Infant Sleep Obsession

From a reader.

It's official; we care more about how long a baby sleeps than any other aspect of their growth or development.  Sleep length is the ultimate measure of baby goodness and parent competence.

This makes me feel kind of sad, I have to admit.  Because really, babies are so much more than just sleep.  My feelings on infant sleep have run the gamut over the years as I have made my way through four different babies with four very different sleep habits.

In fact, as I type my kids are one by one (or two by two) making their slap-footed way out of their room to disturb my nighttime typing.  Yeah- slightly irritating.

Baby one- I was a Dr Sears devotee and baby had a normal infant wake cycle where he woke about every two hours to eat.

Baby two- I was kind of burnt out from all that attachment parenting stuff and was blessed with a baby that slept 8-10 hours straight each night.  I was convinced it was because of my new found Harvey Karp devotion and was sure to let everybody know how they too could be as awesome as me.

Baby three-  As it turns out, even though I had procreated twice before and even though I did everything right, I actually knew ZERO about kids/infants/parenting/and sleep.  She started sleeping around the age of two. BOOO!!!

Baby four-  And I got lucky again.  She slept with us like a husband.  She would wake up sometimes to eat but not every hour.  She was so sweet and wonderful...still is.  By this time I had given myself the gift of not worrying so much.  Try it some time.  It is awesome.

Sleep obsession- I understand it.  I have been there.  Sleep deprived.  Freaking out.  Acting funny.  Hallucinating.  Not trusting myself on balconies.  I remember when I was kind of strung out and angry about all this sleep or lack thereof that a friend of mine just said, "It doesn't last that long.  Enjoy them."

Bah humbug!  I rolled my eyes.  She doesn't understand.  Her kids are older.  She doesn't remember the feelings of my heart!

But, I am starting to think she was right.

Now my youngest is two.  Most nights I sleep pretty good.  Most nights the kids go to bed and stay in bed and they sleep all night.  Sure, I often awake with a few little people wedged in our bed around us, but I don't notice it and it doesn't ruin my night.

Now, when I hear new parents comparing sleep lengths and times between feedings (admit it- almost everybody does it), well, I just feel a little sad.

I feel a little sad for all the parents who spend their days counting, scheduling, and overall obsessing about infant sleep patterns and length and how far they can go between feedings because frankly, there isn't a whole lot of joy in that.  I feel sad because I think they are missing out a bit on the beauty of the baby.

Babies are so much more than their sleep.  They are human beings.  They need love.  They need food.  They need comfort.  Those things are needs to them. NEEDS.

Do adults need sleep?  Of course they do.  If your child's lack of sleep is harming your sanity, ruining your marriage, and giving you serious anxiety, then by all means find something that works for you.  A book, a method, a trick, a song, a swaddle, a carrier, WHATEVER.  I have been there and done that and I know how it feels to live in CRAZY TOWN.  (I have the big house on the left, on the corner of Nuts Circle and Zoloft Drive.)

Yes.  Parents need sleep.  They need time for themselves and they need mental stability and sleep is part of that.  Yes- it is HARD to raise a baby gently and intuitively in a fractured and anti-family society like our own.  And yes, we will have to make use of some modern conveniences and even techniques to preserve our own peace of mind.

But you know what else- Parents DO NOT need eight solid (or 10 or 12) hours of sleep each night.  They don't need to force, push, cajole, trick, or starve a new baby into a fairly unnatural 10 hour solid sleep block for their own sanity.

In addition, parents certainly don't need to push their very young baby (less than six  months) to sleep these very long stretches.  I will always remember, years ago, talking to a mom whose four week old had been put on a strict 10 hour sleep schedule at night.  (They had worked "really hard" letting him cry to get him to do this.)  She was very confused about her lack of milk supply.  I was very confused about how she felt that was an OK way to treat a newborn and a fellow human.

Think about this for a moment.  Let's say that your baby is fairly normal and the first few weeks they wake up every two hours.  Then around three or four months they start having some longer stretches- say three or four hours at a time.  Then around a year they are only up once or twice to eat.  (PS- at 18 months all hell breaks loose- you deserve to know that.  There is nothing you can do about it.  This does definitely suck and you may suddenly be up every hour.  Freak out time!  This tends to happen no matter how well or badly they slept earlier.  It is called MOLARS.)

Looking back, aren't you going to feel kind of silly for spending so many hours obsessing and letting a baby cry or go hungry so that you could have more sleep?  Will you feel a little bad when you realize that this was just a blip in your parenting journey and one that would have righted itself within a year or so on its own?  I know this- because it righted itself in my kids.  

Think of all the time you wasted when you could have been hugging, holding, rocking, kissing, loving, smelling, nursing, and feeding that sweet little one.

The truth is, the time does go fast and we should cherish it a little.

(Oh crap.  I just realized my last post was called, "True Confessions: I Don't Enjoy Every Moment".  I may actually be schizophrenic...)

Babies are special.  They are programmed to need love and food almost constantly.  They have small stomachs.  They also have personalities all their own from birth.  Some will take easily to a schedule, some will make their own, some will sleep and some not so much.

