People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one -- Leo J. Burke.

Today, June 22, 2006, marks my son’s first eleven months on this Earth. Unfortunately, it also marks the passing of eleven months since my last really good night’s sleep. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there have been many sleepless nights –- and the agonizing days that follow –- when it feels like years since my last uninterrupted, restful slumber.

But I can definitely say –- with no exaggeration whatsoever –- that I haven’t had to use my alarm clock since the day my son was born, nearly a year ago. Instead, I have risen to hear my son waking, and sometimes crying, every single morning since Day One. Sometimes it’s not until 5:30 a.m. Sometimes it’s as early as the un-Godly hour of 2:30 a.m. But whenever I get the call, it’s always from my son, never from the alarm.

Wanna buy a slightly used clock?

Babies Don’t Sleep Like Big People

Why is this? Does early childhood have to render parents dazed zombies, slowly staggering to and fro with bloodshot eyes and blank expressions?

Well, there is the obvious and well-known fact that newborn babies just don’t sleep through the whole night. Every baby will wake up one or more times during a typical night's sleep. In fact, for the first six months or so, when they’re exclusively bottle- or breast-feeding, they’ll tend to wake up every 2-3 hours for a feeding.

This is because their little stomachs can only hold so much food, and they empty out before the night is through. And unlike adults, who may wake as many as four to five times a night themselves, babies don’t know how to get themselves back to sleep without help.

Such a short sleeping cycle can be a serious burden on both parents, but particularly the mother if the baby is breast-feeding. Some new mothers describe the feeling as “just like sleepwalking, trying to make it from one feeding to the next.” That’s why it’s best to spread out the load by preparing one or more bottles the night before –- either with formula or with breast milk –- so that Daddy can give Mommy a much needed break.

Because if new parents aren’t careful, they’re going to find themselves building up a serious sleep debt over time. And it doesn’t take much. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Just one lost hour of sleep a night for a new parent translates into twelve full nights of lost sleep in the baby’s first three months alone.

The effect of all this lost sleep? Well, if allowed to continue unchecked, it can be serious. Of course, there is the ever-present sleepiness and fatigue, often accompanied by increased irritability, decreased cognitive abilities, and poor judgment. Microsleeps throughout the day will often occur, creating a serious risk of physical injury if the dozing parent is, say, driving a car. Lost sleep can also be a major contributor to post-partum depression.

But the one that really got my attention is a study by the National Commission of Sleep Disorders Research that found that infant abuse may be more likely where the parent is sleep-deprived. Such parents, the study found, often feel at their wit’s end, and may shake or hit a crying infant out of sheer frustration. When I saw this, I started taking the issue a little more seriously. It’s one thing to joke about falling asleep at work. It’s quite another when the health of my baby is negatively affected by my own worsening health.

Whatever Gets You Through The Night So now my son is nearing his first birthday, and every book and magazine article I’ve seen tells me he should be sleeping from 6-9 hours straight at night. And he does, pretty much.

But I’m still a wreck, because he generally goes to sleep between 8 and 9 p.m., which means that he will probably wake up sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning. Why is this a problem? Why can’t I just roll over and go back to sleep after he’s had a little bottle to tide him over? I mean, he’ll almost always fall back to sleep within 15-20 minutes now that he’s older.

Well it’s not his fault, it’s mine. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had trouble getting back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. I’ll lie awake in bed for a half hour, trying to get back to sleep, but if I’m wide awake, it’s no use. I wind up going downstairs to read, or node, or watch a movie, gradually getting sleepier until I finally feel like dozing off around 6:30. Of course, by then I need to wake up and go to work anyway.

Very frustrating.

Drugs generally don’t work well for me, mostly because getting to sleep in the first place is usually not a problem. So I’ve never cared for Ambien, while benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax make me groggy for hours. A healthy dose of Nyquil will usually knock me out, but if I take it at 3:00 a.m., I’ll have a terrible time waking up the next morning.

For years, I thought I was the only person with this problem. Then I found out that this is actually one of the four classic manifestations of insomnia. Still, without taking some kind of medication, the best I could do was to try not to wake up fully in the middle of the night. That meant keeping the lights off when I went to the bathroom, for example, and keeping some kind of snack and drink on the nightstand so I wouldn’t have to disturb myself too much.

But now, I’ve pretty much got a guarantee that I’ll be wide awake at some point in the night, every night. So what is there to do?

So What If It’s Still Light Out?

One possibility is to sleep on the couch or in the guest bedroom, far away from any night-time crying. I’ve done that some nights, when I just couldn’t take it anymore. Of course, there’s only so much of that a marriage can stand. After two nights of isolation, my wife is usually ready to kill me.

Instead, what I’ve found myself doing more and more is going to sleep earlier in the evening, often just a half hour after we’ve put the baby to sleep. What this means is that in the past couple of months I’ve gone to sleep before 9:00 p.m. at least four or five times. My average bed-time has gone from 11:30 to 10:00 to 9:30. On nights when my son manages to sleep until 5:30 or so, that gives me a stunning 8 hours of sleep. Of course, I always wind up rising with the dawn, but I guess that’s just how it’s going to be for the next few years.

No alarm clock necessary.

References

  • New Parenthood and Sleep Deprivation, (http:www.ahealthyme.com/topic/printview.htm)
  • Big Story: The best sleep advice you've never heard, (http://www.babycenter.com/refcap/baby/babysleep/1445907.html)
  • First Weeks at Home With a Newborn, (http:www.med.umich.edu/1libr/wha/wha_firstwks_hhg.htm)
  • National Sleep Foundation, (http:www.sleepfoundation.org/sleeplibrary/index)


With apologies for the node title to Ernest Hemingway and the Algonquin Roundtable.

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