[Disclaimer: In parenthood circles, there are few spicier topics of conversation than sleep. It’s great to have a baby who sleeps well. And telling people about it is a great way to make enemies. I am not here to advocate for a specific method of sleep training (or the use of methods at all). We did a thing and it worked well. Other people do different things, or nothing, and that works. You do you.]
My name is Madeline and I’m a baby sleepaholic.
I’ve been addicted to all things related to baby sleep for about 10 months.
It started innocently enough. We brought the baby home, he slept through the night (because he was exhausted from entering the world).
The second night was like a horror movie. He would not sleep. My husband ended up walking him around the neighbourhood on what may have been the hottest and most humid night ever experienced on Planet Earth. I sat in the glider while they were gone, riding the see-saw of new motherhood that involves intermittently crying and dozing off.
When they returned, I put the baby on my chest, lay down, and we all slept for a few hours. The next morning, I told my midwife that I’d fallen asleep with the baby on my chest and now he was probably going to die of post-bed-sharing complications. She talked me off the cliff and said that in some places in North America, they send new mothers home with a pamphlet on safe bed-sharing, because they know it happens… because it works… and it’s how about 85% of new babies around the world sleep.
We discussed risk factors, and I felt elated with this new found sense of (relative) comfort in knowing how to (more) safely bed-share. And so we did, on and off, for the next few months. And if you have anything bad to say about that, then you can eat a bag of d’s.
See? I told you it’s a spicy topic.
In those first months, our evenings involved nursing, cuddling, and the baby falling asleep on me on the couch while we binge-watched Scandal (as a family! Awwwww!). I would place him in his bassinet, and later we would lug it into our room.
If he woke up in the night, I rocked or nursed him, sometimes in bed, sometimes in a chair. Then I would put him back down to sleep or bring him into bed with us. This seemed normal.
Around 4 months, he night-weaned himself (woooosh! <–The sound of me dodging a bullet), and the half-nursing, half-rocking back to sleep became all rocking. Again, it was fine.
Then a friend told me about a book she was reading to help her baby learn to fall asleep on his own. On his own? What sorcery is this? She recounted her experience that began with months of intermittent bed sharing, shoulder pain, and two nights on a train that she claims to have significantly shortened her lifespan.
All of this led her to decide to attempt some kind of sleep training – a journey that began with her crying on the floor of a bookstore, holding baby sleep books in her hands, trying to absorb the tips through osmosis.
She settled on one book and had a positive experience with teaching her little one how to fall asleep on his own, and subsequently to stay asleep longer. I felt like my kid should be able to do this. So, I did the same. Meaning: I visited a bookstore, became overwhelmed, and cried in the aisle. They should put a chair in that aisle or at least a box of tissues.
I bought the same book, obv. It advocated a gentle method of sleep training, which I now know belongs in the “sit and support” camp of strategies.
I read the first few pages, and learned that sleeping through the night actually means knowing how to fall asleep again… because human babies (and human adults) wake up often during normal sleep cycles, and babies who sleep “through the night” are really just waking up and then falling back asleep by their own damn selves.
I immediately cried because this meant we’d be doing everything so very wrong with rocking or nursing him to sleep, and thus he would never sleep alone and we might as well build a top bunk over our bed where he would sleep for the rest of his life.
Based on the 3 pages of ~expertise~ I had gained by cracking the spine of the book, I decided this method would never work for us. I then did the most logical thing: I stayed up really late, curled up in a ball, and dug myself into an internet black hole of despair by reading a bazillion “articles” about sleep training, and got totally overwhelmed by the contradictory approaches, and the overall smug and patronizing tone of most of the advice-givers.
Back to bed-sharing as desired for us.
I subscribe to the theory that nothing’s a problem until it’s a problem. Well, the old failsafe of bed-sharing at whim became a problem. Over time, I developed wrenching pain in my shoulder from lying on one side with my arm circled around the baby.
I began to take on two personas: Morning Me and Nighttime Me. Morning Me vowed that some kind of sleep training was a priority for our family. Nighttime Me was less concerned, and was paralysed with fear of the crying that might be involved. Nighttime Me was all about bed-sharing. Crippling arm pain? Psssshhhaw…that’s Morning Me’s problem – whatever works right now is the best thing to do!
I reluctantly picked up the sleep training book and looked at it anew. The book begins with chapters for advice on early habits for newborns, followed by “you might want to start” for 3-6 month olds, and then walking into the dark forest of, “by now you should have…”
I felt personally attacked by those statements. I also had no time for the book’s anecdotes. Who cares if little Cayden never slept more than half an hour, and after 5 nights of this technique he slept perfectly for the rest of his life until he died peacefully in his sleep at age 125. I’m not his mom, I don’t give a crap.
