Sleep. What can I say about it? We all need it. Nobody gets enough of it. If you are like me, your sleep deprived brain is running laps trying to figure out what you can do to get a better night of sleep. After all, isn’t everybody else getting great sleep? We buy the books, and the contraptions, we hire the consultants. Amber teething necklaces, woombies, and these special hammocks that are supposed to replicate life in utero. We stop eating dairy and gluten, we start eating dairy and gluten, it must be pork, eggs, or onions. Is cabbage supposed to be good or bad? Should I start or stop drinking? Once you’ve been eating nothing but water and plain mashed potatoes for a month, you start wondering if it couldn’t be the water… And all the while, your friends and families keep telling you about all the babies who sleep so well and you wonder where you went so wrong.
I get messages seeking sleep advice on a weekly basis. From these exchanges with harried parents, I have concluded two things: (1) People lie. All the time. And (2) People forget. Which is good news, no?
People lie when they describe their own child’s sleep. Or at least, they omit crucial details. Like saying that your “Baby slept through the night at 3 weeks” when what you mean is that your baby only woke-up to nurse and not to chat for 2h. Or that by “night” you mean from midnight until 5 am (which is still awesome in my books but can lead a tired parent to believe that you mean a real night, like 8pm until 6am). Or the most egregious lie of all, that your baby “just slept” when what you mean is that you sleep trained him with the 4 months sleep regression. Some babies do sleep solid nights from birth. Those are unicorn babies. Awesome but not normal.
People also forget. Those are usually the people in the “grand” category, whose own sleepless nights are 20 or 30 years removed. They just remember the sweet smell and the soft spots and firmly believe that their own children said please and thank you from birth, ate all their spinach, and of course, slept like angels.
And here you are tired parent, wondering how you are failing your baby, your marriage and yourself. Convinced that you are rowing alone, lost in the duldrums of sleep.
You’re in luck! Here I am. Tired mother of 9. I have the grown kids and the little kids and I haven’t slept well since 2009. I had the naturally good sleepers and the horrible sleepers and I’m here to tell you: how your baby sleeps (or not) has far less to do with your parenting skills than you think.
It always puzzles me how we like to Hum and Awe at birth weights, how they are all different, and don’t you dare send a birth announcement without that key piece of statistics and yet, when it comes to sleeping and eating, we expect our vastly different children to comply to some made-up matrix of when and how. Children are not machines (neither are you). They have different bodies, different personalities, different life experiences — yes, pregnancy matters, as does their early days and weeks — that are reflected in their sleep patterns and attachment needs.
Babies’ sleep patterns often seem directly opposed to our welfare as parents. This doesn’t make much sense from an evolutionary perspective, does it? Since babies’ survival depends on their parents, one would think that their primary needs would be better aligned with ours. But are they? After all, we as adult often share our beds with another adult. And we wake-up at night to pee or even to snack sometimes. We often watch tv later than we should because we simply can’t go from up to down on a dime. Yet we expect our babies to sleep on cue, alone, and without waking-up. It often occurs to me that we demand better sleep from our babies than we can achieve ourselves. We’re funny that way.
Are our babies misadapted or are we? If you are not entitled to a maternity leave, you might be back at work within 3-6 weeks of giving birth, at a time when your baby needs several — sometimes cluster — small meals of breastmilk every 2-4 hours. Are babies broken or is expecting mothers back at work within 6 weeks delusional? If you have a maternity leave, you are probably hoping to work-out that baby fat, socialize and complete these projects you’ve been putting-off since you got pregnant. Or take a university class and start a business. Instead of seeing mat leave as allowing us to care for our infants, we see it as personal development months, free from the shackles of work. Well, about those shackles…
If you are a stay-at-home mom, you probably expect to be back in the swing of things, organizing and attending activities. The isolation of the modern homemaker is forcing us to be everything to everyone in our family, without the help of a village of older mothers, aunts and grandparents whose sleepless nights are far and gone. Our children can no longer busy themselves with little neighbours, they need us to entertain, stimulate and socialize them while the neighbours are in daycare and preschool from dawn until dusk.
Here’s the rub: we could align our primary needs with those of our infants but our modern lifestyle and expectations prevent us from doing so. The fitness classes, playgroups and doctors appointments run us ragged when we should be napping with our babies. Our expectations that babies should not “take over our lives” lead us to stubbornly insist that baby sleep in his own bed, in his own room rather than keeping him close. We live in fear of preventing maturation and individualizations, of waking-up one day with a nursing, co-sleeping, college student. We fight our babies every inch of the way and wonder why we are so tired. That’s why. Your life is the problem, not your baby. Try to manage your expectations rather than your infant and see if it helps (it should).
Today, I want to share with you how our babies sleep. So next time your spouse or your mom exclaims: “This is not normal!!” you can say “actually, it is”.
This is a picture of our master bedroom (in March 2015). The baby sleeps in a crib beside our bed. We have two crib mattresses for middle-of-the-night visitors. We push the crib mattresses under our bed during the day.
Our baby is almost 11 months-old and still wakes-up twice a night to nurse (sometimes more, never less). He slept through the night from birth until 4 months. At 4 months, he started waking-up once. Around 6-7 months, he started waking-up twice. Around 9 months (and cutting 6 teeth) he started waking-up all night. Now we’re back to nursing twice overnight. He goes to bed around 7pm, wakes-up to nurse around 11pm and again at some point in the night. I don’t know when because I don’t have a clock in my room. I ditched the clock when the twins were babies. Seeing how often I woke-up made me angry and resentful. Instead of managing my babies, I managed the clock. Believe me, it made it easier. When Damien wakes-up, I grab him from the crib and nurse him side lying in my bed. Then I plunk him back in his crib.
At some point during the night, the twins (3.5 years-old) come into our bedroom. Ève is usually grouchy. She needs to cuddle-up with us in bed. She will usually go back to sleep between my husband and I and I will put her on the cot on the floor when the baby wakes-up to nurse (a queen bed is crowded with 4). Lucas just stumbles into our room and crashes on a cot on the floor and goes back to sleep. 3-and-a-half is a tough sleep age here: Sarah just left our room at age 5 and now the twins are here. By the time they are done, Damien will probably be replacing them. Round and round we go.
I remember when my older kids were little, everybody was concerned about “returning the kids to their rooms” and “getting them used to sleep in their beds all night.” People discussed whether they should lock their bedroom door and let the children cry at the door. Anything but having a child in your room.
We tried all these things. Now, when someone suggests that I cut this crap out, I know that this person has sleep to spare. I don’t. Here’s a secret: If some parents tell you that they close their bedroom door or walk their child back to bed throughout the night, it means that they are not as tired as they say they are. You need to sacrifice sleep to listen to your child howl at your bedroom door or walk him back to his bed 200 times. I know, I used to do it. Now I need sleep. And sleep means letting my children do whatever they need to do to to go back to sleep.
That’s what our nights look like. Because I don’t have a clock, I don’t know how long a stretch of sleep I can get. My guess is 2-3h at the most. And you know what? I’m not as awesome as I would be on a full night. I move slowly. My writing is not brilliant. My house is never completly under control. I’ve been trying to host a house warming party since December and I just can’t, I’m too tired. We do barebones homeschooling. My husband does groceries on his way back from work because I don’t have the wherewithal to take 4 young kids shopping and remember what I’m supposed to buy. I have a lot of professional and personal ambitions sitting on the back-burner until I can focus on things beyond immediate care and feeding of myself and my family. I don’t sit on boards, I don’t volunteer. To everything there is a season.
This is the season for digging your head in and plowing through.