Here are some lies people tell you about infant sleep

Before I posted this, Adam peeked over my shoulder, saw the title and said, ‘”Oh my god, stop writing about infant sleep. No one cares.”

If this statement applies to you, SORRY NOT SORRY THIS IS MY LIFE, ADAM!

Now for our regularly scheduled mom post.

I know that many of you don’t have babies yet, or have babies that are younger than Olive – I am writing this post for you.

When O 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 typically nursed 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 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.

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 that they call Pick-Up, Put-Down, and I call HORRIBLE. 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 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 that this all went down – the nurse and the talk and the day of failed “sleep training”-  I remember feeling incredibly 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. EVERRRRRR. 

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! I want the truth! I can handle the truth!

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 like Adam, 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.

And y’all, seriously, stop being so crazy with the books and the shushing and the picking up and putting down and the 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, that stillness, and honestly, there’s a reason it works so well. Night time 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…”)

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. Adam 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 share 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 periodbecause of the sleep props, and the bad habits, and my horrible, 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.

Not being able to breastfeed is heartbreaking, but being constantly guilt-tripped over it is worse.

Being up all night with a baby is challenging, but being lectured on all the ways you are ruining your child’s future sleep patterns when you admit it, is worse.

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 the 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.)

*****

Here’s another thing, while we are on the subject of truth telling. Two months ago Olive went through a 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 the 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. EVERYTHING IS RUINED FOREVER NO ONE WILL EVER SLEEP AGAIN MISTER FERBER WHERE ARE YOU WHEN I NEED YOU?”

The thing is, the week after The Dark Time, Olive began crawling, started standing unassisted, and then popped out two teeth.

And her then her sleep went back to normal.

20130924-002301.jpg

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.

 

Nov 23, 2014

Edited to add: This post is getting some attention again so I just thought I would add a little update. I weaned Olive at around 18-19 months and transitioned into reading books to go to sleep. 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!

 

Did you enjoy hearing me ramble about infant sleep? I also ramble about other things, too, in book form! 
If you are interested in learning how to estrange your husband by composting, make your neighbours uncomfortable by flashing your under-lovelies, or start shampooing your hair with baking soda, click here!

674 thoughts on “Here are some lies people tell you about infant sleep

  1. Thank-you. Wrong or not I have two sons, ten and three. I have spent nearly eight years of my life nursing. The first until he was three years and 364 days and the second is nursing as I type this. My sister has announced I may not nurse in my own living room if she is visiting. My partner and sons’ father now refuses to be seen with me in a restaurant and is forever judging and guilting me. I ignore them all, but it does hurt and I totally get the anger for the lost moments that could have been lovely and instead got ruined by some judgement that did not match my own. The fact is I do the best I can and if anyone has something to say about it then just follow the gospel truth, if you cannot say something nice, say nothing at all.

  2. Thank you very much for this! I have a 4 year old and an 11 month old, both of whom I nurse to sleep. I have friends who sleep trained, and I know it is not easy. I tried once and the crying literally broke my heart. With my second I tried for a bit, but when he got very ill, he needed the comfort and so back to the nursing to sleep. My 4 year old still hates to sleep alone, since I also bed shared. But when we tried to get her to sleep on her own, I realized how much she is like me, I hate to sleep alone, and when I have my hubby or one of the babies to sleep with, I sleep much more soundly. Why would I blame my daughter for being like me? Thank you for laugh and the sense of comfort your post provided.

  3. Shoot.. The person that wrote this didn’t think about a males attention span.. Break it down plez for a mommy who needs a good dad to see the other side😉

  4. Thank you! Just read this article and I’m glad I did. It feels like a birthday present to myself. I don’t mind the lack of sleep but I hate the feeling that I’m doing something wrong or that I am creating future problems. According to one very popular book I am guilty of ‘accidental’ parenting (by rocking Logan to sleep) well no, it is not accidental, it is fully on purpose parenting. I am doing what my child needs to relax and be calm enough to go to sleep. I shouldn’t doubt myself. I know what he needs. I also know there are not many feelings can beat when he snuggles into my shoulder as I’m singing our favourite lullabies. All too soon will come the day when I don’t need to!

