Commiting to a family doctor vs. walk-in forever

Having a family doctor has sure changed since I was a child. Back then, we had one family doctor and my brother and I had a pediatrician and we were committed to them like we were all married. And they were good doctors, they knew us and they had a bedside manner that went beyond just diagnosis and treatment. So I guess you could say it was quite a happy marriage.

My dad still has a family doctor who has been great to us, and fits him in at the last minute if he happens to call one morning for an appointment. He’ll see him the same morning itself and never keeps him waiting more than a few minutes.

I, on the other hand, am experiencing a different situation since getting married (to a man, not a group of doctors, this time) and moving around over the last few years. Now that we’re settled with a baby in a fairly new area, we’re finding that everywhere we go walk-in clinics are in the majority. There’s one almost in every plaza or mini-mall. And many of them also advertise “accepting new patients!”

My brother-in-law and husband never had a family doctor, preferring to always go the walk-in clinic route their entire time in Canada. Maybe they’d go to the same walk-in doctor if they had a good relationship with him but they’d never commit to filling out the form and signing on to have him as their official family doctor. And this is the route my parents-in-law had also gotten used to during their time in Canada, whereas they’d had the same family doctor for decades in India.

Since we settled together in our new home, however, I had the brilliant idea of having one family doctor for all of us, including Pookie, and committing from the get-go. While I was pregnant, I found the closest pediatrician to our home and got a referral for Pookie to be seen by him for his initial check-ups when he was still a newborn. Why not have our official family doctor at the same clinic, I thought?

Never mind that we waited over 45 minutes to see that pediatrician when we’d already made an appointment that day—I was still willing to commit to the clinic. When I called the clinic about a family doctor, they gave me the names of two doctors that were accepting new patients and told me to pick one. That’s it—I had to make the choice based on the name, so I just picked one. We made an appointment to meet him as a family and we all went.

That was not a good appointment. I don’t think he was a bad doctor but he was way too clinical. It was like talking to a textbook. Also, he wasn’t very sensitive to my mother-in-law, who has quite a bad case of white-coat syndrome, which makes her shake every time she’s seen by a doctor. He said she needed a litany of tests that middle-aged women need to get (which I knew was never going to happen if she had any say in it), she freaked out, and she never went back to see him again.

Scratch that; she did go back one more time when she, my husband, and I took Pookie to the same clinic when he flipped out the first time he had teething pain. At that time, the same doctor just confirmed to us that Pookie didn’t have an infection and that “it can be taken care of by parenting.”

I sort of know what he was trying to say, but implying there was a lack of parenting at our house didn’t come off well when we’d just heard our baby screech in a way he’d never done before. My husband, though, wasn’t quite so willing to give the doctor the benefit of the doubt. Luckily, I later found out that the form I’d filled out for that doctor to be our family doctor wasn’t valid—I think I forgot to sign it or something—so all was well that ended well.

Aside from not being a good fit, it turns out that particular doctor only has office hours when we’re never available because of Pookie’s routine. It seemed absurd to me that the clinic wouldn’t give us this other important information about the doctor before asking us to commit to someone just based on their name.

In the months that followed, we only took Pookie to that clinic for his shots on a walk-in basis. If we hadn’t started his vaccinations there and it wasn’t such a pain to transfer his records to another clinic, we’d probably not go back. But for his 4-month shots, the walk-in doctor turned out to be someone we really liked. She examined Pookie well, answered all our questions, and it was clear she was also a parent.

I later tried to make an appointment with her for Pookie’s 8-month well-visit, hoping the receptionists wouldn’t tell me she wasn’t taking new patients and then ask me to pick again between the other two doctors—one who we’d never met and the other who we kind of didn’t like. But we ended up seeing the doctor we like and asked her if she’d take Pookie on.

Not only did she readily agree when I explained how we ended up in front of her; she was also happy to take our whole family on. She was absolutely great in that we saw her within 2 minutes of arriving at our appointment versus and hour-and-a-half for previous doctors whom we also saw by appointment. And she was so reassuring to us and sensitive to Pookie (who missed his nap and was wailing). My MIL, who joined us for this appointment, was also comfortable asking her all the questions she had regarding Pookie.

My MIL still preferred to do all her medical tests and get her prescriptions filled with her family doctor in India but I think she felt relief that this was the first doctor we saw at this particular clinic who was easygoing and empathetic. Although I’ll definitely take her up on her offer to be my new family doctor as well, I think my husband and brother-in-law will forever take the walk-in route.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I prefer signing on with a family doctor because:

 

  • I like having one physician who knows me and my medical history—this is especially important for children, whether or not their primary care provider is a pediatrician
  • You build a rapport with your doctor, and sometimes that’s what gets you appointments at the last minute if you need them, or emergency phone consultations
  • If you ever have to be hospitalized (like when giving birth) you’ll be asked umpteen times who your family doctor is. If you don’t have one, get ready to repeat your history to every doctor and nurse who needs to know
  • If you have a complex medical history, it’s not only advantageous for you to have one primary doctor, but also the universal health care system (i.e. OHIP in Ontario)
  • A good family physician will recommend preventative care and screening tests

 

If you just want to walk-in to a doctor when you feel sick, some reasons may be:

 

  • You prefer not committing to any doctor, and/or don’t like going to the doctor unless really necessary
  • You may move around a lot and don’t wish to settle down with one doctor
  • If you live in a place where you have to pay for each doctor’s visit, walk-ins tend to be cheaper (that’s often because the doctor on duty tends to spend less time per patient)
  • The convenience factor—no appointment needed, and you can go to any clinic that happens to be open. Many walk-ins are open late evenings and on weekends as well
  • You may find it quicker and easier for a walk-in doctor to refill a prescription instead of signing on with a family doctor who may recommend tests first

 

We happened to meet this doctor who we really like via the walk-in, so there’s nothing wrong with “test-driving” several different doctors in this way before you commit to one. In fact, it’s a better idea to do it that way than to sign on with someone in an eenie-meenie-mynie-moe style like I first did.

Sleep-training doesn’t have to be cruel, and can be easier than you think

We’ve finally hit on the secret to getting Pookie to take a long nap—ignore him.

Discovering said secret happened purely by accident and exhaustion. Namely, me falling asleep on my feet one afternoon, taking him to the bedroom with me, falling asleep as he played on the mattress, and awakening a few minutes later to see he’d fallen asleep as well. We slept 4 hours that legendary afternoon.

It was only then that I realized that we don’t have to do anything! No tapping, no swaying, no rocking, no picking him up and walking around. My mother-in-law painstakingly put him to bed every night in what can only be described as a scene from Mission: Impossible. She’d pat him as he lay in her lap while she sat by the side of our bed—sometimes for 45 minutes. Then she’d do a quick transfer and put him in bed beside me, we’d wrap him up and keep patting him until he was soundly asleep. If he woke up at any point during the mission, we’d have to start all over again.

But 4-hour-nap day taught me all that is unnecessary—babies will eventually put themselves to sleep! Pookie is only a few months old and much too young to form habits yet, but he, like all babies, is able to respond to the cues he picks up from everyone around him. Here we were wondering why he’s such a hyper baby and why he always wants to stay up and play, when we were in fact the problem.

