Each morning as the sun rises, I feel her little body start to squirm beside me. Soft, chubby hands pat against my back, followed by stubborn, kicking feet. I stay still for a few minutes, hoping she’ll settle to sleep again. If she doesn’t, I reach over and place the palm of my hand against her belly to try to will her back to dreamland with my touch.
Sometimes it works.
More often than not, she starts to coo and giggle, ready to meet the morning with joyful predictability. She smiles wide when we first lock eyes, knowing she has won and the day has officially begun. I quickly pull her to me and skitter out of the room to protect those still sleeping. Our bedroom has become a family space and I’m enjoying the closeness while it lasts.
The six o’clock hour belongs to just the two of us. I practice yoga on the floor while she puts every ounce of will into learning how to crawl. Occasionally she’ll get her legs just right and inchworm a couple inches forward. Mostly she just wiggles and yells, upset it isn’t coming more easily, determined to learn to move like her big sister. No sooner do I roll her onto her back for a break than she flips right back over to try again.
Finally she grows tired and I put her in a carrier to help her fall back to sleep for a cat nap. I write while she slumbers and then somehow, she and her sister both wake up at precisely the same moment, even in separate rooms. They see each other and her whole body moves in excitement. Our morning together is done and my early bird is ready to play with my lazy daisy.
Five months and already so animated, so wiggly, so smiley, and so determined. Everyone wants to hold her at parties, enchanted by her happy demeanor and thick, dark curls. A happy baby and those curls, everyone remarks, again and again. Five months and I’m starting to get glimpses of the person my early bird will become, and I couldn’t adore her more.
I worried, maybe because that’s what moms do. I forgot how my love for her sister intensified with time, a cumulative effect. Instead I looked back on three years and saw all the moments condensed together into one sensation in my heart.
So, the second time around, I expected to feel it all at once. The depth, the overwhelm, the obsession. When I was greeted instead with a familiar warmth, I thought maybe I was missing out on something earth shaking.
I asked everyone with more than one kid whether the bonding was different the second time, whether it was easier to bond with their first. I felt guilty asking. I worried people would think I was suffering from postpartum depression and hadn’t bonded at all, even though, of course, there should be no shame in those struggles. But I didn’t want there to be any confusion. I loved her already, it just didn’t feel the same as I thought it should.
I came up with all kinds of hypotheses. Maybe it was the medicated birth. Perhaps it was my fault for jumping back into work so quickly or not asking for more help so I could lie in bed and stare at her. Or maybe it was just the distractions of trying to take care of so much more with two children.
What I didn’t consider was time. I’d forgotten how I’d spent every afternoon nursing her sister in bed in an effort to bond more. Or how after months of colic, I’d pulled her sister to my chest and wept because some unknown layer of myself had been cracked open and suddenly her screaming was a call to hold her even closer instead of drive me away.
All I’d initially remembered of our bonding the first time was the intensity of those first hours of motherhood, as I’d transformed through the rawness of it all. I expected to sit in our hospital suite and feel it all again in that same life changing way. However, I’d already become a mother this time. My entire being wasn’t altered as it had been with her sister. I mistook this for a difference in bonding, when really it was just a difference in myself. That particular magic only happens once.
Four months in and I finally feel as connected to M as I’d hoped I would in those first moments. I can’t get enough of her wiggles and giggles. She is already quite the talker and wants so badly to run around and play with her sister. I’ve gotten better at sitting still and being with her. The adrenaline has worn off and I’ve relaxed, for the most part, into being a mom of two. Sometimes I’m caught off guard by the enormity of getting to love another baby. Moments of happy disbelief as I realize I get to do it all again. An incredible opportunity. Another daughter to love with all my heart.
Beginning with my fantasies of being able to press pause and take a nap during labor, my relationship with sleep transformed into something I desired without any real promise of attainment. I craved it. I daydreamed about it. I practically salivated over it.
