TThe story so far:
I am training Joanna’s children to sleep through the night. Jack, aged 10 months, still won’t go to bed without a lot of attention from his mother and wakes several times a night. Last night was my first night with him when he woke three times taking an hour and a half, 30 minutes and 15 minutes to settle each time.
Tuesday night: Last night I came early to help with bathtime and to remind Jack who I was, so that he wouldn’t be scared at the sight of a stranger in his room in the middle of the night – not a situation conducive to good sleep training! However, this evening I arrive at my normal time of 9pm and find that Joanna has got the children into bed without any stress or fuss. She tells me: “I used to dread bathtime because it was the beginning of the night, and I was so anxious about the children not sleeping. But this evening we all enjoyed it more, maybe because I knew you were coming to deal with the night waking for me. I feel so much better having slept through last night myself, although I didn’t think I would.” Apparently Millie, Jack’s three year old sister, asked if I was coming again which initiated a conversation about what I do. Millie herself still slips into Joanna’s bed most nights, which Joanna allows partly because she’s exhausted by her son’s nocturnal demands but also because her husband travels a lot so there is space for Millie. Joanna took the opportunity to tell Millie, “It will be your turn next week!” so that she is prepared.
Joanna goes upstairs for an early bath and I make myself a hot drink to take to my room. I check on Jack in his nursery as I go past. He is sleeping peacefully, an expression of total calm on his face. His eyelids aren’t moving, his breathing is so deep as to be almost soundless and it is hard to see his chest rise and fall with each breath. These are the signs I need which tell me he is in his deep non-REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement; REM is one of the more obvious indicators of being in light sleep when a baby can easily be woken by unfamiliar sounds. A baby in REM sleep will snuffle, his breathing becomes shallow and erratic and he may even exhibit a startle reflex before settling back to sleep. Babies struggling with disrupted sleep are most likely to wake at this point in their sleep cycle and watchful mothers are likely to assume that their baby is about to wake for a feed, so they will pick him up. However, a full sleep cycle in babies lasts for at least 45 minutes and will gradually get longer as they get older, reaching 1½ hours in adulthood. One of the tricks with sleep training is to recognise these near-awakenings and encourage a baby to stay asleep into the next 45 minute sleep cycle. However, Jack barely moves as I watch him, so I am fairly confident that I have got at least 20 minutes before anything happens.
I settle down in my room; I am equally happy to sleep on a sofa bed in a sitting room, but at Jack’s age he needs to be sleeping alone. The FSID recommend babies should sleep in the same room as an adult until they are 6 months old, in order to minimise the possibility of cot death, which is more likely in boys than in girls, and more likely in winter than in summer. Many mothers say to me that they are woken by their baby’s snuffling in the middle of the night – I point out that they are probably waking their baby with their own nocturnal noises too!
I finish my drink and check the time. I make some mental calculations – if Jack went to sleep at 7pm his first sleep cycle would have taken him through until 7.45pm, then 8.30pm, 9.15pm and 10.00pm. These timings are approximate, but it is amazing how many mothers tell me their babies go to sleep well but start waking from 10pm onwards intermittently throughout the night. Almost as if to confirm my expectation, Jack starts grizzling at 10.05pm. I go quietly into his room and repeat the routine we instigated last night. He is less surprised to see me and leaves me in no doubt that I am not his favourite person. Last night I had a few seconds’ grace as he worked out who I was and what I was going to do. Tonight I am sure I can see him thinking: “She doesn’t do milk, she doesn’t do cuddles, she certainly doesn’t take me into her bed … what earthly use is she?” However, I smile at him and keep my voice low so he has to quieten his crying if he wants to hear what I am murmuring. It is a mantra, boring and repetitive, designed to calm and lull. I say “There, there, go to sleep now, little one,” over and over. Sometimes I hum quietly. As before, I take his two feet in my hands as if I were changing his nappy and stroke the soles of his feet from toe to heel using recognised reflexology techniques. (This is a useful trick for parents to use at other times too. If you are a passenger in the car and your baby is crying in the car seat, you can hold his feet and stroke them which gives him the same sensory reassurance as if you were holding him in your arms and stroking his back.) Meanwhile, with my other hand I am massaging his tummy in a clockwise direction, imitating the direction of the digestive system and actively soothing any hunger pangs he may be feeling. Like last night, this goes on for about 45 minutes; Jack cries with varying degrees of intensity, sometimes silently watching me as if to work out what is happening, but it is evident that he is enjoying the sensation of my hands. Gradually it becomes apparent that his desire for sleep is overcoming his desire for food or attention. Slowly I reduce the pressure of my hands on his tummy and feet, eventually removing them altogether. As his eyes close I take a step away from the cot. As he begins to drop off, he is aware that I am leaving the room but he is not concerned; he emits a little sigh as he finally slips into sleep.
I return to my room and make some notes on what has happened; it would be lovely if someone were to come and massage my back now, I think to myself. Sleep training can be hard work, both physically and emotionally, but the rewards are wonderful. I lie down, wondering how long it will be before Jack wakes again. I doze on and off for a couple of hours when suddenly, I am wide awake. There is no sound coming from Jack’s room but a sixth sense tells me something is about to happen. Sure enough, within seconds the grizzling starts again. I check my watch on the bedside table as I leave my room; 12.45am. Jack only completed two sleep cycles before he woke. This is not totally unexpected – if you introduce new habits to a baby it often causes more disruption before it settles into the new pattern. I repeat the process and, as before, Jack takes about 45 minutes to settle. The same thing happens twice more during the course of the night and when I take Jack into Joanna she seems disappointed. “I thought he would be better than last night,” she comments. “A learning curve isn’t like the curve of a rainbow,” I explain, “it’s more a straight line along the bottom with a sudden leap upwards!” All of us need time to learn a new talent and it takes repetition before the penny drops. I try to think of a good example for Joanna. “Do you remember when you potty-trained Millie? She seemed to have nothing but accidents all the time for several days; she never seemed to get it, not even once a day, and you were on the verge of giving up, thinking she was too young and you’d started too soon?” Joanna nods. “And then, on about the fourth or fifth day, she suddenly got it. She realised that she needed to act on the feeling she had just before the wet feeling. And once she’d got it, she hardly ever had another accident.” Joanna is nodding more vigorously now. “Well, Jack is going through something similar. He needs lots of practise to get the hang of going back to sleep by himself, but once he’s got it, he won’t let it go! Patience, consistency and repetition will enable Jack to learn his new skill.”
For more information on anything mentioned in this article contact Georgie Bateman at Night Nannies on 01794 301762 or email@example.com. The website is www.nightnannies.com. Other useful organisations are FSID (www.fsid.org.uk), the Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk) and UNICEF (www.babyfriendlyorg.uk).