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Sleep training real experiences: Part one

It can be exhausting if your baby starts to rely on the breast to fall or stay asleep, here's how one mum tries to break the habit

Posted: 18 October 2007
by Maria Muennich

Sleep training experiences: part one

Sleep training theories can often sound deceptively easy, but how to real mums get on with adapting them to their own needs? In our first installment Maria tries to break the feeding to sleep habit...

The background
Back in the early days it seemed we had it sorted. Our three-month-old son, Florian, went off to sleep without fuss when placed in his cot at night and frequently slept six hours on the trot. Then when we introduced solids at six months and he moved to his own room, away from his dad's snoring, he began to sleep even longer. We already had a well-established bedtime routine of bath, milk, stories and singing that seemed to work well for us. And then with a spot of successful sleep training over five days, the night-time feeding and changing sessions quickly faded into memory. When people asked us if he slept through we could respond cheerfully and without worrying that it looked like we didn't have a clue what we were doing. But as with most things baby, this turned out to be just another phase, an eight-week phase to be precise, and when a trip to granny's appeared to coincide with some nasty teething pains and was followed by an unpleasant episode of croup, it was suddenly all over.

After a good week of nights punctuated with occasional snippets of sleep, we eventually settled back down again into a new night-time pattern which saw our son usually demanding to be breastfed or held until he was asleep in the evening and consequently crying out for a cuddle or the breast whenever he woke up in the night. Living in a flat, there are plenty of noises around to wake him up when he's in his phases of lighter sleep, and suddenly he seemed to be waking up within a few hours of being put to bed. To make matters worse, when I did give him milk in the night or early hours of the morning he'd often wake up again and start howling as soon as mouth and nipple were separated. By now I'd gathered enough experience to know that Florian was seldom waking up because he was actually hungry so I'd make an effort to withhold night-time milk. But a couple of nights of teething pain or me worrying about disturbing my husband and our frequent visitors would quickly set us back on the path of least resistance. Months went by and we adjusted to the new unpredictability reasonably well but it sometimes made life difficult, and my sleep was being disturbed not just by being woken up, but by the prospect of being woken up - I'd go to bed wondering whether we'd have a 'good night' and make it beyond five am, or whether I'd be woken at 12, 1, 2, 3, 4 or an interesting medley of times. The chances were fairly even.

After several months of this, and with the first birthday coming up, we finally decided that this was one phase that had gone on long enough. I say we, but in truth my other half is such a sound sleeper that he usually has to ask in the mornings whether I've been woken up in the night or not - even after apparently waking up enough to sputter some sympathetic-sounding noises as I trundle off to baby's room again.

It was clear what had to change. I knew I had to completely break the association of breastfeeding and sleep, and somehow get my son to go to sleep on his own so that he didn't wake up shocked to find us (me) not there in the night. My new resolve was partly steeled by the desire to get to a stage where we could occasionally have an evening babysitter and be reasonably confident that we could a) leave the house before it was time to come home again b) be confident that it was unlikely that our son would wake up while we were out and c) drink a glass of wine or two with dinner knowing that we wouldn't be seeing any feeding action for another eight or nine hours.

Phase one: breaking the breast-sleep association
The first step was to deal with the breastfeeding and sleep association, which was undoubtedly responsible for the most night-time disturbance. This meant making sure that Florian was awake when he went into his cot, not half-asleep on milk as he would prefer, and it also meant being determined not to breastfeed him before a reasonable time in the morning.

It's definitely not an easy thing to withhold milk from your baby when he's screaming for it, even when you know that he's after the comfort from force of habit, rather than being hungry. I'm not a mum who can, or even wants to, leave her baby crying in distress, and experience has made it very clear that when Florian has a difficult time settling to sleep at night the chances are that the night will be a disturbed one. So, I knew controlled crying wasn't for us and decided to concentrate at first on getting him to sleep without breastfeeding or being held.

If not giving in to milk demands is hard in the evening, it's even harder at two am when you're half-asleep and exhausted, worried about disturbing other people, and when you know that the screaming will subside in seconds if only you let your baby nurse. I knew I somehow had to summon up the energy and patience to calm my son with singing, dancing, talking quietly or whatever else was needed - everything except the breast - even if it took well over an hour to get him back to sleep. I timed the start of my determined effort with a period when my son and I would be alone in the flat for several days with no-one else to worry about disturbing: When it came to the neighbours I just had to cross my fingers and hope they didn't hear.

So how did it go?
For the first few evenings I held him and comforted him as he insisted it was time for yet more milk at the end of the usual bedtime routine. It was difficult, particularly when I knew that I could feed him to sleep in a quarter of the time, but didn't give in and he eventually calmed down and I put him in his cot when he was all but asleep and then stayed with him until I was sure he'd gone off. For the next few days I put him in his cot but stayed close and gave him cuddles as he grew drowsy, and then for a couple of days I just rested one hand on his back and that was enough. Over about a week he grew happy to go to sleep when I was in the room but not actively doing anything.

When it came to the night-time waking, I decided on a strict rule of no milk at all before 4 am. There wasn't one sure-fire way of getting him back to sleep without the breast, but a couple of the things that helped included reciting a story to him, singing or taking him to the window to look out and see that all the other people in all the other houses were asleep in bed. The first few nights were as difficult as I'd expected as I spent the better part of an hour wandering round with Florian until he grew first calm and then eventually sleepy. I'd sometimes think that he was ready to be put back in his cot only to have him start up crying again as soon as he realised what was happening or when he heard the load creaking of the hallway floorboards as I attempted to sneak off.

This might sound odd, but if he woke up insisiting on milk in the morning between 4 and 6am I started offering him a bottle, rather than the breast, first with water and then, when that didn't work, with a small amount of milk (full fat cows' milk from his first birthday). This wasn't because I didn't want to give him my own milk, but because I knew that once he was on there there would be no getting him off until it was time to get up in the morning and neither of us would sleep properly for the rest of the morning. After a bit of initial reluctance he got the message that bottle milk was all there was going at that time in the morning and, actually, it was pretty good. Within a couple of days he was happily drinking the small milk drink and then settling back happily into bed within about twenty minutes, and staying there until around 7am. Before too long he wasn't usually bothering to wake up for early milk at all.

Once Florian had stopped waking before 6 for milk I found that it also helped to get up for the morning feed together, rather than snoozing in bed over a breastfeed. That's not so easy to do when you've been up late the night before, but it did seem to make a difference in terms of separating sleep and breastfeeding and drawing a line between night-time sleeping and morning-time feeding, so encouraging him to sleep a little longer in the mornings.

The first time we'd tried sleep training we'd had five quite tough nights before things fell into place, but I was still surprised to find that six months or so later it went very similarly: We started out with a few nights with long interruptions that took far more effort from me than simply taking him off to bed for a breastfeed, but things improved with every night. After five or six nights he was waking maybe only once between 8 and 6 and then resettling with my hand on his back reassuring him that I was there, rather than needing to breastfeed.

He wasn't yet reliably sleeping all through the night, but things were drastically better, and we were soon ready for phase two of our sleep training: getting him to go sleep on his own so that he didn't need us to put him to bed at night. More on that next week.

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