There was always someone posted by Pookie where his play/sleep area was in the living room, and that person was often interacting with him. Pookie had no incentive to sleep, and even if he wanted to sleep the stimulation from the adult nearby (not to mention the TV, phone, cooking sounds from the kitchen) prevented him from doing so.

All we had to do, I discovered on 4-hour-nap day, was safely ignore him. That afternoon, he’d been fed, changed, calm and secure. I was right there beside him, albeit passed out, so he knew there was no one to play with and was thus literally bored to sleep. Since that day, we’ve tried to form a routine, as well as create several conditions to make it conducive for Pookie to have a long and successful nap. Here are some of them:

 

  • Quiet surroundings—a nurse at the hospital where I delivered said her kids could even sleep through her vacuuming their rooms. I thought maybe I could condition my baby to be that way too, but have now found (surprise, surprise!) you can’t just make a baby do what you want. Pookie has turned out to be a light sleeper and needs quiet to stay down longer
  • Form a habit—I think by now Pookie knows the feel and environment of our bedroom (and his sleep area there) versus his rocker or play/sleep area in the living room. He knows the bedroom is just for sleep. Perhaps that’s why he’s been better at putting himself to sleep there than anywhere else in our home
  • Make sure the baby is calm, dry, and full—this won’t work with angry, hyper, wet, or hungry babies
  • Make sure the baby is happy and playful—she will entertain herself until she gets tired. She actually doesn’t need you or anyone else to provide her with more entertainment than chewing on her hands can provide.
  • Music soothes the savage baby—if you have a tablet, it’ll come in handy here.       Just type thalattu padalgal into YouTube and you’ll find entire lists of lullabies from recent and classic Tamil movies that’ll put even you to sleep. What’s worked great for us, though, is YouTubing the Mantra of Avalokiteshwara, which is a compilation of Buddhist chants and Tibetan folk songs

 

On 4-hour-nap day (yes, it’s still that legendary to me) I initially didn’t think Pookie would sleep but was too exhausted to take my usual efforts to make him sleep. He slowed down now and then but also kept waking himself up. However, the time between the wake-ups gradually got longer and longer until he simply ran out of steam.

I don’t know about other babies but I’ve found with my little one that all he needs to avoid turning into Crankasaurus Rex is to have that one long nap—at least 2 hours once a day. After that, it doesn’t matter if he just takes 20-minute naps or paal-thookam (falling asleep while drinking milk) throughout the rest of the day. Also, the big nap has to happen before 3 p.m. After that, the window of opportunity closes and he turns into the Hyper Monster.

Here I was thinking I’d discovered something magical—my baby could put himself to sleep! But no, this was actually a toned-down version of sleep-training. A doctor friend of mine had told me some time earlier that I should start to sleep-train Pookie at about 3 months, but I’d read about sleep-training and it didn’t sound cool to me. Basically, the parent puts the baby down in his crib at the same time each night in a separate room while the baby is still awake, leaves, and forces the baby to put himself to sleep. If the baby cries, the parent is to pop in and check if he’s dry and not hungry, but then must leave again.

Thrusting the child into independence sounded tempting but leaving Pookie alone in a dark room was not something I could go through with. What if he cried because he was scared? Also, leaving a child to “cry it out” seemed cruel to me. It reflected a typically Western attitude of parents wanting their baby to become independent practically from birth.

But the version we practiced on 4-hour-nap day was a compromise I could gladly live with. Now when going to bed, we make sure Pookie is calm, full, playful and in a fresh diaper, and we put the Mantra of Avalokiteshwara on. He plays by himself in his area while my husband and I either talk or pretend to be asleep ourselves. Pretty soon, we’ll hear a tiny yawn, and then another and then look over in about 10 minutes and see that Pookie has drifted off to la-la land.

Is it worth it?—The real value of a university education for South Asian parents

When I was in my early 20s and just about to start my Master’s programme, I was volunteering at our temple on the weekend. They had just renovated the coat room and a few of us were shown how to apply grout in the spaces between the freshly mounted wall tiles. The main priest at the temple came along to see how our little group was doing and he said something I’ll probably never forget.

“You know how much professionals make per hour installing tiles and grout?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe $25 an hour?”

“Try closer to $75 an hour,” he replied. “If I could go back, I would never have spent my life in school and then struggled at work.” This was coming from a man who had a Ph.D in civil engineering and had been a university professor for several years.

I was both shocked and slightly irritated that he was telling me this on the dawn of another year I was committing to spending in school. Moreover, I was one of those non-idealistic people who didn’t identify her self-worth with her job and believe to this day it’s more important to work to live rather than live to work—I wouldn’t care that I was putting grout between tiles for the rest of my life if it would get me $75 an hour!

But how horrified would my Indian parents be if that scenario came to pass? Their educated princess revelling in coveralls and construction sites rather than dress pants and an office cubicle? Not a chance on God’s green earth, no matter how good the pay.

And that essentially encompasses the outlook that many South Asian parents have toward any profession that doesn’t require a university education, or a young person that doesn’t attend university. Even after I graduated and considered working in a skilled trade during my bouts of unemployment (discouraged by my parents, of course), it became clear that a university education isn’t all about the education for brown parents; it’s also greatly about the status.

Today, the average tuition for one year of university is about $5800, and that’s not even reflective of the disciplines most likely to result in gainful employment. I had a wonderful time doing my arts degrees (at the lowest end of the tuition range) but struggled to get a job “worthy” of my Master’s—not realizing I was probably overestimating its worth because it was a Master’s of Arts degree.

It might be a different story if someone studies engineering or computer science, but the case is the same for our younger siblings in university right now, who are simply not geared toward technical fields of study. What their parents also mistakenly think matters is that their kids attend university and get a degree, irrespective of what that particular degree will do for them in the future.

So why aren’t we instead encouraging our kids to look into working with their hands in skilled labour, or operating specialized equipment? Why are brown parents still so biased against prompting their kids to work in the outdoors when it may have more security and pay than working in an office?

What ended up happening to me was what a Workopolis poll reported in August 2014 is happening to more and more Canadians today. Workopolis indicated that as many as 73% of respondents reported getting expensive university degrees, only to work in jobs unrelated to what they studied.

Arts majors often end up using their “soft skills” like communication, writing, public speaking, etc. in fields such as teaching, social work, administrative/clerical work, sales and marketing. But according to Workopolis, the most in-demand fields were actually nursing, computer science, pharmaceuticals and engineering.

Canadian Living reported in 2013 that financial management, medical technology, and construction and the skilled trades were also high-demand fields. A CIBC study in the same year showed that the unemployment rate for university grads was just 1.7% lower than for high school grads—especially for those who invested in risky disciplines like commerce, the humanities, and social sciences.

Even law isn’t as lucrative a field as it used to be 10 or 15 years ago, with students fighting for articling spaces and young lawyers saturating the market. The same applies to elementary and high school teachers, of whom there are a particular glut of young graduates in Ontario.

All of this prompts the question of why South Asian parents are still so stuck on university like it’s 1989. Practicality suggests that attending a technical or career college for a 1-2 year programme will cost less, waste fewer years of earning power, and be targeted to a particular job instead of providing general “soft skills.” Often, the school also places their students into a co-op that will lead to a job in that field.

