So I considered titling this post “Baby Sleep Fake News, LIES!” but thought that might be a little aggressive, and well, nutball sounding.
I also considered making this post a more straightforward explanation of our family’s approach to sleep, tips, what’s worked, what hasn’t, etc. (when there is an “approach”, trust me, in the beginning with both kids it’s pretty much just been wherever, whenever, however, and a lot of praying, and tears).
But here’s the thing. I realized that by putting a post like that out into the universe, at least without a big old disclaimer, it would sort of be contributing to a problem I myself have had to reckon with, which is the mountain of sleep misinformation, aggressive sleep advice, and sleep momsplaining (definition of momsplaining for those of you unfamiliar, from definithing.com: when you didn’t ask for her opinion but she gives it anyway and it’s rude af. or just acting like i’m dumb in general.)
I’m pretty sure there is NOTHING on earth more demoralizing than searching online for “baby sleep tips.” It is particularly demoralizing when you do it at three in the morning with a screaming baby in your arms and you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days, or weeks, or months.
Actually, there is one thing more demoralizing. And that is reading a sleep BOOK at three in the morning. Which book you ask? Because there are quite literally dozens, nay hundreds of tomes dedicated to the sleep habits of tiny humans. It doesn’t matter. ALL OF THEM. They are all well-intentioned guilt bombs waiting to explode all over your inadequate soul.
Oh, how I did this with Ryland. I lived for it. I read the books. I read every website. I did it all.
It’s taken me two babies, and a lot of time, and maybe some intense therapy (okay not really, but I probably could have benefited from it after my baby sleep-related PTSD) to finally have a little clarity. Now, don’t get me wrong, even on baby #2 I still obsess far too much about sleep, particularly right now in the midst of sleep training. But I have realized that there are a lot of myths and misinformation out there about baby sleep, and all of it can seem designed specifically to make parents feel bad. So I thought I’d do my part to help clear things up:
Myth #1: Some newborns are perfect sleepers from Day 1, because they’re “good” babies.
Reality: Here’s the thing about newborns. Almost universally, they do something I like to refer to as coma sleep. For the first 3-4 months of their lives, they don’t sleep the way adults sleep, which is to cycle through sleep cycles and wake between. They just pretty much pass out like drunken frat boys whenever and wherever. You could have a 100 piece marching band parade through the nursery and they would sleep through it. You could take them to a Justin Bieber concert filled with thousands of screaming girls, and they would sleep through that. It has NOTHING to do with them being “good” or their parents being #blessed. It’s just biology. The newborns who don’t sleep like that are either colicky or having issues with feeding (either mama milk problems, which are super common, or reflux or gas). They’re not “bad.” They’re not trying to ruin your life (though it can seem that way). I know I found myself, and still find myself, saying a lot that Bobby is such a “sweet”, “easy” baby. And that’s all true. He slept A LOT in the beginning, like hours at a time during the day, to the point where I sometimes had to wake him up to eat. And I kind of feel terrible for how often I described him as “good,” because it’s just plain wrong to think that babies who sleep well are somehow morally superior to those other rotten, high maintenance diva babies who try to destroy their parents’ lives. I’ve had both of these types of children now. I can emphatically say that they both sometimes try to ruin my life. And I love them equally for it.
Myth #2. If your baby sleeps well in the beginning, it’s all smooth sailing from there on out.
Reality. See above, re newborn coma sleep. Oh sweet, naive first-time parent dummies (I can say that because I was the biggest dummy of all). I see or hear so many people in those early months say things like “my baby is such an awesome sleeper” or “she slept through the night already!” And I smile and nod and try not to rub my hands together and cackle maniacally. It’s such a mean system, the fact that right around 3-4 months, babies lose their collective minds. It’s called a regression, but really it’s a sleep IMPLOSION. It all falls apart. Because they fundamentally start sleeping in a much, much different way. So long marching band. So long Bieber concerts. They like, need quiet now. And darkness. And white noise. You go from letting them sleep in a sun-filled room with the TV on and possibly a mariachi band to a dark, silent, sound-proofed panic room you’ve installed in your basement, where the slightest noise made by your dog or toddler or husband is enough to send you into a full-blown panic.
I really think someone, somewhere, should prepare parents for this. No one wants to be the guy to tell a new parent that their life is going to get significantly worse in 4 months, but somoene should right? Because what happens now is that parents get all smug and cocky and think they’ve cracked the newborn sleep code, and maybe they should write a sleep book or at least a sleep blog, and then the 4-month sleep regression hits and EVERYBODY LOSES THEIR MINDS.
