It started with the French Book. I had decided against reading any parenting books while pregnant, but this one was a gift and besides…it seemed different from the rest of them. I liked that Pamela Druckerman, the author of “Bringing Up Bebé” (fondly known as the French book by my circle), was also not into books that told you what to do while parenting. She lured me in with fantasies of eating at fancy restaurants with my baby while feeling smug about his impeccable table manners while the other American children around us stared off into I-pads. After I was done reading, I told my husband that our baby was going to “do his nights” like a French baby. I’d follow his cues, do “le pause,” and we’d be sleeping well by the time I went back to work. While patting my ever growing belly I though to myself, I will be nothing like the American parents she so maligns. By the end of her book I agreed whole heartedly that parenting advice books were silly, and then promised myself that I would follow all of the parenting advice she gave.
Before this, I hadn’t given a second thought to how my baby was going to sleep. Concrete and sensible things like how to get your baby to sleep were not something my brain could focus on during pregnancy. I blocked out things my friends with babies said about schedules and sleep thinking, “we’ll be different.” Instead I read about labor, did yoga in the soon to be baby’s room, and tried to send telepathic messages to my belly about how much I already loved what was growing inside. When I wasn’t working as a family therapist I was often hiding in my house, too emotionally exhausted to have conversations with friends and family. A born talker, my capacity to manage the emotional labor of my job as well as my life was slowly decreasing. I slept late a lot and napped in between sessions.
Everyone kept asking when I was going to stop working and rest before the baby came. My bank account and my company’s parental leave policy left me feeling like I didn’t have much choice. My water broke at a client’s house. I completed my mileage forms and did laundry in between early contractions. I swept furiously as they washed over me until I couldn’t. I labored at home alone for hours waiting for my husband to come home because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Calling a friend to come keep me company never even crossed my mid. Lying down and resting seemed insane. 14 hours later I was holding a baby. It was the middle of the night. I showered and crawled into bed. The doula showed me how to create a nook for him in my arms and we dozed.
My son slept through the night on day one of life. During that first night, I kept waking up to make sure he was still breathing. When will he want to eat I wondered?? Finally, while the light of the moon competed with the street lamp to light up my bedside, I couldn’t take being so far away from him anymore. I painfully maneuvered myself to the end of the bed, carefully picked up his swaddled form from his bassinet, and lay back down with him in the crook of my right arm. It was as surreal as life can be. Who was this perfect little chunky cherub sleeping as if his life depended on it?
Sleep in the beginning was easy. Sometimes he would sleep for hours and hours and we would try to wake him up with a cold washcloth so he would eat. We took funny videos of us raising his arm and letting it flop down. On the advice of our pediatrician we made sure he got to know day from night and we always put him in his bassinet at night awake. There were plenty of things to be anxious about, but sleep wasn’t one of them.
I was committed to sleeping when the baby slept, so during my parental leave I felt rested. Sometimes we would stay in bed until 11 am, alternating between feeding and napping until my own hunger forced me to bring him downstairs. Taking a shower was easy during a nap. He fell asleep easily on his back in his bassinet to the soothing sounds of my husband reading “The Little Prince,” and during the day I kept him with me and on me as much as possible. He slept in his little pod, he slept on my breast in between eating, and he slept in the baby carrier. At night we started a routine immediately, and little by little it happened. As instructed by Pamela, we asked him nicely every night before bed to sleep all night so we could all get our rest. By two months it had happened! Oh we had our struggles…but sleep wasn’t one of them.
I’m not proud, but yes, I felt smug. I had done it! I had followed the French Book’s advice and my baby had learned to connect his sleep cycles!!! Whenever the seemingly endless stream of strangers, friends and family asked about sleep (why do people do this?!?!?!) I proudly responded that he was sleeping through the night! And ask they did. It seemed like the only thing people wanted to talk about! They wanted to know how my baby was doing, they wanted to talk about how their baby had slept or what kind of torture they had endured because their baby wouldn’t sleep. I was so thankful that we had gotten it right and that he was sleeping in time for me to return to work.
I was already anxious about returning to work, and how it would affect our son. I was not ready and I was sure he was not ready. The night before I went back he woke up during the night for the first time in a month. Over and over again I told people at work in response to the inevitable question, oh yes! he sleeps through the night!! Of course last night he decided not to…it’s like he knew I was coming back! Then he woke up during the night again the next night…and the next…and the next.
Apparently we are not alone. According to a Canadian study, 57% of 12 month olds don’t sleep for an eight hour stretch. And according to the same study, breast-feeding my baby made it more likely that he would wake up at least once during the night. There is no evidence that waking up in the night is bad for a baby if they are getting enough sleep, but there is a weighty expectation that they will do so by a certain point. I’m not sure where this expectation came from, but the fact that sleep seemed to be everyone’s favorite topic didn’t help.
Even though I knew that not sleeping through the night wasn’t bad for my baby, like many other mothers in the Canadian study, I felt very badly that he wasn’t sleeping and blamed myself. Like many other aspects of parenting for me, making decisions about how to deal with his sleep became a battle ground. What I thought my child needed often conflicted with information from middle of the night googling, people’s unasked for advice, my husband’s opinion, and my own personal needs. At times I would get home from work at 11 pm, eat dinner, pass out, only to wake up at 2 and 4 am to feed him. On my better nights I sat there in the dark holding him lovingly reminding myself that one day he wouldn’t want to be seen with me in public. There were even 3 am moments where I became overwhelmed by that same sense of joy and wonder as I stroked his baby soft face reminding me of that first moonlit night.
