I HAVE a couple of friends who have just had their first babies and are going through the whole ‘getting them to sleep’ minefield.
No one can adequately describe what it’s like to suddenly have your entire life ruled by a squawking little person who simply won’t do what you think they should be doing.
Until you’ve endured sleep deprivation – the proper sleep deprivation of a new parent, rather than pulling a few all-nighters on the beers – then you just can’t empathise enough.
The new parent is bombarded with advice. They might seek it out by investing in a ridiculous amount of contradictory parenting ‘help’ books. They might have well-meaning relatives and friends who tell them it HAS to be done this way or that.
They might have very clear ideas before the birth that are forgotten when the squidgy, delicious, adorable, utter nightmare of a baby rocks up. And as for twins or triplets? You parents deserve sainthoods.
So, you’ve just about got used to a feeding routine.
You start wondering, 10, maybe 12 weeks in, perhaps I should try using the cot?
And then they scream the house down when you do.
For the first six, ten, 12 weeks, you’ve been letting them fall asleep on you, or in a Moses basket in the front room, where you zone out in front of the telly with exhaustion. I know this, because I did it myself.
Our eldest didn’t ever go down in his cot awake because we never really tried in the early weeks. Bloke would have a ritual where he did that strange, shuffling sway of the new Dad, babe on shoulder, humming to some weird American Indian chanting CD.
We’d get Jed to drop off in our arms and then delicately, put him down in his cot asleep, terrified he’d wake again. The swaying embrace is what he’d got used to.
By the time number two came along we perfected a bouncy chair technique to get him to sleep. So he didn’t like going in the cot either.
By number three, you’d think we’d have learned. But Billy wouldn’t sleep on his back, even if we put him down asleep. He’d wake up immediately and wail. So we did something we’d been told not to by the health visitors. We’d lie him on his side, sometimes propped up with a rolled up cellular blanket along his back to stop him rolling.
It seemed to work, and as they got bigger all the boys slept on their tummies. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone this, because it was such a no-no with regards to advice on reducing the chances of cot-death.
When we wanted to start trying to get them to go to sleep at a specific time it was painful, and upsetting, and knackering. But we had to keep trying. We had to keep going in, stroking their hair, leaving them to wail with anger at not being picked up. And eventually, after many nights of sitting guiltily outside the door, hearts breaking as they cried, exhausted, thinking it would never end, they got into a routine, and they slept.
Yes, sometimes, we’d put them down too late, or let them fall asleep on us watching TV, but mostly, putting them down and letting them cry worked. It felt bad, but it worked. We were less knackered, they were less knackered, and soon we had three happy boys who would all go to bed at allotted times and sleep through the night. And they still do, 13, 12 and seven years on.
Then Baby Bonnie came along. If she fell asleep, we put her down in her cot. When it was nap or sleep-time, we put her down awake in her cot and she cooed and babbled her own way to sleep. It was remarkable how different it could be.
There’s a whole heap of debate about trying to establish a sleep routine. In an ideal world, and you may be lucky, you can put a newborn baby straight into a cot from birth and establish some sort of schedule for eating, playing and sleeping. If that’s you, then I envy you.
There tends not to be a one-solution-fits-all with babies.
There are tricks you can try.
I didn’t bath my babies every night, but a nightly wash and a soft sing-song before putting them down makes them recognise what’s coming. (We’ve been singing ‘My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean’ each night for three long years.)
Putting a t shirt you’ve worn in the cot can help, as they ‘smell’ you nearby.
After a feed, wind them, wind them, and wind them again. Keep their room dark, they need it as a sleep trigger.
When they fight sleep, stroke their eyebrows. It makes them close their eyes.
Don’t let them into your bed when it’s sleep time. By all means, bring them in when the alarm’s about to go off, but don’t let them get used to sleeping with you each night. It will not end well. You will soon have confused and angry toddlers sharing your bed. Your bed should be for you, and their bed for them. We had a gate across bedroom doors not just to stop them falling down stairs, but to keep them out of our room.
After all these years, I still check on my babies every night, replacing their kicked off covers, putting legs back in beds, marvelling at how big they’ve got, not missing those sleepless nights.
Routines don’t really need to be established in the first couple of months. You just go with the flow. But if you can make the cot a familiar place at the earliest opportunity, then life should, should, get easier. I wish you luck, patience and sleep.