Question: My 6-month-old baby wakes up almost every hour to breastfeed. I want to respond to her cues, and I don't believe in letting her cry. I'm getting so tired that I can barely function during the day. Please, I desperately need some help!
Elizabeth Pantley responds: Help is here! The first thing we can do is to examine what's happening. Every time your baby wakes in the middle of the night, you probably have a breastfeeding routine to get her back to sleep. I went through this with my son Coleton until he was a year old. Every hour, we had a very exact pattern: Coleton woke, I shifted him to the other side, I kissed his head, and then he nursed -- a beautiful, soothing ritual. But as sweet as this
ritual was, after twelve months of this nightly/hourly ceremony, I reached the point where you are now: desperately needing a change.
Firstly, your baby doesn't need nourishment every hour, every night. She has made an association between sleep and nursing. Learning how to adjust this association requires a little investigation and knowledge. What is most likely happening is that you are responding to your baby so quickly and intuitively that you put her to the breast before she even makes a real noise -- she may just fidget, gurgle, snort or sniff and you put her to the breast. What you may be surprised to learn is that on many of these occasions, she would have gone back to sleep without your help.
I, too, am a follower of the "never let your baby cry" rule, and I took it very seriously with my Coleton just as you do with your baby. But I learned something very important along the way: babies make sounds in their sleep. And these sounds do not mean that your baby needs you. Babies moan, grunt, snuffle, whimper and even cry in their sleep. Babies can even latch on and nurse in their sleep.
The first step to helping your baby sleep longer between nursing sessions is to determine the difference between sleeping noises and awake noises. When she makes a noise don't automatically pop her to the breast: Stop. Listen. Wait. Peek. As you listen attentively to her noises, and watch her, you will learn the difference between sleeping snorts and "I'm waking up and I need you now" noises.
When I learned this eye-opening piece of information, I started "playing asleep" when Coleton made a nighttime noise. I would just listen and watch -- not moving a single muscle -- until he began to make actual wakeful noises. Some of the time, he never did; he just went back to sleep! And over time, the wakeful periods came further and further apart.
The idea then is to learn when you should pick your baby up for a night feeding and when you can let her go back to sleep on her own. This is a time when you need to really focus your instincts and intuition. This is when you should try very hard to learn how to read your baby's
Listen to and watch your baby carefully. Learn to differentiate between these sleeping sounds and awake and hungry sounds. If she is really awake and hungry, you'll want to feed her as quickly as possible, of course. If you do respond immediately when she is hungry, she will most likely go back to sleep quickly. If she's just shifting in her sleep, let her be.
The key here is to listen carefully when your baby makes night noises. If she is making "sleeping noises," let her sleep. If she really is waking up, tend to her quickly.
Parts of this answer are excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Publishing from The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 2002.
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