  5. Hi! First of all, I really like what this article has to say about sleep. I agree completely that forcing your baby into a schedule is crazy-making, and that every baby is different and parents should be encouraged to follow baby’s cues. I also agree nursing to sleep is great and doesn’t cause bad habits (I have a 10 months old I bed-shared with for the first 5 months of his life, and who I’ve nursed to sleep since birth and he sleeps in his own room in his own crib now with no problems).

    However, I just wanted to ask you to think a bit more carefully about something you said that could be very hurtful to moms who struggle to BF. Specifically, you say “Not being able to breastfeed is heartbreaking, but being constantly guilt-tripped over it is worse.”

    I struggled with low supply in the beginning, and it took us a full 4 months to establish a good BFing relationship. I am part of an IGT Low Supply group, and what you said really trivializes the struggles of those with low supply. I actually DON’T think that people saying something upsetting to you is worse than not being able to nourish your own child. You are allowed to be hurt by what others may say, but getting over being guilt-tripped is a LOT easier than dealing with the devastation of learning that the child you thought you were successfully nursing for the past 2 weeks has actually been starving.

    While I completely agree that we need more support for BFing moms – more institutional support (longer, paid maternity leave, better advice/info in hospitals), more societal support (normalizing infant sleep and nursing in public) and more educational support (a requirement that all doctors have some BFing education in med school) – I think it’s also important to keep in mind that comparisons such as the one you made above are at best often unhelpful, and at worst can be very hurtful.

    I hope my post doesn’t come across badly – I am just trying to share a different perspective. Thank you for your time.

    • You are so right, Elise. I am so sorry. I have no idea what it feels like to go through that kind of experience as a mother, and I shouldn’t have included that as a comparison note. My heart goes out to you for the struggles you experienced. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know so respectfully how that thoughtless sentence made you feel. I am struggling with whether to change it now after so any people have seen it (would that be disingenuous?) or to add a clarification/apology? What do you think?

      On Wed, Nov 26, 2014 at 11:24 AM, Sweet Madeleine wrote:

      >

      • Thank you so much for your understanding and considerate reply! I would love if you added something clarifying…or whatever you are most comfortable doing.

        I think as moms it is so important that we support and encourage each other. Thank you so much again for your response. Happy holidays to you and yours.

      • I struggled with breastfeeding my 2 children as I had no milk, at all. Despite all of my efforts, both of my children ended up being on formula. I had a very hard birth with my oldest, so the thought was that, perhaps, the trauma and stress my body went through dried up my supply. The birth of my second child was much easier and I happily and eagerly tried to breastfeed. The nurses were commenting on how great of a team we were, my daughter had an excellent latch and there were absolutely NO issues… except that, once again, I had no milk. When I read, “Not being able to breastfeed is heartbreaking, but being constantly guilt-tripped over it is worse.” I completely related to this as well! I wasn’t offended or upset at all and found it to be very truthful. I remember being told that “all women produce milk, you just aren’t trying hard enough” and “the women that claim they don’t produce milk just don’t stick with it long enough” and, my favorite, “there isn’t a such thing as a woman that doesn’t produce milk because that’s what breasts are for”. I found these comments and guilt trips to be very upsetting as I wanted nothing more than to be able to nurse my kids. I’m not trying to cause an argument or minimize someones thoughts and feeling, but wanted to let you know that not everyone will be offended :).

        I can definitely relate to the pressures of “sleep training” by all of these experts and I agree 100% with doing what works best for you. Children are very different from each other, with different personalities, so this idea that “what works for one, will work for all” is rubbish in my opinion.

        Have a great day!

  6. I don’t remember how I got to your page, but I’m glad I did cause your post made me laugh! Everything you write is true..I too go to these so called “support” groups with “experts” talking about how we should be doing things and honestly all I can say is that I come out of them feeling like the worst mother ever!! Apparently I am doing everything wrong!! However, I still go just to learn of other ways to do things, not necessarily meaning that the way I do them is wrong. I have two boys, a 3 year old who still cannot go to sleep on his own (I have to lie with him until he falls asleep) and who still wakes up two to three times at night calling (crying/yelling) for me, and a 10 month old who I nurse to sleep every night (and also wakes up around two to three times to be nursed to sleep again!). When my 3 year old was about 1 and half I used to give him his bottle and then lie him is his crib fully awake and he would fall asleep on his own, and now this is something that seems impossible for him to do. My point is that every baby is different and I absolutely believe that there is no pattern whatsoever in babies sleep. I mean, they go through stages, and honestly I love the time we spend lying together in bed with my 3 year old snuggling until he goes to sleep, and also love nursing my baby to sleep. I mean, the time WILL come when they won’t want us with them, when they will want to sleep on their own, so why not enjoy it while we can??? I would however love if they slept through the night…!!!