After twenty months of co-sleeping and nursing on demand, I finally decided I’d reached my limit. I was fine continuing to share a bed as long as I could sleep without having to nurse every hour or two. While E had gone through stretches where she slept a few hours or more at a time without needing me, she was suddenly becoming more and more demanding again and my body couldn’t take it. Just as I always figured would happen eventually, I knew I was done.
Then, I hurt my shoulder and I was really done. Like there was no other option. I couldn’t lie on my side for hours upon hours. She was going to have to learn how to put herself back to sleep.
Now here’s the point in the story where I pause for a moment to tell you every baby and family is different. While we decided not to cry-it-out early on, I now have a new appreciation for the idea that maybe some moms need the separation earlier than others. Co-sleeping and night comforting was something that worked for us for a long time. I enjoyed the closeness. And, honestly, it was just easiest for me. We had shared a body, so it felt natural to share a bed. She was right there next to me, easy to put back to sleep. No need to climb out of bed in the middle of the night. You get the idea.
Even within the same family, moms report different techniques working for different kids. This worked for us. I’m not looking for approval or to suggest what we did was right. It was right for us until it wasn’t anymore. Of course, many people in our lives warned us it would be hard to get her out of our bed, but it was also hard for me to get out of our bed in those early months. To me, it has been worth the trade-off, even if it isn’t easy to transition her to her own space.
What we have done after two long months is get her to sleep for about 8 hours (on average) without needing anything from me. I still nurse her around 5 or 6AM and then she goes back to sleep for a few more hours. When you consider we were nursing hourly at some points in the last few months, this is a HUGE victory. However, it was hard-earned.
I’ve had a couple of moms recount their cry-it-out experiences as gentle fussing in the crib. This was never an option with E. For awhile she’d start her night in her own little Montessori bed on the floor, but as soon as you’d try to put her down in a crib she’d scream to the point of gagging. I’ve heard her gently fuss. This wasn’t it and we couldn’t take it for more than a few minutes. She would hyperventilate. She would freak out. It was too much for us so we didn’t push it.
Accordingly, I scoured the web for a “gentle” approach to night weaning. I knew putting her in a crib and walking away wasn’t an option for us, even if I’d tried it a couple times just to see what would happen, (and, as I described, could only take for a couple minutes!). So, I figured the first step was to get rid of nursing during the night and then worry about the bed-sharing afterward. Fortunately, my husband stumbled across this video and sent it to me:
Basically, the plan went as follows:
Pick a 6-7 hour window to withhold milk as the source of sleep
Nights 1-3 use any comforting you’d like to get her to sleep, nursing may be used to comfort but not put to sleep during the 6-7 hour window
Nights 4-6 no milk during the 6-7 hour window, any other comforting okay
Nights 7-9 no milk, no comforting
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to withhold her favorite source of nighttime comfort, but I had no other choice. It was time. And, it was terrible. She fought back, hard. She screamed, and screamed, and screamed, even though I was lying there next to her.
I tried everything. I sang songs, I ignored her. Nothing helped but time. While the plan in the video suggested 9 days, it really took us about 5 weeks with the first 2 being the most intense. Although the plan transitions to no comforting by night 7, it took us longer to get there as simply rolling over to “hold you” became her favorite trick.
Even now, I have to make sure I pack her full of as much food as possible during the day because she was clearly relying on night nursing for some of her caloric needs. Below are my journal entries from the first few nights to illustrate what a challenge it was:
Night One: Went to bed at 9, nursed but she fell asleep without nursing around 10, withheld nursing 5 or 6 times throughout the night, threw short fits then went back to sleep (still challenging), nursed once around 4 to relieve pressure, and again at daylight, slept in until 9:30+ and put herself back to sleep once after I got out of bed (heard her cry, but didn’t go to her)
Night Two: Ouch. We were off to an awesome start. I nursed her then used other methods to get her to sleep, (sing, cuddle, etc). She fell asleep after about 30 minutes without any fits around 10PM and slept soundly until 1AM when she woke up in a torrent. Nothing would get her back to sleep.
