My five-month-old won't sleep by herself. She exhausts herself to sleep with screaming and crying. She doesn't even like her car seat. It's just getting worse even though I am doing the same thing every night. She doesn't even like it when I pick her up. I don't know how to teach her to sleep on her own without fighting it.
A baby who isn't the go-right-to-sleep type isn't going to become the type no matter what you do. Put that thought out of your head so you can move on. For your own peace of mind, do also dismiss any stories you might have heard from friends and relatives about how well their babies slept.
They didn’t “teach” their babies to be easygoing – their babies were born that way. Lucky them. Just because they had easygoing babies doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your or your child. If anything, it means those other people couldn't have handled anything other than an easygoing child. Thusly, they are in no way qualified to judge you or your child or to advise you.
Parents of easygoing babies are often heard to say you can spoil a child by holding them too much. This is not true. They think this because their child was so easygoing. They would change their tune if they had had a child who wasn’t easygoing. You can no sooner spoil a baby than you can spoil a car by driving it all the time. Babies are born to be touched and held. This is why babies don't walk until close to their first year of age.
Babies have lots of brain cells, but those brain cells are no good unless they're interconnected. The nerve fibers connecting these cells are called dendrites. The only thing that develops dendrites is touching. There is a direct connection between the development of a baby's brain and how much they are held.
As the mother of one ADHD child and two other children — all grown — I can tell you that while you may spend the first year of that child's life holding her, you will spend the next 10 years chasing after her and the next 10 years after that waiting for her to come hang out with you. She will always come back to you, but only if she knows from her first year of life that you're a consistent, reliable, and loyal source of love.
Crying is a baby's only way of communicating with you. This is how she was able to tell you she doesn't like her car seat – at least not for the purpose of trying to get her to sleep. She's trying to tell you more, and would tell you with words if she could. She isn't "fighting" sleep. She's telling you the routine isn't working for her. She can hear herself cry and it's no less aggravating to her to hear it. She has no idea she's the one making those sounds, and it's keeping her awake just as much as it's getting on your nerves.
I know it sounds silly to say she doesn't know she's making the sounds, but she doesn't. Potty-training toddlers are notorious for saying things like "It stinks in here!" because they don't know their own poop is causing the smell. This further illustrates for grown-ups that a baby or small child is not a tiny adult. A child is an altogether different kind of person.
Whatever routine you have going isn't working for either of you. It's time to try new things. Know first, though, there is no such thing as teaching a baby anything, much less about how to go to sleep on her own. If young babies could be taught things, the world would have a bunch of eight-month-old geniuses crawling around. All of their learning is internal. This means they respond to what best suits their need. They do not learn externally. This means you cannot impose your needs upon them.
You are the parent and the one in control. At the same time, she is the teacher and you are the one learning. Being the student doesn't mean you aren't still the parent and the one in control. It means you are capable of discovering new things (about a person, even a small one) and applying what you've learned. This is the hallmark of adulthood – not a mark of being someone's servant. Please don't confuse the two. There are many 35-year-old professors teaching 60-year-old students. It's the same concept.
Babies don't like to be left alone — ever. While many babies do just fine and go right to sleep, many more do not. You can try many different things and some may work, but bear in mind that a baby's needs change as they grow, and they grow more in the first two years of life than for the rest of their lives. This also means you'll be learning more in her first two years than you have before she was born.
Just as you have a bedtime routine that works for you — things you no doubt worked out for yourself over time and that will change as you age — so does your baby have things that will and will not work for her. Getting to know her and what she needs is the routine. As her mother, you are the most integral and important part of this.
Many young parents labor under the delusion that a baby can be "taught" to do this or that, thus freeing the parent from that part of the baby's routine, that somehow the baby will learn a behavior and take it from there. This is not true. If not for your presence, there would be no routine. There would only be sporadic development and chaos.
Just like an adult who misses their spouse when he or she is away on business, so does a baby miss its mother when she isn't there. Unlike the adult who does not rely on another adult for everything, a baby's reliance on her parent is 100%. You can have your morning coffee by yourself, even without your spouse. You’ll miss your spouse, but you can still function without them. Your baby can't have anything if you're not there to provide it.
That she exhausts herself to sleep isn't particularly healthy and I'm sure it rattles your nerves no end. It would be good to change the routine up with some different approaches. Anything you try will need to be tried over the course of at least a few weeks. If, however, your gut tells you something just isn't working out come the fifth or sixth day, go ahead and try something else. It may also take a combination of the following to work for her, rather than any one thing:
- Rock her gently and hold her until well after she's asleep. Note: Some babies like to be assertively rocked. You'll know in short order whether or not she likes it. To do this, hold her close and firm, and then sway her back and forth quickly. (This was the only technique that would soothe my oldest daughter's wails.) If you do this and it clearly upsets her, stop and don't do it any more. Move on to other things.
