrote most of this post sitting in a condo in Maui in early September, while my husband went diving without me. He and I had taken scuba lessons together for our second anniversary, back in 2003. Falling in love with the Californian kelp forests was what finally saved me from being homesick for the Midwest. And on every trip to Hawaii since then we’ve gone diving as often as our bodies would let us, passionately, and afterward we snuggled and slipped into early naps and agreed the trade-off between sex and diving was a good one.

This September I still wanted to dive, but not as much as I didn’t want to leave my baby with the sitter again. I was too anxious to sleep and eventually lay in bed crying, because I kept thinking about Rebecca being unhappy.

Everyone I talked to reassured me that leaving Rebecca for a few hours wouldn’t hurt her, and I agreed. I’d decided before we left that diving would be worth some amount of unhappiness for her, and I figured based on Lise Eliot’s book, What’s Going On In There, that she wouldn’t be scarred by my unusual and relatively short departure. Babies are statistical creatures; they register their parents’ normal patterns of responsiveness, not so much the exception that proves the rule. The babysitter added that I shouldn’t feel guilty, because Rebecca needs to learn to let people other than her parents take care of her. Yes to that, too, but my anxiety wasn’t about that kind of fear or guilt.

When we went diving two days ago–the first time we’d left Rebecca with a stranger, though our beloved housemate Shayna was also around– she cried most of the four and a half hours we were gone. The main reason I don’t feel guilty about it is that I hadn’t expected things to go so badly, but also, I don’t generally get guilty about that sort of thing. You can’t fix someone else’s feelings, and anyway, I’m not the only one who she could’ve stayed with happily, so I don’t see any particular guilt adhering to myself. The practical questions bothered me, though: Is ten-and-a-half months a good time to learn being left with a stranger? When it’s someone she won’t form a lasting relationship with? Under these circumstances? Because dive boats leave well before Rebecca wakes up, and I’d be alarmed, too, if I woke up on vacation and my family was gone.

What I felt guiltier about was potentially flaking out on Ted. The conventional parenting advice I’ve read says you need to make sure to spend alone time with your husband after you become parents, with the subtext that he’s kind of a diva and he’ll leave you if you don’t choose him over your baby. It’s another stupid stereotype that’s not true of Ted, right? Talk with him, Christina, instead of assuming that he wants you to go diving at any cost or that he doesn’t care about our daughter’s happiness. But I wince when I imagine myself objecting to having fun together. Will I become a living embodiment of the burdens of parenthood, like someone he’d be happier without? Will he get into the habit of relying on me to veto ideas that might not suit Rebecca, until he forgets that he’s as much a parent as I am, and that I’m not just a killjoy? So the mainstream conjugal advice to new parents has teeth.

The other problem is that I don’t just want to have fun with Ted; it’s that I want to be fun. Or at least interesting. The feminist parenting advice I’ve read says that kids need interesting mothers. Now, short of a catastrophe, one dive wouldn’t be enough to help in that department, but if I don’t go all in now and enjoy scuba diving just as much as I used to, then will I still be a diver the next time we come to Hawaii? Or will it become just one more thing we did before kids?

Still, I keep coming back to the question, what if Rebecca cries most of the time we’re gone again? I know it’s likely, and I know I could stop it. It doesn’t matter that she won’t remember being left with a stranger or be scarred by it. That’s like saying it doesn’t matter that those Canadian doctors were groping women under anesthesia.

Before I became a parent, I figured that crying was just something babies do, not grievous human suffering. I figured you can’t take a baby crying too seriously, because babies don’t understand a lot of things. They cry even when you’re doing things that benefit them–say, like helping their parents live like whole people with healthy marriages–and other times they cry for things that could hurt them, or for no apparent reason. It’s the parents’ job to be rational adults and analyze the trade offs.

But what I notice now is that those statements about babies are true of people in general: We all want things that will do us no good, and we all cry in the face of things people say will benefit us. (See me crying and going through wad of kleenex as I think about leaving Rebecca with the sitter.) Even so, my own best interests remain mine to determine, not anyone else’s, because no one else has the first-person perspective to evaluate what I get out of an experience nor the authority to set my goals for me. By contrast, babies’ desires get dismissed as mistakes. Sometimes parents do need to disappoint, anger, hurt, and challenge their children–but some of the rhetoric used to justify that? It wouldn’t fly if it were applied to someone who had full status as a person. I’m uneasy talking about conscience in connection to babies’ desires, but my reticence probably has less to do with logic than with the fact that we as a culture have decided that parents should “escape” sometimes and that babies’ opinions about it don’t count.

