Nighttime Parenting

My son has been awake in the middle of the night often over the last few weeks: because he needed to pee, or had peed in his sleep, had a nightmare, was cold, was hungry, transitioned between sleep cycles right as I was making some sort of noise like watching TV or talking on the phone.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been called on to nighttime parent much more frequently than I have in months (since right after my husband and I separated), and before that since he still nursed at night.

Nighttime parenting is one of those areas that can become controversial parent fodder very quickly. Some people can’t imagine having their baby in a crib while others would never consider having her sleep in the same bed. Many fall somewhere in the middle.

I didn’t know what kind of parent I was going to be, if I’d be grumpy in the night, if I’d have a kid who woke up a lot. But I knew my own relationship to sleep. I’d suffered from insomnia since I was fourteen, alternately not being able to fall asleep or falling asleep and then waking in the middle of the night and then be unable to re-enter sleep. It wasn’t a restful place for me. Whatever we did, wherever our son slept, I didn’t want to pass on my legacy.

When I was pregnant, a friend gave us a hand-me-down bassinet to place beside the bed. Another friend passed on his daughter’s crib. And then, after five weeks of pre-eclamptic bedrest, I had a C-section. That meant I couldn’t lie on my side or get out of the bed easily. I couldn’t turn to see or reach my son even when he was right next to me.

That first night in the hospital,  the nurses encouraged me to leave Cavanaugh in the clear plastic bassinet so I could rest. I couldn’t rest with him that far away. He’d been in my body for nine (ten) months, so having him out of eyesight felt like the least restful thing I could imagine. I was on high alert.

When he and I lay together in the hospital bed with his little fingers squeezing mine, I still did not sleep, but I lay there falling in love with my son, this little being who looked so familiar. I remembered my friend Dani saying that some of her favorite parenting moments were middle of the night nursing sessions, when the world was quiet and she could sit in the nursery with her son. I totally got it.

So, it turned out that I didn’t mind waking in the middle of the night. Cavanaugh kept sleeping in the bed with me, which meant that when he was hungry, he’d just roll over to nurse. He never woke up fully enough to cry. I nursed him and fell back to sleep.

These middle of the night wakings recently have actually evoked gratitude in me. Last week Cavanaugh woke up in the middle of the night and asked me to turn the closet light on. Usually, he’s back to sleep before I’m back from the closet. But that night he said, “I had a bad dream” so I gave him a hug and he lay back on his pillow. I was half asleep when his little voice said, “I’m ’till ‘cared” and he pressed his back to my belly and hugged his “aminals.”

I was flooded with gratitude: for that sweet little boy with his warm little body, that he feels safe enough to interrupt my sleep and share his feelings, that if he needs more than he’s getting, he can ask for it.

Tonight he said he didn’t like dreams because they were scary. Some nights he says he’s afraid of the dark. I put my hand on his chest and say, “You are safe.” I assure him that if he wakes up and I’m not in the room, he can call for me. Most of the time, he sleeps a solid eleven hours without a peep. But on those nights when he is scared, has to pee or asks for cereal, I find myself surprisingly excited because we get that quiet middle of the night time together that went away when he stopped nursing. I get the opportunity to show up, to teach him that sleep is a restful and safe place, and that waking sometimes is okay too.

How do you feel about nighttime parenting? What’s your own relationship to sleep like? What are you trying to teach your kid(s) about sleep?

Author: Sonya Feher

Sonya Fehér is mama to Cavanaugh True. She is the leader of the S. Austin chapter of API and is a professional organizer with spaceWise Organizing where she helps individuals and families create space for how they want to live.

14 thoughts on “Nighttime Parenting”

  1. i love co sleeping! my alomst 6 yrold is still with us and i wouldnt trade it for the world! our 8 mo old is in his crib…..i feel guilty about it but he sleeps so wiggly i couldnt keep him in there! he would have been smothered with all his rolling! hes 24 lbs and strong! nighttime parenting is absoltuley the greatest…….i wake even if several times a night in amazement i have been blessed with my boys! i am their mommy and waking is par for the course, it has never bothered me! i am always happy to see their faces! 🙂

    1. Sounds like you really paid attention to what both of your boys needs. Some kids really do sleep better in a crib. I have two friends who were totally excited to co-sleep and their babies were just like your 8 month old. They needed space to wiggle and found more rest in cribs. My friends were so disappointed. But neither of them had six year-olds to co-sleep with : )

  2. I am struggling with my nighttime parenting. On one hand I really enjoy the one on one time with the baby, but as she is going through a phase of waking every 2 hours rather than once or twice, combing that with my 2yr old who will wake through the night & likes to start her day very early, I’m finding it hard to balance my tiredness & my need to re-charge on my own (which is a challenge being the only introvert in a houseful of extroverts!) I’m also finding it hard to balance the parent I want to be for my 3 girls to the zombie/grumpy parent that I feel sometimes takes over.

  3. I couldn’t imagine the ‘torture’ it must have felt like when having your child placed almost right out of your arms length. As you mentioned 9 months together and then to be recommended to be away wouldn’t work out well with my family either. I think night time parenting is difficult but another step towards a child growing up and as with all other phases it will get easier.