But ironically, more students than ever before are enrolled in Canadian universities, while the cost of tuition (and student debt) is also at an all-time high. Considering this, there are some practical areas that all parents need to explore as their teenagers approach the end of their high school years:

  • Observe whether your child is more geared toward theory or practical work—if she enjoys working with her hands, pushing her toward university study is a bad idea
  • Make sure your child knows himself—ask whether he is more interested in working long hours or having a work/life balance; whether he’s aiming for a career or just a job in his field; whether he’d rather have a low-paying job he enjoys or a high-paying job he can tolerate but doesn’t love. And make sure you are prepared for the answers
  • If your teenager knows she wants to attend university and knows what she wants to study, ask if she also has an idea where that degree will lead her
  • Ask your child how he sees his post-university years and what he thinks his future job searches will look like. What is his back-up plan should he have to change fields one day?
  • Ask your child if she has researched in-demand fields at that point in time, and/or done mock job searches to see what the hiring landscape is like for what she’s interested in
  • Encourage your kids in high school and in whatever post-secondary institution they may attend, to devote a semester to working in a co-op—the real-life experience is more valuable than anything they’ll learn in a classroom
  • Explore whether your child has ever thought about self-employment or being an entrepreneur, and whether he has the drive and vision for that path

 

More than anything, please don’t knock applying grout between wall tiles until you’ve actually tried it.

 

I thought every day was Mother’s Day?

Last week I realized it was going to be my first Mother’s Day this year—meaning, my first year as a mother. Then I just shrugged it off and tried to remember whether Pookie had done his poop for the day. I don’t know if it’s just my family or what, but we’re quite against “the man” and his manufactured holidays created to sell greeting cards. My husband especially doesn’t get it.

“What, so you have one day for your mother and then you just toss her back in the old age home after that?” he asked when I mentioned to him that Mother’s Day was coming up. I told him I’m sure that’s the case sometimes but most of the time it’s just a nice day for moms when they get to feel special and thanked. “Well, why aren’t people thanking their moms more than once a year?” he asked. I stopped talking to him and tried to help Pookie poop again.

But his way of thinking is a very Indian or Eastern mentality, where the concept of Mother’s or Father’s Day doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. These greeting card holidays are catching on more and more in India, though, as the country adopts all kinds of Western trends with greater enthusiasm than it once did. You know what else is catching on more and more in India? Old-age homes for parents.

My parents-in-law, who only came to Canada for the first time a few years ago, regard these holidays as weird to say the least. Neither my husband nor his brother say or do anything special for them on Mother’s or Father’s Day. My dad doesn’t really care for Father’s Day, but my late mother was a different story.

“Did your mom believe in Mother’s Day?” my husband asked me. Strangely, she did, which I find bizarre as I look back and think about the orthodox culture in which she was raised. She looked forward to the handmade Mother’s Day cards and crude artwork my brother and I would make in school and bring home to her.

She was also upset when my dad didn’t get her anything for Mother’s Day, or when I stopped doing the artwork in high school. She even confronted me one year and told me after the fact, quite upset, that I hadn’t given her anything for Mother’s Day! I was puzzled… I thought it was the kind of thing you stopped doing when you weren’t a kid anymore. I mean, I stopped celebrating my birthday when I was 18 or 19. Why did my mom need something special when I ran errands for her, spent almost all my free time with her, and told her I loved her every day?

Now that I’m a mother myself, I actually feel the same way and don’t want anything “special” just because the calendar calls for it and the TV demands it. One day when Pookie goes to school and brings home his artwork for me, of course I’ll love it and put it on the fridge. And I’ll probably forever save some of the things he’ll make for me the way my mom saved a macaroni necklace I made for her. But when he grows up and stops doing those things, who cares as long as he’s not an ingrate the rest of the year?

I’d rather he learn gratitude in a more spiritual and global sense than thank me personally for anything I did for him. First of all, let’s be honest—he, like every child on this planet, didn’t ask to be here, nor was it their choice which family they could join or what living conditions they would be entering. Now that they’re here, isn’t it really a job the parents volunteered for and should be doing whether they get thanked or not?

Secondly, child-rearing for most people just gets easier as you keep doing it. Yes, the challenges take on new forms but they’re all different incarnations of the same challenges you faced last month or 6 months ago. And as the kids grow, some challenges like diapering, feeding, and putting them to sleep go away altogether. If I wanted a thank you, I’d have wanted it all those months I woke up with my infant 7-10 times a night, not after he’s going to school and doing most of his daily duties himself. Can you imagine?

 

Five-year-old Pookie: Amma, I made you a Mother’s Day card. I love you. Thank you for all the things you do for me.

Me: That’s all well and good, but what about the REALLY important stuff I did for you that no one thinks about? What about back when you didn’t know the difference between night and day and were waking up to nurse at all hours of the night?

Five-year-old Pookie: What?

Me: You heard me. And what about all those times I had to walk-and-feed you just to get you to calm down? Do you even know how long I would observe you to see if you were pooping so you wouldn’t smear the stuff all over your diaper?

Five-year-old Pookie: Um… I don’t think I can fit all that into the card.

 

Lastly, the biggest thank you parents can receive from their offspring is just making the parents’ jobs easier every day—not a greeting card once a year. This includes the child making sure most of his food ends up in his mouth and not on the floor, or learning to play independently instead of needing mom or dad to pay attention to them at every waking minute. And yes, getting ready by himself to go out and sitting in the car instead of deciding to strip naked just before leaving the house.

And this is the way they did it back in India and smart parents still do today—they disregard the man-made holidays but teach their kids manners, consideration for others, and overall good behaviour and responsibility so that every day can be Mother’s or Father’s Day.

That’s not to say I completely eschewed my first Mother’s Day as a mom. I bought myself a vegan espresso cheesecake—all right, “cheese” cake—which my husband and I will pig out on while Pookie naps. And I’ll just pretend it came from Pookie.

Karaikkal Ammaiyar got it right—why I’m totally embracing aging

If you’re Tamil, it is very likely you’re familiar with the stories of the 63 Nayanmar Saints that are staples of Saivite culture. Even if you’re Tamil but not Hindu, it’s still likely you’ve at least heard of these stories and these saints. One of the 3 female saints of these 63 is Karaikkal Ammaiyar, whose husband left her and started another family when he realized how divine and holy she was. Still a young woman at that point, the story goes that she asked Lord Shiva to take away her youthful looks and give her the appearance of a skin-and-bones old woman, and he granted that wish.

Upon initially hearing that story, I wondered why she would ask for such a thing, especially when as Tamils, we still have paatis in their 70s religiously dying their hair in an uphill battle to keep their looks. Then, I stopped dying my hair and understood the glorious, glorious freedom that Ammaiyar was really after.

My hair went about 30 percent white when I was taking care of my dying mother, and in the aftermath of her death. I was 27 years old and single, so after I finished my grieving process, I frantically was on the lookout for even the hint of a white hair in my colouring frenzy every few weeks. I would schedule things around when to dye my hair and time it just right so that it didn’t look unnaturally black before I had to go to a social function.

And if my roots were showing, I’d either wear my hair down or dip into my arsenal of headbands. It was mentally exhausting just to keep the schedule for my hair. Sometimes if I had an early day, I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. and dye it then.

