Oh my dear friends. I realize it has been quite some time since I wrote anything on here, and that is because I’ve been suffering a massive case of writers’ block. Any creativity I have is sponged out of my brain by attempting to entertain a busy 18 month old and trying to memorize Latin declensions and morphologies. Oh, and by the travails of sleep coaching. Hoo boy, this stuff is one hell of a wild ride. We have an amazing sleep coach who I cannot praise enough. She’s getting us through this process with gentle, stable, understanding guidance. She is incredible. But still, it is not an easy task.
Getting your child to sleep through the night even part of the time is an incredible labor for many, if not most, parents. As an immediate and visceral result of attempted sleep training, a quick Google search always returns the same #1 reason for new-parent fighting: sleep deprivation. Your child is cranky, you’re cranky, and everyone needs a good night (maybe month) of sleep.
I am sure that a few of the moms reading this have babies who are not “good sleepers,” i.e. did not sleep through the night starting when they reached a certain weight (that was the lie I was told!) or six months, or a year, or two years… whatever. I don’t know, this whole “sleeping through the night” thing sometimes feels like a load of crock, except that now B is sleeping almost reliably through the night, and has been for about two weeks with minor variation.
Let me tell you, it has been a HARD 18 months, not of course including the third trimester sleeplessness derived from being the size of a small whale (Baby Beluga…) Anyway, I digress. I wanted to write this post because it seemed 1) natural to me to write it at this stage (the end stage??) of sleeplessness (for now), and 2) I know that when I was in the midst of our troubles, I just wanted someone to tell me that yes, it is impossible to get sleep sometimes, and feels impossible to deal with, and in fact may be the worst thing you have ever experienced. I didn’t want to be told “it will get better soon!” because it wasn’t getting better now, and I was intensely frustrated by what I saw as our consistent, concerted care not being enough to get my child to sleep.
So, without further ado, here is some of my alleged wisdom on the subject. To be precise, here are three basic points I have learned about children and sleep.
I have a very good friend with a son about nine months younger than B, and they have been through it in much a similar way we had been. Routine text conversations detail their struggles with sleep, including trying to coordinate with husbands, nannies, in laws, parents… you get the picture. The one thing I kept repeating was:
If we can’t sleep through the nights as adults, how in the world can we expect a tiny human to do so?
Babies literally have no practice with putting themselves back to sleep, and they have to be taught to do so. But… I am a certifiable insomniac. My brain just gets going at around the time most people are getting tired at night. My brain’s chemical makeup didn’t spontaneously become this way as an adult, either: my parents have lots of ragged stories about me never ever sleeping from the time I was born. It wasn’t because I was rocked to sleep, or not Ferberized, or because I was malnourished, had gas, etc. It was because I am just not a good sleeper. Never have been, never will be. Sucks to suck, I guess, but I’m a semi-cogent adult now and I’m surviving with the help of caffeine.
B is much the same way I purportedly was: she is not a particularly good sleeper. (I can hear the gasps from the audience! How can you say that?!) Yes, admitting a child is not a good sleeper is tantamount to admitting you never bathe them, or something of similar heinousness, and perhaps sits next to some mothers’ disgust for parents who choose to formula feed. (That’s a post for another day when I’m feeling angrier/have more energy.) Sometimes, babies are just not good at the whole sleep thing. Maybe they’re really engaged and very intelligent, maybe they’re developing really quickly, or maybe they just don’t like their cribs. Sometimes my bed feels uncomfortable, too, and sometimes I’m up and down through the night like an untrained child. If I can’t even put myself to bed, how can I expect my tiny proto-adult clone to do so? It shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if you yourself are a good sleeper. Sleeping takes effort!
Yes, after about a month of coached sleep training with consistent methodology and a multi-point plan, Briar is now sleeping through the night most nights. But she’s 18 months old! What took us so long? Which brings me to my second point:
There is no timeline that works for every child.
I WISH there was. At 3am, holding a whimpering, hiccuping child, I devoured page after page on Leap Weeks and sleep regressions, and blog posts about moms getting their children to sleep in their cribs after cosleeping easily because they were “finally ready for the crib at a year!” But… B blew past literally every single expectation, assumption, and time frame I read about online. “Maybe this post is right,” I would text to Thomas with the link to the blog/self-help site/Internet black hole. And he and I would cross our fingers, try our best, and our 13 month old would wake up 5 times in one night like an infant. It wasn’t fair! And it’s not. No child plays by “The Rules™”… that is because there are no rules, and they are not linked to any age, developmental stage, feeding schedule… nada. It is dumb luck.
