Dads: Nighttime Warriors

This week, as I continued to think about the role fathers play in helping babies sleep, I asked my friends and clients, “What is the one thing your partner does that you find most helpful?” The response was overwhelming. Mothers of infants and young children told us that the most valuable contribution fathers make is getting the baby back to sleep during the night.

Our personal experience and our experience as sleep consultants has demonstrated that when dads respond to baby’s cries during the night, the whole family gets back to sleep more quickly. So we wondered, why are dads so great at getting babies to sleep during the night. We have a few ideas.

  1. Dads don’t have boobs. That’s right, I said it. Dads don’t have the goods…i.e. milk. If Mom is breastfeeding, the baby can smell it when she gets near. And many breastfeeding mothers experience let-down when they hear crying. So if Mom responds during the night, chances are baby is going to want to eat. Once your baby is old enough to sleep through the night and you have stopped night feeding, best to send Dad in to help soothe the baby back to sleep and keep milk out of the equation.

  2. Dads don’t have crazy hormones. Debbie told me the story about how when her daughter would cry during the night, she would sit in bed squeezing her husband’s hand on the verge of tears herself until the baby settled down again. Woman deal with hormone changes during and after pregnancy, and for some women, hearing her baby cry, especially during the night, can trigger emotional and physical reactions. In response, we often want to go to our babies and hold them, rock them, physically bond with them. This is a perfectly natural response, but it can interfere with the baby’s sleep, her ability to learn self-soothing skills, and it interrupts Mom’s sleep. Dad, on the other hand, seems less affected by these physiological responses to baby’s cries, so he can go in with minimal disruption and quickly settle the baby back to sleep, and then get right back to sleep himself.

  3. Dads are problem solvers. Please don’t call me sexist…I’m actually more of a problem-solver myself. What I mean here is that dads typically approach night waking in a very tactical sense. “What is the problem and how can I fix it?” During sleep time, the ability to quickly assess the situation, address the problem, and get out is critical so that the entire family can get back to sleep. While many dads we know are also very nurturing and do a great job of soothing (see last week’s post), during the night, speed is king.

Some clients who stay at home with their babies tell us that they are reticent to have their husbands get up during the night when they have to be at work during the day. On days when Dad has a critical meeting or presentation or business trip, then let him sleep the night before. But sometimes, having a well-rested mom is just as important. So on days when Dad can deal with being a little more tired, ask him to have a try.

To avoid sleepy arguments during the night, before you turn in for bed agree who is “on duty” for the night shift and what your strategy will be (e.g. let the baby cry for 20 minutes to see if he can soothe himself back to sleep, then go in to check). And be sure to let Dad know that dealing with baby during the night is the most helpful thing he can do for you!

Have a Happy Fathers’ Day!


Dads’ Soothing Skills

June brings us Father’s Day, so Sleep Sisters is dedicating this month to dads and their impact on sleep.

Dads can often feel marginalized when there is a new baby in the house, especially if mom is breastfeeding. But sleep is one area where Dad can be a huge asset.

Today, I want to talk about Dad’s role in soothing and helping get baby to sleep. Dr. Karp introduced us to “The Five ‘S’s,” which include swaddling, shushing, swinging, side, and sucking, all great tools for helping calm a crying or fussy baby. I can say without hesitation that my husband is better than I am in executing these soothing techniques. For one thing, fathers are often a bit stronger and willing to be a bit more aggressive when soothing their babies.

My husband is the best swaddler in our house. He can make the tightest swaddle that has the most amazing effect – instantly settling a fussy baby. I always cringe when I see him do it; I worry he is doing it too tight or that he’d hurt the baby. But of course, when morning comes and our darling is still snug in the swaddle, baby burrito, sleeping like…a baby….I acknowledge his prowess in this arena.

In addition to swaddling, my hubby, and lots of other men, are great at shushing. I’ll admit that I have noise issues – everything is always too loud for me. But not my husband. He puts his mouth right next to the baby’s ear and makes a loud shushing noise. My shush will sometimes work, but his always does. He’s not afraid to shush louder than the baby’s cry, and that is what it takes.