Then I hit the straw that broke the camel’s back on March 16th, 2012, which was the last day I ever dyed my hair. I call it the day that I stopped hitting the bottle. I had a bunch of things to do that night before my husband and I were going to catch a show in downtown Toronto and of all the things that were of utmost importance, I scheduled in dying my hair when I was already pressed for time. It hit me that things had just gotten too ridiculous.

In the coming years I let my gray grow out and now have long white streak that start over each ear and flow down. And what a relief to drop such a huge burden!

The first people to tell me I had to start colouring my hair again were—surprise, surprise—ladies at my temple. I was told that I had to do it for my husband (he doesn’t care), and that I had to do it for my future children. I was asked what I would be teaching my future daughter (still not in existence) by not taking care of my looks. I replied that I would be teaching her that if she was happy with herself, she didn’t need to bow to any pressure from society to change. That didn’t go over well.

The part I wanted to add but didn’t was that it was ironic I was being told I had to “take care of my looks” by some people who weren’t even a healthy body weight and made terrible choices in what they fed themselves and their kids. I could have criticized that since it was a health issue and not something superficial like my hair colour, but I just brushed aside the suggestions to continue dying my hair. I think I said something about not liking the harsh chemicals in hair dyes, but was then told I could always apply henna (mehndi).

What I really wanted to ask was how many men these same women had lectured about dying their hair, and why society thinks a gray-haired man is distinguished and experienced, but a gray-haired woman is just an old bag. I finally understood what Karaikkal Ammaiyar saw in detaching herself from her looks and accepting aging gracefully:

 

  • It’s just embracing nature’s plan and not taking monumental pains to fight it
  • It’s a lot of time, money and effort saved that you can happily spend on other things
  • It thwarts a lot of unwanted attention
  • It oozes confidence and sends a message to younger girls and women that they don’t have to fit the mold they see in magazines and on TV
  • I like it that I can keep people guessing—it’s interesting to see a young face framed by locks of white hair
  • It’s giving the finger to a society that says nothing when men go gray, put on weight, and get lazy, but is up in arms when a woman has one hair out of place and isn’t model-thin her whole fast-paced life
  • If nothing else, people will think I’m the best-looking 50-year-old they’ve ever seen

 

As Tamil women, I must say we’ve got to be braver and give up these ridiculous inconveniences that we don’t want to abide by but feel we must abide by in order to fit in. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said I’ve seen grandmothers at the temple with jet-black hair because they simply can’t stop searching for their misplaced youth. And it’s really quite sad.

As soon as my tresses started to grow out a few inches and people saw what I was doing, it was so freeing. I finally felt like I wasn’t hiding anymore, and was now proudly wearing the battle scars I acquired while caring for my ailing mother.

At the same time, I want to stay young as long as I possibly can—I want to run and play with Pookie and possibly a sibling of his, I want to stay a healthy body weight for my height, and I want to eat according to my stomach and not my tongue. I want to be strong enough to carry Pookie as he grows and gets heavier, and still not have my joints or muscles ache. And I want to show that I can live young and be young without necessarily looking young.

Appa, provider or sire?—how the stand-offish role of the Tamil dad won’t cut it anymore

Months ago when I attended a social event with a few other Indo-Canadian new moms, I was chatting with one of them about each of our kids. She was telling me how hard it was taking care of her baby even with lots of help at home, and I could relate. You understand theoretically before you give birth that it’s going to be difficult caring for another life that solely depends on you for its survival, but living through it is a whole other level of difficult.

Then she told me that she was grateful she had her in-laws to help because her husband was out of the house a lot, working. Whenever he came home, he’d play with their baby for a bit but then hand the child off to her as soon as it cried.

I’m immensely thankful to say I couldn’t relate to that part. My husband, despite being traditionally raised in South India where the patriarchal culture still runs rampant, makes it a goal of his to be a present father to Pookie. He joked before Pookie was born that he would never do diaper changes and just be there for the fun parts, but in reality, it’s the kind of attitude he despises. He grew up in a household of typical Indian men who would work all day, spend some time with friends after work, and come home late at night.

They would justify never seeing their kids by pointing out all the things they could buy for their kids because they were working. And my husband would rightly point out that such a person then cannot call himself a father but simply a provider. Being a male or female parent entails providing for the child, but being a mother or father requires a bond and relationship that is much deeper than simply buying the kid clothes, food, and toys.

Besides, my husband would point out, a man can’t leave the house in the morning, come back just before bedtime, and claim to be working that entire time, especially if his paycheque doesn’t reflect the 14 hours he’s been gone. The long-standing way things have been done in the Tamil culture, and the way it still carries on with many Tamil fathers today in their 20s and 30s, is that they work, have their “me-time,” and relax when they come home while their wives take care of the kids.

It’s a deal that those same wives would take in a heartbeat because they don’t get any “me-time,” and they don’t get to go off shift or leave their workplace. For centuries and into the present day, mothers around the world work around the clock and do it for free, oftentimes becoming financially dependent on their husbands in the process. And for centuries, those same husbands mistakenly think they’re good fathers despite knowing nothing about how to parent their children.

And in many cases such as that of my friend, this unfortunate tradition carries on today where a Tamil man would know absolutely nothing about how/what to feed his kid, where the child’s clothes and toys are kept, or even how to change his baby’s diaper should his wife (or perhaps his mother) not be present.

My husband isn’t a perfect dad either because the reality is that he has to go to work as well. But he makes sure every day that he and Pookie continue to grow their bond, which is something that excludes even me. He makes many of the same decisions I make such as giving up TV time to do Pookie’s bedtime routine, or staggering our meals so someone can watch Pookie. And he looks out for me and makes sure I compensate on the sleep I lose out on each night when I stay up with Pookie. Meanwhile, I look out for him and make sure he sleeps in another room so he doesn’t have to experience the frequent awakenings with me.

And I’m not trivializing the sacrifices a working parent has to make whether that parent is a man or a woman; I’m saying that it’s been a long-standing mistake that Tamil men have historically made in thinking bringing home a paycheque is all it takes to be a good father. It’d be the same mistake a stay-at-home woman would make in thinking cooking a gourmet meal is all it takes to make her a good mother.

For the ladies who see their husbands fitting that bill, it’s sad that out of all the positive traditions we’ve lost from our Tamil ancestors, this negative one is one of the few that have filtered through. Even if we’re not concerned that childcare responsibilities still fall mainly on the shoulders of mothers, we should be concerned from a safety point of view. What happens if there’s an emergency, the young mother isn’t available to take care of her child for a temporary period of time, and her husband hasn’t bothered to learn anything about being a responsive parent?

There are a few things every mom and dad should know how to do for their baby, irrespective of how much help they have from extended family:

 

  • Changing diapers/pottying
  • Feeding—what foods, how much, how to prepare it, and when
  • Nap or sleep time routines—A story? A song? Lots of songs? Rocking, bouncing, walking? And what are the signs your baby puts out when she’s ready to sleep?
  • Cleaning and bathing—what toiletries are used for baby? Is she in a baby tub, your adult tub, the sink? Where are her clothes and towels? How to set up for a bath?

 

I have to say it’s partly the fault of Tamil mothers who have raised their sons to only have limited responsibilities that there are so many young men who are part-time fathers today. I fully intend to have Pookie learn to cook, clean and be a contributing member of the household, starting with small responsibilities as soon as he’s old enough to go to school. There’s nothing appealing or manly about a guy who’s in the body of an adult but like a child, can’t do anything for himself or others.

