How is she sleeping?

“How is she sleeping?” This can be such a frustrating question to be asked when you are a new parent. How do you think she’s sleeping, Doctor? She’s a baby! I suppose your baby slept through the night in her crib in the nursery? And I’m a bad parent if my baby has a clear preference for being with me 24/7 and has never slept longer than 20 minutes at a time? 

If your little one is not sleeping for an unbroken stretch at night, you can feel pressure from everyone around you to fix it. They may tell you to let your baby cry it out, or to just check on her after so many minutes of crying. Your doctor may tell you that cosleeping is unsafe. All of these tips are supposed to save your sanity, be good in the long run, or teach your child to self soothe.

Well-intentioned though these tips are, none of them take into account the child’s current perspective. She has been cozy in the womb and can have a hard time adjusting to her new environment. She wants to be close to you. She wants to feel safe. Approaching this situation with your child rather than in opposition to your child can help foster a collaborative relationship that will continue as she grows.

Most of the modern advice recognizes that babies need help falling asleep and suggests using sleep aids that are purchased. A fancy crib, a certain sleeping outfit, white noise machine, pacifier etc. While these can all be helpful aids in getting you and your little one more sleep, you should not be shamed into thinking that if your baby prefers to fall asleep in your arms rather than in a crib you are failing in some way. Most babies taken seriously do that. And no, it does not result in them never learning to fall asleep alone. If anything, they become more relaxed about falling asleep wherever they are, arms or no arms, than babies whose parents try to ‘teach’ them to sleep independently. They are forming an expectation around how to solve their problem. If you allow them to “cry it out” they learn their cries do not get them the comfort they are seeking and expect to be left alone with these feelings.

In Kiss Me: How to Raise your Children with Love, pediatrician Carlos González recommends cosleeping and explains how it can be a safe and preferred solution for many. Babies show signs that they want to be with you to fall asleep and to feel safe enough to stay sleeping. Many babies will wake quickly after being left alone. Parents lose more sleep than necessary by insisting on the baby being in their own crib or room at a young age.

You may find that not only does your baby have a strong preference to be close to you, including during the night, but you yourself also prefer closeness to your baby when she is sleeping. It may feel good to have them near. The solution that is best for you and your baby is one that takes into account both your own preference and theirs.

No matter your sleep setup it can be hard on parents when your baby or toddler resists sleep or wakes many times in the night. You need to take your own need for rest seriously as well. If your current situation isn’t working, try loads of options and see what works for everyone. Or just lie down on the floor right now, with your baby, and have a nap! Or close your eyes and let them crawl all over you as you try to get some rest. Take it one moment at a time and just go with the flow. That may be all you are capable of if you are in a sleep-deprived state. Sleep deprivation is a method of torture for a reason!

If or when you have managed to sleep enough to think about little ‘experiments’ to try, some people try different activities before bed, options to comfort if they wake up, have your partner offer a bottle so you can rotate nights or shifts if breastfeeding, try cosleeping in your bed or in the same room or a family floorbed (a series of mattresses or futons on the floor with no risk of anyone falling out of bed, and arranged such that there is no risk of suffocation for the baby) etc. It can be helpful to stick to a new option for several nights before giving up on it because it can take time for it to feel natural/comfortable for you and your child.

Solving this problem or any other requires creativity and paying close attention to your child’s response as well as your own – but being creative is easier said than done when you’re exhausted. Any sleep-deprived person will tell you how hard it can be to manage your emotions, let alone come up with new ideas. It’s hard enough to be creative when tiredness is the only issue, but new parents and parents of multiple babies and very young children are often feeling overwhelmed by many things, not just lack of sleep. It can seem impossible to do anything other than just getting through the next minute. And when you have well-meaning doctors, family members, parenting experts and friends all telling you that what you are doing is not good enough, and giving you unsolicited advice that just adds to your overwhelm, you can be forgiven for wondering if these people have ever so much as seen a baby, let alone been in the thick of it with a real live child.

When you are in the midst of life with a baby or multiple very young children, you can be so sleep deprived that everything feels difficult and worrying. The more you can relax your expectations and just go with the flow instead of feeling duty-bound to follow a fixed plan or follow others’ advice, the easier life will be. Listen to your own inner wisdom. You are in a far better position to figure out the best course of action than people who are outside your immediate family.

When you find yourself exhausted, tearful or frustrated, be kind to yourself. You are a human being, and life with babies and toddlers can be challenging. If you can, try to see the funny side of the various disasters that seem so significant in the sleep deprived moment. Easier said than done, I know! But the more you can, the more you will be able to enjoy life with your baby despite the sleep deprivation and everything else that is feeling like a struggle.

Life with babies and toddlers is messy. But no matter what you do or don’t do, they will grow up and you will be getting enough sleep again. Whenever a worry, expectation or fear about what you allegedly should be doing or should not be doing enters your mind (whether from your own mind or from a doctor, neighbor, family member or from a book or video or article), question it, and unless it feels right or appealing to you, let it go, and go with the flow that feels right to you in the moment. You are ok, and your baby is ok. This will pass. And it will pass so much faster than you think. They grow up so fast. Focus on enjoying every moment with your family. And if all you can find the energy to do is to lie on the floor talking to your baby, that is actually giving your baby far more than getting the household chores done. The chores can wait!

Sarah Ryan, 2022, ‘How is she sleeping?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/how-is-she-sleeping/

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