Unlike the fits the previous night, her screaming just kept escalating. A sippy cup helped calm her a little. Walking her around calmed her until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, (well, my right arm since I sprained my left shoulder and couldn’t put much weight on it).
Still, I kept refusing to nurse. I sang songs, tried to cuddle, until finally the screaming became too much. I asked her dad for help, (he was sleeping downstairs so he could face his workday). She just got angrier until the screaming became so intense that I felt like I was going to throw up.
At that point, I deferred back to the rules for the first three nights– nursing is okay to calm, just not to put to sleep. I calmed her with milk and then she went to sleep easily after I stopped nursing her. She slept without fits the rest of the night. I nursed her at 5AM since it was past the 7 hour milk-free mark (starting at 10PM). I just couldn’t handle another fit. She nursed again around 8AM and is still in bed now, (9AM).
Night three: Repeat of night 2 but took 2 hours to get her back to sleep around 2, minimal additional waking, just one monstrous fit around 2 and a refusal to go back to sleep. Getting harder to want to keep going.
We basically repeated this for weeks. Some nights were fine and then we’d start all the way over again. It sucked, but I was determined. And, little by little, it paid off. We started to sleep through the night here and there. It was the encouragement I needed to keep going through the hard nights.
As she began to soothe herself back to sleep more consistently, it was amazing to see the shift. She’d cry for just long enough for me to question whether I should intervene and then magically put herself back to sleep. It made me appreciate the concept of self-soothing in a whole new way.
Eventually, she stopped night waking pretty much altogether. Now she’ll wake maybe once or twice, and put herself back to sleep quickly, as long as I’ve fed her adequately throughout the day. The other magical improvement is naps. She used to wake up in the middle of her nap and want to nurse. Now she generally puts herself back to sleep during her naps as well.
Parenting is such a personal journey. What works and has worked for us is definitely not for everyone. But, this is exactly the kind of blog entry I wish I’d read a couple months ago. It would’ve helped to hear that these plans don’t always work in a week or two. Sometimes they take months. Sometimes they take a lot of (comforted) tears. Our sleep plan is a work in progress. She’s a night owl. She’s still in our bed. But, one step at a time. I’m just grateful to be sleeping on my own clock again.
Up until now, each month has had a theme, some coherent thread to tie my post together. Month ten is the opposite. The only theme I could come up with is incoherence. Maybe it is the sleep deprivation talking.
Before the holidays we made real progress. We read a couple books, committed to a routine, and suddenly E was asleep by 7 or 8 in her own room, leaving me 4+ hours to burn in the evenings before forcing myself to go to bed. I was like a little kid. I did not want to sleep because it was more fun to stay awake.
Hey, I guess I was kind of like E is now.
Then the holidays and travel hit and suddenly E was working on four (maybe more) new teeth and our routine vanished. Add in a dose of toddler-like determination to practice her new standing skills in the middle of the night and it is now impossible to put her to sleep before midnight.
I’m serious about this toddler thing, too. I’m pretty sure E thinks she’s two years old already. Just putting a shirt over her head requires the patience and will power of a highly evolved being. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes I have to take a little break and let her shriek before regaining enough calm to maneuver her flailing arms through the holes. Forget those moments when she remembers how to take the shirt right back off.
I try to remind myself she has her own spirit and should be honored for her individual desires, but on a chilly winter’s night wearing a long-sleeved shirt to bed is non-negotiable. Going to sleep at a decent hour should be too, but I am at a loss on how to make that happen.
In my desperation for sleep I have returned the Pack N Play next to my side of the bed, made it up with comfy baby-safe bedding, and plopped E in there a couple times just so I can momentarily let my tired eyes shut without fear of being stomped over on the way to her next adventure, (believe it or not the stomping is actually starting to hurt!).
While fussing it out might be alright, she is instantaneously transformed into a screaming, gagging, nearly-vomitous wreck when left alone in the playpen. I just can’t do it. Last night Alex rescued her from my eyes-half-open watch and allowed me to slip into a shallow sleep as they headed downstairs to wait out her need to stand up repeatedly until a little past midnight.