When I was 11, my mom went to India for about three weeks for the weddings of two of her brothers. My dad took those same weeks off from work to take care of my brother and myself, thinking it’d be a vacation. After being run ragged whether it had to do with fixing our lunches, doing our morning routines, or even braiding my hair, he was ready to punch the clock as soon as my mom got back home. It was hard for him despite being a man who always knew how to cook, clean, and run the household.

It was the only time I remember he admitted to her that he underestimated how difficult her average day is, and that he’d go crazy if he had to do it for years on end, like she had done without complaint or recognition.

Likewise, it may not make my day any easier, but it feels awfully good when my husband stays with me and Pookie overnight, wakes up every time we do, and then says to me in the morning that he doesn’t know how I’ve been doing it for over six months. It means a lot more than if he played with Pookie the obligatory few minutes a day and then handed the baby back to me as soon as he was required to do more as a parent.

Why “crying it out” is a Western concept—part 2

I wrote a couple of weeks back about how we dipped our toes into the water of “crying it out” or CIO . I actually took the wimpy approach to it back in January, in that I let Pookie cry now and then when he was extremely cranky and needed to sleep, just to burn off the rest of his energy instead of carrying him and have him hit me in the face.  But I’d only done that two or three times, and for never longer than about four minutes each time.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the 4-month sleep regression hit Pookie hard and he’s been waking up between 5 and 10 times every night for a variety of reasons over the last couple of months.  My husband and I weighed our options on how to deal with this but ultimately felt he would work it out on his own and get to be a better sleeper closer to his one-year birthday when he was done going through so many developmental milestones.

Then we took him to a routine vaccination on Friday, which is why I didn’t post—Friday was one bad day.  The shots were just fine; actually, they were the best part of the day.  The not-so-good part was the doctor we ended up seeing after a 90-minute wait.  She asked about Pookie’s eating and pooping but seemed put off when we mentioned he was still waking up so much overnight.

And that’s when we were strongly encouraged to try sleep training and CIO—not in the wussy way that I’d been doing it on occasion, but in letting the baby cry until he fell asleep and doing it until he slept 10-12 hours overnight.  I know this doctor was looking at the dark circles under my eyes, and she told me outright I looked exhausted, but this was territory my husband and I weren’t prepared to fully venture into.

The doctor recommended Dr. Ferber’s method, which is to place the baby in a crib in a separate room awake but drowsy, leave, and check on him during regular intervals if he cried. After each check, you’d have to wait twice as long before you went back for the next check.  She likened it over and over to “teaching him a life skill” like riding a bike. He’d fall but he’d learn to soothe himself and not depend on us to immediately comfort him.

She also said that at his age and size, he likely wasn’t hungry overnight and didn’t need constant feeds so we wouldn’t be harming him.  Moreover, we’d only have to do this for a few nights before Pookie learned to comfort himself and sleep through. She told us she had two sons.  The first one slept through the night at 4 weeks but the second one had to be sleep-trained at 6 months.

She said there was a point when that child cried bloody murder for an hour and 25 minutes before falling asleep, and then kept waking up every hour or two and crying some more but they stuck with it.  Then after about 3 nights of this, he slept for 12 hours during the night, napped for 3 hours during the day, and was a much happier baby overall.  Before they did the sleep training, this doctor told us, she was so tired she felt like she would hurt her own baby.  After they sleep-trained him, she wished they’d done it when he was 4 months old instead of 6 months.

I could tell my husband instantly hated this doctor.  He regularly says it’s not fair of him to tell me what to do because I’m the one in the trenches with Pookie each and every night (since the night wakings increased, I’ve made my husband sleep in another room so he’s functional in the morning).  But he and my parents-in-law are there for me during the day and provide so much relief that I’m not only able to nap but also do extraneous things like write this blog.

My husband said to the doctor the reason we don’t let Pookie cry is because it seems plain heartless.  Here are all the reasons he and I have been suspicious of sleep training via CIO:

 

  • CIO doesn’t address the root issue for the baby’s crying.  Babies cry for a reason and by letting them cry themselves to sleep all you teach them is that it doesn’t matter how long or hard they go at it; no one is going to comfort them so signalling is pointless
  • CIO may damage an infant’s trust in their caretakers in that it teaches them they will only receive care under certain conditions, such as the time of day
  • Infant sleep studies have shown that babies experience a spike in the stress hormone, cortisone, in the days after they are left to CIO
  • By 6 months of age, a baby is physiologically capable of not eating overnight but I have heard Pookie’s tummy growl during many night feeds.  Applying CIO as a blanket policy to all babies ignores the basic fact that every child is different—some may actually be hungry even if the medical community says they shouldn’t be
  • CIO faults a baby for being needy and demanding attention when really, that’s what babies do!  For at least the first year of life, it’s all about them and rightly so
  • When a baby falls asleep after CIO, it isn’t necessarily because she’s soothed herself; it’s likely out of exhaustion
  • CIO demands that you stick to it, even if a baby has cried hard for hours at a time or vomited on himself.  The parent must simply go, in clean the baby up, and leave him to cry further
  • Breastfed babies don’t typically sleep longer stretches (4-5 hours) through the night until about 8 months and formula-fed babies don’t until about 6 months—this may be even longer if you co-sleep with your baby. Forcing the baby to do it earlier is merely for the parents’ convenience
  • We have the resources and manpower to make sure Pookie is comfortable at all times.   When there are multiple caretakers, why allow the baby to be distressed?
  • Sleep changes several times throughout an infant’s first year—for Pookie, we’ve found his mannerisms and habits change every 4-6 weeks on average.  Even if you sleep-train a baby, it can be easily undone when he goes through learning to roll over, crawl, or stand.  So the results from CIO aren’t necessarily permanent
  • How can a parent be sure that the baby is definitely crying because she wants attention and soothing, and not because she’s teething, sick, or in pain?  Even if it’s none of those things, the baby simply being scared is a valid enough reason to comfort her
  • Sleep studies have shown that 90% of babies sleep through the night by their first birthdays.  If they don’t even sleep long stretches by then, they can be medically evaluated for a sleep disorder at that time
  • Instinctively, CIO feels wrong. How can something that goes against every fibre of your maternal or paternal instinct be what your baby needs?

 

The doctor told us we better start sleep training Pookie soon because it’s easier to do now than when he’s older.  She assured us that if we don’t do it, he won’t grow out of it on his own and he’ll eventually be a 2-year-old who runs around the room and refuses to sleep.  This actually sounded to me like most 2-year-olds whether they were sleep-trained or not. But the thing that kept nagging at me was that the doctor was telling us if we didn’t do this, we would be robbing Pookie of a vital life skill and he’d never be a good sleeper.

So for the umpteenth time since Pookie was born I second-guessed the decision I had made to ride out the sleepless nights until he naturally grew out of it.  It was a tempting offer the doctor seemed to be making—3 or 4 nights of hell in exchange for a permanent state of sleep heaven.  And if we didn’t do it, would we be messing up our kid?