  7. Thank you so much for this which I only came across today. I have spent the past week doing exactly what you did (reading the “experts”) and feeling like an awful first time mum for nursing, rocking, etc to sleep. I even felt guilty for letting my little one nuzzle in and nap on my chest for however long he wanted. This makes me feel so much better and gives me renewed confidence to go with my instinct and just be the mother my son wants and needs me to be. His mother. Not the mother some book says I should be. Thank you again.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this, being a new Mum is terrifying but this has made it just that bit easier :)

  9. I’m not a parent so I don’t have a comment on sleep training or sleep patterns in children but I am a dental hygienist and I think it’s important that parents are informed of the risks of dental caries in children who fall asleep with milk in their mouths. This is obviously only a concern for babies/children who have dentition which typically erupt around 6 months of age (varies). I’m sensitive to the fact that parents have a multitude of things to worry and think about but this is just a friendly reminder to be observant of your childs teeth if you are breastfeeding them to sleep or using a bottle. :)

  10. i disagree whole heartedly with your attitude shaming people who have necessarily sleep trained. Calling it bullshit?????! Yep I tried very hard to nurse to sleep and Yep I got up in the middle of the night for a year Yep. But around 4 months for over 6 weeks my daughter woke up every 20-40 minutes and wouldn’t nap anywhere but my lap which she would do for a few hours. So pardon me for taking the necessary steps to be rested enough to properly care for my baby. Many moms have to work thus have to sleep. It’s a choice and no one shoul shame anyone for choices they make that don’t actually harm a baby merely help them sleep. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that your baby was able to sleep without giving up nursing to sleep and I don’t think that teacher at the library should have been so black and white but this article is equally as mean as she was. So thank you for adding yourself to those who shame mothers for the choices they have to make. Not all babys sleep the same way and not all mothers are capable of committing them selves to insanity and severe post pardom depression that can come with sleep deprivation yep we are not all as wonderful as you.

  11. Reading this at 11:30pm with eyes like sandpaper, feeling like i want to cry because my 7 month old has woken and im feeding him to sleep again. I love breast feeding, and i have been feeling so guilty because i keep getting told that he will never self settle and i need to be letting him “cry it out”. My sleep training attempts lasted 1 hour, i couldn’t bear to hear him so upset, it was totally heartbreaking.

    i keep getting told to stop his night feeds and stop him feeding to sleep so i don’t ruin him and i have been feeling like the worst mum ever, hes been horrible sleeping for the last month, but hes learned to crawl, has got 2 teeth, learned to sit unaided and took is first supported steps so i’m not surprised that he’s not sleeping well.

    It was amazing reading your article, i sat here with tears in my eyes “I’M NOT ALONE!!!!” I can breathe and relax and stop worrying that i’m doing more damage than good.
    I can’t count the nights i’ve spent 2 hours walking around with him crying while i try and rock him to sleep and then finally gave up and fed him because “i had to be up in an hour”

    next time i’m told that i shouldn’t be feeding him to sleep i will tell them to shove their advice because he’s doing fine =D

    Thank you so much!!!!

  12. Reading this at 11:30pm with eyes like sandpaper, feeling like i want to cry because my 7 month old has woken and im feeding him to sleep again. I love breast feeding, and i have been feeling so guilty because i keep getting told that he will never self settle and i need to be letting him “cry it out”. My sleep training attempts lasted 1 hour, i couldn’t bear to hear him so upset, it was totally heartbreaking.

    i keep getting told to stop his night feeds and stop him feeding to sleep so i don’t ruin him and i have been feeling like the worst mum ever, hes been horrible sleeping for the last month, but hes learned to crawl, has got 2 teeth, learned to sit unaided and took is first supported steps so i’m not surprised that he’s not sleeping well.

