By Taylor Davis
I share this story, even though it’s hard, because I know there are so many families struggling with altered sleep schedules during their early parenting years. In some ways, I wish I didn’t have the story to even share, but the fact that it happened can’t be changed and I hope that by sharing, I’ll encourage other families to listen to their instincts and to their babies.
I suppose Oliver slept like any average baby. He woke up every 2-2.5 hours throughout the night to nurse during his first couple of months. Getting him to fall asleep after each breastfeeding session involved much rocking, singing, and careful placement once asleep. My partner and I entered into parenthood with no realistic expectations about newborn sleep and we were both overwhelmed and exhausted.
Around the time he was 3 or 4 months old, I began to worry about going back to work when he was 5 months old. I convinced myself that we needed a serious plan to get him sleeping longer stretches at night. Looking back with the knowledge I have now, I realize that his sleep really wasn’t abnormal or problematic for a baby his age. Regardless, I started reading book after book, and making plans. My partner sweetly humored my ideas and discussed them with me, but I know that if my own anxiety hadn’t been a factor, he would have gone with the flow and let Oliver do his thing.
We began to employ some strategies to work towards getting him to fall asleep more easily and quickly on his own and to get him to sleep for longer stretches of time. We began with somewhat gentle approaches that the authors of the books said might take a while. These were all miserable failures and Oliver’s sleep habits actually seemed to worsen over time. We were floundering, moving him from the bassinet near the bed one night, to beside us in bed another, to his own crib another, never finding an approach that worked for our family.
When I returned to work, we were really struggling. Compounding this was the fact that we were sending him to a daycare that was going to turn out to be very wrong for him and in which I am now pretty sure he was put into a room to nap and left to cry by himself some days. Furthermore, he was reaching an age when societal expectations are that a baby begin “sleeping through the night.” The question was coming from every direction: “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” Friends, family, colleagues, etc. And I think that everyone who asked was doing it with good intentions, but it only served to increase the pressure and to make us wonder what was wrong that our baby couldn’t sleep through the night. The next few months brought a roller coaster of trial and error in which nobody was sleeping well and many tears were shed by baby and parents.
This is where it really took a turn for the worse and I wonder often why we let society convince us to ignore our gut instincts as parents. Some of these well-meaning friends encouraged us to “let him cry” or “Ferberize” him. Although this advice felt at odds with my own instincts, the success stories were compelling to a mom desperate for her child to sleep. It was compelling because more sleep for Oliver would mean more sleep for me. This is obvious, and we all do better when we’re getting a decent amount of sleep. But if I dig a little bit deeper into this idea, and do the hard work of confronting my own truths, part of what made it compelling was that it would simply be more convenient for me and my partner as the parents. If we could put Oliver down in his crib and walk out of the room expecting not to see him until the morning, we could spend our evenings freely. There would be no pausing the TV to run upstairs to a crying baby, no shhing, nursing, singing and rocking in the night, and there would the possibility of nights out with a babysitter home with Oliver. This is a hard truth for me to admit now, even 5 years later as my approach to parenting has drastically changed over time. Finally, I felt that his inability to sleep on his own through the night was a negative reflection upon my parenting. I’m not sure if this feeling was caused externally by others, or perhaps by our culture, or if it was self-imposed, but I do know that I’ve talked with a handful of other parents whose sleep struggles with their children have left them feeling like their parenting skills were sub-par.
All of these factors came to a head, at which point I decided that we just needed to do something about the sleep “problem.” We began to follow a plan in Dr. Richard Ferber’s book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, that called for a “progressive waiting” approach to teaching your child to fall asleep on his own. Herein lies my greatest parenting regret: we attempted to go through with something that felt completely against our gut instincts as parents who know our child better than any expert could claim to. Many people have heard of and/or used this method and it’s often referred to as “Ferberizing” one’s child. In short, you put your child down in his crib and leave the room. You wait for a few minutes, and if your child is still crying/screaming/protesting in any way, you go back to the room to talk to him and leave again. You continue to do this, extending the time you stay out of the room with each visit. I honestly can’t even go into too much detail about what this was like for us. It will suffice to say that we quit after night three, everyone in tears, and my partner and I feeling worse than we ever could have ever imagined feeling as parents.