We returned home and I thought let’s just put Pookie in his rocker and see if he’ll put himself to sleep for his nap.  My husband instructed his parents to not intervene even if Pookie cried.  And how he cried. To my dying day, I will never forget how this child screamed and reached up at me, wondering why his amma wouldn’t pick him up.  It seemed like an eternity but he cried for nine of the longest minutes of my life and then fell asleep on his stomach.  Both my husband and I felt as though we had failed him and swore never again.

When we discussed at the clinic whether I would do what the doctor instructed us to do overnight, my husband said he didn’t agree with CIO but he would be on board if I did it.  Either way, he couldn’t win—if he said not to do it, he’d be a bad husband because he wouldn’t be looking out for my interests, and if he said to go ahead he’d feel like a bad father to Pookie.

What he did say as to why he mainly disagreed with it was this scenario.  Imagine that, as a 30-year-old adult, you’re having a bad day and you’re lying there and crying.  Four people walk by and you cry and reach out to each of them but all they will do is check in on you for a few seconds and leave.  How many of us just want a hug or to be held when we’re upset? And that’s after decades of experiencing the ups and downs of being on this planet.

Maybe no adult should comfort any other adult whether it be spouse, sibling, parent or friend and let them cry it out so they can learn important life skills, themselves.  How can we expect an infant who’s just been here for a few months to fend for himself when we seek out human contact and comfort for far less severe reasons?

An infant can’t do anything about decisions that are made for her, nor will she remember when she was left to CIO.  My husband and I felt it’s just rationalization that parents and medical professionals employ to do what’s convenient for them.  By that justification, it should be perfectly fine for those same children to grow up, put their parents in nursing homes, seize their assets, and leave them to cry it out because it would a lot more convenient than actually loving and caring for them in their time of need.

Why “crying it out” is a Western concept

As of early February, Pookie had recently hit the dreaded 4-month sleep regression. According to pediatricians, this is apparently when a baby’s sleep cycles begin to evolve into more of an adult sleep cycle. It is a period that is full of crankiness, light napping (if any), and more waking during the nights where the baby has slept through before.

As of just mid-January, I was quite happy with Pookie’s nighttime feeding habits—he had a feed around 8 or 9 p.m. and then went down only to wake again around 1 or 2 a.m. and then again around 6 a.m. It was great. How I miss it.

Now, we have to fight to feed him around 7:30 or 8 p.m., then he wakes again around 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. and finally 7 a.m. And the period between 3 and 7 a.m. is the worst, as he is all agitated and half-sleeping, half-bouncing. It looks like he’s sleep-dancing. Some nights, he wakes every hour overnight.

I cringe at what the little guy’s body must be going through as he grows, and the only thing we can really do is ride it out with him and try to enforce more naps during the day. But it’s a vicious cycle—because he didn’t get enough sleep during the night, he wakes up cranky and not at all rested, which makes him over-tired and fighting us to go down for a nap. Restless sleeping seems to just beget more restless sleeping.

All of this is has resulted in Pookie being more of a drama queen than usual. I’m not one to ignore crying but I’ve lately noticed a decided difference between crying for something he needs and whining for attention and wanting to play. Because he lives in a house with several adults in addition to his parents, Pookie has never been allowed to cry—he’s never needed to because someone always tends to him the second he utters a whimper.

So combined with the poor sleeping as of late, Pookie has gotten set into several undesirable habits, all of which we’ve unwittingly fostered:

 

  • Refusing to eat unless I carry him and walk at the same time as nursing him
  • Being hungry but crying and refusing to nurse even when I cave and do the walk-and-feed
  • Being tired but refusing to sleep, instead wanting to play and “talk” to us
  • Getting upset if there are people nearby but no one is looking at him

 

Despite the horrible sleeping over the last few weeks, the severity of the situation struck me this morning when he woke up wailing and rubbed his eyes continuously throughout the morning until they watered profusely. I usually feed him, change him, and bring him downstairs to hang out with the family before his first short nap of the day in his rocker, but today I felt he needed to concentrate only on sleeping, and needed to learn how to self-soothe as well.

That meant no more of us adults scooping him up and dancing around with him—when he needs to sleep, this is only a distraction and will just make him more tired and irritable before he finally crashes. As long as he was rubbing his eyes and turning his head from side to side (two of his sure-fire “I’m sleepy” signs), I was going to keep him upstairs and away from stimulation so he could practice putting himself to sleep.

And as long as he was not hungry, wet, cold or scared, I was going to go through with my modified version of crying it out. This was a point of contention with my family. They felt that at 4 months, Pookie was way too young for this, and he wouldn’t understand the concept of discipline I was trying to put across. I said it wasn’t about discipline; it was about him learning to soothe and entertain himself. We would be doing him a disservice if we jumped in any time he expressed the slightest sign of distress and gratified him immediately.

Moreover, at 4 months (and well over 11 lbs.), I was confident he was physically capable of handling this small bit of training. For me, it wasn’t about making him cry and ignoring him, it was just about setting limits and getting him to catch up on the sleep he so sorely needed. There were some rules I was going to set out ahead of time:

 

  • I was always in the room and frequently checked if he was hungry, wet, cold or scared, but didn’t pick him up, talk to him, or entertain him like I usually would
  • I would always be in Pookie’s line of vision
  • If he went ballistic or cried for more than 5 minutes straight, I’d definitely pick him and cuddle him, but put him back down once he calmed down

 

And to be clear, all of this only applied to nap time; not overnight. There’s a major growth spurt at about 4 months so if Pookie needed to feed more, he just needed to feed more and I didn’t care how many times I had to wake up to feed him. But caving to his demands to walk him while feeding him during the day was beginning to kill my knees—I figured if he was hungry enough, he’d eat whether it was sitting down or on the go.

And that’s exactly what happened—in mid-February, I decided come hell or high water, I was going to sit comfortably with Pookie in my lap and offer milk without getting up or cajoling him to eat. And when he was hungry enough, he ate without any drama.

Napping was a little more trouble. As I sat folding laundry and allowing Pookie to whine/cry today, I was visited by more than one family member to whom I explained my logic and ground rules, as well as the caveat that this was only an experiment for today. Thankfully by the end of the day, Pookie only cried on and off for about 5-10 minutes before soothing himself or falling asleep on his own. And by the end of the day, he’d slept about 4.5 hours throughout the day, which to me is a roaring success.

After one nap, he woke up screaming and it was clear to me he’d had a bad dream—so of course I scooped him up, held him and talked to him without even thinking about it. My husband expressed the concern to me that crying it out is a “white people thing,” and I have to agree that it is. South Asians, I’ve found, are at the other end of the spectrum in the “no-cry” camp, which is why Pookie has had his every wish fulfilled before having to cry about it. But it’s also why his wishes have been escalating, and his whining has become a little more frequent.

My mother-in-law firmly believes that babies are somehow more sophisticated today than they were when she was raising her kids 35 years ago. She’s never imagined a baby demanding the walk-and-feed the way Pookie has, and of course doesn’t believe in any version of crying it out. But my theory is this—when my husband and his brother were babies, they were left on their own out of necessity. My mother-in-law simply had too much else to do around the house, so she and the other young ammas in the home left their babies in a safe area and tended to their tasks.

