It was an honor to be called into this Australian home by the grandmother of a charming 5-month-old baby, Julius. I had met Gran in the US while she was attending a conference. We had planned to make time for dinner when Jim and I traveled to her part of the world, but, I was delighted to have THIS special invitation as well.
She explains that her grandson (her first) has been a "handful" since birth. His mother and father had eagerly anticipated their child's birth and had prepared themselves for early parenthood with education, family support, and all the necessities of a cheerful nursery.
Though they understood that this stage of life could be challenging, they simply cannot believe the level of sustained exhaustion and confusion they've experienced so far.
Julius's mother has committed to breastfeeding. Though she has adequate supply, this child is constantly on the breast. That is because the breast has been the only way she knew to comfort her son when he "got going." Lately, even the breast will not calm him down, though. When he is obviously tired at night the parents take turns walking him, rocking him, and singing (until hoarse) to him. Sometimes all of these actions would make NO difference. Consoling him and getting him to sleep seems impossible.
When Julius would finally get to sleep, he would sleep soundly for 45 minutes, stir, and then wake up screaming. These dedicated, sensitive parents had seldom seen their child sleep more than one hour at a stretch in his short five months of life.
Clearly this is a crisis. Mom is ready to give up breastfeeding. Dad is struggling to be faithful to his job responsibilities and to care for both his wife and their young one.
I begin by understanding that children do not sleep well for one (or all) of three main reasons:
- Developmental Issues
- Child Centered Issues
- Parent Centered Issues
Developmental Issues refer to the fact that when healthy children during infancy and early childhood have a developmental surge (e.g., they are about to learn something new), they predictably have difficulty with their sleep patterns. Dr. Brazelton refers to these developmental surges as Touchpoints, and I used this information in developing my Roadmap to Breastfeeding Success.
Predictable surges in a baby's development include:
- 2-week-old's normal increase in crying
- 1-month-old's developing clear deep and light sleep patterns
- 4-month-old's increased distractability while nursing
- 6-month-old's drive to eat solids
- 9-month-old's separation/stranger anxiety
- 12-month-old's learning to walk
- 18-month-old's second round of separation/stranger anxiety
- 2-year-old's negativism
My tea cup makes a bit of a clang when I set it down on the glass table top. Julius startles and without hesitation breaks into THE MOST intense, persistent cry I have seen in a child this age. I am good at calming babies, but I can not "break through" the intensity and persistence of his cry.
So the diagnosis emerges:
- Developmental Issues - Emerging cognitive burst expected around 4-5 months. Inability to get from active to deep sleep without breastfeeding.
- Child Centered Issues - Sensitive, intense, persistent temperament traits (ALL characteristics which will bring this child GREAT success in life).
- Parent Centered Issues - An extremely sensitive mother who is increasingly (and understandably) anxious.
The intensely crying Julius gives Mum a chance to practice. She turns her gaze slightly to the side and calms him without speaking. Julius looks puzzled, but is quickly ready to play again. The strategy of doing more by doing less is working!
I called this mother three days later and was delighted with the results she reported. Julius is now sleeping from 10 PM to 4 AM, at which time he gets up to nurse. The parents hear him stir in active sleep but leave him to find his way back to deep sleep. Mum reports, "Yesterday I felt like a new woman. I made some cookies, took the baby for a walk, and was singing when my husband got home from work." She shares that she now hesitates a moment before responding to her son--and sees his increased capabilities as both reassuring and exciting.
In closing the conversation, I review upcoming developmental changes that will impact this remarkable little guy's sleep again, and discuss how his parents can best respond to the milestones ahead. The success they are all starting to experience will provide a foundation for this loving family's future parenting successes!