The good news, she woke less during the night last night, is napping right now, and is still pleasant company as long as you don’t try to change her diaper, put a shirt on her, or wash her face. More than one person told me it would really get crazy when she started to move, but I had no idea. Suddenly my house is a mess as I chase her every which way. She is up the stairs in 20 seconds flat, (yes, a gate is on the way). The water bowl for the dogs is her favorite play space. She. Is. Everywhere. And, fast.
Month ten has been wild. The pace of our lives has picked back up to full speed. Where once I worried staying home would eventually drag out to the point of boredom, we now leave the house almost daily and cannot keep up with the list of things to accomplish. I have also settled into a content gratitude in all the disorder. Such a blessing to experience this beautiful incoherence from home.
As friends prepare for maternity leave, I cannot help but reflect on those two short weeks I spent at home before E. arrived. In some ways, they felt like an eternity, while in others they weren’t nearly long enough.
Every pregnancy is different, but here are the things I would go back and tell myself:
1. Don’t agonize over how much time to take from work before your due date. California offers four weeks of pregnancy disability, take the four weeks. I went into prodromal labor (a very long, slow labor) with E. three weeks early and had her 12 days before she was due. Originally, I had planned to work until two weeks before my due date. So glad I didn’t. There would have been no break and I was already exhausted in the classroom when I left.
2. Make your pre-baby maternity leave about you. After the baby is born, you won’t often have the luxury of slow showers, long mornings in bed, etc. Even if you are anxious for that little bundle to arrive, force yourself to spend time to yourself. Get your hair cut, indulge in a massage, do whatever you enjoy on your own.
3. Don’t forget your partner. Go on a couple dates, take long walks together, snuggle up on the couch and watch TV. After baby, you will have to work a lot harder to make those moments happen, (especially when you are also competing for time to yourself for basic things like showering and eating).
4. R-E-L-A-X. Watch TV, snack, and nap without guilt. There will be more than enough to do soon and you don’t know when you will need that burst of energy for labor. Get in every restful moment you can, even if it means sleeping during the day in your recliner in the living room.
5. Stop worrying about whether or not you have every item you need for baby. Believe it or not, Amazon will still be waiting for you with two-day delivery and there will (hopefully) be plenty of people in your life willing to run to the store if you need something sooner. Do have a speedy thermometer, though. That’s one thing you don’t want to have to rush to the store for when you have a sick baby and an advice nurse insisting on a rectal temperature.
6. Eat well. You are about to run a marathon. If you eat crap, you may feel like crap. Fuel up with food that makes you feel good. This may be easier said than done when the only thing that sounds good is a greasy pepperoni pizza, but find a way to complement those cravings with something healthy. Green smoothie, perhaps?
7. Getting antsy? Socialize. Schedule lunch dates with friends who work. Visit other moms with babies. Call your mom.
8. Can’t rest anymore and don’t feel like leaving the house? Start a project. Or three. I worked on a children’s book for E. I made a collage out of shower cards. I prepared intricate meals to keep in the freezer for after she was born. Releasing creative energy helps take the anxiety out of waiting for those contractions to get real.
9. Be willing to say no. I remember turning down a friend’s birthday party and cancelling a girl’s night and feeling really disappointed. In retrospect, I didn’t have the energy for those things and it turns out I was only days away from delivering, (I thought I had weeks left). Listen to your body. If you’re exhausted, don’t go out.
10. Above all, be kind to yourself. Let go of any expectations that you’re supposed to be doing any of the above. If you don’t feel like it, don’t, if you do, do. Sounds simple enough, but those last few weeks of waiting are one of the strangest stretches of life. Everything moves in slow motion. As annoying as it is to hear when all you want is that baby, make the most of it. There will be plenty of (wonderful) time with baby soon enough.
Anything I forgot to mention? What advice do you have for parents about to have their first baby?