- Play soothing music with low or no lighting and gently dance with her until she's asleep. (My son would only nap to the sound of the Weather Channel. He especially loved it when they played "Songbird" by Kenny G during the local forecasts.)
- Nothing beats the sound of mom's voice. Read to her – from baby books, a book you're reading, the newspaper, the encyclopedia, or the back of a cereal box. Read as though it were the most interesting thing you'd ever read. Look her in the eyes when you can as you read.
- The next best thing to mom is her smell. Sleep with a small blanket or hand towel. It will smell like you after a few days. Once she's asleep, place it in her bed when you put her down for the night or for a nap. Keep another blanket or towel under your pillow to replace that one after a few days (or when needed). Make sure it's a small towel or blanket. We're looking to soothe, not suffocate.
- Keep her bed next to yours so you can touch her when she wakes up.
- Go to sleep when she does whenever possible.
There are those who will say this makes her rely on you. This is the dumbest thing a person can say to a parent. She already relies on you. How else would she eat? She can't change her own diaper or get herself to the store. There are those who would further say this keeps her from becoming independent of you. This is also dumb. The most independent child is raised by a parent who is there for them every step of the way. This doesn't mean catering to the child's every whim, want and desire. It means providing everything the child needs: food, shelter, safety, cleanliness, love, and touch.
Getting to know your child and what works for her helps your child understand what it feels like to go to sleep a completely different way than she is used to. She used to exhaust herself to sleep. Now she'll have a routine of going to sleep that is much calmer and quieter. Several weeks of this can then serve to change the routine wherein you hold her for 15-20 minutes, put her in bed, and stay with her until she falls asleep. Singing or humming is always a welcome part of any bedtime routine for a baby or small child. I read to and sang for my children until they were all over the age of ten.
There are two very important things to remember about babies:
- They require constant care, as I'm sure you've learned over the past several months. There is simply no way your life is going to be the way it used to be. Your free time is no longer a given. It comes only when you make the arrangement. I urge you to regularly schedule away time (a few hours once or twice a week) because every mother needs a break.
- The days are long but the years are short. Babies are only babies for about a year. Your life is not over – it is different. I know you're tired and so many things have changed. It's this way for your baby, also, but she doesn't have a way to tell you anything whereas you can come online and ask for advice. If she could go online, she might ask, "How can I tell my mother I miss the way she smells when I go to sleep alone at night?"
You have the kind of baby that gets wound up and has a hell of a time getting calmed down. She’s sent the message loud and clear: “Left to my own devices, I can only sleep after hours of screaming and crying.” Clearly this isn't working for either of you. You know laying her in her bed gets her started so don't start with that. Start with the dancing or the humming or the singing – or all of them. Slow dance your way through the house, into and out of her room and yours, get that shirt that smells like you and use it as a blanket around her. Look out the window or even go outside for a bit.
I know it takes some babies a lot of time to get to sleep, and this can feel like it's stealing hours and hours away from your life, but again remember this is a baby and she will not be a baby much longer. By the end of summer you will have a different child. By Christmas you'll have a child even more different than that. This too shall pass, I promise you.
Perspective is everything. Because you're right in the middle of this, I'm sure it seems like it's been forever since you had a quiet night, and it may seem like it will be forever before you have another quiet night. Do remember, though – it takes about four years to get a college degree. It takes about five years to pay off a new car loan. It takes about two years to get any kind of vocational training. It takes one year to get a baby to their first birthday and you already have several months under your belt.
Treat the baby the way you would want to be treated if you couldn't communicate, walk, or exert any kind of control over your environment. If you could only cry and lift your head, how would you like things to be?
I've told many young moms – don't blink. Your child will be 20 years old before you know it. Funny thing is, it wouldn't have helped me either when I had a screaming child in tow every night. I swear my children were one and two-years-old for ten years because it was so much work. Then I blinked – and now they're in college.
For the record, those who say they don't remember much of their children's childhood weren't really involved in their children's lives or had angelic children who never gave them trouble. Good for them, but that's not reality for the rest of us. I will never forget the hours upon hours upon weeks upon months I spent caring for my screamer and then later helping her communicate with others without losing her temper. I will also never regret having given her the time I did.
Try a new routine for you and your child. Schedule regular time away. Get out and about with other mothers, to the park, where ever and however you can. Even at five months, a baby knows there's something happening and will respond to the stimulation of a new place (sights, sounds, and smells). Fresh air during the day is especially helpful for a child who languishes at night. Take it easy, take care of yourself, take care of your child, and remember that her baby days — the crying, diapers, feedings, playing and cooing — will not last much longer.