Whenever a brand new parent asks me for tricks to get their baby to sleep that actually work, I sort of have to laugh. Not a mean-spirited laugh, but an, "I've been here and I know your desperation" laugh. Picture it: New York City, 2011. A young mother has been home with her new baby boy for three weeks, and she's exhausted. The child is voracious, and requires a feeding every hour and a half to two hours. She has not had three consecutive hours of sleep since he was born. One morning, at 2 a.m., she hears a soft cry. Groggily, she reaches toward the sound and draws her unusually wriggly little one to her breast to nurse. That, my friends, is the all-too-true story of how I was so absurdly tired I once tried to breastfeed my cat.
And that's just the newborn exhaustion. At some point you move on to the, "OK this kid could definitely be sleeping more but they aren't" stage. Sometimes that stage lasts an obnoxiously long time. Then you're exhausted (maybe less exhausted than you were when they were a newborn, but still pretty damn tired) and frustrated because, damnit kid! Go the f*ck to sleep!
While I will always be nervous to jinx it, I'm fairly confident in saying that the worst has passed when it comes to my children torturing me with sleep deprivation. Gone are the days of hourly wake-ups and routinely waking up at 5 a.m. every day. No longer do they require my partner and I to stand guard at their door for two hours to keep them from getting up after bedtime. Yes, at ages 2 and 5, they're mostly pretty good about just going to sleep, staying asleep, and letting me sleep until a decent hour. However, it wasn't always so simple. The journey to these happy times was full of hardship and tears and wondering if I was ever going to feel rested ever again.
Then again, it was also a journey of knowledge and self-discovery: mainly the discovery that I did, in fact, have the power to help convince my children they didn't need to breastsleep for the rest of their lives. I learned that sometimes, co-sleeping is the right decision for you even if you never thought it would be. I learned gentle bouncing and white noise machines are a parents' allies. I learned some "stay-in-bed" techniques that really did the trick. Other parents have learned some other things that, hopefully, can help you in your own bleary-eyed journey to a full eight hours of shut-eye:
"Since the day she was born, my daughter immediately crashes if I rock her and sing that old Disney song 'A Cowboy Needs A Horse...' (it was in a Sing-A-Long Songs video but I forgot its origin*). It's not a universally applicable routine and it doesn't work on her big brother, but for whatever reason, it's like a magical button with her even during the wildest fits."
[Writer's note: Apparently it was just a short made in 1956 and was included in Disney Sing-Along Songs: Heigh-Ho! I loved that song when I was a kid.]
"A relaxing bedtime routine, white noise, and putting them down before they are overtired and definitely before they are asleep."
I'm the opposite of baby book advice here, but a bath, nursing, and bedsharing (safely) has been the key to getting any sleep at all.
"Our dog sleeps on a couch in my youngest's nursery and it calms him to fall asleep with her there. Also, since I started letting her sleep in his room (she always kept going in there) his middle-of-the-night wake ups are down to once or twice a week and not multiple times a night."
"Routine, routine, routine. Lots of cuddles, a book, and putting them down drowsy but still awake."
All the tricks I've discovered have had relatively short lifespans... darn kids are too clever!
"Babywearing! Even now, when my 2-and-a-half year old toddler (who dropped all naps before she turned 2) desperately needs a nap, I stick her in the Tula and walk. It's a lifesaver!"
"I nursed and held my babies to get them to sleep. I also had a co-sleeper and sometimes would just fall asleep with them while feeding them. Swaddling really helped when they were little. Also, for some reason, singing the songs from Cinderella lulled them. (Except my third. He screams at me to stop if I even remotely hint at singing.) And then they all grow up a little bit more and their sleeping habits change so whatever worked in the past doesn't work anymore and you have to find new techniques. The good news is that eventually my kids have all learned to go to sleep on their own without a fight."
Her paci[fier] is like a magic sleep button. Has been since she was an infant. I'm going to be screwed in a few years but for now I don't care. It's awesome, even if it's not really a 'trick.'
"White noise machine (a radio tuned to static works just as well) or, when you need to haul out the big guns, the vacuum cleaner."
"I used to rock [my daughter] to sleep. ... Also, lightly rubbing my finger between her eyes (up and down) would put her out when she was fighting it."
[Writer's note: this also worked on my cat — you know, the one I almost breastfed — so there must be something to it.]
I hold them on my lap and jiggle them. It doesn't work every single time, but enough that I'm confident recommending it.
"This is going to make me sound like a terrible mother, but just letting him cry. It's not 'cry it out,' really, because he's fine and then he just cries and then within a minute he goes to sleep. At first I would rush over and see what was wrong and that would make him more upset. I did that for months and got no sleep at all. One night I set him down to try to get something to help and I was gone for, no joke, less than a minute and he was out. So I tried it the next night. Same thing: he cried for thirty seconds to a minute and then he fell sound asleep. It's like he has to get a one minute cry in every night in order to fall asleep. It's so weird. So I guess my advice is: give them a minute, it might be all they need."
"[My 5 year old] was a horrible sleeper. Still is, actually. We went and did a sleep study and everything. The only thing that helps her sleep is 3 mg of melatonin. It is what both her pediatrician and sleep specialist recommended. She takes it about half an hour before bed and sleeps until midnight. Then she's up just to be reassured and she falls back asleep until morning."
Driving around. It's not super convenient but sometimes you'll do anything to get them to sleep.
"We're big on '5 S's' method outlined in The Happiest Baby on the Block. Swaddle, side-position, shush, swing, and suck. Our baby is still really little, so I'll have to take notes one what everyone else says when your article comes out*, but for now this is working better than anything we've tried."
[Writer's Note: please do. #MomsHelpingMoms, yo. That's what we're here for.]