The root of my dilemma is that babies and their desires are trivialized, which makes it hard to justify staying, and babies’ lack of person status is contagious, which makes it attractive to go. Being around babies apparently turns your brain and personality to mush, which is why you need to escape if you want to be “fun” or “live a little.” But if taking care of a baby isn’t life, then what is it? And what if a self isn’t something you can lose? I mean, what if you actually turn out to have a self no matter what you do, whether you stay home or go to work or go out for fun? What if babyhood weren’t forever, and in good time I could return to some passions and even find new ones? Platitudes about how quickly the time goes can sometimes be a way of saying that mothers’ needs right now don’t matter. But on the plus side, if Rebecca’s baby days are reduced to a hiatus in my life, then my choices don’t all have to be so fraught with portents for my identity and relationships. Just look at the situation as it is. At this moment.

What I am is worn out from having fun with our childless friends on vacation, instead of resting next to Rebecca while she naps. What I am is a woman who’s already made over 110 dives, and Ted and I already did the dive we were most looking forward to on Tuesday.

Rebecca won’t need to look back at good old mom and rue all the things I gave up for her, because in a lot of ways it’s not about her. It’s about who I am, and I don’t leave people I love to cry so that I can have–or even be–fun. Leaving Rebecca to cry while I dove might not damage her, but it could damage me to disavow how I felt about leaving her. Today staying home with Rebecca is standing up for myself.

I’d like to end this piece on that note, except it’s not that simple. Doesn’t my high-minded decision to let Ted dive without me reinscribe traditional gender patterns at home and on the dive boat? Even though I say that the decision wasn’t about fear, guilt, or sacrifice, it has the same effects as if it were, which makes my reasons for staying home seem kinda incidental. And even if I cast my decision as self-affirming, that could prove to be more of a rhetorical trick than a long-term solution. I found myself ensnared in differing imperatives about the kinds of selves a mother should be, but despite my apparent triumphant escape, I haven’t actually rejected any of them.

I don’t see myself as obligated to care for Rebecca in whatever way she chooses, but I’m not going to blow her off, either, and so we muddle through to a middle ground the same way I would in any other relationship. In this case, the middle ground looked like staying home but still paying the babysitter to take care of Rebecca so that I could write, Ted could dive, and Rebecca could see I was still around. She started screaming in a panic as soon as she saw the sitter–I mean, she was really, exceptionally disturbed–so I felt validated in my choice to stay with them. The problem is, “don’t blow her off” as a relational ethic looks a lot like another cultural mandate, “There’s nothing in particular that you have to do in response to your baby, as long as you worry about whatever it is you’re doing.” It puts moral weight on how you feel toward your baby, rather than on what you do, and the sort of worry it recommends is taxing, unpleasant, and potentially inconsequential.

I’m angry about how anxious I got, because I feel like the whole thing was a set-up where everyone played their scripted parts, but none of us knew quite what we were doing. In the story in the back of my head, an overly attached, emotionally self-indulgent mother is agonizing about leaving her baby. In the next scene she mans up and does it anyway, and in the third scene the baby is happy as a clam while the mom does her thing elsewhere. The whole thing was harder on her than the baby!–she laughs about it with other mothers over a cup of coffee, as a rite of passage they’ve all successfully been through. I know that’s how it’s supposed to go. The details of my experience may be idiosyncratic, but my anxiety is a cultural artifact, not wholly my own internal conflict, nor wholly private.

The fact that I was the one lying awake at night agonizing over whether to leave Rebecca happened not just because several conflicting relationships were calling my name, but because Ted and I have a gendered distribution of labor for worrying. I worry about Rebecca, and he worries about money and other logistics. So let’s not sound too smug and triumphant about wending my way out of the social pressures urging me to leave Rebecca, when I simply chose in favor of the stronger but less articulate social influence telling me to stay. This distribution of labor is ingrained in and part of my love for my daughter, because love is fundamentally social and hence cultural. We expect mothers to worry about their children as if it were a kind of piety–but only as long as their worrying is feckless and doesn’t compromise their ability to act like men, who are expected not to worry about leaving the kids.

Then we came home from Hawaii, and I let this piece of writing languish because I felt stupid about how anxious I’d been, and the whole thing seemed hopelessly bourgeois and trivial. It really shouldn’t have been such a big deal to leave Rebecca for four hours, right? But belittling this kind of worry is of course how I got into the situation in the first place, and I’d like to trade in my milquetoast support of other mothers’ departures in favor of something less trivializing. It’s ridiculous to pretend that my baby’s preferences don’t or shouldn’t matter, and especially that they shouldn’t matter to me, who spends so much of every day in conversation with them.