When CIO Is Not An Option: The Tension Increaser
I love your column, and I have a six-month old daughter that is giving me sleep grief right now. She had been waking twice a night for months, including the dread four month sleep regression, but two weeks before she turned six months she started waking up more. Sometimes four or five times a night. And, playing my tiny violin, my husband works 100+ hours a week (yay residency), so I am butt tired.
So I thought I had everything figured out: she goes down awake (wide awake, not drowsy), in a sleep sack, in a crib that is safe and boring, white noise, blackout shades, same darn routine every time. But someone suggested that I had to feed her at least 20 minutes before put down, that I probably had a feed – sleep association. So I tried that last night, and she only woke up three times.
Here’s the deal, though. I can predict whether or not she will go to sleep on her own by whether or not she cries. If I put her down and she is happy, she will go to sleep on her own. If she starts crying, however, she cries and cries and cries and cries and sometimes barfs. This is whether or not I am in the room. Total tension increaser. The only thing that turns off the crying is nursing or going out of the room and turning on the light.
So, how can I reduce night wakings caused by a feed-sleep association with a tension increaser since cry it out doesn’t work? Also, I have tried 10 minute checks, five minute checks, standing by the bed, sitting by the bed. If she can’t see me she is upset. If she can see that I’m not picking her up she is incensed.
For everyone playing alone at home, go read the inimitable, original, momblogosphere-breaking posts on Ask Moxie about tension increasers and tension decreasers, and why it’s important to understand which “type” of baby you have before implementing any sort of sleep training program. For a tension increaser, ANY cry- or fuss-it-out method, will be a stressful disaster of fail. For a tension decreaser, rushing to comfort or intervene at the first sounds of crying/fussing will really, truly only make things worse.
It’s a personality trait, really — I was a baby who needed to fuss a little before settling down on my own, and now I am an adult who sometimes deals with stress by “having a good cry” over a sad movie. I tear up during sad commercials, the emotion passes, and I feel fine. My tension decreases if I let myself FEEL my feelings of sadness/anxiety/panic rather than fight them.
A tension increaser would be the opposite. They find crying to be unbearably stressful, and have trouble stopping the tears once they start. Crying over a sad movie can morph into crying over something in real life and 20 minutes later they’re just crying and panicking about everything. Afterwards, they feel exhausted and drained. They need to take a proactive approach to dealing with stress/sadness/fear BEFORE it hits their eye sockets.
My children are fellow tension decreasers, across the board, though my youngest kept me pretty confused for the first eight months or so. He very much needed a gradual extinction method to keep his crying from building into hysterics, but I never had to deal with a baby who would get so worked up he’d vomit or take 45 minutes post-cry to calm down.
(I just basically admitted that I have no personal experience with this topic and therefore have no business writing a completely useless column about it, but oh well. LOOK AT ME TYPING ANYWAY!)
So the best path to good sleep with a tension increaser is do. Whatever. You need to do. To keep the crying from starting. Hold her, rock her, comfort her. You’re gonna want to chuck the Ferber book and check out The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
But sleep crutches! Food-sleep associations! If I go in and nurse her a million times a night I’m going to be nursing her a million times a night until kindergarten!
I know, I know. But the rules are different for YOUR baby. For YOUR baby, by NOT doing all the things that make her incensed, and by doing the things she NEEDS in order to go to bed HAPPY, you will gradually decrease her overall tension and anxiety. And that will lead to better, less interrupted sleep. Eventually. In theory.
As Madga (aka Ask Moxie) put it so well in the posts I linked to, this is about accepting your baby’s unique personality and setting your expectations accordingly. Don’t do things that lead to crying at bedtime, even just a little. If she starts crying, pick her up before it escalates. Get her happy, try again.
(You didn’t mention her schedule and what time you’re putting her down, but if she’s getting harder to keep happy at bedtime that COULD mean she’s overtired and bedtime is set too late.)
If you find that the feeding-20-minutes-before-bed thing continues to cut down on the number of night wakings, that’s great! Just make the next 20 minutes as pleasant and calming and happy-making as possible. Read a book, sing some songs, give her a lavender bath. Try a musical crib soother instead of a “boring crib” and see if that helps with the transition into bed.
The night wakings could be from SO MANY THINGS, not just a food/sleep association. Growth and developmental spurts, teething, separation anxiety, etc. Fallout from the sleep regression and the failed attempts at sleep training. Again, IN THEORY, if you make keeping her happy at bedtime your 100% top focus/priority, her sleep patterns might improve on their own as her tension levels stay low. Don’t fight the night wakings, just get in, get her happy, get out.
Photo source: Photodune.netPublished February 10, 2016. Last updated March 16, 2018.