Sleep Associations and Sleep Regression

Dearest Daughter of Dastardly Sleep Deprivation (And Ultimate Cuteness),

Here we are at seven months of age and up to our ears in what is usually called “sleep regression” and which is typically attributed to a parent allowing their child to develop habits and sleep associations.

I know because a book tells me so, the internet tells me so, and many people tell me so as well.

But I know some other things, too.

I know that when you were first born I tried absolutely everything to get you to sleep. I tried all of the things that worked for your brothers, all the things that I’ve read about, and then I tried all of the variations of everything. And I found the things that helped you sleep. These things were so very different from the things that helped your brothers sleep. And they worked for a while and you slept well.

And now you  have supposedly “regressed” or “become dependent” on these things.

I see it differently.

If these things came from me, they would be convenient for me or based on my preferences. They would be the same from child to child. And I would not have had to “try all the things” to find out what worked for you. These are not associations that I have created for you. These are associations that you have created as a part of how you are learning to sleep. These are a positive thing, and they will change over time. I do not need to break these associations for you suddenly. They are all a part of what is normal for you. This is what learning looks like. It is not regression to move through different stages of development and to move from what is uncontrollable to what we have control over. It is progress. It wasn’t that you were an awesome sleeper when you were younger. It was that you simply couldn’t help but fall asleep. There was nothing that needed to be learned. It simply happened. Now you are learning. And learning does not mean instant mastery.

When you were born I would hold you up so your feet touched the ground and you would reflexively “walk”. When I would put my finger into your hand you would reflexively grab at it without any control at all. Your neck muscles were weak and you could not hold your head up well without it bobbing around. Your tongue would push things out of your mouth, you would turn towards anything that brushed your cheek and you would open your mouth wide as though you expected there to be nipples everywhere for you to latch on to. And you would sleep. Deeply.

Now you consciously try to take steps. Or you try to jump up and down. Or you simply stand there while you hold onto things and bobble around on your feet learning about balance. Now you consciously grab things that you are interested in, you pinch them, you turn them around, you pass them from hand to hand or you push them away. Your neck muscles are strong except for when you are overwhelmed with sleep and bob your head against my shoulder like you are a newborn again looking for that comfortable position. Your tongue thrust reflex is gone and now you eagerly bite down on things and chew them instead of pushing them out of your mouth. And you no longer try to latch onto anything other than what you know will have milk for you.

Your sleep, too, has changed. “Regressed” is how some people describe it, but for me that’s like saying your walking skills have regressed as you are learning to stand rather than have a reflex that moves your feet up and down and that takes you nowhere Or that your strength is regressing now that your grasping reflex is gone. Or that your understanding of nursing has regressed now that you don’t constantly root for everything.

You are learning the things that you need in order to sleep well and deeply. You are learning the things you need in order to sleep comfortably. You are learning so much that sometimes you need more help to sleep.

Right now you lay napping on the bed two feet away from me. You are napping on top of a few blankets that are rather messily arranged and that cradle your body comfortably. You are zonked out. Your brother is jumping around and dancing to some music that is playing, and the lights are on. When something startles you you open your eyes, meet my gaze, smile at my smile and you fall back to sleep with that simple reassurance.

This is how I am teaching you about sleep. At night I respond to you when you need me. I snuggle you close and nurse you on demand. I pat your back and rub your head and I whisper to you in a soft and sleepy voice. During the day I let you sleep however you are comfortable sleeping and I hover nearby while I do the things that need to be done and while I play with your brothers, and when you startle awake I  meet your eyes and smile and say “Shhh” and move over to stroke the hair from your forehead the way I do when we nurse. And you fall back to sleep knowing that you can safely sleep off those sleepies and that I am there.

I’m not teaching you bad habits. I’m teaching you that sleep is safe. When you are older and able to understand the permanent fixture that I am in your life, and when you are able to safely sleep in a comfortable way at night in whatever position your little body wants to be in.. When you are ready to leave behind that firm crib mattress that feels like a lightly padded brick.. When you can arrange your blankets and snuggle up to your pillow and whatever stuffed animal you like the best.. Then I will teach you about how lovely it is to nestle down safe in the darkness in your own warm room. And you’ll sleep just as your brothers sleep. Through the night, through the dark, until the sun rises and the house wakes up as each of us start our day.

I don’t know if I believe that “Crying it Out” is a Horrible Terrible Guaranteed to Horribly and Terribly Damage Infants for Life. I don’t know if I believe that I positively have to co-sleep with you until you run from our bed singing some sort of song about liberation and independence and excited to start college the next day.

This is simply the relationship that I choose to have with you, where I respect the pace at which you learn and I recognize all the stages you go through and all the hard work that you’re putting in to this whole “growing up” thing.

Why do I need to interrupt your learning to “train” you to do something that you’re learning all on your own as your body settles into itself?

I don’t. I won’t. I trust you enough to wait it out and let you set the pace you need.

<3 Mama

20 thoughts on “Sleep Associations and Sleep Regression

  1. Thank you. My 7 month old little man is going through a stage where he needs more help staying asleep. It’s just nice to hear someone else is going through the same thing.

  2. Lovely timing as I deal with my nearly year-old (!!!) bub and his own “regression” as he struggles to deal with/master his new mobility. Last night was a doozy. I sometimes struggle to remember that sleep really is a learned skill just like everything else. I think I’ll go snuggle him now.

  3. The reassurance I recieve from your post is invaluable. I am right now watching my 16 month old learning and growing everyday, at her own pace.Oh how I love the love of my life !!