Anyway, my point is, be prepared. Just because your baby sleeps well in the beginning and starts sleeping through the night, do not think this is your new way of life. And if your baby sleeps horribly as a newborn and you look around at all these other semi-rested parents and want to cry, just know that the universe has it in for them too.
Myth #3. You need to start a sleep schedule ASAP. Like preferably in the hospital. Eat. Play. Sleep. Big time. 24/7. You may literally be getting stitched up in the recovery room, but you better get on the EASY train (for the uninitiated, Eat. Activity. Sleep. You/mom time) or you will miss the window and your baby will NEVER SLEEP AGAIN.
Okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I do like a good schedule. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly a laid-back Sally. I’m more of an OCD Carol. I have Eat. Play. Sleeped both of my babies (within reason, I have never been a Easy Nazi, because life is just too short, people). But, and this is a big old bootie BUT, in the early weeks and months with both of my children, I have not remotely cared about EASY-ing things up. Because newborns cannot be scheduled. No really. No, I don’t care if Susan on website A tells you this is possible, or if Beth over on the sleep forums got her kid on a rigid schedule when they were 6 hours old. That’s either luck or coincidence or them literally Weekend at Bernie-ing their poor baby and making them “play” when they are passed out asleep because THE SCHEDULE SAID TO DO IT. Newborns are basically one evolutionary rung away from jellyfish. And trying to schedule a newborn is about as effective, and frustrating, as trying to schedule a jellyfish. Just leave them be. Let them sleep when they want to sleep, eat when they want to eat, and poop when they want to poop! I get it, type A mothers of American. It is incredibly frustrating to accept that there is a new human living in your house who is going to do whatever they darn well please, whenever they darn well please, like you’ve just agreed to room with a Real Housewife.
I get why so many people so desperately try to schedule their teeny tiny babies. You want some semblance of order in a life that has suddenly become a vast, chaotic wilderness. But if you’re frantically swinging your baby around the room after they eat to get them to “wake up” instead of just enjoying the lazy Boppy snuggle time, something is clearly not right. And the something is not your poor baby.
Myth #4. The only people who co-sleep are granola, hippie weirdos who also practice attachment parenting and breastfeed until their children are 13.
Sure, this may occasionally be true. But the much more common explanation is that people who co-sleep are just TIRED, and it is literally the only way their babies will sleep, especially in the beginning when some babies want to snack all night long. As someone who strongly believes in epidurals and vaccinations and CIO sleep training, I don’t really think I fit into the hippie, granola mold, but guess what? I have co-slept twice now! And both times it saved my sanity. It’s not some big parenting philosophical statement. It’s not a way of life. For most people, it is literally just letting your baby sleep in bed with you because you’re exhausted and for that moment in time, it’s working. And a lot more people do it, especially in the beginning, than most people realize.
Myth #5. Cry It Out sleep training is going to turn your baby into this guy.
Yeah, those scary studies are BS. You certainly do not have to go the cry it out route. There are other methods. But if you do choose to do cry it out, know that it is not going to hurt your child or turn them into a sociopath or serial killer or politician. The big twist is that pretty much any child raised before like 1998 probably cried it out to some extent. Because that’s before the internet made it a thing. I’m pretty sure that parenting forums are directly responsible for why there is even this big, huge controversy, why it’s even a topic of conversation now. In the past some parents did it and some didn’t, but no one really discussed it or analyzed it or made other people feel bad for doing it or not doing it. Can we maybe go back to that golden era?
Myth #6. Some babies can learn to fall asleep independently without a little Cry It Out, or without driving their parents off the deep end.
Okay, I know I said we should stop talking about this. But I do have to clarify this one myth. With Ryland, I put off Cry It Out for a LONG time. I tried a lot before we did it. And looking back, the only thing all of those gentle no-cry methods really accomplished for us was almost recreating this exact scene but between me and my baby at 10pm after hours of unsucessful attempts at the Put Down Pick Up method.
I also affectionately refer to this sleep training method at the Drive Mama Insane in Slow, Painful Increments and Also Completely Mess with Your Baby’s Head. I kid. Kind of. I realize that for some people it works. Just like any other number of “gentle” methods, like the whole sit in a chair in further and further distances from your kid’s crib or sleep on your kids’ floor or rock them to sleep until they graduate from college. But for some babies, stubborn strong-willed ones like mine, it’s just not gonna happen. It’s either co-sleep forever (which some people sort of do, and hey, if that’s your thing, GO FOR IT, it sounds snuggly) or cry it out. So I’ve chosen cry it out, because we already sleep with a 75-pound golden retriever in our bed and a permanent baby addition just took it to Willy Wonka levels of crowdedness.
Myth #7. Your baby should and will take predictable, long naps.