For example: we coslept with Briar accidentally. When she was 3 months old, our whole family went to Watch Hill, RI, and there was nowhere safe to put our travel crib where I could see Briar and still be lying down. We reluctantly brought her into our bed… and then she slept through the night for the first time EVER, a full 13 hours! It was like someone gave us our lives back suddenly. But, like any miracle fix, the success was short-lived. Slowly, Briar started waking up overnight to breastfeed, to play, to cry… and for no reason at all. She would just sit up, and I would feel it in my sleep and bolt upright to try and prevent her from climbing off the bed. She wasn’t independent at night, and couldn’t fall asleep without us rocking her, cuddling her, and/or singing to her. It just became untenable. We tried unsuccessfully for months to put her into her own bed. Sometimes we had limited success, and she would have a few wakeful nights in her crib. But, we would get fatigued, and she would inevitably end up in our room and bed again.
At around the time Briar was 9 months old, I conferred with my cosleeping friends who had retrained their children to their own beds. They all agreed that Briar was around the same age the transition worked for them! “She’s at the age where she’s ready,” one mom said. “Our son just took to it like a fish to water.” But, B just didn’t accept it, “at the age” or not.
After 10 months of living through this hellish half-awake reality during a trip to Italy, Briar coslept and took a tumble (she was not hurt and the bed was not tall, luckily). She was 13 months old, and we decided enough was enough, again. We started another very unsuccessful round of training that, you guessed it, ended up with Briar being in and out of our bed until she was 17 months old. So again, Thomas and I did not have our own bed or sleep; in fact, we had an active toddler who wasn’t playing by the age-rules. We kept thinking that the age was the key, and that when she was ready, she would let us know, and that point was a discrete one linked to age and developmental stage. But slowly it dawned on me and Thomas that it was not, and that we were lost in the woods with no map. Finally, we called in the cavalry because we couldn’t take it anymore. This brings me to my final point:
It is perfectly okay to ask for help after months of unsuccessful sleep training.
I know plenty of parents who labor(ed) under the martyrdom of parenthood. We all feel like we should just “get” our children, and that understanding extends to their sleep habits. It’s an easy trap to fall into: they’re more or less biologically the same as we are, and we know ourselves, so we should know how to get them to sleep (or eat, or stack blocks.) But, what if we have inspected their habits, our habits, their environments, their diets, our very souls, and we’re still turning up empty?
The stigma associated with asking for help just for ourselves is tremendous, and I have found it to be an even darker, heavier stigma associated with asking for help with our children. I had to be at the complete end of my rope to reach out to the woman who is now Briar’s sleep coach, and I was still pretty reluctant and nervous about the whole situation. But, unlike my friends and random strangers and articles online, she made zero assumptions about how Briar operates and on what schedule. She came and sat with Briar for over an hour, assessed her, considered our level of resolve and our parenting methods, and then developed a plan of action. This is to say: should you choose to ask for help, your expert should be two things, first and foremost: nonjudgemental, and flexible. That was the key to making Briar’s plan, and that is the only reason, I’m convinced, we are succeeding now. Whomever you decide to ask for help, be sure they work with you instead of parroting the sleeping method flavor of the month. Parenting styles have a way of changing rapidly, and the next is often diametrically opposed to the last, with polarized judgement to match. If the person you work with, or the book that you read, or the friend you confide in makes assumptions or demeans you for your opinions, move on to find better help. It is freeing, even if hard.
So, with regard to sleeping and sleep training, I suggest the questions parents need to ask themselves are: By whose standards? On whose timeline? And all this with no help? The effort to get your child to sleep through the night can feel Sisyphean in isolation. I am not here to tell you that it will get better. To be totally honest, it might not, or not for a long time. I don’t think I will ever join the elite class of “good sleepers.” However, I hope there is comfort in knowing that indeed we are in the camp of the little-sleeping parents, and that because of a network of people, our own resolve, and our love for our child, we have survived to tell the tale.
Yours in sleepiness,