Then there is swinging. This is probably the most fun, and also the most tiring. Here again, men can excel and may even enjoy soothing. Whether it’s making arcing swoops with baby in arms, or jiggling the baby on its side in his lap, my husband never seemed to tire of this form of soothing. And it works like a charm.

Soothing is one area where we strongly encourage fathers to participate and develop domain expertise. Dads can really enjoy this direct contact with their babies and feel great when they achieve that seemingly impossible feat of getting a fussy baby to sleep. And moms will appreciate a break from the struggles of parenting, especially at the end of the day when nerves are worn thin. And what an amazing feeling when you see your partner bonding with his baby! Now that’s a gift for both Mom and Dad.

Check out Dr. Karp’s video showing the Five S’s…it’s unbelievable and really works!

Your Monitor Has an OFF Button…Use It!

I have one piece of advice that may have the biggest impact on improving your own sleep, and your baby’s sleep. TURN OFF YOUR BABY MONITOR!

Baby monitors are great, don’t get me wrong. When you have a newborn, a monitor will let you move about, sit on your front porch, or take a nap knowing that you will hear your precious one when she wakes. The monitor can help rouse you when it’s time for those night feeds. However, once your baby is three to four months, I think it’s time to turn off the monitor at night.

By four months, babies are learning to cycle between deep and light sleep. This is the age when babies may start sleeping through the night…hurray! During the night, your four-month old will pass through two to three complete sleep cycles. Every 90 minutes, babies cycle to a state of light sleep called REM. Every three to four hours, they cycle to a more active, almost awake state. Each time they come to that light sleep, they will likely make noise, move about, cry out, and may even wake themselves.

At these intervals (often around 11pm, 2am, and 5am), we often want to go to our babies – maybe feed them, or hold them until they quiet down so they don’t wake the rest of the household. But by going in to comfort our babies when we hear cries during the night, we risk two things:

  1. Waking the baby by going to him when he’s just cycling through a light sleep and isn’t really awake

  2. Conditioning the baby to need a parent to settle him down between sleep cycles, and not allowing him to learn and practice self-soothing techniques he will need throughout his life to get back to sleep when he wakes

Of course, I don’t want you to ignore your baby’s cry. I just want you to ignore all the other sounds your baby makes at night. And I want you to get a good night sleep when you can!

I do know that no matter where I am in my house, when one of my kids cries a real cry, I hear it. It will wake me from a deep sleep, and my bedroom is on a different floor from my kids’ room. I don’t need the monitor to hear them crying. But by turning the monitor off at night, I can sleep through those whimpers, grunts, and fleeting protests as my kids move through their sleep cycles.

Some of the newer monitors have a myriad of bells and whistles. One client told me that their machine had noise canceling so it only transmits real cries. If that works, then great – leave that machine on at night if you need it. I have also seen machines with lights, noises, and more. While white noise is great for helping babies and adults sleep, any other kind of noise or visual stimulation will prevent your brain from resting, so steer clear!

Reclaim your nights. If your kids are older than four months, turn off your monitor one night and give it a try. I’m betting you will sleep better and you’ll give your little one a chance to practice valuable self-soothing skills during the night.

7 Sleep-Promoting Ideas to Celebrate Mother’s Day

May brings us Mother’s Day, the one day each year when we are encouraged to recognize the awesome gifts our mother has given us, as well as the sacrifices she has made to give us life and guide us safely along our path. At least that’s what I want my children and husband to do!

In all honesty, I’ve been thinking about how important it is for our families that as moms, we are as healthy and happy as we can be. Getting enough sleep is not only critical for our children, but for ourselves, too. Even if you have a baby who isn’t old enough to sleep through the night, there are things you can do to improve your own sleep.

So with that in mind, here are my seven ideas to help mom sleep, at least this month. (Hint, hint…some of these make great Mother’s Day gifts!)