Those babies learned to self-soothe from the get-go, which is really the opposite of Pookie’s gilded lifestyle. My mother-in-law told me they fed their babies on demand but really only sat and held them if they had time in the afternoons. That is definitely the complete opposite of my ragged lifestyle as Pookie’s 24-hour attendant. Those babies were not criers—my mother-in-law has also said she really hasn’t dealt with a baby that’s as high-maintenance as Pookie.

So crying it out, I think, is a Western concept because our lifestyles today are so much more comfortable. We have more time to dote on our babies, which is why they become used to the attention and need a method of training to acquire a fraction of the independence that babies a generation ago acquired naturally.

To give you an idea of the amount of housework my mother-in-law had to do when she had her babies, the day started with her roasting and hand-grinding coffee beans before dawn. Why? Her mother-in-law didn’t believe in buying coffee powder from the store. Yikes.

I’m really secretly praying that Pookie will naturally become more interested in sleeping and grow out of the need for attention when he gets wrapped up in exploring more of his world. Of course, I’m also distantly aware of the day when he’ll be a busy teenager and I’ll be wondering what it will take for me to get a bit of his attention.

When to burn the rulebook—and why our mothers never had one

Last week’s post was about sleep regressions, and I wrote it when I thought Pookie’s frequent overnight wakings (about 4-5) were on the downturn. In reality, it was going to get worse, which it did in the last 10 days.

“Why is my baby waking every hour overnight?” I Googled almost every day. I’m serious. Every. Single. Hour. Amazingly, it was a popular search, and auto-complete showed me that many parents were asking the Internet and complete strangers this question out of sleep-deprived desperation.

Now, I think the main advantage and disadvantage that my generation of educated mothers has over their mothers is instant information. My Today’s Amma partner, Suba, and her husband have often said if there was no such thing as Google, they would have been at the doctor’s office every day for their first child. But as I tried to reach out for comfort, hope, and answers from the Internet, my mother-in-law was wondering what the big issue was. Babies wake up, she said. And as she recalled from back in the day, she just fed her babies every time they woke up overnight until they grew out of it.

This even involved her falling asleep leaning against a wall with the baby in her lap when said baby awoke overnight and wanted to be held. They were built of different stuff back then. At least I have her now to happily watch Pookie while I nap.

Funnily enough, she recalled that her kids and the kids in their extended family didn’t sleep through the night until they were close to a year old, and it was a very casual thing. She was amazed at the standards in today’s day and age when infants are expected to sleep through or be down to only one overnight feed around the age of 3 or 4 months. Hence the advent of sleep training, which, by the way, I’ve abandoned the idea of foisting on Pookie.

So Google gave me a host of ideas on why Pookie was waking so often overnight. I needed answers that would satisfy me more than the idea that he would grow out of it—I needed to do something about this! It could be hunger of course, and many a person has suggested we give him rice cereal in the evening but we didn’t want to start semi-solids prematurely and fill his tummy just so we could sleep. Besides, what if hunger wasn’t the issue? What if it was gas, said Google, or being unable to put himself back to sleep between sleep cycles, or a growth spurt, or night terrors, or teething, or being unable to master a new skill during the day or…

Yeah. So I went to the library and got out the Bible of sleep training for people who subscribe to attachment parenting, which denounces the Crying It Out method of sleep training—Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution, Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. And the book did help a little. In our situation, Pookie was simply falling asleep during his overnight feeds, which made him get up an hour later. Waking him up and feeding him longer did the trick to reduce his frequent wakings for hunger. But then, he just started getting up anyway every hour and crying until I put him in my lap, where he fell asleep until I put him in his bed, upon which he cried again.

The fatigue got to my husband this week, who came down with a head cold and thankfully moved into another bedroom. At least one of us can have a shot at some decent sleep. Pookie’s wailing and whining during the day wasn’t helping either, and the kid stopped napping for more than 40 minutes at a time. I was at my wit’s end. My husband says I behaved like my world had ended.

Something snapped in me during an overnight feed and I woke up yesterday and promptly tossed out my notepad where I tracked Pookie’s feeds, poops and pees. I stacked the unread library books near the door to be returned as soon as I could trust myself behind the wheel of a car, and resigned myself to never sleeping again. I sang no songs to Pookie, barely spoke to anyone in the house, and spent most of the day in silence. I just had no energy to do anything above the basics.

My poor husband was distraught. I told him what I’d realized—there was no point in me looking for answers when Pookie kept bucking the trend. There was no point in my tracking his feeds or poops or pees when generations of mothers before me just did what they had to do at the time without putting so much importance on data. And there was definitely no point in me reading countless books and articles about babies when the only thing they did was tell me how my infant should be behaving.

“You broke her,” he said to an innocently smiling Pookie.

Fortunately, my existential despair was curbed from turning into an all-out depression after a blissful afternoon nap helped me regroup. But I still meant what I’d said to my husband. The books were telling me Pookie should be napping 3-4 hours during the day and sleeping 10-11 hours at night according to his age, which was far, far from reality. I didn’t care anymore—he’ll sleep when he’s tired, dammit, and I’ll wake up whenever he needed to be fed without keeping professional sports-level stats on it. I was sick of trying to wrest control over nature.

My mother-in-law wisely told me to just follow Pookie’s cues on what he wanted. If he stretched out his arms, just pick him up and walk around for a bit or put him in his stroller and give him a little ride. I would only be comforting him and giving him security, not caving to his demands or spoiling him or creating bad habits. I didn’t need to be so cerebral or count on the books or the “expert” information to tell me what the baby wanted when he was telling me himself.

Besides, Pookie probably wanted to sleep longer stretches more than anyone else wanted him to, because he wasn’t having fun either. Nursing him was like trying to hog-tie a porcupine, and he was constantly clingy whenever he was awake. But I was confident that although he wasn’t a low-maintenance baby that could sleep through the night by 5 or 6 months, nature didn’t need me to help it along by trying to mould his sleep habits.

Instead, I decided to change how I reacted to him. I would just do what he wanted as my mother-in-law suggested, and take her up on her offer of watching him at any time I felt like napping during the day.

And in the last few nights, we discovered we could count on nature to deliver. Pookie’s erratic nights really only lasted about two weeks although it felt like eternity. He’s back to waking up 3-5 times a night, which I can handle, and which my husband has found is not uncommon. Many of his co-workers told him their babies woke up every 2 hours overnight until they were 8 months old, after which it started to taper off.

He has since adopted the stance of being very wary when people make it sound like their babies were the easiest angels the stork ever dropped. It’s hard to try to switch a breast-fed baby over to formula or even breastmilk in a bottle, or switch from sponge baths to water baths, or even put the adorable little creature to bed every night.

And I’ll say it—if your baby is 6 months old and sleeping 3-4 hours at a stretch at any point in the day or night, you’re doing great and can’t ask for anything more.

