When Olive was about four months old, I remember taking her to a talk put on by the local library. Each week they hosted different speakers, and this particular week featured a public health nurse speaking about the unique nature of baby sleep. It sounded interesting and I needed to get out of the house and talk to real, grown-up people that didn’t shit their pants, so off we went.
At the beginning of the talk, all of the moms went around the circle and introduced ourselves and described our baby’s sleep patterns. Many moms expressed frustration and/or insanity at the lack of sleep they were getting, but because at that point O was sleeping like a rockstar, I just said she was sleeping well and was interested in hearing the talk.
I did, however, happen to mention that I usually nurse her to sleep, and at that point, the speaker interrupted me to let me know that nursing a baby to sleep was not good. Not just not recommended, but like NOT. GOOD. at all, ever. Period. Her sternly angled eyebrows added extra emphasis.
She was pretty clear about the fact that all in all of the popular approaches to baby sleep and all the books written by all the experts, the common thread was that “sleep props” like nursing impede a baby’s ability to self-soothe. She told me that Olive would never sleep through the night if I continued putting her to sleep this way.
I nodded because everything I had read – by all of those experts in all of those same sleep books – agreed with this statement. And that’s what I do in the face of confrontation, I nod and smile.
But despite my robotic nodding, I didn’t agree. These statements didn’t ring true for me.
At that point, Olive was sleeping through the night, despite the nursing. And she did wake up and go back to sleep, I could hear her several times a night – waking, talking to herself and then rolling over and drifting off.
But I sat there and nodded because who I was I, a first time mother with a four-month-old, to argue with a nurse (not to mention all of those experts?)
Complicating matters even more was the fact that I happened to be, at that very same moment, nursing O to sleep because it was her nap time. As the introductions moved on to my left, I guiltily unlatched her and then spent the next forty-five minutes walking her and bouncing her and trying to hear the nurse over her cries because she was tired and wasn’t done and I had stopped nursing her because I couldn’t bear to be doing it wrong.
The next day we tried a mild form of sleep training, involving some bullshit they call “Pick-Up, Put-Down” and I call terrible. The idea was, I was supposed to hold Olive and when she looked drowsy, put her in her crib. If she cried I was to pick her up, hold her until she had JUST calmed down, and then put her back in her crib. Aaaand repeat.
The idea is a no-cry sleep training. In reality it was 45 minutes of lots of crying – from an exhausted baby who just wanted to be snuggled and also from me, a confused, frustrated first-time mom who didn’t understand why what she had been doing was wrong, but desperately wanted to be doing it right.
At the time, when all of this was happening (the nurse and the talk and the day of failed “sleep training”) I remember feeling overwhelmed, helpless and confused. I was scared that they might be right, that I might be ruining Olive’s ability to self-soothe and she would be a horrible sleeper and rely on nursing as a “sleep prop” forever and never be able to go to sleep on her own. Ever!
Looking back now though, as the mother of a one year old, I mostly just feel angry.
What is this bullshit? Why do we do this? Why do we voluntarily subject ourselves to sitting in a room full of people, being told we are doing it wrong simply because a handful of self-proclaimed experts with books to sell say so?
You can’t sell a solution if there isn’t a problem, and in the past fifty years, we have increasingly categorized what amounts to normal, human infant sleep as a problem needing to be solved.
Experts and books and exorbitantly priced “Sleep Consultants” have proliferated, and because we are terrified new parents with bags under our eyes the size of Samsonites we eagerly open our ears and our wallets to find a solution, any solution! And we are frustrated. We’re frustrated because our expectations are out of whack, and our expectations are out of whack because we are being sold lies – lies I tell you!
Here is one lie: The secret to a three-month-old sleeping 12 hours straight is just $20 away.
Another lie: It isn’t normal for an infant or toddler to wake up a few times a night.
And one more lie: It is now, and has always been, customary for humans to sleep in solid 8-12 hour increments.
Enough of these lies! I call bullshit!
This series of articles published in Psychology Today was honestly the single best thing I ever stumbled upon as a new parent.
It is totally worth a read – all six parts – but if you are text-averse, I can sum it up for you by saying this:
- Infant/toddler sleep is erratic, unpredictable and doesn’t conform to our expectations. Children’s sleep habits have evolved to best serve the child, even if they don’t make sense to the parent. Adjust your expectations, not your child’s sleep habits (within reason).
- Don’t stop being a parent at night.
- Be gentle with yourself, follow your instincts, listen to your gut and stop being so crazy with the books and the shushing and the picking up and putting down and the precisely-timed intervals and the living by the clock.