  1. Try a white noise machine. They are not only great for babies, but many grown-ups love ‘em. Or do what I do, and just get an App for your phone. I use White Noise. If you use an iPhone, just make sure to turn off the sounds from the other apps, so you aren’t interrupted with phone calls or email bings.

  2. Make your bed an oasis. Treat yourself to a new luxurious pillow or new sheets. Debbie likes this Temper-Pedic Neck Pillow. Buy some snugly pajamas or a silky nighty (whichever is more your style). We spend one third of our life in bed, so splurge a little and make it a real refuge.

  3. Spend time relaxing before bed. Turn off your screens. Enjoy a nice cup of tea (caffeine-free, of course). I like The Republic of Tea Ginger Peach Decaf and Cardamon Cinnamon Herbal Tea. Maybe throw in a bubble bath.

  4. Book a babysitter. In the SF Bay Area, we have this great service, UrbanSitter, that can help you find a sitter quickly. Then spend some quality adult time – by yourself, with your significant other, or with friends. Go to the gym, see a movie, or have a nice dinner – anything that will recharge your batteries.

  5. Go to the spa. Do something really therapeutic for yourself. Whether it’s a massage, facial, or other treatment, you will not only enjoy it at the moment, but most spa treatments have lasting physical effects and even positive emotional benefits. Spa Finder Gift Cards are accepted at spas around the world.

  6. Schedule a day to sleep in. This one might be tough, but if you can figure it out, it is soooo worth it. There’s just something about getting an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning that feels so much better than going to bed early. Ask a grandparent or friend to take your kids to the park the morning. Or have your partner do what my husband does on occasion – get the kids out of the house first thing and go to the 24-hour doughnut shop.

  7. Get away for the night. If you are lucky enough to have grandparents nearby or a sitter you trust, leave the kids and escape with your partner to a nearby hotel for an overnight. Ask for a quiet and dark room – the idea is to maximize sleep. Put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign and tune out the world for the night.


Need a Cup of Coffee? Go Ahead!

Exhausted moms can now gulp their morning joe with a little less guilt. A study out of Brazil published in Pediatrics this month shows that moderate caffeine consumption during pregnancy or by moms who are breastfeeding their babies does not increase night-waking in three-month olds. Reuters has a good summary of the new research.

Parents of newborns have enough to worry about and stress over. It seems in the last several years that pregnancy and breastfeeding has become a field of land mines, with new risks to avoid at every turn. When I was pregnant the first time, I felt sick for months. The only thing that made me feel better was a Diet Coke and a handful of peanut M&Ms in the afternoon. Something about that magic combination of caffeine, chocolate, protein from the peanuts, and chemicals from the soda just settled my stomach and gave me enough of a boost to get me through the afternoon, more or less. I already felt so deprived of many of my favorite foods and beverages that were forbidden or frowned upon during pregnancy. I couldn’t imagine having to give up that one treat that made me feel almost human again during those tough months.

Debbie and I have always been proponents of “Everything in Moderation.” And I’m happy to hear that medical research can give some comfort when pregnant women and nursing moms reach for their caffeinated beverage of choice. In this case, moderation means keeping our caffeine consumption to less than 300 mg per day, which translates roughly to 16 oz of regular drip coffee, five 8-oz cups of tea, or six cans of soda. Watch out for those energy drinks – many of them have more than 300 mg of caffeine in a single serving.

One of the best things we can do to help our babies sleep well is to feel good ourselves, and if a cup of coffee after a rough night makes you feel better, please go ahead!


See You When the Light Turns Green!

Shortly after my daughter moved to her big girl bed, she developed an early waking habit that we just couldn’t kick. After two-plus years in a crib, she hadn’t quite figured out that she could just get out of bed, thankfully. But she was a screamer and would call out in full voice, “Mommy…I want to wake up!” over and over. In addition to waking my husband and me, I was terrified she was going to wake our peacefully sleeping infant who was in the same room. So I needed to address this problem pronto! Continue reading…