My partner and I believe that Oliver continued to struggle with sleep for many months after this as a result of the trauma he experienced by being left alone in the dark to cry (even with being checked on). We have also done much more reading and decided that no “sleep expert” has any idea what our son is like and what his needs are. One compelling theory we have discovered is excellently described in an article by Peter Gray: Why Young Children Protest Bedtime: A Story of Evolutionary Mismatch. Gray discusses the fact that less than 10,000 years ago our ancestors would have been crazy to leave a baby or young child alone to sleep as this child would have been in danger of being eaten by predators, and he theorizes that this is still a part of babies’ and children’s genetic code. Gray writes:
Today, without the realistic dangers, the child’s fear seems irrational, so people tend to assume that it is irrational and that the child must learn to overcome it. Or, if they read the “experts,” they learn that the child is just testing their will and acting “spoiled”. And so, people battle their child rather than listen to the child and to their own gut instincts that tell them that any crying baby needs to be picked up, held close, and cared for, not left alone to “get over it.”
This resonates very strongly with me and helps me to see why every fiber of my being was screaming “no” when we tried this approach with Oliver. I would do anything to rewrite our history and to have never put Oliver through that experience. I am in awe of him and so grateful for his willpower and refusal to accept something that was unacceptable. I am so glad he didn’t give up or learn the lesson that crying or asking for help would not work.
After this experience, my partner and I decided to throw all theories to the wind and to give Oliver exactly what he was telling us he needed to sleep comfortably and to feel safe at night. We set up our king-sized mattress on the floor of our bedroom (for the safety of a mobile almost 1-year-old) and got rid of the crib. And we began to bed-share with Oliver. Things improved slowly, but surely, and by the end of the summer during which he turned one and into the beginning of fall, we had a baby who went to sleep willingly, with tears at bedtime being a rare occurrence. We almost didn’t notice the change as it was happening because it was so incremental. These days, he is OK at night. He seems to feel safe, and that feels so good. Even at five, he occasionally wakes up because he needs water, reassurance, or comfort (or his brother rolled into him in his sleep) and that’s OK too.
Upon reflection of this first year with Oliver, my partner and I think two main things worked together to lead towards him sleeping soundly throughout the night. The first is that we finally abandoned our expectations and decided to trust Oliver and let him take the lead. The second is that he simply got older and reached a developmental stage in which he was ready to sleep for longer stretches without help from us. This stage is likely reached at different ages for different children and I do believe that letting our children hit this “milestone” when they are ready will help them develop healthier attitudes about sleep and healthier relationships with us.
Needless to say, we took an entirely different approach with our second child. We had realistic expectations about newborn sleep and we trusted him, responding to his nighttime needs from the start. I felt more rested and furthermore I felt peaceful because I wasn’t pushing back against nature and creating tension in our relationship and in my own heart. As a doula, one thing that I often suggest to expecting and new parents is that they learn about newborn sleep. If they understand what newborns need in terms of nourishment and comfort at night, and if they understand typical infant sleep cycles, they will be less likely to feel frustrated. Many of Tracy’s articles on sleep are especially helpful here, as well as the book Sweet Sleep by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, Linda J. Smith, and Teresa Pitman. I hope that parents will think about this time period and build postpartum support systems that will encourage them to listen to their instincts when it comes to their babies. We all have a choice who we talk with about our parenting choices and philosophies and choosing carefully during these early days can shelter new parents from doubt and can be incredibly powerful in finding encouragement for trusting our babies and our own instincts.
Taylor’s Bio: I am a birth and postpartum doula, birth activist, and an unschooling mother of two young children. I am co-founder of New Mama Project, which is dedicated to creating space for new mothers to speak freely and truthfully about the challenging parts of their postpartum experiences. Too often we stay silent because we think it shouldn’t be hard, or we feel guilty for struggling. My goal through this work is to support new moms and families and help them find ways to take care of themselves and build effective support systems so that they and their families can thrive.