On bad nights I wondered if maybe I held government secrets I couldn’t remember and if an enemy of the state was trying to torture me with this demon child so that I would tell all. On worse nights my husband and I engaged in many regretful middle of the night arguments about how to handle his crying and waking and I may have fantasized about divorce as a way to get a break from this crying child a few times a week. On the worst night I had to hand over the baby because I knew that if I kept holding him I would shake him while screaming “why won’t you stop crying!?!?!?!?” When we finally gave up with getting him to go back to sleep around 5 am, one of us would often get him out of the crib, set him up with a toy, and pass out on the floor of his childproofed room. One morning before he was crawling, I brought him downstairs, set him on the floor to play, and closed my eyes for just a second. When I woke up he had wriggled over to the shoes near the door and was sucking on one of them. Don’t feel like a bad mom…don’t’ feel like a bad mom…I would repeat to myself.
We tried sleep training. Our pediatrician told us that some babies need to cry before bed. I’ve heard other babies cry before bed. It didn’t sound like our baby’s cries. It didn’t sound like they were being tortured and left alone forever. It wore us down. We couldn’t handle it. In our tiny row home you couldn’t get away from the sound unless you sat on the stoop with the front door closed. Which we did.
One night we had friends over and my son woke up and started crying. We were trying to let him cry it out and one friend saw I was in agony over letting him cry like that. “Why don’t you go to him,” she asked? “Because I’m not supposed to,” I replied. “Says who?” she replied. “If you feel like he needs you then go to him!” She made it sound so simple. What if I ruined any progress we had made? I ran up the stairs, grateful to feel allowed to go to my crying 7 month old. I was so confused.
Eventually the crying got so bad he would start to cry as we walked over to his crib at bed time, arching his back, trying to get away from it. As he grew and developed, sleep was the last thing he wanted to do. One night I called my sister from his room as he maniacally walked around the periphery of his crib laughing. “Help me!” I cried into the phone. Sometimes, we would hold him tight in a bear hug until he gave up the fight and fell asleep. He would fight and scream until he exhausted himself. It was horrible.
I felt like his sleep was all I ever talked about. When someone asked how I was, all I could think about was how tired I was, how he wouldn’t let me sleep and how this was all my fault. I was desperate for answers. In hind site, what I needed was help learning how to get through a difficult phase. Instead, almost everyone I talked to reinforced the idea that I had some control over the situation, and that if I could just get things right he would start to sleep. Maybe we needed to improve and solidify our routine. Maybe we hadn’t put him in the crib enough when he was a baby. Maybe his babysitter was messing up his naps. The internet instructed us to find a seemingly nonexistent sweet spot. If he’s too tired he won’t sleep. If he’s not tired enough he won’t sleep.
I put a nice sized dent in my car pulling out of a spot I have pulled out of hundreds of times. Once I was so scared I was going to fall asleep on 95 that I blasted music and opened all of the windows. Mostly I was in a zombie state of emotional despair, wondering how I was going to make it to the next hour, sometimes minute. It sounds so dramatic. It felt so real.
Over the months, we tried everything. “The No Cry Sleep Book” helped us to get him to a place where he could fall asleep without crying as long as we stayed with him. A floor bed made it easier to soothe him and I no longer had to deal with bending over a crib. This led to a new problem where we were held captive. He could not fall asleep without us. For months we took turns. Guests waited downstairs to start dinner as one of us lay next to him, hoping he would fall asleep quickly. In the middle of the night, we would wake up on the floor next to him; not knowing if we had passed out for five minutes or hours. We tiptoed out, trying to sneak away from our sweet baby who felt like our jailor. I felt trapped and desperate.
It was December or January. Our son was around 14 months old. I had just talked to a sleep consultant and was thinking about hiring her. I sat on the floor of my friends’ house crying. They coached me through letting him cry himself to sleep for a nap and taught me what it looked like for my son to be overtired. I realized he had been overtired for much of the last year. All my energy was going towards self doubt, self criticism and self blame instead of paying attention to and keeping up with his ever changing cues like I had during my parental leave. All of the rules I’d been told or read about were just adding to the cacophony in my head. My friends helped me to silence all of those voices, and focus on what our son actually needed. We embarked on a sleep training journey with better emotional support and during a time that was much more developmentally appropriate for our kid. We set boundaries I was comfortable with. It involved a lot of supportive text messages from my friend, noise cancelling headphones, and finally being on the same page as my husband. It’s been a few months since then. We still struggle but things have gotten a lot better.
About a month ago, my son’s sweet sleeping body was lying next to mine in my bed. His breathing was slow and methodical. He fell asleep on me while nursing before his nap for the first time in months. For a moment I felt nothing but joy as I looked at his sweet sleeping face. Then the voices started up. Oh no! He’s not supposed to sleep on me! Then I remembered that I made the rules. I let myself relax into the heavy and delicious feeling of his sleeping body in my arms. This will affect his sleep at night! a voice in my head chastised. Shut up, I replied. This feels too good to be wrong. I picked him up, closed the curtains in my room, and lay down on the bed with him. There is nothing like the feeling of your sleeping child on you. Just enjoy this I told myself. And for once I listened.