People love babies. They love to see babies and hold babies and snuggle babies, but most most of all, people like to give advice and suggestions about babies. I recently took my children to a local mall for some back to school shopping. I had my baby in a carrier, as we walked around. I had quite a few people come up to see him. They asked how old he was, how big he was, and his name. Then I got the dreaded question, “Is he sleeping through the night?” I laughed it off and remarked that he was only a few weeks old. The questioner mentioned that she was sure her babies had slept through the night, by the time they were one month old. I shrugged my shoulders, and I moved on to our shopping.
Since this is my third baby, that question barely phases me. But not so long ago, that seemingly innocuous question caused me to lose more sleep than having a newborn ever did. Shortly after the birth of our first child, my husband and I moved to California, for a summer job. My husband was working long hours, and the transition into motherhood felt particularly difficult without the help of family and friends.
By the time my daughter was four months old, it seemed like the only question people asked me was if she was sleeping through the night. (She wasn’t) With a negative response, people were only too happy to talk about how their children had slept through the night by (two, five, ten) weeks. They would then suggest a method or technique to try. Most techniques involved supplementing formula or even baby food just before bed. I was committed to a long breastfeeding relationship, so I didn’t feel comfortable supplementing with formula or baby food. My daughter was waking around three times a night for feedings, and I thought that was pretty normal, so I didn’t worry about it too much.
As the weeks wore on, and the questions about sleep continued, I began to think that maybe I was doing something wrong. Why was every baby sleeping through the night, except mine? Everyone seemed shocked that my, now, five month old was not sleeping through the night, and the suggestions became more insistent. Even my husband began to ask if there was something more we could be doing, to get her to sleep through the night. I began to research sleep training, checked out several book from the library, and ordered even more books online.
The first book I read stated that if a child was not sleeping for an eight hour stretch, through the night, by 3 months, they would have problems with sleep the rest of their life. Now, not only was I sleep deprived and anxious, but I had officially ruined my daughter’s ability to sleep, for the rest of her life. Each “sleep” method promised that it could help any baby sleep through the night. But each method only seemed to make my daughter and me more stressed out, and we were getting less and less sleep. I was beginning to feel like a failure. Why was I failing, when other parents made it sound so easy and simple? Was something wrong with my daughter? Was I just a bad mom? I was averaging about 3 hours of sleep a night, as I tried desperately to teach my daughter to sleep through the night. I would hold my daughter and just sob, in the early hours of the morning, trying everything I could think of to get her to sleep longer. I was miserable, my husband was miserable, and I can only imagine how absolutely miserable my daughter was.
One night in desperation, I gave up. I threw away the books and decided that I didn’t care how many shocked looks I got, I was not “sleep” training anymore. We settled back into 2-3 feedings a night. We returned home at the end of that eternally long summer, and my nine month old was still waking two times a night to eat.
The dreaded sleep question was still being asked, but I no longer cared. Around 15 months old, my daughter began to consistently sleep through the night, all by herself, without stressful sleep training.
I look back with a little bit of guilt and shame at how much I stressed out over getting my daughter to sleep through the night. She naturally transitioned into it when she was ready, as did my son, and I’m sure my new baby will do the same thing. At the same time, I know that I only began to question myself and my daughter because of the continued question “Are they sleeping through the night?”.
I know each time that question is asked, it is well-intentioned, but it does no one any good. A negative response, only makes a parent feel like a failure. Even a positive answer, seems to make sleep the benchmark by which we measure a good parent. But the biggest problem with that question is the accompanying statement of how early your child slept through the night. It seems like everything in life turns into a competition. Parents have gone to extreme measures, including food deprivation, to try and get their babies to sleep through the night. Parents are already frazzled and unsure of themselves, they don’t need the added pressure and competition over how early they can get their baby to sleep for an 8 hour stretch. In fact, many experts now agree that 4-5 hours of continuous sleep in considered “sleeping through the night” for babies.
If a parent is getting their child to sleep through the night, they will probably be shouting it from the rooftops, as the bags disappear from under their eyes. If parents don’t bring it up, don’t ask about sleep. There are plenty of other fantastic topics to ask parents such as: What’s new with your baby? What are some new things your baby enjoys doing, eating, seeing? What are some things you enjoy doing with your baby?
New parents need support and understanding not questions about how much sleep they are getting.
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