Your baby went to sleep without a fuss at 7:30 p.m., allowing you and your partner to actually sit down for dinner together. As you ate, you gloated about your success in getting your child to sleep through the night (finally!). You even got to watch an episode of Weeds. But as you crawl under your own covers a few hours later, the green light on the baby monitor glares at you ominously. You nervously glance at it as you drift off. Moments later -- noooooooo! -- the baby pops awake and starts squeaking like a rusty swing.
Welcome to the next stage of sleeplessness. Even after your baby starts snoozing for long stretches, usually by 6 months or so, at times (okay, most times) he may regress to those early days of caterwauling at 10 p.m. or 1 a.m. or 3:27 a.m. (not that you're watching the clock or anything). And while you have your bedtime routine -- whether it's bath-bottle-book or some version of the cry-it-out method -- down pat, you're hardly in the mood for Goodnight Moon at two in the morning. How, HOW, you wearily ask the gods and the ceiling fan, do we get the baby to go back to bed so we can all get some rest? At long last, we've got the answers.
In a perfect world
Before we go further, let's start with how the experts might answer that question (we know because we asked). First, they suggest, wait a few minutes before responding to your whimpering tot unless he sounds frantic. If he doesn't quiet down, you may then tiptoe to the crib -- babies should never sleep in a swing or bouncy seat, the experts warn -- and, without making eye contact or turning on the lights, check to make sure he's not wet or feverish. Assuming he's not, you can then rub his tummy and whisper a lullaby before sneaking back out. And the golden rule of putting a baby down? Always put your infant back to bed drowsy but awake.
Now, we're sure that somewhere, in some galaxy (though probably one far, far from here), there is some lucky mom for whom this drowsy tuck-in method actually works every time. And we're really, really happy for her (though we're not sure we ever want to meet her). Because for the rest of us, things aren't always so simple. For the rest of us, things are, well, a bit messier.
In the real world
Take Nancy Smith, Babytalk's own art director, for example. After dark, her New York City home becomes a sleep merry-go-round, with family members hopping on and off at all hours. Around midnight, her 5-year-old-daughter, Bea, wakes up from a nightmare and climbs into bed with her and her husband, John. Around 2 or 3 a.m., her 11/2-year-old daughter, Frances, begins to wail and also seeks refuge at Nancy's side, forcing John to move to Bea's vacated twin bed. Hearing her dad in the bottom bunk, 7-year-old Roma wakes up and wants in on the action. She heads for the master bed, causing Nancy to attempt to move Frances back to her crib?and so on and so on until it's time to get up.
My own 8-month-old twin boys sleep fine from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., at which point one of them wakes up and starts howling. I shuttle the offending tot into the swing as quickly as possible, so as not to rouse his brother, an effort that often fails. And when it does, I plop the other twin into his vibrating bouncy seat?and everyone sleeps for another two hours or so. Yes, I have heard that the sleep a baby gets in a swing, stroller, or bouncy seat isn't as "quality" as the sleep he gets in his crib, but isn't it better than no sleep at all? And what about me? Don't I deserve to get a little sleep, too?
Reader Cristina Bohning of Parma, Ohio, says "yes!" "As far as I'm concerned, when your baby is not sleeping, anything goes," asserts the mother of 7-month-old Addison and 3-year-old Jack. "Your pediatrician is not the one there at three a.m."
And to that we cry, "Hallelujah!" Because on top of being delirious and exhausted in those predawn hours when our little ones rouse, why should we also feel guilty about how we get them back to sleep? Every baby and every parent is different, so there's no way the standard-issue back-to-sleep techniques we read about in books will work for everyone. And that's a point even the experts will concede. "It's really important to be flexible," says Ann Douglas, the author of several parenting books, including Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler. "Nothing about family life is neat and one-size-fits-all. We need to recognize that our kids are going to need a little troubleshooting in the middle of the night."
So the next time (like, tonight) your pop-up baby pops up after you've gone down and you're feeling bad for bringing her into bed with you (again) or worried that you're going to cause future obesity by feeding her a bottle (again), take heart: You're not alone. "Although all the books and all the moms in my moms' group say I shouldn't, I usually end up nursing my son back to sleep," says Jeanie Lyudmer, mom of 71/2-month-old Jack in New York City. "I've tried other methods, and sometimes they work, but he's up again in ten minutes. This stage won't last forever, and he won't be so small and cuddly forever, so I am not going to beat myself up about it."
She's not the only one breaking "rules" after dark for the sake of a little shut-eye. "Every night, my son wakes up crying and won't stop until he's in my bed," says Sheila Wilson of Oklahoma City. "It makes his dad mad, but what more can I do when I have to wake up early to go to work?"
Sometimes it's the very rules we set for ourselves that we end up tossing out the moonlit window. Before she was pregnant, Beth Bedrin-Lindgren of Elk Grove, California, had very particular ideas about what she thought was the best way for a baby to sleep at night. Then she had her twins, Lily and Owen. Eight months later, Bedrin-Lindgren says things have turned out a bit differently. "I nurse them to sleep ... even though I swore I wouldn't. I sleep with them in our bed?even though I swore I wouldn't. And I've rocked Lily so much I thought I would scramble her brains!"
And you know that recommendation about television? The one that says infants under age 2 shouldn't watch any at all? Let's just say that most of the moms we talked to don't exactly agree. And while studies have shown that television may actually hype babies up, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep, it's hard to argue that point at 1:45 a.m. with a rattled mom whose little popper-upper won't stop fussing until she's watching a late-night superglue infomercial.
When her daughter was around 12 months, Janey Goude of Lexington, South Carolina, "finally appreciated having a TV in our bedroom, something I'd always been opposed to. I'd prop her up between me and my husband and put a Barney tape in. In no time, she'd be out. That purple dinosaur never sounded so good!"
Good night and good luck
Now, we're not ones to advocate toilet-papering your neighbor's house or graffiti-ing your name on bathroom stalls, but a little rule breaking, especially when it comes to middle-of-the-night sleep troubleshooting, can be healthy. It means you're listening to your gut and trusting that you know your child -- and what works for him -- better than anyone else. Do you want to babyproof your bed before co-sleeping? Of course; go to AskDrSears.com for complete safe co-sleeping guidelines. Do you want to make sure your child is fastened securely into his swing, glider, or bouncy? Certainly. Do you consider a wet diaper, a fever, or illness as a possible cause for your babe's night waking? Duh. But here's the thing: We're all good moms (you better believe it!), and we're all just doing our best to help the whole family get some rest, which is a huge factor in every human's happiness quotient How to Be a Happier Mom). Whether we're putting them in swings, letting them sleep with us, giving them a bottle, or doing any of the other quirky back-to-sleep strategies we've discovered work for our tykes, we're doing it lovingly. And that, in our estimation, is what makes for a good night's rest.
Patty Onderko is a senior editor at Babytalk.