I wanted someone to tell me I’m perfect, and then gently offer ideas on how to be slightly more perfect. Is that too much to ask of a sleep training book?
So then I entered the awful, lonely land of Sleep Training Limbo. I was intellectually aware of methods to try to help my baby sleep better and longer, but at the same time, I was too afraid of any crying to actually employ those methods. Instead, I randomly gathered more/different advice. It was like conducting research towards a thesis called, “These are the ways in which you are failing.”
At rock bottom, I found myself in the arms of a cashier at the liquor store when I made a joke about needing wine because we were considering doing some sleep training. She said, “Oh honey, just enjoy the snuggles while you can.” She saw my anxious face turn into a little side smile and brought me in for a hug.
Coincidentally, that night, a friend who lives across the country told me she had hired a sleep consultant and they were going to try their first night of sit-and-support sleep training. Knowing I needed a push to get the f*ck out of Sleep Training Limbo, and ever the joiner, I texted her, “Me, too?”
We did it together: me, my friend, our husbands, and our babies. By the grace of God, this wasn’t 2004 when you had to pay for each text message. Because I think I texted her more words than I cumulatively spoke allowed that week. Before bedtime, during bedtime, middle of the night, crack of dawn, nap time. Text, text, text, text, text.
Was there crying? Yes. Was it mostly me? Yes. Was it mostly confined to the hour before we started on the first night? Yes.
It was one of the most anti-climactic experiences of my life. It. Was. Fine.
I wish I had a more exciting tale to tell, but we just… did what the book told us to. And he learned to fall asleep. He cried a little, and it took him longer to fall asleep than if we had been rocking him. We were occassionally haunted by self doubt, and there were tough moments when we knew our little one was sad, and that we could take away the sad if we just picked him up (which we did, the one or two times he actually seemed distressed). But we were right there next to him, and he was not distraught. And he did learn. And he did sleep (a lot).
And we slept. And my shoulder healed. And I got really, really good at Sudoku by sitting in his room while he babbled and settled and taught himself (with me a few feet away) to fall asleep. It wasn’t fun. But it was fine.
Did we hit the jackpot with a “good sleeper”? Probably. But I like to take some credit (as I’m prone to do) for how TOTALLY OBSESSED I am with prioritizing baby sleep. Our days are structured around naps and bedtime. I never thought I’d be one of those parents (I was so judgy of parents before I became one), but here I am, a card-carrying member of the Sleep Above All Else Club. You know why? Because it f*cking works [for us].
Here is a window into my madness:
- My baby has his own ensuite: When we were in Madrid, the Air BnB owner showed us the second of the two bedrooms in our rented apartment and said, “and here, off the living room with these sliding doors and all this natural light, is where the baby sleeps!” My husband and I side-glanced at each other, knowing full well that the baby would sleep in the other, pitch dark, back-of-the-apartment room and we would take this open, brightly lit space. And that is how my baby came to have his own ensuite for 3 weeks.
- Room with a view: In a beach town we visited, we gave the baby the only ocean-view room in the three bedroom apartment. Why? Because it was far away from the kitchen and living room, and had blackout blinds that I now have titillating dreams about installing in my own home. You want an ocean view? Go outside. And don’t slam the door; the baby is sleeping!
- Put him in the dungeon: Recently, while staying overnight with other guests at my parents’ house, we set up a pack n’ play in the laundry room – quiet, dark, warm, and out of reach of anything lethal. And the baby had all naps and slept 12-hour nights, comforted by the sight of my dad’s gym shorts hanging nearby. Again, he’s good at this, but we help him by making complete asshats out of ourselves to provide him with dark and quiet sleep environments.
Sometimes I see parents out with little ones late at night and I briefly wish we were more adventurous. And then I remember that for the past 10 months my babe has napped reliably and slept 12-13 hours at night. And as a result, my husband and I have cooked, hosted parties, gotten busy, watched tv (let’s be honest, it’s mostly tv), and basically done whatever we wanted from 6pm to 7am.
I admit it: I’m batshit crazy about baby sleep. And if I could apply this level to discipline to literally any other area of my life, I could rule the world.
If you’re sleep deprived and you’re reading this, please know that while we are catching some solid z’s at night, we aren’t doing it from atop a high horse. I try to stay humble because chances are our next kid will have colic and I’ll be back to my old tricks – seeking comfort and affection from randos at the liquor store.