The whole series of articles made me feel as though I was getting a good, old-fashioned wallop of common sense from some stern lady with a wooden spoon, but the line that stuck with me the most from the whole thing was this: “…one long-term study looking at child sleep between 3 and 42 months found that there was no stability in night wakings or even sleep duration…”
Guys – there is no pattern! There is no rhyme or reason or explanation! It does not matter if you sleep train or don’t sleep train or nurse to sleep or rock to sleep or whatever. Just give up! Adapt, react, give in. You don’t have to train your child to sleep, you don’t have to enforce rigid guidelines and you don’t have to stop nursing your baby to sleep out of misguided fear, perpetuated by experts looking to make a buck.
Here is the truth, from a mom who has nursed her baby to sleep for more than a year: It is easily one of the best parts of our day.
It is an indescribably sweet feeling to sit quietly with her as her eyes flutter and her breath slows. I love that pause and that stillness. And there’s a reason it works so well. Nighttime breastmilk contains tryptophan, the same chemical found in turkey that makes us feel so drowsy after huge thanksgiving dinners. (and even as adults, what is the old wives remedy for insomnia? “Have a glass of warm milk…”). We were designed to nurse our babies to sleep. Babies are meant to fall asleep nursing.
More importantly than all of that however, and this is the part that makes me mad thinking about my scared, impressionable new-mom self: They were wrong.
At twelve months old, nursing is absolutely not the only way Olive can go to sleep. Grandma can give her a bottle and rock her and she will drift off without any fuss. Her father can snuggle her and she’s out in five minutes. And recently, miracle of miracles, there have been a few times that I have put her into her crib awake for a few of her naps and at bedtimes, and she has rolled around for a bit, talked to herself and then fallen asleep. By herself.
It doesn’t happen every time, and now that I have shared this information with The Internets, I have ensured that these events will never, ever repeat themselves, but I was told that this would never happen period because of the sleep props and the bad habits and my terrible, lazy parenting with the bedtime nursing.
For months I felt guilty, instead of content, every time I sat there with her and watched her drift off. And guys, that’s why I’m angry, because no mom should feel like that for nourishing and comforting her child.
It’s hard being a new parent. Not just because of the incredible changes affecting every facet of your life – your career, your finances, your home and your relationship – but because everyone has an opinion. About everything you are doing and more importantly everything you are doing wrong.
So here’s what I recommend to all of you new parents or soon-to-be parents, or someday far away in the verrry distant future parents: Read the article I linked to above, and have zero expectations. You might have a baby that sleeps, you might not. You might have a baby that tricks you into thinking they are a sleeper and then messes with your mind by suddenly stopping sleeping, like Olive did. But regardless, when someone asks you how your baby is sleeping, smile and say “Like a baby”.
That will be the truth.
And so is this: It’s normal for a baby to sleep 9 hours straight. It’s normal for a baby to be up every hour. It’s normal for your baby to do the former one night, the latter the next (and it’s totally normal to feel like an insane, husband-hating, coffee-chugging, borderline-emotional-wreck while this is happening.)
The Dark Time
Here’s another thing, while we are on the subject of truth-telling. Two months ago Olive went through a two-week-long stretch of waking up every 1-2 hours at night. I call this, “The Dark Time”.
The Dark Time happened to coincide with deadlines for the final draft of my book and every morning as I hauled myself out of bed I wanted to gouge my eyes out simply because my eyeballs were taking up valuable space that could have been filled with more coffee.
It only lasted a week or so, but it felt like an eternity measured in 1-2 hour segments. Sleeps that were never long enough, and eyes gritty like sandpaper. I was like, “Oh my god. They were right! She is effed. I’ve ruined her! Everything is ruined forever and no one in this house will ever sleep again!”
The thing is, the week after The Dark Time, Olive began crawling, started standing unassisted and then popped out two teeth.
And lo and behold, her sleep went back to normal.
You see? There’s a reason for all of it, I promise, even when we don’t understand. It’s not our job as parents to understand, it’s just our job to parent. That’s all.
All we need to do is respond to our child’s needs, even when they need things at 1 a.m. And 2 a.m. And 2:30 a.m. and every single other a.m. that you didn’t know existed.
It doesn’t make sense and it gets better and then gets worse and the nights seem long and the crying oh god the crying, but the dawn always comes. The sun always rises.
And that, my friends, is the truth.
UPDATE Nov 23, 2014: Wondering how all of this turned out? Well, I weaned Olive at around 18-19 months and transitioned into reading books to her at bedtime instead. There was an adjustment period of around three days but she is now just over two and we still read books together every night. She usually falls asleep mid-Horton-Hatches-The-Egg and then sleeps for a blissful 12-13 hours. Hey! Looks like I didn’t ruin her after all 😉 Thank you so much for everyone who has commented and emailed to express how much this post affected them – I am so, so glad!
UPDATE Nov 18, 2013: I added a follow-up post to address issues about sleep training-shaming. It can be found here
Did you enjoy reading about infant sleep? I also write about other things, too, in book form!
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