(Original post was written in July, 2013, but I heavily revised it since)
How much night waking is ‘normal’
Many women, especially the cosleeping/breastfeeding kind, at some point, become exhausted by constant night waking and get burned out (especially by the time your baby turns into a 2 or 3 year old and is still waking up all night long for boob). I’m all about on demand feeding, don’t get me wrong. And, I’m a strong advocate for cosleeping (actually, my kids don’t even have their own room, we all share one). My babies were chubby and fed as much as they pleased… BUT.. when my older daughter was about five months old, she was waking up almost every hour or more. I knew that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t just a few nights, it was way too frequent and way too many nights/weeks in a row. She seemed very restless and irritated. So, I started looking for gentle answers, not for my sake, but for hers, to see if constant night waking was really considered natural… I’m not talking the usual once or twice a night. I’m talking about excessive waking. Did cave babies used to wake up every hour? I had to find out.
BABIES WAKE TO PEE!
A little known secret in first world countries, where nearly all babies wear nappies (even mine), is that they can actually be taken to the toilet, day and night. Yes, it’s true! The ‘sleep experts‘ don’t mention this one much.
In the first world, we refer to responding to a baby’s toileting needs as elimination communication (EC).
Babies will not eliminate in a deep sleep.
First, they stir. So baby wakes, then, mom or dad have some routine of getting baby back to sleep. If you’re cosleeping and your baby is in your bed, often your first reaction is usually to stick the boob into the mouth or use whatever settling technique you use. Plug up the noise hole and pray that they go back to sleep. Sometimes they go back to sleep and you can ‘milk it‘ (haha, get it) for another hour or two, but then the stirring happens again… then the pee… then they’re wet.
No animal in the wild lets its baby poop and pee where it sleeps without cleaning it up. Human babies are not designed to sleep through the night anyway, especially because they to need eliminate several times a night or feed if they’re little (the frequency depends on the age of the baby). Even though it seems like practicing EC (elimination communication) with a baby at night is a huge pain in the arse, I often feel like it’s a matter of short term effort, long term benefit (ehm, longer stretches of sleep). Now, I know that not everyone is going to be jumping up and down with their hand up to take their baby to pee in the middle of the night. BUT, if you at least know that elimination is a reason for night waking, then you’re a step closer to understanding what’s going on. If you want to know more about EC, you can read a post I wrote here. Which brings us to the next secret…
Is Your Baby an All Night Boober? The Cycle of B00b –> Pee
It was a natural instinct for me to correlate frequent night feeds with frequent trips to the potty. So, I started lessening the amount of time I allowed on the boob per night feed. I would allow a nibble, not a huge meal, and then pull away. Or, sometimes not offer at all. Unless… my baby was going through a day time feeding strike, in which case, I allow for a little extra boob at night. But, constant night feeding, to me, just means that I have to wake up and take them to the potty more (yawn.. who wants to do that five times a night?). ‘What goes in, some must come out.‘ When I thought of it this way, it felt natural for me to shorten the night feeds. (This refers to older babies. I would never shorten the night feeds of a young baby) I didn’t read it from a book or anything. I think even the cave woman might have thought like that. They wouldn’t have wanted to get out from under their wooly mammoth skin rug at night, if their baby had to pee… I’m sure they would have encouraged smaller feeds at night for that reason!
Babies need to release stress during the day through crying (in arms only)!
In my research, I stumbled across Aletha Solter’s parenting movement called ‘Aware Parenting‘. She mentioned something called ‘cry in arms‘ and that really struck a chord in me. You see, I had been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation for years before I had kids. Some of the processes and techniques that I had practiced myself, meant that we sometimes released stress, from built up anger and frustration, in the form tears. We all know how emotionally beneficial and healing it is to have a ‘good cry‘. But, up until my daughter was five months old, I had done everything in my power to keep her from crying. I gave her boob even if she had already been fed. I rocked her. Distracted her. Bounced from side to side. I never tried a dummy (pacifier) but, I did almost EVERYTHING to stop the crying.
But, Aletha is saying to allow the crying (in arms and of course, after all needs have been met). Toss away the dummy, don’t jiggle, don’t rock, or anything that is a control pattern for them. Just hold your baby lovingly and let their emotions pour out. Most of the time, I was doing exactly the opposite!
Some parents go to the other extreme and put their baby in the other room to cry alone. But, Aware Parenting is saying to do something different. It’s not easy being born, and it’s not easy adjusting to life outside the womb. Babies get stressed just like adults, it’s just that they have little other ways to express their stress than through crying. Imagine if you were having a huge sob… would you want someone to make you stop crying by distracting you or by shoving something in your mouth? Or, would you rather just have a soft shoulder to cry on until you ‘got it all out‘? It’s the same for babies.
Again, going back to my meditation background. I know that if I don’t meditate sometime before going to bed, I have crazy dreams and have disturbed sleep. I need that stress release before bed. Similarly, babies and young children need some sort of stress release too. That release comes out in the form of a cry.
Once I started allowing my baby to cry, lovingly in my arms, when she needed it, she started sleeping so much better at night. We found a really good rhythm at night and her waking every hour for boob at night dropped almost immediately back to waking maybe two or three times a night (which is pretty reasonable, in my mind, for a baby of that age). I’ve done cry in arms with both of my girls. Keep in mind, the aim of doing cry in arms is actually not to get a baby to sleep better at night, it just happens to be one of the positive by-products!
To learn more about Aware Parenting and ‘cry in arms‘, I highly recommend reading Aletha Solter’s book, “Tears and Tantrums“. She explains in detail and with studies based research everything that I mentioned.
Re-Thinking Night Waking
Night waking in babies and ALL people, is totally normal (how do you think I write all my blogs at 1 in the morning.. I wake up and do them!) But, how frequent is another story. Obviously, if a child is sick, teething or going through developmental phases, they will certainly be more restless at night. There also other things to make the night waking less taxing on your system. Like, you going to bed earlier, cosleeping, diet, etc. But, if you look at the overall trend in you baby’s night waking, and it seems excessive, it might pay to consider a few things that many people overlook. Liquid in=liquid out. Boob addiction. And, allowing a baby to release stress and tension that accumulates during the day.