Sleeping through the night. It’s the ultimate goal of the early parenting years, the Holy Grail of baby experts. The road to a full nights’ sleep is a mountain you climb, armed with swaddling blankets, pacifiers, and coffee, until at last you reach the top and get to experience an uninterrupted REM cycle. And then you feel rested. Until you hit the preschool night terrors, which will disturb your sleep until you reach the grade school overcommitment anxiety wakings, which will keep you up till your kid’s a teenager. At which point you will never sleep again.
But in the meantime, you really need at least a couple of nights.
So, you do what the experts tell you to do. You make sure your baby isn’t overtired. You try to follow his emerging nap schedule. You put him down drowsy but awake. You try bedsharing, cosleeping, and sleeping alone. You try every sleep prop on the market, from mobiles to heartbeat teddy bears. But no matter what you do, your baby won’t sleep all night. Why?
I hate to break it to you, but the real reason he won’t sleep all night is because he’s not supposed to. Contrary to everything that experts, other parents, and your own exhausted brain tell you, babies are not supposed to sleep all night. Most babies don’t. If their parents tell you otherwise, chances are they’re lying. (And to everyone who is about to comment and tell me that their baby really does sleep all night: of course I’m not talking about you. You are more rare than you think. Please stop making the rest of us feel even more tired than we already are.
Unless you’re lying, in which case I am talking about you.)
So is there any hope for sleep-deprived parents? Maybe. Sometimes, the best solution to lack of sleep is a zen mindset of acceptance and patience. Eventually, your baby will not need your help to go back to sleep. Even if he’s an adult insomniac, someday it won’t be your problem any more. In the meantime, you might feel better if you can avoid some of the mistakes I made.
1. Fighting the normal patterns of human sleep. I bet you didn’t know it’s normal for humans to wake at night. In fact, in the Middle Ages (before the invention of electricity and consequent late bedtimes), everyone expected to be awake for a while in the middle of the night. Medical texts of the time refer to the “first sleep” of the evening and “second sleep” after midnight, which were separated by a period of wakefulness. (Most medieval experts recommended using this time for “contemplation and prayer.” Which is probably pretty good advice for us parents, too. You can use the time to pray that your spouse will wake up and take a turn already.) So when your baby wakes up at 2 am and wants to play, he’s not experiencing day-night confusion. He’s just experiencing modern world confusion. His body hasn’t figured out the invention of electricity.
Is there anything you can do about this? Not really, other than keeping the lights off and avoiding playtime as much as possible. But it might make you feel better to know that it’s normal. Unlike your eleven o’clock bedtime.
2. Fighting the baby’s instinct of self-preservation. If you are trying to get your baby to sleep apart from you, you’re fighting your baby’s instincts. Which isn’t to say you can’t teach your baby to sleep alone if you want to. Just be aware that it may be an uphill battle. Unlike some mammals (think bears, wolves, and rats), human babies are not designed to be left alone at all. Ever. Like kangaroos and monkeys, they expect to be carried continually and fed constantly throughout the day and night. A baby left alone will cry because its instincts tell it that any time it doesn’t feel the physical contact of an adult body, it’s vulnerable to predators. So if your baby doesn’t want to be set down, ever, don’t call him high-needs. Call him a person with a strong survival instinct. This is a child who is going to make it through the zombie apocalypse.
3. Misunderstanding the causes of night nursing. Most babies who wake at night want to breastfeed. If they’re not breastfeeding, they want a bottle or a pacifier. This is not necessarily because they’re hungry. It’s because sucking releases calming hormones that help your baby sleep. If you think the nighttime feedings are motivated by hunger, you might be tempted to try starting solids to get your baby to sleep better. But this usually doesn’t work. After the newborn stage, most babies aren’t eating at night because they’re hungry–unless, of course, they’re reverse cycling, or in the middle of a growth spurt, or in a wonder week, or too busy learning to crawl to eat during the day, or getting more exercise and needing more food. Ok, so maybe they are hungry. Who knows?
All of which is to say: it’s hard to know why your baby is waking at night. But just as with anything else, if you try to stop night waking with a solution that doesn’t address the real reason for the wakings, it’s not going to help.
But you could try sucking your own thumb. The calming hormones work for adults too.
4. Wanting a single magic solution. It’s easy to think that if you could just figure out the right solution, your baby would start sleeping all night, every night. In reality, it’s never that simple. There are thousands of reasons why babies wake at night, and sometimes the only real solution is time. It’s frustrating when your neighbor or friend keeps telling you that such-and-such solution is the magic answer to every parent’s sleep problems. But just because it worked for their baby doesn’t mean it will work for yours.
Which isn’t to say you can’t try. The more solutions you try, the better chance that one of them will work, at least for a while. As long as you don’t feel strongly opposed to a particular solution — say, letting your baby cry for long periods — it’s worth a shot. Try The No-Cry Sleep Solution, which has a nice method for reducing the suck-to-sleep association, or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, which has a lot of different ideas for different parenting styles, or Sleepless in America (my absolute favorite book on sleep), which has a lot of solutions for high-needs babies. Oops, I mean babies with a strong survival instinct.
Or, you could try this magic baby sleeping pill.
5. Thinking you can solve night waking once-for-all. Sleeping all night — or at least going back to sleep without help — is a developmental ability that every child achieves eventually. But even if your child does it once, that doesn’t mean he’ll do it regularly. With most developmental milestones, we expect this pattern. If your baby rolls over once, you say he’s achieved that milestone — even though he may “forget” how to do it and not do it again for weeks. Ditto for walking, talking, and climbing to the top of the bookshelves when you’re not looking. Sleeping long stretches is the same. Most babies will do it once or twice just to tantalize you with the knowledge that they can right before they hit another growth spurt and start waking again because they’re actually hungry. Or because they’re teething and in pain. Or because they had a nightmare. Or because they know you’re in a deep sleep and they want to test your zombie survival skills, which include the ability to wake up quickly in response to sudden noises.
The bright side? You will survive this. Really. On the other side of the mountain of sleep deprivation, there’s a green valley full of bright flowers, peaceful streams, and long nights of sleep. Someday, you’ll look back on the years of night waking and remember them like something in a dream. (Actually a nightmare.) “Sleep problems?” you’ll say, shaking your head like a war veteran. “Let me tell you about sleep problems.”
Yes, it’s hard to imagine now, but someday, your baby’s sleepless nights will be a distant memory. You’ll remember them with something almost like nostalgia. I did it, you’ll say to yourself: I survived the zombie years.