Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thinking about Sleep

Thank you all for the nice comments on the last post. I should clarify- Hubby doesn't really give me any grief for the differences in our to do lists. He (usually) recognizes the fact that I do a lot of things that he can't do (e.g., make milk for the baby) or that don't show up on to do lists (e.g., figure out new routines and processes so that our life "flows" again). The criticism is all in my own head!

One thing that I can't claim, though, is that he's getting more sleep than me. I think we're both getting about the same amount of sleep right now. Petunia wakes up to eat twice per night. Hubby does the first feeding with a bottle of breastmilk and settles her back in the co-sleeper. During this part of the night, he is sleeping in our bedroom with Petunia and I am on our sofa. If Petunia doesn't cry too much during this first wake up and if Pumpkin doesn't fall out of bed or loose her socks or something like that, I might even sleep straight through to Petunia's second feeding. This gives me 4-5 hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is what I need to function well.

When Petunia wakes up for her second feeding, Hubby comes and gets me, and we switch places. Petunia is often very restless after this feeding, so I may or may not get any further sleep. Hubby sleeps on the sofa until Pumpkin wakes us both up ("Mommy! I turned on my light all by myself! I want to watch my horsey show!"), usually about 3-4 hours after Hubby moved to the sofa.

This is obviously not our ideal sleep situation. We, for instance, would like to both sleep in our bed again at some point. However, it is working so far, and we are cautiously optimistic that things might improve. Petunia, you see, is completely unlike Pumpkin was in the nighttime sleep department. First of all, I can put her down with her eyes open and she will shuffle about a bit and then fall asleep without me even in the room. Pumpkin still needs me (or more precisely, my hair) in her bed with her in order to fall asleep.

Petunia's first stretch of sleep lasts between 4 and 5 hours, and subsequent stretches are 3-4 hours. At this age, Pumpkin's longest stretch of sleep was about 3 hours, and after that, she wanted to eat every two hours (and remember, we count from the start of one feeding to the start of the next- so I would often only get 20-30 minutes of rest before the cycle started again).

When I tell people that Pumpkin wakes up at 6 a.m. most mornings, people sympathize with me for having such an early bird. This is nice, but a bit funny, since we were very excited when she started sleeping in until 6. When Pumpkin was a baby, she started her days at 4:30 a.m. She didn't sleep in until 6 until she was almost one year old. Petunia, on the other hand, didn't wake up for the day today until almost 7.

Yes, Petunia is just better at sleep than Pumpkin. However, I know that she is not the gold standard in baby sleep. We have friends whose babies sleep far better than Petunia does at night. And Petunia hasn't really figured out the nap thing yet. She wants to be held for most of her naps. I can usually get her down for one nap per day, but I can't predict which nap that will be. For instance, she is sleeping happily in her moses basket now. I had thought that she'd be awake and fussy about now, and that I'd be taking her for a walk to deal with that and (hopefully) coax her into taking her final nap of the day. I even had an errand planned for our walk. I guess that errand will wait until tomorrow! And there will be no nap for me- it is too late in the day for that.

I wish I understood the reason for the striking differences in sleep patterns between our two girls, and why some other babies sleep better than either of mine. I swear that our parenting style has not changed between babies. It seems pretty clear to me that there are some differences in sleep patterns that are set at birth. Is it all genetic? Afterall, Pumpkin's sleep patterns were very similar to mine as a baby, and like her, I still have a hard time falling asleep sometimes. Was there some influence from my diet while pregnant? I took fish oil supplements this time around. Did the fact that Pumpkin was born 5 days early and Petunia was born 2 days late have anything to do with it? I do not know.

Regardless of the underlying cause, what is the mechanism? Is there some protein (or more likely, set of proteins) in the brain that determines how easily we fall asleep and whether we stay asleep through the night?

If I were still choosing my own research directions, I'd be tempted to start trying to figure these things out. Last time I checked in, we were starting to sort out the components that set our internal body clocks, i.e., the proteins that determine whether you're an early bird like Pumpkin or more of a night owl like I was before I had kids. I don't recall seeing anything about the mechanism that enables us to actually fall asleep. But maybe we know more than I realize- I am not up to date on the literature in this area, and frankly, I'm too tired to try to fix that!


  1. I was at a conference a few years back on Human Brain Mapping where it became clear that we are still working on a definition of sleep. Whether or not fruit flys actually sleep is not entirely clear...Also, we don't know what the purpose of it is. Although I do like the guess that we need to sleep in order to recalibrate our neurons...otherwise they would keep needing stronger and stronger stimuli, and our brains would need more and more glucose every day. Which helps to explain why being tired makes you crave sweets...(ok, I'm speaking for myself here)

    Sleep totally fascinates me, especially since my husband and I both need 8+ hours in order to be functional (I've been going on 7 hours for the past week and I'm starting to have serious problems), and yet we have a child who has never really gotten more than 8 hours in 24. At least now we're at a point where she will hang out in her own bed fairly happily as long as she has a large supply of books.

  2. The sleep thing makes me wary to have a 2nd child. B started sleeping pretty well around 4 month (usually only waking once a night), and now goes to bed with so much ease, he practically tells us when to put him to bed. I fear a 2nd child may be the opposite and I'm not sure how well I would deal with that! I would love to know the sleep secret.

  3. mom2boys5:57 AM

    I'm convinced it is individual differences. There was nothing I could do to make my baby sleep like the books said babies needed to sleep. At two he only needs nine hours at night and a two hour nap to be perfectly rested and ready to go. Nine hours at night sounds like a long time (like a heavenly amount of time if you have a baby still, I know!) until you do the math - 8:30 bedtime means a 5:30 wake up time. Should he not get his nap (he is hit or miss at daycare and at home) he's a grouchy pants the last couple of hours during the day but he won't make up the extra sleep at night until he misses more than one nap and then it's only an extra hour by possibly falling asleep by 8 and getting up around 6. There's nothing I can do to change this. It's his physiology. I was an early riser, too. I remember being the first one awake at my house and even when I got older at sleepovers at friends' houses, I'd have to always wait for them to wake up. Wasn't until I got to college that I learned how to sleep past ten in the morning. :)

  4. @mom2boys- I completely understand about your toddler's schedule, because it sounds a lot like Pumpkin's. She goes to bed at 9 and wakes up at 6 (or sometimes 5:45). If she skips her nap (which she sometimes does on weekends), she is easier to get down, but only moves her bedtime forward by about 15 minutes.

  5. If you do want to look into sleep and what mechanism we use to get to sleep, start with looking into melatonin. My understanding is that is chemical in the brain that tells the body to get tired because it's time to go to sleep. The production of melatonin in the brain is supressed by sunlight. I also have this feeling that vitamin D plays some sort of role, at least in telling the body to be awake and/or happy. I find it all very fascinating and want to learn more, but have been a little too busy lately to delve back into it.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.