Eight years ago, I was pregnant with my first child and I knew that I would probably have some sleepless nights in my future. It turns out that I didn’t even know the half of it. No one tells you ahead of time how bad it can be or how to cope, but three kids later, I’ve learned a couple of things:
Little babies can only be up for about two hours before they are tired again. Knowing this can make all the difference in how your days unfold. Knowing this can soften sleep struggles. Take note of when they get up and watch them after about two hours. It’s easier to put a sleepy baby to bed than to fight a baby who is either over-tired or not tired at all.
Thanks to Elizabeth Pantley for teaching me this one. We all sleep in cycles of deep sleep and light sleep, and we all wake up at various times during the night before returning back to sleep.
The problems for parents and babies are:
I happen to think that nursing to sleep is normal based on the biological systems that support it. However, it did help to know what was going on when my babies started waking hourly, or why a baby will only take 50 minute naps.
I’ve said this before, but this one is pretty big for me so I will say it again: the more I read the sleep books, the more likely I was not in a good head space about our sleep situation. I’m not saying that you should never ever pick up a book on baby sleep. Many of them are super helpful. Some of them are not. Also, as I indicated with the two points above, it IS worth knowing a bit about the mechanics and biology of baby sleep and naps. Absolutely. But when you are obsessively reading more than one sleep book at a time, keeping sleep logs, counting wake ups, comparing last week to this week, plotting, strategizing, and reaching for another sleep book, there’s a pretty good chance that you need:
I’m glad I read some of the books when I had my first baby. But I’m also glad that I eventually realized that I never needed to read them ever again. (This also goes for googling: how to get my baby to sleep or why is my baby waking up so much).
You know above where I said that you have to accept that this is what is happening now but it won’t last forever? You might have sworn at me under your breath. I hated, HATED, it when people said variations of “all this will one day be a memory” and I could have punched them in the throat when they even hinted that I would miss it. When I was in the depths of psychotic sleep deprivation, this is about the least helpful thing you could say to me. For someone who is struggling with the debilitating effects of lack of sleep like depression; rage; inability to think straight, recall vocabulary, or drive safely; every single day and every single night is torturous. Telling that person that in two YEARS it will be better is to completely misunderstand and minimize what they are going through.
However. It is so true. I have had three kids who have been “terrible sleepers.” (Whatever that means. I’m starting to suspect they were babies.) The first time around it was far more debilitating than the subsequent times, primarily because the first time I had nowhere inside me to gain some of that perspective. It really felt interminable. The second time I had the experience to know that it wouldn’t last forever and that I could get through it. But you only understand that from experience, so don’t say those things to a first time mom.
You know how that one ends right? Here’s the deal: For the first 3-4 months after birth, baby sleep is still kind of womb-like. Some books and experts talk in general about the Fourth Trimester, and I would generally agree with that idea. During this time, the baby is still not really awake to the world. She can’t see far. She sleeps a lot. She still blinks in shock at the brightness and loudness out here. And when I say that her sleep is womb-like, I mean that she may have her days and nights mixed up as she did in the womb when she would party as soon as you stilled your body for sleep. Or she may have the habits of a male lion: eating and sleeping for 20 hours a day in 15 minute to 2 hour stretches. Or she may only sleep while attached to your body. Whatever her pattern, the main thing to keep in mind is that nothing from this time is at all predictive of what will come next. Don’t worry if the days and nights are mixed up – it WILL get sorted. I guarantee it. Also, don’t brag about how great a sleeper your baby is – it will probably bite you in the ass (raising my hand here). If the baby is less than 16 weeks old, expect everything about sleep to go through a lot more phases. I repeat: at this time, it is far too early to tell what kind of sleeper you have on your hands. Don’t fret. Don’t gloat.
With the sleep challenges we’ve endured, I don’t think I would ever have gotten pregnant again except that I told myself “This time it will be different. I will do X differently. Or THIS kid will be one of the ones people talk about who is a good sleeper without me having to do anything differently.” I thought it was all the stuff I did wrong or I thought my oldest was a bad sleeper and the next one would be better. I put so much effort into trying to do things differently because I needed so desperately to get better sleep. I read the books and I blamed everything from nursing to sleep to co-sleeping. I believed I could not suffer through that kind of chronic long-term sleep deprivation ever again so every pregnancy I prayed that THIS kid would sleep.
Some babies do seem to sleep easier than others. I’ve read about families where they changed nothing and one kid slept and the other didn’t. I’ve read about families who changed everything but both kids slept the same. Most people will tell you it’s the personality of the kid. I would love to believe that but after three non-sleeper kids in a row that feels awfully unfair to me.
In the end, I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand why some people say their kids just slept through the night from the time they were wee babies. It probably is some intricate combination of genes, personality, parenting, physiology, environment, and phase of the moon…like everything in life.
All I know is that the pattern of sleep that my children followed does seem to be very normal, very widespread (even if it isn’t widely talked about) and I have no idea if there’s anything anyone can do about it. Oh yeah, and it’s probably not my fault. You just get what you get and you have no choice but to roll with it.
I’m sure you’ve learned a few things about baby sleep over the years too. I would love to hear what you figured out.