This week, as you probably know by now, I am bringing back a few old Strong Buzz posts in honor of Mother's Day. I hope you enjoy this one about the Sisyphean art of getting your baby to take a nap. If you're in that stage now, this one may be of particular interest! Here's to our Mothers!
A Nap is a Nap and That's That—Originally Published February 28, 2010.
Sleep. You probably take it for granted because it’s something you’ve been doing all your life. And even when you’ve been burning the candle at both ends partying and working for weeks, it’s likely that you’ve eventually come to a point where you could just collapse and sleep all weekend, shut out the world, and recover.
Well, that all goes out the window when baby arrives. The first week, it’s not so bad, because you’re kind of on an adrenaline high, but once you start piling weeks upon months of sleeplessness you are talking delusionary exhaustion. So, if you are expecting, sleep! Love it while you have it, because it’s something you stop doing for a while when you become a new mother.
But the sleeplessness is a temporary phase and depending on the baby, and on your ability to handle letting she or he cry it out, you will once again sleep through the night between three and nine months after giving birth. Once you stop obsessing about your own sleep, though, you quickly begin thinking about someone else’s sleep habits: your baby’s. I have never in my life been so obsessed with another person’s (albeit a small person) sleep quotient than I am with Emily’s.
Once she started sleeping through the night, I thought I was in the clear, but I wasn’t. And that, friends, is because of a seemingly innocuous concept known as “the nap.” If I thought sleep training at night was hard, getting my daughter to nap was on par with passing health care reform. I could have had a bi-partisan committee meet all day about it, and it would have done no good.
By four months of age, Emily had mastered the big sleep (the overnight), but she decided to abort the shorter form of sleep. She refused to nap. Now this may not seem problematic to you, but babies need to nap. If they don’t, they start to decompensate, and unravel, getting hyper, crying, and wailing inconosolably, that sort of charming stuff. They just can’t function. (Biologically speaking, infants 4-6 months old need to nap up to three times a day (morning, early and late afternoon). By the time they are 6-12 months, they go down to two naps (morning and afternoon), and then that afternoon naps usually stays for the first few years of life, at least.)
While I knew that she needed the naps (she was cranky and rubbing her eyes), I was also painfully aware that she was just not having it. She flat out refused. This refusal came not in the form of “Mom, thanks for the offer, but I don’t plan on napping, instead I’ll vacuum the living room and reorganize your closet,” but in a series of gut wrenching screams that would have you believe I had shackled her to the crib with “Jersey Shore” on a running loop above her.
But there was one place Emily would nap without a fuss and that was the stroller. The only problem with that picture was that the person pushing the stroller for hours on end three times a day would most often be me (since self-propelling strollers have not been invented, yet). I had actually heard about a new mother who hired a high school student to come by three times a day and walk her daughter around the neighborhood so she could get a break. I remember thinking, wow, smart woman. I need a baby walker! (Note to self: start a baby walking business.)
In any event, this stroller napping situation was not tenable. First of all, I had to walk for her entire nap (which could be up to two hours) because many times as soon as I stopped walking, she would wake up. Second, the weather was turning cold, and I was not fond of walking for hours with arctic winds biting into my face. Third, I needed her nap times so I could get things done, things like showering, researching and writing stories so I could make a living, cooking, cleaning, errands, emailing, and (gasp), napping myself! Without that down time, I was now “on” every waking and sleeping hour of Emily’s day. By the time we put her to bed at 7pm, I was not far behind. I had literally adopted her sleep patterns and would go to bed by 8 or 8:30 to be ready for another day of roaming the streets.
Luckily, stroller naps were divided between myself, Craig, and my mother Gloria who is our de facto nanny and who comes over three times a week to help with Emily. We all alternated walks, but my mom actually really began loving those strolls. She got to know all the shopkeepers and nannies in our neighborhood strolling with Emily, showing her off, enjoying the time outdoors, that is until winter reared its ugly head.
Then we knew we had to do something. We had to nap train.
Nap training is basically sleep training, but during the day. You watch for signs of drowsiness (Emily had about a two hour wakeful period before she would start to need a nap), then follow your naptime ritual (which for us was a bottle and a story), and then put the baby to bed, close the door, and let them cry. Not fun. Not fun at all. I was not cut out for this. But I had no choice. I would either be strolling with her in the blizzards of winter, or she would learn to nap in her crib. On the first day of nap training, I gave her a bottle, read her a story and put her in the crib. She started to scream before I had even left the room. I lasted seven minutes and then popped her in the stroller: “Let’s walk to Park Slope, shall we?” I said to Emily as we pushed through our lobby doors and out onto Smith Street. I had to be creative with my walks. I was starting to get bored of walking up and down Court and Smith Streets. And don’t forget, I had three naps to do a day!
