It’s the first question we ask far too many new parents: “Is he a good sleeper?” “Getting any rest?” “Sleeping through the night yet?”
And when the answer is a huge resounding NO, (as it most certainly is about 90 percent of the time in the early days/weeks/months), the asker will often give a deeply pitying look and respond with the fact that their child slept 15 consecutive hours a night from day three of life because they did Baby Wise/CIO/Ferberizing/witchcraft/etc.
How is the shell-shocked new parent supposed to respond to this exactly? Because there is literally nothing less helpful in the universe than subtly shaming a brand-new mom or dad for being exhausted. Comments like these leave the parent feeling like a failure, like their child is somehow deficient, and reminds them yet again that they are just. so. sleepy.
Here’s the thing: Lots of babies take a really freaking long time to start sleeping through the night. Lots of babies will never respond to the popular make-a-baby-sleep tricks. And plenty of parents just aren’t comfortable with anything resembling sleep training. And that’s more than OK.
My child is one the happiest and healthiest toddlers I’ve ever encountered. He’s bright, curious, adventurous, active, nurturing, and a really healthy eater. He’s 19 months old. And plenty of nights, he still wakes up for some snuggles. And while he finally (finally) will actually sleep through the night on a semi-regular basis, this is a new development.
In the early days, he wanted to sleep all the time. In the hospital, the nurses even had to put cold water on his feet to wake him from his deepest slumber. But due to some major breastfeeding problems, he lost tons of weight in his first two weeks of life, and we had to start setting alarms to wake him up every two hours to eat. (If there’s anything more depressing than waking up a peacefully sleeping newborn when you’re more tired than you’ve ever been in your life, I can’t think of it.)
Did we destroy his natural bent toward sleeping long stretches with this routine? Maybe so. We’ll never know. But he needed to eat, so we did what we had to do.
Only within the last month or so has my son learned to put himself to sleep on his own with minimal fuss. Cry-it-out methods always tore our hearts out, and honestly, even when we got really desperate and gave modified CIO a try, he didn’t respond well. Swaddling didn’t help. Sound machines and pitch-black rooms made no difference. We tried it all. But still he woke up for hugs.
Sometimes in the desert of new-parent exhaustion, you will be seduced by the shimmering oasis of The Sleep Magic Bullet: that one time your baby wore the astronaut footie pajamas and drank exactly 7 ounces of milk before bed and had the swaddle blanket with the monkeys on it and Jupiter was in retrograde and he slept through the night!
In your sleep-deprived state, you will start to see patterns that might relieve you of your exhaustion everywhere, but often, you’re just looking for things that aren’t there.
So don’t get discouraged if exactly recreating that magical night yields less-than-satisfactory results. There are so many factors at play, sometimes it’s impossible to find the elusive Sleep Magic Bullet. And that’s OK.
Because here’s the thing: We survived. It’s been 19 months, and we are all reasonably well rested. Even though he still wakes up sometimes, he gets 10-11 hours of sleep a night. Our sanity, marriage, and sex life have emerged intact.
Healthy, happy babies with completely wonderful parents can be totally terrible sleepers. You’re not a failure. Your baby is not deficient. You’re doing a great job and your baby is doing just fine. It will get better, but sometimes it just takes a while. No two babies are created equal, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to be a parent.
And one day, your baby will be a teenager who sleeps 15 hours a night. It will happen. So at least there’s that.
(Note: The writing of this article was interrupted by my child waking up for a hug.)
Kimberly Poovey is a writer, speaker, wife, and over-caffeinated new(ish) mom. She runs a teen pregnancy prevention program for a nonprofit and is a founder of Pearls, an organization that serves women in the sex industry and fights human trafficking. You can find her over on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, her blog, and on Facebook.