Somewhere during the first or second month of being a new parent, you will be up in the middle of the night with your new baby. It will be approximately three o’clock in the morning and you will have already achieved three delightful pockets of sleep that night for fifteen minutes each. There will be a beautiful moon in the sky and the stars will be twinkling. But you will not notice. You will be staring into the face of your darling infant, who is truly darling, except that at this particular moment he is screaming so hard that you wonder if his lungs will liberate from him chest.
You will bounce him, jiggle him, nurse him, rock him. Still screaming. You will walk with him around the block. Still screaming. You will put him in his vibrating bouncy chair. Still screaming. You will put his bouncy chair on top of the dryer and turn the dryer on. Still screaming. You will swaddle him like a baby burrito. You will take his temperature. You will offer a pacifier. You will shake a rattle in his face. More screaming. You will put him in the car and go for a drive. More and more screaming. You will come home and find your earplugs. Quieter screaming. You will push your earplugs deeper into your ears, strap your baby to your chest and work out on the treadmill for thirty minutes.
You get off the treadmill and look at the baby. He’s asleep. Gently, gently you tiptoe over to the bouncy chair (which is the only place your baby currently sleeps). Gently, gently you un-strap the baby from the Baby Bjorn. You carefully snuggle him into the bouncy chair. You reach over to grab a blanket. When you turn back, the baby’s eyes wide open and he is smiling at you.
You look at the clock and it says 4:26 a.m. And you think, “Will I ever sleep again?”
It is for this reason that most bookstores have entire shelves devoted to “Sleep Solutions for your Baby.” Babies (and children, for that matter) are notoriously good at keeping their parents from getting adequate rest. The newborn stage is particularly frustrating because it is so hard to understand what they are feeling and why they won’t sleep. Whenever people come to visit you during the daytime, your baby is pleasantly dozing in the bouncy chair. Oh, what a sweet baby, your visitors say. He sleeps so peacefully.
Yes, you think. He sleeps so peacefully during the day. But at night, he either wants to play or turns into Babyzilla who won’t stop crying and shrieking.
The Million Dollar Answer
Will I ever sleep again? This is a good question. And the answer depends primarily on a couple of factors:
- Your babies biological sleep needs
- Your style of parenting
I am of the wacky, attachment parenting, family-bed model and the answer for me is, well, not really.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve made the choice to sleep with my children and to nurse both my babies, day and night, whenever they ask me. My boys both depend on me to go to sleep. Even the older one, who is almost five, still needs me to cuddle with him in order to fall asleep at night.
I am happy with my choice because I believe that it has helped to build an amazing sense of trust in our relationship. But it has definitely been a serious sacrifice in sleep and required me to be a lot more involved with their nighttime needs than many parents might tolerate.
Most people in our culture would not make the choice to nurse their children, on-demand, day and night, for multiple years and understandably so. However, even without choosing to sleep with your children and nurse them on-demand, there is still an intense period of sleep deprivation that all parents endure.
There are many books available with all kinds of ideas on how to get your baby to sleep. Here are a few of the most well-known books on the market:
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc S. Weissbluth, M.D.
The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley
The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby to Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp, M.D.
Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems: New Revised and Expanded Edition by Richard Ferber, M.D.
The great thing that these books offer are gentle ways to encourage your baby to sleep for longer and longer stretches at night. They help parents come up with different ideas of how to soothe your baby and/or how to train your baby to soothe himself back to sleep.
Babies Are Different Than Adults
While these books certainly offer lots of wonderful tips and tricks on how to help your baby relax into sleep, most of them suffer from an underlying assumption that babies should sleep like adults. The truth is baby sleep patterns are very different than adult sleep patterns. Because we are adults and we like to sleep for six to eight hours at a time, we expect that our babies should do the same. This reasoning is faulty, because this is not what babies’ bodies are designed to do.
Tiny infants spend more of their sleep in lighter and more active stages of REM sleep than adults do. Staying in lighter stages of sleep is a self-protection for infants because they are so vulnerable at this stage of life. If they are hungry, cold, are having difficulty breathing, they need to be alert enough to wake up and cry out for help. If infants went as deeply into sleep as adults, they would not be able to make their needs known and would be more susceptible to SIDS and other forms of nighttime dangers.
This is why it is highly unusual that our culture views infant sleep as a problem that needs to be solved. Our babies don’t need to be taught to sleep properly. We need to be taught to parent them properly in the night.
Of course, this does not mean that we should quit sleeping and stop making any attempts to soothe them back to sleep when they awaken during the night. Adults have needs too, and in order to be functional parents, we must sleep at some point.
Searching for the Balance
What this means to me is that we need to search for the balance between recognizing and meeting our infants’ nighttime needs for comfort, nourishment and love, while at the same time still finding a way to nurture ourselves.
Every parent is different in what we can manage and how we choose to manage the many tasks of caring for our children. We all know what our limits are and it is important that we respect those limits.
In the same way, every baby is also different. Some babies, with just a little encouragement (gentle rocking, singing, soft touches) will actually sleep long stretches at night on their own. Some babies will even sleep through the night. But other babies, during the newborn phase especially, will awaken once every hour or two and look for some reassurance from you. They may need to be fed or they may just need to be held or patted.
What worked for our family was to nurse our babies every time they woke up at night. Whether they were comfort sucking or actually feeding was irrelevant, because it (almost) always comforted them back to sleep. Now, this may not be a viable option for a lot of people. Many families would prefer that their babies learn to self-soothe and not be dependent upon nursing to do so. I completely understand this point of view, especially if you have a large family and simply cannot be on-call to nurse your baby to sleep all the time.
If this is the case, check out some of the books and articles on how to help your baby settle into sleep. Children can be trained to do almost anything. At the same time, try not to view their sleep as a problem that needs solving, but rather accept their infant nighttime needs as a segment in the progression of their natural development. In the same way that we would not expect them to perform other adult skills (eating with a fork, driving a car, typing on the computer), we cannot expect them to imitate us in our sleep habits just yet.
We will feel infinitely more compassionate toward them, and experience less frustration over the disjointedness of our own sleep, if we recognize our children’s nighttime waking as genuine need and not a false manipulation. Our babies are just learning to be part of this new world. They love us and need us unconditionally. They barely understand yet that their mothers are separate from themselves. Let’s make their transition as smooth and gentle as possible. Before we realize it, this season of their lives will pass on by and we will already be feeling nostalgic for all the beautiful memories.