The next day, with my mom by my side for support, I lasted 11 minutes, and then, just as I was about to run in and snatch her up and into the stroller, I heard the holiest sound of motherhood: silence. Yes, she had fallen asleep. She was beautiful, eyes closed, hands up over her head, flats of her feet touching, making a triangle with her legs. She slept for an hour and fifteen minutes! In her crib! A great nap. I was overjoyed. She didn’t fare as well with the two later naps and those we abandoned for the stroller. But hey, we had one nap down! Woo hoo!!!
By this point, my moods were totally dependent on Emily's naps. If she had a nap in her crib, I felt great, but if she cried for too long and I gave in and took her out in the stroller, I felt like a defeated and like a terrible mother. The thing is that strolling, while fine and dandy as an exercise regimen, according to baby books, is not a proper way for a baby to sleep. Ideal healthy sleep is motionless sleep. And according to my sleep guru,
Dr. Marc Weissbluth, I was not doing Emily any favors by racing her around all of Brooklyn three times a day. She needed motionless sleep. So every time I rolled out the stroller, I was guilt ridden, on top of being exhausted from hours of walking. How pleasant. And so I persevered with as much nap training as I could handle, but listening to Emily cry every time I put her down was really wearing me out. I was weak. I hated listening to her cry.
Finally, I called my friend Melissa who also had a young baby who didn’t like to nap. She was the right person to talk to. She confessed that her daughter slept in the swing until she was almost 6 months old and that she still naps in the stroller. “A nap is a nap and that's that,” she said. “You’ve got to get it done in whatever way you can that’s best for you. She’ll be fine if she is moving, don’t worry. Take it easy on yourself. You are not a bad mother if your baby naps in her stroller!” I was so grateful for her advice. I felt exonerated. I felt like Emily might be okay even though I was violating the motionless sleep rule. And so, thanks to Melissa, I relaxed a bit. We actually started using a swing at home, which helped a lot, and we strolled, and we nap trained as much as we could handle it without breaking down ourselves from her cries. We made it work.
Eventually, after about a month of nap training (yes it took that long) Emily became a pretty good napper. Never a great one, because she likes being part of the action and she doesn’t like missing out, but most days, both of naps were in her crib, which I thought was pretty good. Maybe she would not be an Olympic napper, but she’s a damn happy kid.
All was fine and dandy until last week when something else entered the picture. She had learned a fantastic new trick: she’d learned to stand in her crib. Oh how cute she was that first morning at 6am when we walked into her room and found her standing up, head peaking up over the rails as she nibbled on the crib like it was a warm soft pretzel at a baseball game. We were so excited. We took pictures. We called our parents. We clapped for Emily. She was giggling with glee, but we noticed she was also holding on for dear life. Alas, she had learned how to stand but not how to sit down. And so, for four straight days, we were back to walking the streets because her naps (and her overnight sleep) were violated by her inability to sit down on her own and her unwillingness to stop standing up.
After four days, a snowstorm blanketed the city and we knew strolling was not an option. Instead, we spent a good 15 minutes with her doing “Baby, up!” (and standing her up), and “Baby, down,” (plopping her down on to her butt), until she learned how to sit back down on her own. But now that she was out of practice with the napping, we still had to train her to nap (read: cry it out), all over again. Joy!
The thing I've learned about babies so far is that they are always changing. Just when you have comfortably settled into their routine, they go and change everything: they learn to roll over; they learn to stand; they learn to say, NO! After all, that’s the way it should be. But as a parent, all that change is really hard. We love routines. (At least I do.) We want to know what's coming. We want to be prepared. But babies don't care what we want. They're just doing their thing, growing up and being delicious. So try not to take it too hard. This too shall pass. Roll with it. Stroll with it. Swing with it. Do what you have to do. A nap is a nap, and that's that.
To help your baby to nap, try these tools:
A Swing: Fisher Price makes a good one that we used called a Papasan Cradle Swing.
In-Crib Entertainment: Emily was really into this light-up aquarium that a friend gave to us. You attach it to the inside of the crib and it kind of hypnotizes them into napping. It worked about 50% of the time in getting her to sleep without crying. You can also try a “Sleep Sheep” that makes soothing white noise sounds. Some kids love them.
Room Darkening Shades: If your baby is sensitive to light, it’s a good idea to get some room darkening shades to help foster a napping environment.
A Good Stroller: If your baby is like Emily and likes to sleep in the stroller it’s wise to invest in a good one. Bugaboo, Uppababy, Phil and Teds, Teutonia, and Maclaren are all good brands but there are pros and cons to each. I feel like I could write a book on this one, and in fact, my next post will be on strollers, pros and cons of each type!
Here’s to our mothers.