Parenting at Night

By Megan Leary


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I was at an event supporting midwifery legislature when I saw the Le Leche League booth and made a beeline for it.  I have been pretty fortunate in that breast feeding has gone great from the start for my daughter and me, but my issue now was that breastfeeding was going almost too well.  She was now a year old and she was nursing like a newborn again.  I was up every two hours at night nursing her and then up-and-at-em the next day for my full time job.  Needless to say, I was perpetually tired and desperate for some mama advice.


Tears welled up in my eyes as I explained the situation to the LLL leader.  She took both my shoulders in my hands and I will never forget what she said, “Parenting doesn’t end at night.”  It was a little softer than “suck it up,” but it’s what I took from it and she was completely and totally right.  We exchanged emails and later that week she expanded on her statement:


“The La Leche League Philosophy point that best fits nighttime parenting states, ‘Baby has an intense need for his mother, which is as basic as his need for food’ and I like to add, ‘which doesn’t stop at bedtime.'”

Babies need their parents twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and fifty-two weeks a year.  There is no break at bed-time.  The increased need for me that my daughter was experiencing at one year old, I have come to learn, was completely normal.  She was at an age where so many developmental things were happening to her body and brain that she just needed that extra nourishment.


However, nourishment is just one reason why babies wake up.  There are other reasons why a baby ruses from her sleep.  She has an itch, she’s uncomfortable, she’s cold or hot, or maybe she is just coming out of a sleep cycle.  Baby sleep cycles are much shorter and lighter than adults.  As they drift from deep sleep to light sleep some babies are great about going right back into deep sleep.  Others may be awoken by the discomforts mentioned above.  Whether or not a baby is naturally good about staying asleep during the light sleep stage, which lasts about an hour, is determined more by a baby’s temperament, and not whether or not they have been “sleep trained.”


Sleep training, or crying-it-out, can mean something different to every parent.  When I mention crying-it-out, or CIO, I will refer to the following commonly accepted description:

Parents ignore the cries of a baby during the night hours with the intent of teaching her to self-soothe back to sleep.  It means being away from her physically.  This includes being behind the door, in the doorway repeatedly saying “It’s okay,” or sobbing in the other room with a pillow over your head.


When you understand that your baby is waking up during her light periods of sleeping because of her itch (that she can’t itch) or that she is too hot (which she can do nothing about), it’s easy to want her to be able to “learn” to fall back asleep on her own.  CIO is a popular method in attempting to teach this.  However, there are some negative effects of CIO.


Ignoring the cries of your baby can cause the baby stress and elevate his or her stress hormones.  Increased stress hormones, over time, are not good for baby for a lot of science-y reasons.  Simply put, it can result in a baby with an overly sensitive stress system which follows them into adulthood.  A combo of elevated stress hormones with the increased blood pressure in the brain will make it hard for blood to drain out, resulting in decreased oxygen to the brain.  Another possible effect is depression or a detached baby.  Your baby’s only way to communicate with you is through her cries!  That’s all she has!  By ignoring them you are teaching your baby that her communication method does not work, or is unreliable at best.  Sleep deprivation, colic, and ADHD are other effects caused by the CIO method.


On top of all that, CIO just doesn’t work.  When your baby finally stops crying and goes to sleep, she didn’t learn to soothe herself.  She is exhausted from crying and possibly traumatized. We can relate to this as adults.  When we experience something traumatizing in our lives we often get sleepy (and hungry for chocolate).  Parents who use CIO often report that after a disruption in this sleep pattern they have to “re-teach” self-soothing.  A disruption can come in the form of a developmental milestone like teething, growth spurts, learning to crawl, etc.  You know, the stuff that happens every other week!


So why are so many parents convinced that CIO is the way to go?  Well, your doctor might be suggesting it!  I think it’s easier for docs to tell mamas to try letting the baby cry a bit rather than “Parenting doesn’t end at night,” like the bold LLL leader.  There are a lot of studies that say CIO has no ill effect, but I would be wary of these.  No studies have been done on infants, only tots. In addition to this expert advice, you may have received little support from family and friends.  I’m sure you have a friend who did CIO with all her kiddos and they are all loving, healthy adults now.  Which is great!  Just don’t base your decision to CIO on such a small sample size.


I like to think that learning to sleep through the night is just like learning to crawl or walk.  Your baby will do it in his or her own time.  When my late crawler was still rolling around on the floor I often heard, “Don’t sweat it!  She’ll be running around in no time!”  Why then is there this big rush to get babies to learn to sleep?  Yes, I know, it’s so that the parents can sleep too.  I just like to think that since it would seem unkind to make my baby learn to crawl by picking up her knees and making them move and act like she’s a puppet, then it’s likewise unkind to puppet her to sleep.


I did encourage my baby to crawl by leaving toys right out of her grasp and giving her tummy time.  You can encourage your baby to sleep without resorting to CIO as well.  Let her play in her crib during the day so that she knows it’s a safe and comforting place, Rub her belly and hum while she softly fusses during a light sleep phase.  Lay her down drowsy but awake while you sit next her and sing. 


We have instincts for a reason, mamas!  If you are standing behind a closed door listening to your baby cry and wanting nothing more than to run in and rescue her, then you probably should.  I am not void of compassion for tired mamas!  When the monitor goes off at 2am sometimes all I want to do is throw it across the room and turn over and fall back asleep.  I did not know the true definition of sleep deprivation before I became a mother.  But I did become a mother, and it doesn’t end at nighttime.



Megan Leary

About Megan Leary


I am a work-at-home mama of one darling girl and a baby boy who is still on the way! I am an advocate of natural and home birthing.  I am passionate about pregnancy, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and most things natural in a mama’s life.  Most of all I believe in supporting women in their informed decisions, whatever they may be.

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