“Is she sleeping through the night yet?” The worst question that could ever be asked of a new mom. EVER! Becuase, um, news flash: Babies don’t (and shouldn’t) really conform to our ideals of what it means to sleep for long periods without waking, at nighttime.
I mean pretty much anyone who’s ever had a baby, or taken care of someone else’s baby, could probably tell you that. And yet, how a baby is sleeping is always at the very top of other people’s priority list for your baby.
So, you feel like it should be at the top of your priority list too, right? I mean everyone keeps asking about it, so it must be important, right?
And your completely sleep-deprived self is screaming – YES! It is important! I need to sleep! And so I need to get my baby to sleep through the night!! Because that’s what all the experts tell me I am supposed to do.
But, maybe there is more to it than just sleeping through the night.
Should Babies Be Expected to Sleep On Their Own?
While helping your baby to sleep is definitely important, both for you and for him, how you go about doing that is as individual as the baby himself. There is not one right way to help your baby sleep, even though, for some reason, there is one way that seems to scream louder in our sleep-deprived minds than all the others.
That message is: Just let your baby cry-it-out – that is the only way to teach them to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. And you must stick it out – because if you give in – it won’t work.
Whether you actually read the cry-it-out books or not, this message completely pervades the culture of new parenthood. How to get a baby to sleep and where they are supposed to sleep are questions that are answered for us by the culture and media before our sweet babies are even born, and before we’ve even met our little bundle of joy with their own unique and individual personalities.
The answers are: 1) Baby sleeps by themselves, crying if they need to, and 2) Baby sleeps in their own bed in their own room.
But, let me push back for a minute – why do we have the idea that babies NEED to fall asleep and stay asleep all alone, and all night long?
A newborn baby has been near you, literally inside you, for nine months! Why all of the sudden, as soon as they are born into this world, do we push independence on them? Be careful, your baby might get too attached to you, they say.
Um, they are already attached to you. In fact, they were just literally cut-off from being attached to you. You are not making them attached to you, they already are. And why is it so bad for a helpless baby to be attached to a loving caregiver anyway?
And maybe our ideals of a baby’s sleep are completely wrong? Dr James McKenna of the Mother-Baby Behavior Sleep-Labratory at Notre Dame says,
I have argued… that not only have these culturally imposed infant sleep goals and beliefs effected parents deleteriously but they lead to the adoption of biologically inappropriate standards and expectations as to how infants are supposed to sleep.
I argue that our obsession scientifically with the solitary sleeping infant as normal and optimal, the alleged gold standard on infant sleep research methods, is fundamentally flawed and tells us nothing about how the human infant sleeps or develops sleep.”
And what about you – do you sleep in a bed all alone by yourself? Because I don’t. I sleep in a bed next to my husband every night. And let me tell you – if he stays up later than me, or is out of town, I have a hard time falling asleep without him next to me. We share a bed with the person we are most intimate with. Why do we expect different of our precious babies?
Do some babies sleep better when they are alone in their own rooms? Yes. Do all babies sleep better alone in their own rooms. Certainly not.
And I think that is the important thing to remember – that as a mama of a new baby, you need to figure out what is right for you and your baby. You need to respond to your baby’s needs and personality, and the reality is that some babies are just needier than others and will not do well with a cry-it-out approach.
Does this mean that the cry-it-out approach is wrong or bad for babies? Well, again, I really think it depends on the baby. I do think it is wrong and bad for certain babies.
There is a complete difference between fussing for 10-20 minutes and then falling asleep on their own, and screaming their bloody lungs off for hours with no end in sight. Sure the baby that screams may fall asleep eventually out of sheer exhaustion, but they are not really learning to soothe themselves and fall asleep on their own. They are only learning to associate sleep with panic and fear, which could lead to even greater sleep issues as they grow older.
If you have a high-needs baby who is not a light 10-20 minute fusser, I am right there with you mama! All three of my babies have been that way. The good news is that you can still get sleep and feel rested, even if your baby doesn’t master the cry-it-out approach.
Getting Sleep with a High-Needs Baby
It begins with letting go of that ideal – that you can lay your baby down to sleep on their own and they will sleep for 8 hours straight without waking. And instead to embrace the rhythms of the way that your baby sleeps and how they sleep best.
It’s also believing in yourself as their mama to help them sleep while still getting the sleep you need.
For me, the secret to getting sleep with a high needs baby is co-sleeping. Honestly, with my first babe, I tried to wake up in the night and feed her and put her back in her bassinet in our room. But all that did was leave me exhausted and with a stiff neck from falling asleep sitting up while nursing her.
Finally, I decided to just bring her into bed with me, nursing her when she woke up and drifting back off to sleep together. Co-sleeping totally saved my sanity and helped me get over those days of sheer exhaustion.
With my second and third babies, I brought them into bed with me from the day they were born. In fact, my third babe was born at home and has slept at least part of every single night in bed with me since then.
And what an amazing gift that is: the gift of sleep and of sharing sleep with your new baby. I never experienced the extreme exhaustion with my second or third babes the way I did with my first.
(I will be honest, now that my babe isn’t such a babe, she’s 20 months old, I’m ready to move her on and out of our bed. We are slowly working on that – that’s another post for another day – I just wanted to be honest that while I love co-sleeping, there does come a day when I don’t love it so much anymore!)
Of course, co-sleeping needs to be done with care and concern for safety. But when done appropriately, it can actually help both mothers and babies to sleep better and to get more sound sleep.
Check out the Safe Sleep Guidelines from the Mother-Baby Sleep Lap at Notre Dame and also the FAQs to make sure you are making the best choice for you and your baby.
And co-sleeping doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In our family we choose to put our babies to bed in their own beds – either a bassinet in our room when they are young (up to 6 months) or in their own room as they get older – and then when the baby wakes up to nurse, I bring her into bed with me. Sometimes I return her to her own bed sometime later in the night. Or sometimes she sleeps the rest of the night with me, either way, we practice more of a partial co-sleeping. That is what we have found to be best for our family and our babies.
When it comes to you and your baby’s sleep, you need to figure out what works best for you, your baby and your family. And the likelihood is that everyone’s situation and sleeping choices will look different – and that is totally okay.
I just want to encourage you to that just because the culture tells us that a baby needs to sleep by themselves in their own room, all night long, does not mean that is necessarily the right thing for you and your sweet babe.
I also want to highly recommend my friend Megan’s book that she co-authored, Spirit-Led Parenting. The sub-title says it all: From Fear to Freedom in Baby’s First Year. It will help you let go of the guilt and tune into the Spirit and your babe to be the best mama you can be!
My friend Beth at Red and Honey also shared her very personal story of trying the crying-it-out method and finding what worked best for her: Dear Sleep Deprived Mama: Here’s the Story I Was Too Scared to Tell.
What messages did you hear from the culture and media when you were pregnant about where your baby should sleep? Did you struggle with feeling like your baby was supposed to cry-it-out and sleep through the night, and they just didn’t seem to fit into that mold? Let’s share our stories with each other so we can all be encouraged.
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