  4. I too am having a hard time ‘enjoying’ the nighttime parenting. My 6 month old son wakes 3 times or so every night (this is an improvement from every 90 minutes for the last 2 months). I’m exhausted! I want to enjoy that special quiet time with my son in the middle of the night, like I had imagined I would before he was born, but find my self becoming very grumpy every time he wakes. I tell myself to just give in to it and go with the flow of things – but I haven’t been able to. I just don’t know how. I don’t believe in the ‘sleep-training’ that everyone seems to be pressuring me to do, but, like Stacey K (above), I don’t know how to find that balance between being there for my son and feeling like a rested and positive parent….

  5. I have also had a life long history of insomnia. I loved co sleeping for the first 9 months or so, then I did it happily, because it worked for my daughter, and it was easier on us for about another 9 months.
    Then suddenly, she started waking up more and more, and the extra Oxytocin left my body, and I was suddenly unable to fall back asleep after being woken up. I was exhausted all the time, and angry and depressed. So we slowly started transferring nighttime parenting duties to my husband, and at the same time, transferring her to her own bed. She started sleeping better, I did too, and my husband was able to get to work on time without being worried about how we were going to handle the day.
    She’s now 2 and a half, and she still wakes up once or twice in the night. We’ve started trading off night time duties. She also comes into our room in the early morning for snuggles. It means I’m awake for a little bit of extra time, but the space to sleep my husband helped me find earlier means that I don’t resent this need in her. In fact, I would say I’m loving it.

    1. Originally, his waking up every 60-90 minutes was great for me. I was too tired to have the insomnia I had battled so long. Then he started sleeping for 3-4 hour blocks. I was still great. Then he went backwards and started waking every 1-2 hours. It was a real challenge until he night-weaned at two. Immediately upon night weaning, he was sleeping through the night. I found myself missing him in the middle of the night, even though we were still co-sleeping. We had never gone 11 or 12 hours in a row without interacting. I find that I cherish it on the occasions when he wakes now. It’s this special quiet time when the rest of the world is asleep and it’s just me and my son, even if it’s just for the three seconds it takes for him to ask me to turn the closet light on.

      It sounds like you found a balance that meets the needs of your whole family. Love instead of resentment sounds like a great outcome. Congratulations!

  6. I enjoy sleeping with my daughter so much. Most of my mainstream friends think I’m crazy. I think they are missing out.

  7. At almost 18 months, we have just started the process of night weaning our son. Last night was day (or night rather) #2. My husband tends to him when he wakes up and offers cuddles or water. Although we both feel like zombies still, night #2 was a slight improvement to night #1.

    Any tips for night weaning? Anyone able to successfully night wean and then be able to go back to co-sleeping? I miss having my son sleep next to me. Maybe totally selfish on my part. =P

    1. I actually have a whole series on night weaning at my blog mamaTRUE. We managed to co-sleep throughout night weaning. My son hasn’t nursed at night since he was a little over two, but we’re still co-sleeping. He’ll be four this Sunday. I love having that sweet cuddly boy in the bed with me. I don’t think it’s selfish that you’d want that back at all. I bet he misses sleeping next to you too.

  8. My 27 month old fell into co sleeping with us around 5 months when he outgrew the bassinet. The crib never felt right to us and I’d be damned if I was going to go to another room 8 times a night when he eagles. So it was for survival reasons but the more I learn the more grateful I am. I believe it has helped him become the secure, tender, empathic, respectful little man that he is. However, I do long for sleep. He still wakes hourly and my back gets so sore sleeping in a funny position to hold him all night. I miss being able to go out at night but a babysitter is out of the question when he wakes on a panic every hour and needs to nurse or snuggle back to sleep. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep from the last awakening before the next one and its exhausting. But I love waking up together in the morning and I believe its the best thing for him so I just take it a day at a time.

  9. Hi, I love this blog, enjoy reading all the positive comments , everyone finding their own way of attachment to their little one. The closest comment is Debbie just before me.,My daughter is turning three on Friday and just weaned her daytime 2 months ago and then weaned her nightime slowly a month ago.
    It was perfect timing I believe because it felt right for me, and she was not too upset either. Couldn’t have done it any other way, but she started to have eczema a few months ago and my mum said my sister used to have that too, since she was feeding long too and developed intolerance to the milk, and after my mum weaned her my sis’s eczema went too, so I tried and let me say it worked. Szafi’s eczema is almost gone.
    But unfortunately her sleeping is not as restless as I would have liked. She wakes up frequently most nights around the same time, midnight-2am, fusses then sleeps,then fusses then sleeps, sort of every few minutes, Sometimes I have to wake her up completely and pt her to sleep again to snap her out of it.
    Do you think is missing the feeds, because no matter the cuddles, the quiet soothing talking, she just keep on fussing. Any help, advice will be appreciated.

  10. One of the things that made a big difference for my son was introducing a before bed snack. He woke up or was restless when he was hungry. Once he started eating a bowl of yogurt before bed, he slept much more soundly through the night.

  11. The first night our daughter was born after a wonderful homebirth I went to put her in her Moses basket after our first family snuggle in bed and just couldn’t do it. Everyone says that’s where baby should be, but I knew it was wrong for me and I couldn’t put her down. My husband said he was tired and going to sleep (!) so I sat nextdoor on the chair in the ‘nursery’ holding my little bundle all night long. I did sleep as I felt so happy holding her and I’ll never forget the feeling of wonder I had that night. That time alone with my little girl was so special, almost like a transition before I had to share her with the world. At 16m we are still co-sleeping and BF about four times a night and the only times this bothers me is when other people comment. I’ve stopped discussing it with people who aren’t supportive and lots of people assume she does sleep through and doesn’t BF due to her age, which makes life easier!

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