This week, as I continued to think about the role fathers play in helping babies sleep, I asked my friends and clients, “What is the one thing your partner does that you find most helpful?” The response was overwhelming. Mothers of infants and young children told us that the most valuable contribution fathers make is getting the baby back to sleep during the night.
Our personal experience and our experience as sleep consultants has demonstrated that when dads respond to baby’s cries during the night, the whole family gets back to sleep more quickly. So we wondered, why are dads so great at getting babies to sleep during the night. We have a few ideas.
Dads don’t have boobs. That’s right, I said it. Dads don’t have the goods…i.e. milk. If Mom is breastfeeding, the baby can smell it when she gets near. And many breastfeeding mothers experience let-down when they hear crying. So if Mom responds during the night, chances are baby is going to want to eat. Once your baby is old enough to sleep through the night and you have stopped night feeding, best to send Dad in to help soothe the baby back to sleep and keep milk out of the equation.
Dads don’t have crazy hormones. Debbie told me the story about how when her daughter would cry during the night, she would sit in bed squeezing her husband’s hand on the verge of tears herself until the baby settled down again. Woman deal with hormone changes during and after pregnancy, and for some women, hearing her baby cry, especially during the night, can trigger emotional and physical reactions. In response, we often want to go to our babies and hold them, rock them, physically bond with them. This is a perfectly natural response, but it can interfere with the baby’s sleep, her ability to learn self-soothing skills, and it interrupts Mom’s sleep. Dad, on the other hand, seems less affected by these physiological responses to baby’s cries, so he can go in with minimal disruption and quickly settle the baby back to sleep, and then get right back to sleep himself.
Dads are problem solvers. Please don’t call me sexist…I’m actually more of a problem-solver myself. What I mean here is that dads typically approach night waking in a very tactical sense. “What is the problem and how can I fix it?” During sleep time, the ability to quickly assess the situation, address the problem, and get out is critical so that the entire family can get back to sleep. While many dads we know are also very nurturing and do a great job of soothing (see last week’s post), during the night, speed is king.
Some clients who stay at home with their babies tell us that they are reticent to have their husbands get up during the night when they have to be at work during the day. On days when Dad has a critical meeting or presentation or business trip, then let him sleep the night before. But sometimes, having a well-rested mom is just as important. So on days when Dad can deal with being a little more tired, ask him to have a try.
To avoid sleepy arguments during the night, before you turn in for bed agree who is “on duty” for the night shift and what your strategy will be (e.g. let the baby cry for 20 minutes to see if he can soothe himself back to sleep, then go in to check). And be sure to let Dad know that dealing with baby during the night is the most helpful thing he can do for you!
Have a Happy Fathers’ Day!