    It was amazing reading your article, i sat here with tears in my eyes “I’M NOT ALONE!!!!” I can breathe and relax and stop worrying that i’m doing more damage than good.
    I can’t count the nights i’ve spent 2 hours walking around with him crying while i try and rock him to sleep and then finally gave up and fed him because “i had to be up in an hour”

    next time i’m told that i shouldn’t be feeding him to sleep i will tell them to shove their advice because he’s doing fine =D

    Thank you so much!!!!

  13. Thanks for being honest and realistic. . It really helps.
    Are you able to share how you weaned your daughter? My son is 22mo and I’ve got thinking about it for a while but not quite sure how to start
    x

  14. My sweet baby girl is just six months and since birth had to get used to sleeping on her own because she was in ICU for a while. It broke my heart to not be able to cuddle her to sleep or breastfeed her (even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to for medical reasons before she was born). It’s made her quite an independent sleeper which I guess is a good thing, but still at six months goes to sleep with us on either side of her, and we have to have an arm or hand on her for most of the time! It is one of the most special things for me when she falls asleep in my arms and we have a cuddle on the sofa. So most of the time she goes on her side and dozes off quite happily, and has been doing so since she was a newborn.

    When she is upset and overtired though, nothing works better than a bottle and cuddle. She will always fall asleep on the bottle as well and be out. So it can work just as well for bottlefed babies as well as breastfed. I find it crazy to not comfort my baby to sleep if that is what she wants. When she was sick it was the only way I felt I could help her, cuddling her and having her sleep on my chest whenever she wanted to. Why that would change a few very short months later is beyond me. Now in the middle of the night if she wails for more than a few moments we know she’s in need of a bit of reassurance or just to know we are there. Other times she settles and goes straight back to sleep on her own.

    Nature has been assisting babies to do what they need to do for thousands of years. I’m beyond grateful for the miracles of modern medicine that saved her life, but when it comes to parenting there is no one size fits all and there is far too much these days of telling new mums and dads what they should and shouldn’t be doing. In things like this I believe in things like this we need to be guided by instinct and love, just like our babies are. I believe we ignore this to everyone’s detriment. Life is far too short to be judging others, or ourselves. I still struggle sometimes with guilt and anxiety, but am trying to be better at listening to myself and my daughter :)

    Thank you for a great article.

  15. oh the whole great post – you do what is right for you & no one should make u feel guilty about it. Every baby is completely different – I never fed my eldest to sleep coz milk didn’t make him sleepy. My youngest is the opposite. I do however disagree with your comment that being judged for breastfeeding is worse than the heartbreak for not being able to breastfeed. I personally feel very angry and upset with how society has made me feel so guilty for not being able to breastfeed. Mums ask me if I breastfeed and I end up telling them the whole story as to why it didn’t work – I feel it could have lead to PN depression and because of the scale of the pressure to breastfeed, trying but not being able to is way worse than the odd nastily superior person who makes u feel guilty for breastfeeding. Xx

  16. Hello, single mum of twin boy bubbies here – I did two weeks residential “sleep school” and have to say, what I really came away with in the end, after observing all the other parents and babies, was that everything I was experiencing, and everything I was seeing around me were simply variants of “normal”. At the end of the day I am starting to think that the increase in our focus on sleep issues etc. and the plethora of new “industries” that have sought to ‘help’ or profit by it, have come about as our access to community, or ‘the village’, has dwindled. The isolation of the nuclear family, or of being, like myself, a sole parent, just shows what happens when we are not supported as we used to be. Babies could be babies, but mummies probably got some sleep because there were more sisters, aunties, neighbours, friends, etc. around to gather up bubs and take for a walk or whatever, and cook food, help out, whatever. We simply don’t have that any more. I’ve always said I could cope so much better on this baby journey – if I could just have a little more sleep! I think that lack of community, in whatever shape it used to take, is fundamental to our current struggles – also the wisdom and teaching that would have come from older women around us. Who knows – they could have been tyrants (there’s usually one isn’t there!) – but that’s my two cents worth. Absolutely enjoyed your piece and have shared it with my mums group – thanks, Kathrin from Australia

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