This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Marching determinedly around the nursery at unearthly hours of the morning I have developed a reasonably accurate way of measuring the state of sleep of our son, Samuel, allowing me to more reliably tell whether it is safe to put him down or whether I need to keep on marching. So I thought I’d share it with you, in case there are any other parents tearing their hair out looking for answers.
I must point out, of course, that this is not a magic solution. Every baby is different, and what works for us may not work for you. But feel free to try it, and see if it helps.
First, let me explain how I came by this revelation. When Samuel was born, getting him to sleep was a bit hit and miss. Sometimes he would seem dead to the world, but if we moved him even slightly he would wake up and start crying again. We’d read about the ‘limp limb test’, where you raise one of his arms a couple of inches and drop it, and if he doesn’t stir then it’s safe to move him. That didn’t work. Samuel wouldn’t bat an eyelid at having his arm moved, but change his position and he’d complain.
And then it hit me – he goes to sleep like I do. Amazingly, I knew exactly how he felt, and why it seemed such hard work, because I take forever to get to sleep (unlike my wife, who’s out like a light in minutes); on a good night, if I’m really tired, it may only take me 15-20 minutes to get to sleep, whereas if I’ve got a lot on my mind then it could be a couple of hours. And, according to my parents, I’ve always been like that, and drove them mad too. But armed with that revelation we found ourselves better able to gauge how asleep Samuel was.
I’ve therefore developed a scale, like a speedometer, to gauge the amount of sleepiness, and a set of 5 milestones that have to be achieved if Samuel (or I) is successfully to be put to bed. And here it is:
On the far right hand side is the maximum level of awakeness, which is what Samuel is at during the day when he’s playing and looking and stuff. On the far left is where sleep begins, with the scientifically-proven stages of sleep, like REM and non-REM and suchlike. In between is what I go through, and apparently Samuel too, to get from one state to the other. Most people go from one to the other without difficulty, but for me and my son it’s a complex 5 stage process, which has to be understood to be effectively put into practice.
Stage 1 – Feeling sleepy
The first stage is when Samuel starts to feel tired. He’ll get grumpy, he’ll whine for no apparent reason, he’ll rub his eyes and fidget, and don’t even think about getting a smile. I include this as stage 1 because it’s important to note the beginning of the transition from awake to asleep. Once this first stage has been established it’s a good idea to try to get to stage 2 quickly, otherwise he just gets more and more agitated at being awake.
Stage 2 – Body begins to relax
At this stage Samuel’s eyes will begin to droop, he’ll stop fidgeting, and he’ll become more relaxed. Most people who don’t know him will often say at this point “oh, he’s nearly asleep”. If only. My wife and I know there is still a lot of work to do yet before we get to that! This stage is about gradually allowing the body to relax and un-tense from the agitation of Stage 1.
If we put Samuel down at this point he’ll bounce back to Stage 1 and become even more upset at being awake still. That said, it is possible to deliberately wake him up from this stage if we need him to be awake for something.
Stage 3 – Body is relaxed
Now Samuel’s eyes are closed, his limbs are limp, and to look at you’d say he was asleep. But inside his mind is still whirring and working away, still fully aware of what’s going on around him. The ‘limp limb test’ might indicate full sleep here, or it might stir him enough to bounce him back to Stage 2. If we put him down, he’ll notice, and bounce back to Stage 2, possibly Stage 1. Because the mind is still very much active, it doesn’t take much to re-engage the body and wake up again. In fact, if he isn’t entirely comfortable he’ll be able to wake himself up in an instant, eyes wide open, as if he’d never felt sleepy at all.
Stage 4 – Mind begins to relax
From here on in it becomes a little more like guesswork, because there are few outwards signs of what stage he’s in. One key sign though is the breathing rate – in Stage 3 Samuel will still be breathing fairly quickly, but as he makes the transition through Stage 4 his breathing slows and becomes less noticeable.
For an active mind, this is the hardest part of getting to sleep, because it means voluntarily letting go of reality and surrendering to the unknown world of unconsciousness. While the first three stages can be crossed in a matter of 10 minutes, Stage 4 often takes much longer. If you’ve ever consciously tried to think of nothing, you’ll know that it’s not at all easy.
Putting Samuel down at this point is a bit hit and miss, because in all likelihood he’ll notice what’s happening. If he’s really tired, he might be able to get to the final stage on his own, but most of the time, especially in the early days, he needed help getting there. Moving him might bounce him back to Stage 2, and we’d have to go through it all again.