Out of all the misinformation out there, this is the one I always had the hardest time getting past. I would just stare at those sample baby schedules online, and shake my head in bewilderment. Right now, per many of these sites, Bobby should be taking 3 (2 hr) napes per day, down from 4. It’s easy, says these sites. Just follow the SCHEDULE. Wake up at 7, nape from 8;30-11. Awake until 1. Nap from 1-4. Catnap again at 5. Then bedtime. Bam. Uhhhhhh.
Am I the only one who reads these schedules, looks at my baby, and then wonder if I got sent a defective one from the factory. Because he’s a “good” baby. We’ve sleep trained him. He falls asleep after being put down awake. We do all that song and dance. The white noise and the magic sleep suit, the hypobaric chamber in his room, the shaman to do the pre-nap blessing. ALL OF IT. And this child still takes 30-minute catnaps half the time! And so some days, he naps like 6 times. Twice the number of naps! I would love if he took 3 chunky naps, but it’s just not happening, and Ryland was the exact same way. So yeah, your kid is going to nap at his or her own pace and timing. The end result for all children is the same and eventually, they will whittle down to one afternoon nap. It’s really not worth stressing out about how they get there. Let them sleep when they are tired. The end.
It’s your fault if your baby won’t sleep.
Um, can we stop with the parent blame when babies suck at sleeping? I used to beat myself up SO much about this with Ryland, because every time I made the mistake of googling sleep, the results were usually unanimously telling me I was screwing it up. I had obviously missed her SLEEP CUES and she was overtired. Or I had the audacity to leave the house and mess up her “schedule.” Or I wasn’t giving her the proper sleep environment. Or she had fallen asleep while I nursed her 5 weeks prior and that had ruined her for life.
There are certainly some mistakes parents can make when it comes to sleep. Maybe don’t blast ACDC through the baby monitor by mistake. Or slip them an espresso shot in their bottle. But when it comes down to it, it’s really victim shaming right? Parents are victimized by their babies who refuse to sleep, and then the internet makes them feel bad about it! We don’t need your judgment, internet. Stop telling us all the things we did wrong Becky! We just want a shoulder to cry on. And someone to tell us it will all be okay.
Once your child sleeps through the night once, you’re set.
Reality: Ummm, I really hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but nope. So very untrue.
There is a right or wrong way to do this.
This is perhaps the biggest myth of all, and it’s why so many people have gotten rich off of telling people how to get their kids to sleep, why “sleep consultant” is an actual profession now. Yes, there are tips and advice that are helpful to parents. Yes, there is information in these books I mock that is legitimately useful. Same goes for the forums and websites. I’m not trying to make people feel bad for looking to these sources for advice, because I’ve done it myself, SO much. But what negates any useful information offered in these places is usually the message that a certain method or style is right and other ways are wrong, that there is a way to screw this up, that if you choose wrong your kid will never sleep again.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my short stint as a parent so far, it’s that every baby is different. What works for your family may not work for the family down the street. What works for one kid within one family may not work for the next kid. Babies, despite their mysterious natures, are tiny humans at the end of the day. And like all humans, they are distinct people with their own habits and quirks. There is no right or wrong here. No matter what anyone tells you, baby sleep is not science. It’s much more akin to an improv exercise, only all the improv players are sleep deprived and slightly unhinged.
You’re going to have to find out what works, and try things that won’t work and try things that will. You’re allowed to change your methods, change your mind. Your kid might sleep in the crib or in a swing or in your bed or sometimes, on those really tough nights, in your arms. They can sleep in a swaddle or in a poofy sleepsuit or naked as the day they were born (although a diaper would be advisable for obvious reasons).
You can schedule them or let them tell you what they want and when. You can consult a sleep expert or a spiritual guru or your mom. You can make charts and graphs and spreadsheets, or you can just kind of wing it and hope for the best. You can plop down over $1,000 for one of those fancy Snoo things that supposedly get any baby to sleep and possibly get them into Harvard too. Or you can stick them in one of those free boxes hospitals send home.
There is no magic answer, no one size fits all solution, as desperate as we are for one. It all boils down to the simple truth that babies are unpredictable and kind of suck at sleeping from time to time (even the “good” ones). Eventually, they’ll find their way. They won’t need to be rocked to sleep in high school.
Just do you. Trust your instincts. Be okay with changing your mind. Remember that your baby isn’t actively trying to ruin your life. And know that all of those experts out there, the people who write the books and websites, at one point they were just desperate, exhausted parents too. And they probably screwed things up a lot.
We’ll all make it to the other side. And until then there is ALL THE COFFEE. Just all of it. Forever and ever amen.