When I decided I was done putting expectations on Pookie’s sleep habits, he started to slip into naps willingly during the day again. There is one thing I still look to the Internet to when it comes to parenting, and that is mothering forums. In fact, I compiled a list of comments that other moms out there have posted and keep it on our computer desktop to look at when I need a reminder that all is well. Here’s my favourite:

 

I was coming to say EVERYONE’S 5 month old is still waking several times a night. Even if they see a longer stretch at 5 months, rest assured that stretch disappears at 6months. And after what will come at 6months when teething really begins, 3 consecutive hours will seem like a dream come true. Let go of the idea that you need your sleep to be consecutive. Most mothers should work to get 8 hours. But however and wherever you get those 8 hours in a 24hour period, will change every 4-6weeks for the 1st year at least. (and really it’s longer.) Time spent worrying about how to correct or fix it is time wasted. Because whatever you do it’s all going to change every few weeks. Just let go of sleep. We have all been there. Learn to nap during the day with the baby. Hand your baby over after dinner for 2hours so that you can rest. And then do the best you can at night. When night wakings increase to the point of resentment it’s usually teeth. You aren’t there yet. But it’s coming. And when you get there, have patience and empathy. Because your baby is in constant pain and nursing relieves it. But every nap dropping, every developmental milestone, every corner, every turn, sleep changes. And the babies that sleep for longer than 4 hours at this age are myths. Or tanked up on formula. You are doing fine.

 

Surviving your kutti’s sleep regressions

About two weeks ago, I had a positive answer to give when Pookie and I came downstairs first thing in the morning and someone asked me how we slept. “Wonderfully,” I used to gush. “He only woke up two times.” Sometimes it was only one time. Once, on a night I think I may have imagined, he had his last feed at 8 p.m., put himself to sleep, and only woke up 8 hours later at 4 a.m. for another feed. It was the stuff of legends.

Unfortunately for me, those nights where he only woke up to feed one or two times is also now the stuff of legends. As Pookie approached 4 months, he started waking up about 4-5 times per night, fed as frequently during the night as he did during the day (every 1.5 to 2 hours), was cranky during the day, and often couldn’t stay asleep for more than 20 minutes when he did go under. He fought his naps and even sometimes fought his feedings, and to top it all off, taught himself how to screech.

My mother-in-law said this is completely normal as a baby starts to teach himself things like how to turn over and how to sit up, walk, etc. but it didn’t make sense to me until I read about the dreaded 4-month sleep regression. Sleep regressions happen at those same milestone months, usually around 4, 8-9 and 13 months, where your baby amps up her physical achievements and is frustrated or thinking about it constantly whenever she’s not trying to achieve something.

It explained a lot of things:

 

  • Frequent waking overnight—kutti can’t stop thinking about turning over! It’s like you thinking about a fight you had with a friend or a big presentation at work the next day. It’s hard to calm your mind enough to get to a place where you can sleep. This is why your baby will need extra help, time, and cajoling to relax and get to sleep
  • Crankiness during the day—kutti wishes she had been able to sleep during the night, can’t think straight because she isn’t calm, and is over-tired. She’s also frustrated that she can’t turn over, dammit
  • Inability to stay asleep—kutti is a bundle of nervous energy and so he tends to jolt himself awake
  • The new skills—even if you don’t consider shrieking at glass-shattering levels to be a skill, kutti probably does. Grabbing at new things usually happens at 4 months as well, although don’t be fooled and think your baby actually wants the thing she reaches for. This time may be accompanied by new mannerisms as well. Pookie, for instance, has started to put his hand on his forehead while nursing in a “How did I get stuck with this crazy amma?” kind of way
  • The feeding frenzy—all that trying to turn over will make kutti a hungry boy! It’s tiring especially if you exclusively breastfeed, but you have to look on the bright side—breastfeeding is wonderfully healthy for your baby and burns something like 500 to 700 calories a day for you. It’s like a fat transfer from you to him

 

There are a few things I’ve learned over the past few weeks that have helped me deal with Pookie’s sleep regression and growth spurt:

 

  • Distractions—At 4 months, babies will stare endlessly at objects like necklaces, toys, and even your fingers. Sometimes just holding something a few inches from him will calm him down. And don’t forget songs, songs, and more songs—singing is just the best distraction and is even better when accompanied by actions
  • Getting in kutti’s face—there’s nothing more fascinating to a baby than the faces of the adults in her life. It’s a great calming tool to get up close and smile or make a funny face.       If you have an older child, this is where s/he can get involved in helping out with kutti
  • Make or keep your bedtime and naptime routines—consistency will help anchor your baby and let him know what to expect, especially if the same things happen at the same times every day
  • Pull our your arsenal of tools—whether it’s a rocker, a swing, a pacifier, a rattle, a tablet that plays his favourite lullaby on a loop, etc., keep a list of all the things that seem to calm your baby into a place where he can sleep and keep it close by. When you’re frazzled, go down the list and try all of them one after the other
  • Have back-up—I don’t know where I’d be without my mother-in-law telling me not to overthink things, and that this is temporary. She and I trade off looking after Pookie during the weekdays so the other one can have some relief and things can get done around the house. And when my husband is home and wants to play with Pookie, I happily let him and spend a little time out of the room
  • Training time—spend time every day trying to help kutti do the thing she’s trying to do, whether it’s turning over, sitting up, walking, etc. Putting a mat flat on the ground and cheering on her on will not only help her build up her strength and appetite, but also tucker her out for a nap
  • Go to sleep when your baby does—this isn’t for everyone but when I calculate me going to sleep at 8:30 p.m. and getting up at 6 a.m., minus all the waking up for feedings, it’s about 7 hours, not 9.5 like you would think
  • Set realistic goals or better yet, don’t set goals at all—for me, if Pookie sleeps 4-5 hours during the day, it’s a fabulous sleeping day. If he sleeps 2-3 hours, it’s good, and anything under 1 hour total is not good

 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel—sleep regressions and the growth spurts that tend to accompany them only last for 2-6 weeks on average. Once your baby achieves the thing she was after all this time, she will remember the skills she had before the spurt/regression began and take them up again. That means yes, she will have longer stretches of sleep overnight; yes, she will easily nap again during the day, and no, she won’t be latched onto you every 5 minutes.

However, the light at the end of the tunnel may be a bit further away than we’d have hoped—on average, exclusively formula-fed babies will start sleeping through the night at about 6 months. I’ve read that breastfed babies take longer, and my mother-in-law confirmed that it’s not usually until about 8 months that a breastfed baby will naturally drop his middle-of-the-night feed on his own.

I have no idea about some of the newborns I’ve read about who apparently sleep through the night. For a newborn or a baby under 12 lbs., this isn’t healthy. At Pookie’s first doctor’s appointment after being born, I’d been having trouble getting him to feed regularly. The doctor we saw said the ideal was 15 minutes on one breast, burping the baby, then offering the other breast. This should happen every 2-3 hours or more frequently if the baby demands it. She told us 4 hours between feeds for a newborn was at the upper end of the spectrum and 6 hours was definitely not okay.

So while sleeping through the night is a great hope for parents, I really don’t know how a very small infant can healthily do it. My husband and I had this discussion as well that there’s just too much emphasis in the West about getting a baby to sleep through the night, which I think is linked to Western parents desperately wanting their babies to be independent practically from birth. This is evident from the very concept of a nursery, which is a standard in the West, versus sleeping beside mom, which is the standard pretty much all across Asia.

Realistically when you were pregnant, how often did you sleep straight through the night? Adults on average have to pee every 2-4 hours so how often do most people really sleep through the night?

Whenever I express that I wish Pookie were a little more independent, my husband turns to him and says in baby talk that we’re going to go out and buy him a little suit and call around for job interviews. I get the jab and am reminded not to really hope for any semblance of independence until Pookie is close to a year old. In the immediate future though, I’m just gunning toward going back to one overnight feed.