Stage 5 – Mind is relaxed
This is the doorway to slumberland. By the time we reach this stage, Samuel has finally let go of consciousness and allowed his conscious mind and allowed his subconscious to run free. This is sleep. And now, after maybe 30-45 minutes, we can put him in his cot and leave him. There’s a possibility that moving him might bounce him back to Stage 4, but if he’s already surrendered his mind once then doing it again won’t be difficult, and he’ll settle into sleep just fine.
During sleep Samuel will dream, and go through the peaks and troughs of semi-consciousness that will be documented in any good scientific explanation. At the peaks, Samuel will make occasional noises, move his limbs around, breathe in suddenly, and may even stir himself to the point of returning to Stage 4. Thankfully, this is usually short-lived, and he returns to sleep seconds later. It is only if he has stirred himself too much, or if we happen to make noise as he’s slipping into Stage 4, or if he’s hungry, that he’ll wake more fully and start crying for attention.
How that works out in practice
That’s the theory, now for a quick run-down of what my wife and I do to help our son through that process.
Ellie often feeds Samuel to sleep. Curled up against her, he gets himself comfortable and feeds until he falls asleep. Feeding, it seems, is a very relaxing and soothing activity! Once feeding has established, he’ll very easily slip into Stage 2, almost bypassing Stage 1 completely, and once he’s full he’ll happily move on to Stage 3. As he goes through Stage 4, there may be occasional sucks, if milk happens to be readily available there, but he’s not sucking for any reason other than comfort by this point. In fact, feeding is so relaxing that Ellie can often take him upstairs and put him in the cot when he’s still in Stage 4, and he’ll take himself off the rest of the way without complaining.
I don’t have the benefit of being able to feed Samuel, so I employ different tactics. If he doesn’t settle at night, I’ll take him into the nursery and walk around with him cradled in my arms. He usually cries a lot initially, because he wants to be asleep and he’s frustrated at still being awake. Stage 2 sometimes lasts 20 minutes. Walking gently around the room seems to help though; the regular rhythm is soothing, and I find accentuating each step ever so slightly by pushing my stomach out a little often speeds things along a bit. As Samuel makes the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3, I often change from walking around the room to walking on the spot. I use a triangular step pattern: right foot back, left foot forward, right foot forward, left foot back, right foot forward, left foot forward, repeat. It’s not quite as jolting as walking properly, but maintains the regular rhythm, and is a natural progression from walking to laying still. I’ll keep doing that until Samuel is well into Stage 4, at which point I’ll switch to gentle swaying instead. Once Stage 5 has been reached, I’m safe to walk back across the landing to our bedroom and put him in his cradle.
We’ve experimented with music and light levels, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to him. The music does more for my sanity than it does for Samuel. And he doesn’t seem bothered whether there is light in the room or not. Gentle patting on the back, either with the whole hand or just a finger, sometimes helped when I was walking him around the room, but only if he was really agitated and walking alone wasn’t comfort enough. We also try not to talk to him or make too much eye contact at night, so that he knows the difference between night and day, and that waking in the night won’t get him much in the way of attention; hopefully if we drill that into him early he’ll take that into his toddler years!
He’s much better now (10 weeks) than he was in those early weeks. Back then, putting Samuel in the cradle was like a delicate operation, as we slowly and carefully tried to reposition him without waking him so that we could put him down. We’d do it in stages: a minute or so just stood in the room, so he became acclimatised to the smell and temperature of the room; then we’d gently reposition our hands so that he was being held in such a way that we could put him down, but still holding him close to us for warmth and the familiar smell; then we’d move him away from ourselves a few inches, and hold for a few seconds; then gently lower him into the cradle, keeping our hands in place for consistency and to act as a buffer between his head and the cold sheets; then we’d gently slide out hands out from underneath him, but keeping them in the cot for the comfort of radiated warmth; and then, if he was still settled, we’d be able to back off a little, but still stay close for a minute or so to make sure he stayed asleep. And only when all of that had been done could we leave the room. Now, thankfully, it’s a much quicker process, because he’s more able to settle himself, so even if we do make him stir as we put him down he’s likely to take himself back off on his own.
So there you have it. That’s how I get our son to sleep. It might not work for your baby, but it might be of some help to someone. You may find some useful tips here. If nothing else, it should be an interesting insight into the mechanisms of sleep, even if it only applies to me and my son!