Take a moment and step back and just hold your baby and enjoy them for what they are right then- in that moment.  Yes- it might be hard sometimes.  In fact, I can guarantee it will be.  But it will pass.  I know I want to look back and feel like I held them as much as I could and that I gave them the love they needed.  The sad truth is that babies are much easier in many ways than older kids.  They just need YOU.  No help with homework or moral guidance.  Babies are fairly simple creatures with fairly simple needs;  love, food, mom, love, and tender arms.  Give them that- a little piece of yourself.  Give them the sacrifice they need from you.

Give your baby what they need and stop comparing sleep times with everybody else.  That other stuff doesn't really matter.  


Katie said…
Actually, most adults do need 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Some need less, some need more, but 8 hours is the general sweet spot for health and well-being. For people who go through prolonged periods of sleep deprivation, they experience memory loss, depression, depressed immune systems and more illness, weight gain, higher incidence of diabetes and heart disease, decreased ability to pay attention, slower reaction time, and feel pain more easily. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to get into car accidents and have higher mortality rates than people who sleep at least 7 hours a night. Thanks to science, we know that we really do need 8 hours of sleep a night. We can function with less, but prolonged sleep deprivation takes a toll on our health and our ability to cope with the frustrations and challenges of day to day life.

I get what you're saying here. I think most parents are aware that sleep interruptions are short-term (although for some, short-term drags out for years) and that in the long run, we will miss some aspects of those sleepless nights. All of us have had those moments at 2 AM where we held our babies a little longer than we really needed to just to soak up the moment. However, all of us have also had those moments at 2 AM where we were crying hysterically and screaming at the baby monitor, "WHY WON'T YOU JUST GO TO SLEEP?!?!!?"

That's not silly. It's a natural and common response when your body is sleep deprived. Your health dips. Your emotional ability to cope with difficult situations dips. Your body is producing more stress hormones. It would honestly be more surprising if parents were able to make it through several months of night wakings while remaining continuous cool and perspective on the situation than the opposite.

Making parents feel bad or foolish for a normal, natural response to prolonged sleep deprivation is just unkind. Telling them they don't need 8 hours of sleep is just plain wrong. And if you're beating yourself up for how you handled the challenges of baby sleep when your kids were little, can I recommend maybe being gentle and kind to yourself and forgiving yourself for anything you did that you're not proud of? You were exhausted and stressed out, natural and completely expected outcomes of sleep deprivation. No one has to be the perfect parent all the time. It's okay to make mistakes, and sleep deprivation is a perfectly valid excuse.
Caryn said…
You are correct in that adults do need that much sleep a night, however, she said specifically that they don't need a STRAIGHT 8 hours, and that's completely true. Many recent sleep studies show that adults actually sleep better when they sleep in four hour stretches with a small break in between. There's no talk of parents needing to be sleep deprived, just a paradigm shift in what a normal sleep schedule should look like.

PS, I am just coming out of a two year battle of sleep issues with my second child. She just turned two on Sunday and still doesn't regularly sleep through the night, but she's FINALLY starting to get the hang of it. NOTHING has worked for her. No methods, no songs, no medical help. Nothing. She broke the mold, so I TOTALLY relate to this post. Sleep is totally overrated. I'm just sorry it took me 2 years to figure that out. I could have been a lot happier through it all.
Unknown said…
Thank you Caryn-
Cindy said…
The most stressful thing about a baby's sleep is having to answer all the questions from people regarding the baby's sleep: "Is she sleeping through the night yet? No? Oh, well, MYYY babies were all sleeping through the night by 7 weeks! I always had my way with my babies. They knew not to bug us until the morning!"
For myself, after 5 babies, I had learned not to sweat it, and if a new mama is asking me what to do when her baby doesn't STTN yet, I try to help her relax and stay laid back about it. This article says it just right!
Unknown said…
Well my youngest never slept through the night until he was 10. Yep 10. That's years old not months. He is 14 now, and I have to disagree with the needing 8 hours. Sorry but I didn't have a solid 8 hours for almost 10 years and while I would get frustrated and even angry sometimes, i.copied just fine. If it weren't okay then evolution would have made it so infants were all born able to sleep through the night. My oldest is 21, and my youngest is 14 and I what I wouldn't give for one more, "mom, I'm scared, can I sleep with you and dad."
Kara said…
GREAT article! I thoroughly enjoyed every word and my heart resonated. You are comical as well, which I loved! I am 25 weeks pregnant and have been wondering about how sleep would go for baby and I. I recently I have been waking up at 4am. And today I made the choice to get up and do/relax, instead of lying there wide awake thinking for another 2 hours. I got 5 hours sleep and feel pretty good. Looking forward to an afternoon nap! I feel this is a sign and indicator. And perhaps my body is preparing. Crazy how our bodies just know. And I am totally okay with this. As long as my baby feels loved and is happy I will be too. And it is true to take care of ourselves first in order to take care of others, however we do need to sacrifice our sleep (and a lot more most likely..!) in order to love and feed our babies. And savor these moments and not stress about it. Breathe in. Breathe out!

Really great read and very reassuring for my mind and heart. THANK YOU, Mama Birth!

I have shared on one of my Pinterest boards! - (Kara Jeannette)

Namaste! xox
Thanks so much for this post! I have a 3 year old and a 7 month old. It's all going so fast the second time around that I am cherishing all the night wakings because I now know that they will end soon enough. I'm a little frazzled but have an extreme version of mama-brain, but it's so worth it.