  4. I’m so happy I found your blog. What a comfort it is to know that I’m not alone and that I’m not doing some terrible thing by snuggling up next to my 14-month old every night and nursing him back to sleep as soon as he starts waking up. I’m just following my instincts and doing what works best for him, but it’s so easy to doubt myself when I hear from parents whose babies sleep straight through the night after a few days of “sleep training”, when my little muffin wakes up about 8 times a night. I’ve agonized over this, but my heart just won’t let me leave him to cry himself back to sleep. It’s so reassuring to know that I’m not alone. So thank you.

  5. Sarah, You bring tears to my eyes…I can feel the love you have for you daughter. I recognize it so well…WIO for almost 19months over here with my son.

  6. I love your writings. I have 14 week old twins that I nurse on demand. I have one who is very high needs and neither nap well. The problem is that I am beyond exhausted from frequent night feedings nursing them back to sleep and bouncing them all day and all all night. I don’t want to let them cry- but I spend HOURS every day and night trying to get them to sleep and Im not sleeping at all. They don’t seem to respond well to many helpers because they want to nurse to sleep. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how to handle this.

    1. Reb, Twins are a ton of work. I don’t have twins, I’ve only ever dealt with one baby at a time. I imagine you’re very tired. I am sorry. :( Do you have any willing helpers in your life? I found that when my kids were going through some of the worst stuff the “sleep” time that I got was in the mornings, and that my child would sleep in a carrier on dad’s chest or play happily with him while I slept in as long as possible either before he left for work or on the weekends.

      I know a number of twin mamas in the Wait it Out groups, and they’ve done different things that they found helpful. Some of them woke the sleeping twin whenever one twin woke to nurse so that they could tandem feed both back to sleep and try to get everyone’s sleep cycles synchronized. Some were able to get extra sleep by using sleep aids like a swing for nap times.

      I’m going to see if they can pop in and give you some tips. <3

      -Sarah

      1. Thanks Sarah. I’m really struggling with this. I have been trying to keep them on the same schedule with wake up and feedings. It’s tricky because my little guy will only sleep well on or next to a person. They both only seem to fall asleep when they are nursing or bounced and shushed. They are not super fond of carriers. I’ve tried wovens and structured. Up until this week I could bounce them together but they are getting too big and they each want me to individually do it. My little lady has been only napping for 30 min the last week which stinks because she used to take 2- 2 hour naps. While she was napping I could repeatedly put little guy back to sleep until she woke. Now they wake each other like pin balls. I am not exaggerating when I say I never leave the house and I spend 50 % of my waking hours trying to get cranky babies back to sleep. I’m starting to feel a little crazy.

        1. I reached out the community to see if they might have any help for you: https://www.facebook.com/Nurshable/posts/551252618318799 Unfortunately a high needs baby that doesn’t accept a carrier sort of cuts out some of the options.

          It sounds like you’re doing the best that you can. One high needs baby will make you feel crazy. Two is really rough. You’re right in one of the developmental leaps, too. (Which explains the sleep getting worse) Between 3-4 months there are some really rough days/weeks. Once the babies can crawl or sit up it’s a LOT easier. Right now they’re still so very needy and they’re alert/aware.

          Is either child okay with a carrier? If one of them is more okay than the other you might be able to convince one child to let you put them on your back.

          The early days really feel horribly endless. But things get so much easier as your children get closer to a year.

          1. I can’t thank you enough for your help and support. I checked out the comments on FB. Such a wonderful and helpful group! My little guy will let me put him on my back on occasion. He is un predictable – what worked yesterday is the wrong thing today! I do have some help. Unfortunately my main sources of help (besides my awesome husband) are CIO supporters who think I’m nuts / spoiling my babies. I guess after a while that is starting to get me down. It’s so nice to hear that it gets easier. I love these 2 little people so much and hate that the exhaustion hampers the enjoyment of this season.

          2. Reb,

            Would you like to be added to the Wait it Out Facebook group? We’re a huge tribe of mamas over 4,000 strong that are not using CIO sleep training. :)

          3. Just a little bit of perspective. In tribal societies everyone cares for the babies. The reason that it is exhausting isn’t because of the *babies*, it’s because of the lack of support. Remembering this let me melt a bit into a cave of sleepy sadness where I snuggled my little one close and battened down my hatches.

            It gets easier. I’m sorry that you don’t have real-life support that is really supportive. <3

      1. Thank you much Sarah:) The mamas that responded to the FB inquiry are amazing!! Very helpful. I think the biggest thing is knowing were not alone and that it gets better.

  7. This is ridiculous. I haven’t had more than three hours sleep in a year now an you are going on like no sleep is rainbows and butterflys. Your blog doesn’t make me feel any better but it makes me laugh.

    1. Lisa,

      You might like some of the posts where I talk about struggling more than the ones where I talk about finding peace.

      Different people find what they need in different places. I am sorry you are having a hard time. If you aren’t finding what you need here, that is okay. There are a lot of methods and approaches and ways of thinking out there.

      I hope it was at least a good laugh.

      -Sarah

  8. Hi
    I have a 3.5 month old who sleeps only in my arms. I am first time mom and have no help. I cant hold her all the time. I am feeling exhausted and tired and a failure. She is also overtired. I was thinking about CIO and came across your blog. I want her to sleep better but cant figure out how. She is swaddled and is addicted to pacifier. I want to get rid of it but she cries really hard and doesnt goes to sleep without it. Can you suggest something.

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